Beating Garry Kasparov
October 17, 2018 - Monocle Research Department
Garry Kimovich Kasparov is considered by many to be the greatest chess player of all time. But the Russian grandmaster, despite his incomparable genius, is not a man without controversy. In 1993, Kasparov was the reigning world champion of the Fédération Internationale des Échecs or World Chess Federation (FIDE), but he had grown frustrated with the organisation’s pedantic bureaucracy and seemingly arbitrary changes in the code of conduct for players. In what he later described as the biggest mistake of his career, as it caused great disunity in the chess community, Kasparov broke away from FIDE to create a rival chess body called the Professional Chess Association (PCA), declaring irreconcilable differences in opinion and even accusing the FIDE of corruption.
When considering this erratic and somewhat stubborn behaviour, Kasparov’s infamous claims that the IBM Deep Blue team cheated to win against him in 1997, suddenly seem a little less credible. But 20 years later, in a 2017 interview with Google’s DeepMind CEO Demis Hassabis, it seems that Kasparov has somewhat refined his argument, saying that “When signing a contract, you always have to read the fine print. When people ask me if IBM cheated, no, they just bent the rules in their favour. They followed the letter but not the spirit of the agreement.” It seems almost sad, and somewhat pitiable, how passionately Kasparov stands by his convictions two decades after his humbling loss – but he may actually have a point.
If you are not familiar with Garry Kasparov’s appearance, it would be hard to imagine him as a chess grandmaster. The Russian is tan with thick dark hair, has a propensity for nicely tailored suits and is very charismatic. He speaks articulately and certainly lacks no confidence in himself or his abilities. Speaking to journalists before his famous match against IBM’s Deep Blue in 1997, he did not even seem to contemplate the possibility of losing to the computer. And why would he? Since the age of 22, he had never lost a match against a human or computer opponent. He had even beaten an earlier version of Deep Blue the previous year, and before the match, he scoffed at the organisers’ suggestion to split the prize money of half a million dollars 60-40 between the winner and the loser. He wanted it all, and in 1996, he won it all. Kasparov was the best in the world, and he knew it. In fact, in the 19 years between 1986 and his retirement from competitive chess in 2005, Kasparov was ranked first in the world for 225 out of 228 months. He was virtually unbeatable.
The match in 1997 was different in so many ways. The six-game challenge started well for a confident Kasparov, and he easily beat Deep Blue in the first game, thanks to what would later be called a glitch in the machine’s programming. All was going to plan for the world champion, but it was to be a pivotal moment in the second game that would change everything.
In that iconic game, Kasparov intended to set a trap for his opponent using a variation of an opening strategy known as the Ruy Lopez or Spanish Opening. As the strategy played out, a pivotal point required the placement of the “poisoned pawn” to entice the opponent into a compromising situation – a technique the Russian had used against countless opponents, especially against computers, which often could not recognise the danger they were playing themselves into. But to Kasparov’s great surprise, at the critical moment, Deep Blue did not take the bait. Instead, the machine played a move that was far more subtle and forward-thinking than anyone – except the IBM team – could have ever anticipated. A grandmaster that was commentating on the game, John Nunn, called it “a stunning move played by a computer”. It was something no professional had seen before from chess-playing programs. Kasparov was visibly shaken.
That move was the beginning of the end of chess grandmasters beating computers. And at that point, Kasparov’s emotions took a hold of him. He vigorously rubbed his face, stood up, and walked around the room rather aimlessly. At one instance, Kasparov stood alone in the middle of the room staring at his mother – who was seated in the audience – shaking his head. In several interviews after the match, the Russian called the move in question “human-like”. And for years to come, there was suspicion around the true source of the move – with Kasparov and many others suspecting there was some kind of human intervention from the IBM team on behalf of Deep Blue.
In part, the suspicion was justified. The IBM team did not exactly fight fair in 1997. Before the match, although initially agreeing to let Kasparov study games played by Deep Blue in training, they rescinded their agreement on the premise of a technicality – the contract stated that Kasparov was entitled to any games played in official tournaments, but Deep Blue had technically not played any games in official tournaments. IBM therefore did not provide him any games to study. As Kasparov then states even 20 years later, “It was a black box,” as he had no idea of what he was up against compared to the previous version he had beaten in 1996.
This was just one of numerous distracting tactics the IBM team used to ultimately defeat their opponent. Other subtle psychologically targeted elements built into the programming of Deep Blue included the manipulation of timing in processing the output for a move. When playing a human opponent, one can attempt to read the body language and timings of a player to gauge the various emotions and thought processes they may be experiencing. A quick move after your own, for example, could indicate excitement in a plan coming together, or in contrast, a slow move could be a sign that they are perhaps unsure how the next few moves may turn out. With a computer, there is no body language, but in chess playing programs of years gone by, a longer processing time could mean the computer was having to recalculate a strategy. The IBM team recognised that such timings could psychologically affect Kasparov and opted to programme Deep Blue to sometimes take longer than it strictly needed, to give the idea that a move may be more complex than it seemed at first glance.
All these factors combined to eventually break Kasparov down psychologically. Even he admits that certain moves – a number of which were later revealed as mistakes by Deep Blue – played heavily on his mind, as to whether they were brilliant or idiotic, visionary or a glitch. And all such uncertainty was further compounded when IBM refused to release the log files of Deep Blue’s activities, creating even more doubt around the already rather devious tactics employed by the multinational corporation. Whilst the victory was a milestone for computing power, Deep Blue would not strictly be seen as a “learning machine” by today’s artificial intelligence standards. Where modern AI can learn and adjust, Deep Blue simply exhausted every possibility in its tree search schema, running through hundreds of thousands of moves per second to find the best, pre-programmed outcome. What Deep Blue did prove, however, was that brute force and cold hard steel can outlast, and eventually outplay, even the most gifted human counterpart. The computer was ultimately not smarter or more strategic than Kasparov, but it was more resilient, more composed, and less emotional – simply less human.