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
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
The film Computer
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
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
Computer Chess – the movie
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.
beats man! It came true …
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.
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:
things no one can imagine …”
Previous articles by Jerry Dowlen in the Books Monthly Archives include:
P G Wodehouse
John Betjeman and Candida Lycett Green
Sherlock Holmes: The Seven Per Cent Solution
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...
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