A Bolt from Deep Blue – An Irishman’s Diary about a famous chess match, 20 years on

It's 20 years today since a computer called Deep Blue beat the then world chess champion, Garry Kasparov, in a best-of-six series, an event that heralded a power shift between mankind and machines.

But reports of the death of human intelligence appear to have been greatly exaggerated then, as was the triumph of computing. Deep Blue quit while it was ahead, never playing chess again en route to a museum career. Kasparov, by contrast, played on for a decade. And although his brain is no longer chiefly devoted to chess, its workings are today arguably more valuable than ever.

Since his retirement in 2005, however, Kasparov has immersed himself in a much more dangerous game – Russian politics

A pivotal moment of the 1997 match, according to Prof Adam Winstanley of Maynooth University's computer science department, was when Kasparov overrated his opponent, mistaking one if its errors for "superior intelligence". Despite vast processing power, which could apply brute computing force to calculate millions of permutations a second, fuelled by a database of 700,000 chess games, Deep Blue was subject to the same time constraints as its human opponent. So when pressed, as Winstanley explains, it "made odd moves that no experienced chess player would".

Thus at move 44 in the first game, after Kasparov had nudged a pawn to f6, the computer responded with rook to d1 (or as chess columnists might put it “Rd1!”).


The Russian champion had beaten an earlier version of Deep Blue the year before, but this one was more powerful and intimidating. And although, naturally, he had tried to research its strengths and weaknesses, the programmers had denied him details.

So although the Rd1 was just a bad move, Kasparov didn’t know that. He was instead unnerved by what looked like his opponent’s unpredictable thinking. This lingering doubt is credited with losing him the second game before, several draws later, one of his own mistakes cost the sixth and last for a 3.5 to 2.5 defeat.

By then, Kasparov thought he had his rival worked out, but his request for a rematch was turned down. Deep Blue was instead retired, wisely.

Although the size of two small wardrobes, it would today be easily beaten by a standard laptop chess programme.

Similar computers are now used to forecast weather, sequence DNA, and analyse various vast collections of information known as "big data". Algorithms can be designed to recognise faces or work out what we might like to buy from Amazon. Computers will probably soon replace human car drivers (to the relief of cyclists everywhere).

But as Prof Winstanley explains, none of this is “the creative, adaptable, general intelligence” with which people come fitted. The workings of the human brain remain largely a mystery, he adds. Systems that can replicate them “could be be centuries away, at best”.

In the meantime, Kasparov is still widely considered to have been the best chess player of modern times. Since his retirement in 2005, however, he has immersed himself in a much more dangerous game – Russian politics – in which the ability to think many moves ahead is at least as important.

An early warning of the risks he faced was at a promotional event in Moscow that same year, when he signed a chessboard for an ostensible fan who then hit him on the head with it.

But as other critics of the Putin regime have found out, that was getting off lightly.

Two years later, an exiled former KGB general warned Kasparov his life was in danger.

In 2015, happily extant, he peered several moves ahead into global politics with a book called Winter is Coming – Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped.

And more recently, in an era when Russia's traditional talent for chess seems to have given way to a world-leading flair with computers, he has been preoccupied with the relationship between Moscow and the Trump White House.

He has also, on occasion, criticised the use of "trite chess metaphors" in discussions of international crises, especially the portrayal of Putin as a grandmaster who played Barack Obama off the board in Syria. This is no doubt a bad habit of political commentators, a vestige of times when the rivalry of Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer coincided with the cold war.

But it works both ways.

Earlier this year, the world women’s chess championship was played in Tehran, and was controversial because players had to wear headscarves. Of less concern, apparently, was that several of the decisive games went to a fast-moving form of tie-breaker, a recent development in chess, which goes by the cheerful name of “Armageddon”.