The One

On ESPN2’s chess championships, Garry Kasparov tries to stop the rise of the machines.

Check … out the show, mate

There was a moment during yesterday’s game between chess legend Garry Kasparov and computer program X3D Fritz where you didn’t have to be an expert to know that man would triumph over machine. Faced with losing a crucial pawn, X3D Fritz balked, moving a bishop that was otherwise out of play. “Bishop to D6,” snorted ESPN2 commentator and grandmaster Maurice Ashley. “I can guarantee that 99.9 percent of all humans would not play that move. And the other percentage would be inebriated with alcohol.” For Ashley and for fellow announcers Paul Hoffman and Yasser Seirawan, the hiccup provided not just a rare opportunity to gloat, but also some much-needed comic relief for the folks at home who have watched Kasparov struggle against what Hoffman calls a “silicon beast.”

X3D Fritz, which according to Hoffman can consider 4 million moves per second, has proven to be a formidable opponent. The computer forced a draw in Game 1 and in Game 2 beat Kasparov, who by his own admission made a mistake that the chess commentators called a “howler.” Yesterday, Kasparov ended up victorious, bringing the overall match to a tie, which means tomorrow’s final game of the 2003 Man-Machine World Chess Championship (ESPN2, 1 p.m. ET) will be the decider. Judging by ESPN2’s commentary, more than chess is at stake—it’s as if we are about to learn whether carbon-based life forms stand a chance against the Rise of the Machines. In the words of Maurice Ashley, “[T]he fate of humanity is on the line.”

Or something like that. When Garry Kasparov played IBM’s Deep Blue in 1997 and lost, his defeat felt foreboding. But now that the bubble has burst and the Matrix movies have fizzled I am no longer nervous about being turned into a battery or being replaced by a Java applet. Fortunately you don’t need a grand narrative to find pleasure in Kasparov’s battle with X3D Fritz. If you can get past ESPN2’s sports metaphors—pawns are offensive linemen, the king is the quarterback—you’ll find this otherwise slow-moving, static, brainy game makes for some surprisingly good television.

At first the whole set-up made me laugh. Watching the highest-rated chess player in the game’s history sitting at a banquet table in the New York Athletic Club staring at a computer monitor reminded me of one of those humming cutaway shots of people at their terminals in The Office. But over time the game starts to worm its way into your mind. Even with two human opponents, chess is an awkward game to cover, but ESPN2 handles the representation problem well enough by splitting the screen between Kasparov and a 3-D rendition of the board. (Supposedly the game is being played in “virtual reality” but this means little other than that Kasparov wears 3-D glasses and makes his moves using voice-activation technology.) The games are timed, with each side having two hours to complete 40 moves, and on-screen counters provide the reminder that whenever a player hems and haws he’s wasting precious time.

In the meantime, Ashley, Hoffman, and Seirawan fill the airwaves with analysis and speculation. Hoffman, an author and chess journalist, can be a bit of a goof—he likens X3D Fritz to a street fighter who’s willing to tussle with knives, guns, and nunchucks. Seirawan is excellent. A grandmaster * and 10-time U.S. Olympic chess team member, Seirawan fills up the thinks with analysis of the previous moves and potential moves. Even if, like me, you’re just barely familiar with how chess works, his analysis makes you feel like an insider. He also helps translate the texture of the game. Seirawan says playing against Kasparov is like being in the room with a “caged tiger.” “I can almost feel Garry’s calculations when I’m sitting opposite him at the chess board,” says Seirawan.

What’s remarkable about the Man-Machine World Chess Championship is that after a while you start feeling the computer as well. In the game’s first few moves, the computer uses what is called its “opening book,” a prepared list of 2.8 million positions drawn from chess history and customized to fit Kasparov’s style. This allows the computer to respond to Kasparov almost immediately, but eventually X3D Fritz has to abandon premade calculations in favor of its artificial intelligence. When Kasparov gets stuck—in one case for almost 12 minutes—there is much attendant chin rubbing and nose bridge pinching. The computer just sits there, but after about four minutes you find yourself getting on edge with the kind of slow building suspense usually reserved for extra innings. It’s unlikely that the ratings for tomorrow’s final match are going to outperform this year’s pennant race, but I for one will be watching very closely, as though the fate of humanity depended on it.

Correction, Nov. 18, 2003: In the original version of this article, Dennis Cass referred to Yasser Seirawan as a four-time grandmaster. In fact, the term “grandmaster” is a lifetime title, making the “four-time” superfluous. Return to the corrected sentence.