Sore Loser

Garry Kasparov owes Deep Blue an apology.

As we all know, Garry Kasparov is a Russian chess player. So where did he get this uncanny ability to whine exactly like an American pro athlete after an unexpected drubbing?

“The machine’s win has not proved anything. It’s not yet ready, in my opinion, to win a big contest.”

That’s Kasparov, explaining how Deep Blue’s resounding victory did not really constitute a “big” win. The rangy, big-shouldered computer prevailed in the most famous man vs. machine chess match in history–3 1/2 points to 2 1/2 points–capped by a 19-move butt kicking that inspired one grandmaster to observe, “Kasparov got wiped off the board.” Kasparov reacted by reaching deep into the sports-cliché moan bag, maintaining that he had been cheated by some kind of backdoor playmaking help from the IBM team, that the real Garry Kasparov hadn’t shown up at the match (“I was not in a fighting mood”), and that his coaching had been bad (“my biggest mistake was following the advice of computer advisers who recommended I play this way”).

What way? Losingly?

In addition, he talked about himself in the annoying “third-person jock,” whimpered about Deep Blue’s superior firepower (news flash, Garry: the other side usually demonstrates that when it beats you), and grumbled his way through a trash-talk version of “wait till next year.” “It [had] nothing to do [with] science,” he whined. “It was one zeal to beat Garry Kasparov. And when a big corporation with unlimited resources would like to do so, there are many ways to achieve the result.”

And: “I personally guarantee if the machine plays me again, I would tear it to pieces.”

As IBM’s Chung-Jen Tan, the leader of the Deep Blue team, recognized with his overwrought For the Ages rhetoric (“historically for mankind, this is like landing on the moon”), the match will go down in the permanent record of human-computer relations. Kasparov made us all look churlish, bratty, and just plain bad. We humans deserved a better spokesman at this epochal point in our ongoing voyage of humility; a half century from now, surly, street-tough androids will routinely start bar brawls over the bitchy tone of Kasparov’s remarks. Yes, Kasparov had to be the guy on the front line–after all, he’s the best human chess player of all time. Still, he left much to be desired in what Frank Deford would call “the class and grace department.”

How much nicer it would have been if Kasparov had accepted his defeat with a few tactful words like, “You de man!” or, “You de machine!”

If Kasparov does get back onto the board with Deep Blue, he really must get it together deportmentwise. May I suggest that he seek role models in the world of checkers, a supremely challenging game (there are 500 billion billion possible positions on the checkerboard) that doesn’t get the respect it deserves?

Checkers masters stared down their Armageddon a few years ago, when a powerful computer program named Chinook forged a tie with the second-best checkers player in the world, Don Lafferty. A weaker version of Chinook had previously lost to the legendary Marion Tinsley, a retired university math teacher considered the greatest checkers player of all time, who had to withdraw from a 1994 rematch because of the pancreatic cancer that eventually killed him. Lafferty bravely stepped in and duked out a record of 1-1-18. No clear decision.

What really matters, though, is that neither man resorted to in-your-face woo-woos or bitching, though in this case, sassy talk from the other side probably warranted retaliation. (“The computer gets smarter every day,” said Professor Jonathan Schaeffer, who led the team that programmed Chinook, “and human players like Dr. Tinsley and Lafferty just get older.”) Tinsley credited God for his abilities, while Lafferty reacted to the tie with the same sort of aplomb that, it’s safe to say, he would have displayed if he’d lost.

“It put a lot of strain on me,” he admitted, making Chinook sound not like a machine but like a grizzled counterpart who deserved respect, even affection. “It’s nearly got human capabilities now. … But I like this machine. I think humans and computers are compatible.”