Competitive Chess : From Mechanical Turk to Deep Blue

They say chess is the game of games. It is certainly more sophisticated than Connect Four. Theoretically, there are 10 to the power of 120 different chess games. That’s a big number – 10 followed by 120 zeroes. Especially when you consider that there are only 10 to the power of 81 atoms in the universe.

Many of us know how to play chess, in the sense that we know how the pieces move and have a vague idea that the point is to clobber the opposing player’s king. We are casual players. Competitive chess is another thing altogether.

We have long been fascinated by competitive chess. During the 18th century during the fashion for building automata – incredibly complex mechanisms which mimicked human behaviour in a variety of ways. One automaton known as the Mechanical Turk was a chess playing machine which took on players at royal courts across Europe and America and beat them comprehensively. The Little Turk was a sensation, beating Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin.

mechanical turk

There was just one problem – it was a hoax. A very ingenious hoax, but a hoax nonetheless. The machine consisted of an animated figure in Turkish garb which sat atop a pedestal and moved pieces about a chess board in front of it.

Before competitions an assistant opened various doors in the cabinet on which the Mechanical Turk sat. This allowed adjudicators to vouch that no one was concealed within the contraption. In each case, it was clear that the cabinet contained nothing more than a mass of cogs, gears and wheels and too small a remaining space to house even a child.

In fact, a chess grandmaster inside the cabinet used magnets to move the pieces. The cabinet had been constructed so that he could shift position each time a door was opened thereby avoiding detection. Eventually the hoax was revealed but not before the egos of many players were damaged by the belief that they had been beaten by a machine.

Two hundred years later, IBM built a chess playing machine called Deep Blue – a parallel processing behemoth of a computer with awesome calculating power. IBM claimed that Deep Blue was capable of playing chess at grandmaster level. In 1996 the machine beat world champion Garry Kasparov in a single game. Although Kasparov went on to convincingly defeat Big Blue over the six game match this was a pivotal moment.

The win proved controversial. Kasparov contended that some of Deep Blue’s moves were too insightful to have been worked out by a computer applying brute force. He accused IBM of cheating. IBM dismantled Deep Blue shortly after.

Were these both hoaxes? 200 years apart? Or was Kasparov nursing a bruised ego after being trounced by a cabinet full of silicon chips? We will never know.


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