From The Machine, performed at Park Avenue Armory, via Joel Chester Fildes
At one point during the play, The Machine, a character asks why we pit computers against humans in chess, and the explanation is that chess sits on some sort of border between logic and creativity and is a fair contest for the two to square off.
For computer scientists, chess is a chance to test how fast and far computing has come. For a certain type of layperson, it’s the same thing, but with an undercurrent of dread. It’s a modern John Henry story that dates all the way back to the 18th century and a fake chess-playing robot that beat Napoleon and Benjamin Franklin.
This man-versus-machine-on-the-field-of-64 has a special resonance today, when daily we debate not whether computers will someday do all of our jobs better than us, but rather, what we’re going to do while they do so. Even though the 1972 World Chess Championship between the Soviet Union’s Boris Spassky and the American Bobby Fischer functioned as another proxy war of the Cold War, the only absent superpower we’re looking back in yearning on is now is humanity. Once upon a time, computers could be beaten.
This year already saw the release of Computer Chess, Andrew Bujalski’s film about a potentially imagined time when massive computers played other massive computers, relating with each other and with their awkward human caretakers better than the caretakers could relate to each other.
And the theme of poorly socially adjusted programmers comes back in the production of The Machine, by Matt Charman currently mounted at the Park Avenue Armory in Manhattan. The play is a dramatized, dual biography of the man behind IBM’s Deep Blue and the chess player Deep Blue beat, Garry Kasparov.
Someone has taken months to return the programmer Feng-Hsiung Hsu’s account of building Deep Blue to the Brooklyn Public Library (Dude, seriously, you’re obviously not going to finish it; just bring it back), so any specific liberties taken to adapt the story to a play would’ve been lost on me. But the basic story of Kasparov v. Deep Blue is dramatic enough.
In the words of chess grandmaster Daniel King, Kasparov “was arguably the greatest chess player in the history of the game,” a game that dates back to the 6th century. In 1985, Kasparov became the youngest world champion ever, at the age of 22, and reigned for 20 years. In the same way that it took someone as dominate as Ken Jennings to become a celebrity for Jeopardy!, Kasparov was so good that he became famous for playing chess—famous enough to be on a Pepsi commercial that aired during the Super Bowl.
In 1997, he was 34 years old and at the height of his powers. He had defended his world championship on five occasions. He had even beaten Deep Blue convincingly the previous year.
Deep Blue was the product of a decade of work by Feng-Hsiung Hsu and a team of others, which began when Hsu was a student, and continued after graduation as a project at IBM. It has been said that Kasparov wasn’t just playing against a machine when he faced off against Deep Blue, but rather against a team of brilliant people.
In this respect, and others, chess really wasn’t an even match between man and computer. The games parameters—simple rules, always starting from the same position, clear goals, in fact a limited number of possible games (albeit a gigantic, limited number of games)—made it an ideal challenge for computer scientists. Of course, part of what made building computer chess master an ideal challenge was that it was extremely difficult to do.
And the very limitations that automated assembly lines in Detroit would hamper Kasparov. The 1997 face-off match was held at a swifter pace than Kasparov typically played at, without rest days in between, and The New York Times quoted him as saying at the time that, “You have to give a human a chance to rest.”
The Machine doesn’t really address the pace at which the match was played, but it does dwell on Kasparov’s suspicions that the at least one of the six games played wasn’t controlled by a computer but by superior intelligence. Luminaries as recent and bright as Nate Silver have attributed Deep Blue’s mysterious choice in the first game (Deep Blue moved its rook for no apparent purpose) to a software bug, but also attributed Kasparov’s unraveling as the match wore on to this bug.
Charman’s script spends too much time humanizing both competitors in the match to really take a side, and he also shies away from making any statement about man-versus-machine or where we find ourselves today. (Um, spoiler alert, I guess?) Instead there’s a pronounced tonal shift at the end, where Deep Blue is carted off to the Smithsonian at IBM’s behest. The product is separated from its producer by a corporation so unsympathetic that it is only briefly portrayed by two preening guys who are literally playing golf the whole time they’re on stage.
It’s actually a pretty stinging indictment of an ugly side of the Silicon Valley’s boom, even if I suspected having Hsu become a billionaire and outsource Kasparov’s job of chessmaster to a data center or possibly to India would’ve made the whole thing a lot more explicit. I don’t know much about IBM’s corporate culture, but that the internet and mechanization has had a concentrating effect on wealth is the rotten pit in the fruit of the Silicon Valley, even if it’s not something that would occur to someone walking away from the Kasparov-Deep Blue match.
Of course the whole act of staging a play is sort of Luddite-friendly, a storytelling form where it has to actively be performed by people on site at the moment you’re watching it. Covering a play for an internationally read website must be gratingly annoying for readers outside of New York, because this staging is stuck rooted at the Park Avenue Armory, in a faux-arena, room within the armory’s gigantic room, with art direction so incredible and well-executed that the only real word for it is “mechanical.”
The turn of phrase is a reminder that machines have also been an aspiration for humanity, even as we create and recreate them in our own image. Maybe this is the brilliance of The Machine: the animosity toward computers is ultimately just distraction. We ultimately can never "take on" computers, either in chess or anywhere. They simply are our tools, which can be perfectly suited for a task. The real danger the whole time has lurked on the other side, with whoever is swinging the ax.
Photo of Kasparov and Deep Blue via Wikimedia Commons
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