The Digital Chess Masters

Computer Chess
Computer Chess

Having used the onset of summer to probe a handful of New York City’s many sites in which members of the public can meet one another and play a game of chess (or two!) with human partners, we thought we’d look at one of the flip sides to public play: computer chess in the digital era.

Many of the activities that we were once required to actively seek out can now be accessed on a single device. Rather than carry your dog-eared paperback book in your bag, you can carry hundreds of them on a Kindle Fire; similarly, you can just download an app to your phone that allows you to play chess on a bus, a train, or anywhere you like and at any time. And it’s not just a throwaway bit of light entertainment in an age of endless diversions, either. You can have your small, portable chess board with you at all times, playing games of varying lengths against strangers or friends or, more interestingly, the computer itself.


Chess on your iPhone (image courtesy of Arizona-Software
Chess on your iPhone (image courtesy of Arizona-Software)

Digital incarnations of chess have been available for some time now, dating from the mid-70’s, before really picking up the pace and coming to the fore in the 1980’s. But there’s no doubt it has become increasingly widespread in the world of smart phones, laptops and tablets. The game is there at your fingertips, whenever you should wish to match your skills against an artificial opponent. This hasn’t had a discernible impact on sales of chess boards (there will always be a demand for chess boards as a decorative item), but rather it has arguably expanded the game’s influence and, ultimately, made it more accessible to people who might not otherwise have taken an interest in the game. So much of the digital era is catered to accessibility and instant gratification; as a delivery model, it is unsurpassable.

There is also the added advantage of being able to tailor the game to your skill level. Your computer opponent can be tweaked to have different response times in-between moves, and you also have the ability to see what moves each piece can make by clicking on them, should you be new to the game. Other features include undoing moves and being able to trace back your steps, which is perhaps a tidier method of deconstructing the game rather than writing down every move you make as you go. Some apps even have notifications describing certain moves. And almost all of this is happening on smartphones. The possible iterations of chess on mobile devices – the form it can take, the ways in which it can teach and educate, and so on – are infinite. It’s certainly our intention to take a look at several of these apps in the near future to take a closer look at what they have to offer. After all, one of the most important features all of these devices have in common is connectivity. By simply being able to access chess on your smartphone or your tablet puts you into contact with people all over the world, fostering an entire community of novices, experts, and people who simply want to reach out and play the game with someone on the other side of the globe, probably on the bus to work.


The Thing (1982)
The Thing (1982)

When we think of computer chess, our minds go straight to John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982)…yes, we know, our minds tend to gravitate towards film on a fairly regular basis! But it’s a great example in and of itself, and hey, this is the decade in which computerised chess started to take off! The film’s ambiguous opening sequence begins with a helicopter chasing a husky across the Arctic wilderness, frantically firing at it for reasons as yet unknown to us. We then segue to the American camp, Outpost 31, where life, as yet undisturbed by the coming menace, continues banally – men of various professions are seen reading, playing pool, and doing whatever else they can to chip away at their six month isolation.

One man, Kurt Russell’s R.J MacReady, is sitting alone in his shack (‘alone’ being a condition they won’t want to find themselves in soon enough), playing none other than chess on his computer, with a glass of whisky in his hand. The computer itself, ‘Chess Wizard’, is fictional, but there were many such devices available at the time. There’s a lot of room to explore the relationship of chess to the film itself, but we’ll only take a cursorily look here.

MacReady contemplates his next move...
MacReady contemplates his next move…

First and foremost, it sets up the conflict nicely; throughout the film, MacReady is constantly trying to stay one step ahead of the malevolent alien that has taken human form, in the hope of outsmarting it before it can decimate the camp. Towards the end of his game, MacReady thinks he’s got it sussed – “Poor baby, you’re starting to lose it aren’t you”, only to be beaten with the next move (the film concludes with MacReady defeating the Thing, only to realise his victory is more tenuous than he initially believed). He couldn’t beat the machine, which can process multiple possible moves at once, in a similar fashion to the Thing itself, which has many disguises with which to rely upon. But perhaps what is most interesting is that in this all-male cast, the computer is voiced by a woman (provided by director John Carpenter’s then wife Adrienne Barbeau). “My move, rook to knight six. Checkmate, checkmate.” Displeased with his unexpected defeat, he pours his whisky into the machine, killing it off. “Cheating bitch”, he declares, leaving the shack. It’s a hell of an introduction for the character, and by genderising his opponent – a machine – it establishes the tone of masculinity that runs throughout the course of the story. Genderising and anthropomorphising machines is fairly common, but here it has a particularly interesting part to play – is the Thing itself genderless, or is their nemesis in fact female? I’m not sure Carpenter ever gave it that much thought, but that’s easily one of the delights of film criticism: finding meaning (here at Regency, it’s primarily the role of chess) out of the assemblage of pieces within the film itself. One of the problems with that, coined by the excellent ‘FILM CRIT HULK‘, is avoiding undue extrapolation. Only ever work with what the film gives you!

MacReady's Chess Wizard
MacReady’s Chess Wizard

Although the ‘Chess Wizard” device did not exist, the program MacReady was playing was quite real: a feature of an Apple II computer. According to notes by co-producer Stuart Cohen, the crew tried to capture a shot of MacReady playing the game in real time in a single frame, but this did not work out.



At the time, chess computers were becoming more and more widespread, and were consistently able to defeat strong players. This culminated in the late 1990’s – 1996, in fact – when Deep Blue, a computer designed by IBM, was able to defeat reigning chess champion Garry Kasparov in the first game of their six-match confrontation (however, Kasparov was able to secure overall victory). Following an upgrade to the Deep Blue a year later, Kasparov again came face-to-face with the machine, and he – the world champion – was beaten in a match that applied the standard rules of the game. Kasparov called foul play, and it has been suggested that the match was in part composed in order to boost their market value. A documentary of this was produced in 2003 – Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine. That, however, is a subject for another time, and another post.

As technology continues its rapid expansion, we’re seeing increasingly more powerful computers capable of extraordinary feats, and one wonders if they will reach a point in which “solving chess” – the optimal strategy in which victory can always be attained or at the very least the game forced to a draw – will come from that of an artificial intelligence, and not a human world champion.

I, on the other hand, have been dabbling with a chess app on my Android device, and it has thus far beaten me exactly 81 times! I’ve yet to douse the phone in a glass of whisky, but 100 may prove to be the breaking point…and I’m no Gary Kasparov.

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