Magazine article The Spectator

Brains in Bharain

Magazine article The Spectator

Brains in Bharain

Article excerpt

IN Arthur C. Clarke's 2001, the astronaut faces HAL, the chess-playing computer. Push each letter of HAL forward by one and you'll soon see where the name HAL originates. In October of this year - 2001 itself - the new world chess champion, Vladimir Kramnik, will face a challenge from Deep Fritz, the world's best chessplaying computer program. The contest will take place in Bahrain, with a prize fund of $1 million provided by the Emir's government. No such clash between the supreme human and silicon brains has taken place for four years. Then, in 1997, Garry Kasparov lost narrowly to IBM's Deep Blue in New York, in a match which set a record for Internet fascination. Fans of the game itself, followers of the development of artificial intelligence and those who were just plain riveted by the psychological drama of the occasion, accounted for no fewer than 22 million website hits in the final hour of the final game. This made the 12 million hits for the entire three weeks of the previous year's Atlanta Olympics look utterly puny. Those who want to follow the games this year can do so on the website www.braingames.net.

Unsurprisingly for those who know him, Kasparov, crowned world champion in 1985, and undisputed king of world chess for the subsequent 15 years, did not react charitably towards his defeat. He became convinced that IBM had cheated. They had done so, according to the Kasparov version, by engaging a team of top-class grandmasters, including his old foe Anatoly Karpov, concealing them in a nearby hotel and beaming their collective tactics and strategies direct to the machine.

Indeed, cheating and illusion go back a long way in chess, certainly to mediaeval hucksters who showed punters trick positions which were capable of more than one interpretation. Perhaps this was one reason why the Church periodically took an antichess stance. That did not prevent the chess-loving 16th-century Spanish priest Ruy Lopez, after whom one of Kasparov's favourite openings is named, advising that one should place the board so that the sunlight shines in your opponent's eyes.

Illusion and delusion in chess surface again in, of all times and places, the rational 18th-century Vienna of the Enlightenment. Here Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen defeated allcomers with his chess-playing machine, the mechanical Turk. There is even a record of a game won against the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte by this device at Schonbrunn Palace. However, von Kempelen's victories owed less to artificial intelligence than to ingenious mechanical technology. The pieces on the board were manipulated by a complicated series of levers and pulleys orchestrated by a hidden chess-expert homunculus.

In the past century the most notorious example of sharp practice was the importation of an alleged Soviet parapsychologist, one Dr Vladimir Zukhar, into the politically charged atmosphere of the 1978 world title contest in Baguio, summer capital of the Philippine archipelago. Anatoly Karpov, the reigning world champion, was the golden boy of the Soviet establishment and a particular favourite of Leonid Brezhnev. Facing him was the Soviet defector Victor Korchnoi, known as the `Leningrad Lip', famed for his superstition and paranoia as much as for his superlative chess skills. Once the Soviets had realised that Korchnoi thought that their man Zukhar was beaming mind-bending rays at the defector during the games, Karpov was handed an extra weapon in the psywar, winning the marathon match by a single point. …

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