A few novelties

THE Man versus Machine matches offer a lot to chess and computer aficionados.


The world's top-ranked chess player Garry Kasparov wears 3D glasses at a press conference in New York, during the course of his chess match against X3D Fritz, a computer chess program using 3D software. The contest was the first official Man vs Machine World chess championship played in total virtual reality. — Pic. AP-

THE Man versus Machine matches offer a lot to chess and computer aficionados. The latest of the series held at the New York Athletic Club saw a 2-2 tie emerge in the contest between World No. 1 ranked Garry Kasparov of Russia and X3D Fritz.

The event offered a few novelties not seen in previous matches. First, it was played as a short `best of four' series with classical control of seven hours a game. Then, there was no chessboard or pieces! Kasparov had to wear 3D glasses and see a monitor where he would view the board and pieces in virtual reality. He uttered his moves and there was a voice-recognition programme to interpret that. The programme monitored the time too and there was no need for a clock.

Kasparov received an appearance fee of $150,000 for the match and an additional $25,000 for the draw, totalling $175,000 in earnings. Had he won he would have received $200,000. For a week's work this is quite rewarding as he normally gets only a third of that for twice the length of time in normal tournaments. The prize money for these battles has dropped since Kasparov lost to IBM's Deep Blue in May 1997 at New York by a close 2.5 to 3.5 margin.

The event was named as the first Official World Chess Championship for Man v Machine. Besides this new recognition, X3D Technologies, which was the sponsor, had other promotion techniques like bringing in an ice hockey star to inaugurate game two and inviting Miss New York to make the ceremonial first move in game three. "When the player is forced to wear glasses and can't make his moves, touching the pieces you can't call it a world championship," said Boris Alterman, a former trainer of Kasparov and a computer analyst.

Kasparov, who had a joystick to adjust his 3D-glasses, surprised the chess world by accepting to play this match in July knowing that he would have no chess pieces to play with. It was the first time the 40-year-old wore glasses. In a pre-event chat he said not having to make the moves in the normal way is a "tremendous handicap". He said the handicap will be more "psychological" and perhaps worth taking "30 extra minutes on the clock" in exchange. However, he played with equal time and had a human operator in case the computer read his move wrongly.

So much so that when he blundered a central pawn in game two, online spectators and chess buffs believed that the mistake could be the voice recognition software. The blunder was from the man and he moved about restlessly in the playing area. Machines do not miss and that lapse was fatal enough to decide that game against Kasparov.

More than chess, this was also a showcase of technology and power of machines. The scoreline and game trend indicated that the whole exercise was shorter than required and such four-game matches would be less popular in future. Earlier this year, Kasparov drew 3-3 with JUNIOR, another programme from Israel, in New York. He had beaten Deep Blue in 1996 at Philadelphia and lost to it in 1997 in New York. Since the 1997 defeat, Kasparov had appealed for printouts to understand the thinking process of Deep Blue but never received it from IBM, which decided to dismantle it instead.

FRITZ is a commercially available (Rs. 2,500 for a single processor PC) programme invented by Dutchman Frans Morsch. It is being distributed by a German company Chess Base since 1991 and is today installed in the computers of all chess professionals. It runs on four Pentium 4 processors at 2.8 MHz speed with the ability to calculate about four million moves per second. Unlike Deep Blue, the version of FRITZ which played Kasparov was given to him to prepare before the match. The FRITZ team of Morsch, co-programmer Mathias Feist and opening book trainer Alex Kure could work on the programme on a daily basis but obviously not during the actual game. Under this flexible yet challenging atmosphere, Kasparov battled the fastest computer to date.

Is all of this a big show, or does it have chess value?

Frederic Friedel, the chess software guru from Germany, answers, "When the strongest human chess player of all time plays a classical time control match against the strongest chess program in the world it has tremendous chess value."

And for those outside the chess world?

The Bombay-born Friedel said, "Even apart from chess such a match has great meaning. Computers are getting smarter in different areas of life, and they will begin to challenge human intelligence in other fields as well. Chess is just the first deeply intellectual activity in which machines are getting equal to the best humans. It prepares us for what is coming in the next 10, 20 or 50 years in other areas."

The Baku-born Kasparov did not use any anti-computer strategy like he did in previous matches. He played the queen pawn while playing white and chose off-beat lines, which the computer team would not be able to guess. And his strategy nearly worked. The opening game nearly gave him a winning position but the machine hung on to a draw despite losing a rook for bishop.

Kasparov was in top form and this was his first match after playing the European Club Cup in Greece for his Russian team Kazan. In game two, however, he made a serious mistake while defending with the black pieces. Overlooking a pin, the man who was world champion from 1985 to 2000, suffered a big blow when he moved his connected rooks. An early defeat in a short four game left him in deep trouble.

Trailing 0.5 to 1.5 after two games, the trend was firmly against him. Kasparov bounced back in game three by selecting a closed variation where the machine was a mere spectator as he strategically outplayed his opponent. The computer team could have chosen gambit lines but went for the mainline like the Slav defence. Kasparov opted for the ace strategy by locking the position early and played to his strength with slow manoeuvring to seize the full point while in a must-win situation.

With the scores level at 1.5 to 1.5, in game four, Kasparov said he wanted to play "good chess" and was not looking for that win. Both sides played a cautious draw in game four to share the trophy. It was a well-fought match. Kasparov deserved better than a draw in the match except for that colossal blunder in game two.

Had he obtained the position he got in game one against a human he would have won without any doubt. And had he not blundered in game two it would have been a comfortable 3-1 win. In reality, to err is human and Kasparov missed his chances to win the match.

Kasparov said, "Machines have got stronger since 1997 and we humans are also learning." He plays next at Linares 2004. In future Man v Machine games, Kasparov believes that humans aren't going to play sharp 1.e4 with white because they can't memorise the millions of positions a computer can have in its opening book.

This 2-2 result was predicted by 23% of those who participated in a pre-event poll. About 55% expected a Kasparov win and only 21% expected the machine to prevail. So, there could be more matches in the offing. Kramnik, to whom Kasparov lost his world title in 2000, played FRITZ a year ago at Bahrain and the result was a 4-4 draw. However, tied results open up rematch opportunities.