Books Monthly April 2015

The Jerry Dowlen Column

 This month Jerry looks at how they built a computer that could beat man at chess...

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Jerry Dowlen on... Computer Chess: The Imitation Game


Click here for previous articles by Jerry Dowlen from the Books Monthly Archives


“The things no one can imagine”: Alan Turing’s role in building a chess conqueror machine.


There is a key moment in the hit British movie The Imitation Game when we see the infernal contraption built at Bletchley Park by master-mathematician Alan Turing during World War Two.  His mission was to decode German military messages that had been intercepted by wireless operators.

As such, Alan Turing is hailed as having been a major pioneer in the building and programming of the very earliest computers. He is sufficiently famous and heroic in twentieth-century history that top-ranking actor Benedict Cumberbatch was hired by Black Bear Pictures to portray him in The Imitation Game. The film was released in December 2014, and immediately received great publicity and acclaim.

One year earlier, in November 2013, if you blinked you might have missed the much smaller low-budget film Computer Chess. The director Andrew Bujalski gave the movie its debut on the independent film festival circuit, gaining good reviews and one prize, but it was deemed of such minority interest that mainstream cinema gave it only a short-lived, limited distribution run.

The film Computer Chess portrayed something that was really happening in 1980: rival groups of programmers all over the world were trying to make a machine that could beat a human in a game of chess.

And there we find an intriguing comparison with Alan Turing.


White King and Red Queen

White King and Red Queen is the title of an excellent book by Daniel Johnson, former literary editor of The Times newspaper. Published by Atlantic Books in 2007, it relates the history of how a Cold War between the USSR and the west was fought on the chessboard.

Post-revolution Soviet ideology held that mastery of chess symbolised a utopian height of intellect and prestige. Soviet domination of the world chess championship, at individual and team level, spanned almost all of the period from 1948 to the new millennium, save for the years 1972 to 1975 when Bobby Fischer of the USA held the individual crown.

Alongside the very public post-war battle between the Soviets and the west to see who could win the race to put a man into space or land on the moon, there was also from the 1950s onwards a rival effort on both sides to build a superior chess-playing computer machine.

During the war while working at Bletchley Park trying to crack the Enigma code, Alan Turing had worked alongside some of the leading chess masters in Britain: C.H.O’D. (Hugh) Alexander, Harry Golombek and Stuart Milner-Barry. Turing himself was not a good player, but he inevitably toyed with the notion that a computer could be programmed, using decision “trees”, to find the best move.  

Working largely in a private capacity, to fuel his own curiosity, Turing wrote papers in 1946 and 1953 that advanced the notions of “electronic calculating” and “automatic computing”. In 1948 he devised a chess-playing algorithm, and in 1951 he simulated a programme that needed to make thousands of calculations in order to “see” two moves deep.

Across the Atlantic, at much the same time, the American professors John von Neumann and Claude Shannon were engaged in similar research.


Computer Chess – the movie

In the film we visit a crumby hotel (actually in Austin, Texas) where for one weekend in 1980 a chess competition is taking place amongst ardent groups of American geeks who have lugged their computer equipment there.

Instantly recognisable as the ill-dressed, studious, silent and faintly unhygenic types who "don't get out much", the competitors are eager but also nervous to put their respective capabilities to the test. Which software will prove to contain the best calculation “trees” and “ply” for delivering checkmate to all the other computers? 

This enjoyable film takes the style of a "mockumentary" that is strictly non-judgmental in tone: we, the audience, must make our decision whether these obsessive code-writers engender in us a reaction of admiration, pity or scorn.

As such, the label of "comedy drama" seems about right for the movie. Andrew Bujalski (who wrote the script) added the humorous ingredient that a bunch of freaks from a Californian self-help sect should co-habit the hotel and hold noisy role-playing sessions next door to the chess action. With glimpses of sex, surrealism and symbolism written in, Computer Chess altogether has hardly a dull moment of action and dialogue, even though the principal characters might be considered to be dull personalities in the social sense.


Machine beats man! It came true …

The film Computer Chess mirrors the way things were in real life at the end of the 1970s. Chess-playing machines were primitive and flawed.

In 1969 the British chess master David Levy had offered a £1,000 bet that no computer could beat him within the next ten years. He never had to pay up.

On the day that Richard Nixon resigned the USA presidency in 1974, was it the Watergate scandal that drove him from office or was it his shame that earlier that same day, the first ever World Computer Chess Championship had seen Kaissa (USSR) beat Ostrich (USA) in the final?

Robert Maxwell had put up the prize fund of £500 for that ground-breaking competition, held in Stockholm. Britain's entry, code-named Master, had participated from the Atlas laboratory in Berkshire. Teams from eight different countries had taken part.

In 1977 Bobby Fischer of the USA, the former world chess champion, had quickly dispatched the MIT Greenblatt computer in an exhibition match. At club standard, however, a breakthrough had come that same year when the so-named Chess 4.5 programme was allowed to take part in the Minnesota open championship. Running on a CDC Cyber 17 computer it took first prize with five wins and only one defeat.

Two decades later in 1997 would come the sensation of world chess champion Garry Kasparov losing a best-of-six match against the IBM Deep Blue computer programme. The world had changed, forever. A machine could not only replicate the mightiest of human brainpower at the chessboard: it could improve it! Scary, or what?
Just to prove that it was no fluke, the next world champion Vladimir Kramnik of Russia was also defeated by a computer: he lost a six-game match versus the Deep Fritz programme in 2006.

We can surely imagine that if Alan Turing were still alive today and he could see that a machine can now defeat the world champion at chess, he might recall that during World War Two his assistant Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) had spoken of:

“The things no one can imagine …”

Jerry Dowlen

February 2015


Previous articles by Jerry Dowlen in the Books Monthly Archives include:


P G Wodehouse

John Betjeman and Candida Lycett Green

Daniel Abse

Sherlock Holmes: The Seven Per Cent Solution

Wilfred Owen

Wolf Mankowitz

Bob Hoskins

Muriel Spark & Jane Gardam

The Story of Edith Nesbit

Anthony Gilbert and Michael Gilbert

Rebels With A Cause

Inspector Winter: Gwendoline Butler's First Detective

The Carlton, The Commodore, and the Embassy - Orpington's Three Cinemas

The Bergerac Police Adventure Series

It's All In The Mind - Margery Allingham and Graham Greene

Berlin: Cold War Spy Thrillers

The Life and Centenary of Barbara Pym

D H Lawrence: The Sniggering Legacy of Lady Chatterley's Lover...



The small print: Books Monthly, now well into its sixteenth year on the web, is published on or slightly before the first day of each month by Paul Norman. You can contact me here. If you wish to submit something for publication in the magazine, let me remind you there is no payment as I don't make any money from this publication. If you want to send me something to review, contact me via email and I'll let you know where to send it.