Fifteen Years Ago Today, a Computer Became the World's Best Chess Player

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On this day in 1997, Garry Kasparov sat down to his final day of chess with IBM's Deep Blue. It didn't go well, and eventually the computer won, beating the expert on the final day of a six-game competition. The result changed the way we think about computer intelligence for good.


Admittedly, it was the second time Deep Blue had been up against Kasparov, having lost the first time. And, yes, the supercomputer had been reprogrammed specifically to beat the Russian champ, using the input of several grandmasters and a detailed analysis of Kasparov's previous games.

But Deep Blue piqued public interest in the limits of computer intelligence. It made people realize that computers could be more than just boxes.

Since, IBM has upped its game, managing to take Watson to a victory in Jeopardy. What next?

Image by Adam Nadel/AP



The final game of the match was a weird, weird game... although at the time I watched it I thought it was the most creative, and aggressive, victory I had ever witnessed. Deep Blue sacrificed a knight early in the match, losing superiority in terms of material but gaining superiority in terms of putting black in an uncomfortably contorted position.

What's interesting is that it's thought that Deep Blue's superior computational ability didn't bring about the victory. It was simply that Deep Blue had an opening book—"recipes" if you will for how to start a chess match—which contained the brilliant 8. Nxe6!. So I still maintain that it was Kasparov's lack of preparation coupled with a brief mental slip—rather than Deep Blue being the superior chess mind—which brought about the computer victory.

"The computer is aided by having this knight sacrifice programmed into its opening book. This move had been played in a number of previous high-level games, with White achieving a huge plus score. However, had Deep Blue been on its own, it would probably not have played this. The compensation White gets for the material is not obvious enough for the computer to see by itself. As an indication of how far computer chess has progressed in recent years, modern chess programs running on ordinary desktop computers do find Ng5xe6 without their opening books."