Turning humans into pawns Game 5: Kasparov wins again, but his stand against technology merely puts off the inevitable.

February 17, 1996|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

PHILADELPHIA -- Human pre-eminence in the game of chess entered its twilight period here this week.

It does not matter how the historic match between current world chess champion Garry Kasparov and the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue ends today. Kasparov has been beaten once, drawn twice by the computer since the match opened last Saturday. That never happened before. It's in the books.

Last night, in the next-to-last game of the six-game match, Kasparov won his second game. He can do no worse than a tie in the match now.

Even so, Kasparov's boast that "In serious, classical chess, computers do not have a chance in this century" sounds hollow today.

When Kasparov signed up for this match with the IBM machine he demanded a winner-take-all arrangement. It was later negotiated to an 80-20 split.

"Garry thought it would be the easiest $400,000 he ever picked up," grandmaster Yasser Sierawan said early in yesterday's game. "Now he's in the tussle of his life."

Human beings have been playing this game for 1,400 years. Computers have marched to this point in a mere 45. Though they are dismissed by some as engines of brute force calculation, glorified adding machines, they just get better and better.

The premonition of an unhappy outcome here was manifest early on among the 300 or more aficionados who paid $20 a game to watch the match on immense television screens at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, removed from the quiet room where Kasparov sat day after day facing his antagonist with the silicon brain.

At one moment during the first game, many of those first-day spectators seemed to lose their grip on the single element that is supposed to mark them all as chess players: their affection for logical thought.

About two hours into the game, when Kasparov's position was marginally inferior to that of the computer, the grandmaster Sierawan asked the audience to assess who was winning. A majority of hands went up to acknowledge Deep Blue's advantage.

About 45 minutes later, when Kasparov's situation had deteriorated further, Sierawan called for another poll. A slight majority raised their hands for Kasparov.

It all seemed like an exercise in collective wishful thinking. Why did this happen?

No one knows for sure, and there are those who interpret the positions at that point as less damaging to Kasparov than the Fritz 4 computer, monitoring the game, did. But, odd as it may sound, it seemed an approprite response, kind of an emotional necessity. It was like a cheer: Go, Garry, Go!

For in the agony leading up to Kasparov's surrender to the computer, an apprehension seemed to move through the crowd, and the defeat, once it was complete, triggered a number of extravagant interpretations. One amateur player compared it to a medieval battle that changed the future of Europe, though he couldn't remember where or when it was fought. Whatever, he said, the game was a "turning point in history."

Then Kasparov came back and won the next day's game and confidence was restored, briefly. That was followed by two draws, which brought the anxiety back. Last night, Kasparov had the advantage nearly throughout the game before the machine handlers finally conceded defeat.

Of legend and myth

Contests between men and machines have spawned a lot of legend and bequeathed a thousand myths of resistance. It has become a dimension of what it means to be human to resist, to spit in the eye of history.

Children are still taught about John Henry, the steel-driving man who challenged the machine that eventually took his job. He beat it, then dropped dead. It is a hero's tale.

Then there is the story of Ned Ludd, who briefly led a band of malcontents in 19th-century England who went around smashing

textile machines in an effort to hold back the Industrial Revolution. Generally, the Luddites are remembered as cranks. But not by everybody.

Garry Kasparov has taken it upon himself to "defend humanity" by engaging in intellectual combat with computers. He is one of the few grandmasters willing to do this.

Thus, he has put himself in the path of the digital revolution, an expression used to describe the ascendency of the computer. It is a dangerous choice, almost always unsuccessful. But it has the allure that all lost causes have.

Kasparov, of course, is different from John Henry and Ned Ludd. He is real; they are myths, though the resistance they symbolized actually flashed briefly, then died. What he shares with these two figments is that he, too, will eventually lose a match, even if he hasn't this time.

Monty Newborn, a computer scientist and head of the chess committee of the Association for Computing Machinery, which sponsored the match, is not surprised by the general funk that followed Kasparov's defeat in Game 1, and the two draws. He sees it as only the latest little bump in a long string of setbacks for the species generally.

Human fear

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