Chess champ feels rooked by computer's crashes

March 25, 1995|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,Sun Staff Writer

In a chess match hyped as man vs. machine yesterday, technology won.

But humanity's supporters cried foul and said the computer's temper tantrums may have swayed the outcome.

International grandmaster Gennady Sagalchik -- ranked 35th in the country by the United States Chess Federation -- lost his 7 1/2 -hour game against a 512-processor Intel Paragon Supercomputer at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

"Both sides made mistakes," said Dr. Alan T. Sherman, a UMBC computer science professor and an organizer of the match. "But the computer played well in the end."

The computer, actually hundreds of miles away at the University of Illinois, was running a sophisticated chess program called *Socrates. It won in 56 moves, but only after several crashes disrupted the early hours of the match.

"The crashing jarred the nerves of the grandmaster," Dr. Sherman said, adding that Mr. Sagalchik was too upset to talk after the game.

Earlier, the 25-year-old grandmaster complained that the computer problems were affecting his concentration. "It is a little bit nerve-racking. It takes more for me to get back into the game," he said.

Altogether, the computer was down about 1 1/2 hours, Dr. Sherman said. He attributed the problems to the machine's home base at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications.

"Usually, it's the people who are down," said Mr. Sagalchik after the machine had crashed three times by 12:30 p.m. It was Mr. Sagalchik's first matchup against a high-level chess computer. Although he uses a chess program on his personal computer, he said, "it's not as good as this."

"The computer program is very, very strong," said Dr. Sherman, who advises UMBC's prize-winning chess team. He said *Socrates would rate 2,400 to 2,500 on the Chess Federation's point system. Mr. Sagalchik's USCF rating is 2,568. "We're lucky to have him here," said Tim Trogdon of Pasadena, a 20-year chess veteran who sat in on Mr. Sagalchik's match and played along.

This is the second time in two months that the grandmaster has visited the Catonsville school. In February, he simultaneously played 33 chess enthusiasts, winning 25 games, losing three and drawing five.

"This is one of the best colleges for chess," said Mr. Sagalchik, a boyish-looking native of Minsk, Belarus, who moved to the United States 3 1/2 years ago to improve his game and promote chess in schools.

Yesterday's match attracted a mixed group of chess and computer enthusiasts.

"I love the idea that you play a machine and can't predict what it's going to do," said Clyde Kriskal, a computer science professor at the University of Maryland College Park.

Others sitting in the hushed UMBC classroom had their doubts. "The fact that a human could lose to a machine is disturbing to me," said Nathan Netanyahu, a UM computer scientist.

Several members of UMBC's chess team agreed. "We prefer to play people," said Ishan Weerakoon, 27, a first-year doctoral candidate in computer science.

The students manned a computer terminal that sent a television image of the chess match and game moves to about 300 fans elsewhere through the Internet. They had to deal with rude messages from Internet spectators who griped about the computer glitches. "They're wondering why the slow game became slower," said Vinod Akunuri, 23, who is working on his master's degree in electrical engineering.

The outcome of the game, which ended at 5:30 p.m., was a disappointment for Robert Erkes, a USCF arbiter who oversaw the match.

"I'm rooting for the human, certainly," he said. "I'm completely impartial, of course, but a bucket of bolts worries me."

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