Computer Column


It was a “blue day for humankind,” said ABC News. It was “the single most historic event in the history of chess,” said the editor of American Chess Journal.

Baloney. As a matter of fact, world chess champion Garry Kasparov’s loss to the IBM supercomputer labeled “Deep Blue” was a non-event.

A human competed against a robot in an essentially robotic task and the robot won! Why should we be surprised by this?

It doesn’t surprise anyone that a motorcycle, driven by an engine, can beat a bicycle driven by human legs. It doesn’t surprise us that a steam shovel can dig up more rock than a man. And it should hardly come as a surprise that a computer can jam more raw data into its mechanized memory than any human can, or that this machine can search through a billion items of archived data faster than a person.

Those who see a “defeat” for the human race when a human proves slower than a machine are overlooking a basic point: All these machines (including that IBM computer that can analyze 200 million chess moves in one second!) were designed, built, and programmed by us by people. The speed and capacity of Deep Blue, far from a setback for our feeble breed, is a triumph of human ingenuity.

Computers can do certain things quite well, but only if humans write intricately detailed instructions the programs telling them how. Most of us don’t feel threatened when machines perform rote chores, mental or physical, faster than we do. Anyone who remembers eighth grade math can compute a square root. But since a robot (that is, your handy calculator or computer) can do the same job a thousand times faster, why not leave this dirty work to the machine?

Similarly, if the job at hand is to look through about 10,000 historic chess games to find the best response to the King’s Gambit, it just makes sense to have some machine do it rather than undertake this tedious chore on our own.

The crucial point here is that Deep Blue is just a tool, not much different from other tools humans have shaped over the eons to make their life easier: the wheel, the screwdriver, the steam shovel, the computer.

When the steam drill came along, according to the great folk song, a steel driving man named John Henry swore that “Before I’ll let that machine beat me/Lord, I’ll die with a hammer in my hand.” (Which he did.)

Garry Kasparov is our modern John Henry. He’s probably the last man who will ever try to beat a computer at the task of pulling up information from a giant data bank.

Those of us who play chess on our personal computers learned long ago that it is all but impossible to beat a computer chess program even the relatively simple $40 chess-playing games available for Windows and Macintosh PCs. Most of these games have six, 10 or more levels of play, so you can be sure of a challenging game. In our experience, even a medium play-level on these programs can easily whip most serious players.

If you want to get a taste of what poor Kasparov was against, there are a lot of chess programs available. Our family really likes “Chessmaster 5000” (Mindscape), which not only gives you different ability levels of play but lets you choose the personality of your opponent (cautious, crazy, etc.) This program has 23 different styles of chess pieces and boards. You can play in 2-D or 3-D modes; the 3-D version is slightly slower, but vastly cooler.

Chessmaster also teaches you chess and provides spoken comments on your mistakes (and your good moves, if any). It has a big library of famous games that you can jump into at any point and play either side.

We noticed recently that a local Computer City superstore was selling Chessmaster 5000 for $45 but also offered an earlier version, Chessmaster 3000, for $15. The cheaper version works fine, but has fewer bells and whistles. If you’re really serious about chess, you might try “Extreme Chess,” by Davidson. It claims to be “based on” a chess-playing program that once beat Deep Blue. This program has 50,000 games of chess in its memory.

Davidson/Smith & Schuster put out an impressive piece of software designed to teach the game to a beginner or mid-level player. “Maurice Ashley Teaches Chess” will not only teach the basics and drill you on classic maneuvers, but also serves as a chess-playing program, with five different chess sets to choose from. We like the one where all the pieces are NFL football players.

T.R. Reid is Rocky Mountain bureau chief of the Washington Post. Brit Hume is managing editor of Fox News in Washington. You can reach them in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., Washington D.C. 20071-9200, or you can e-mail T.R. Reid at [email protected], or Brit Hume at [email protected].

No posts to display