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Humankind Split Over Chess Showdown

Technology: Many side with IBM computer in its match against Kasparov.


It's unlikely that John Henry ever heard of the Sicilian Opening, but the steel-driving man who died matching his might against a steam drill would no doubt find a place in his heart for Garry Kasparov.

Kasparov, the chess grandmaster engaged in a struggle with a super-computer that knows chess gambits like the Sicilian Opening and millions more, is the latest to play out the familiar modern morality play that pits frail man against implacable machine.

It's a battle that has split the chess world. From the classrooms of the San Fernando Valley to the game parlors of Los Angeles to the debating circuits of the Internet, rival camps are emerging: Those cheering for the computer as the harbinger of tomorrow and the partisans of Kasparov, their fellow human.

After Kasparov lost the first of six scheduled games in Philadelphia, one enthusiast lamented on the Internet that the chess master must have been "kidnapped by aliens, spent the night with a hooker, was on drugs, was drunk, or something else equally improbable." Undaunted, he predicted a 5-1 victory for "the carbon-based organism"--meaning Kasparov and the rest of us--over the silicon-based IBM computer, Deep Blue.

Kindred spirits were Elaine Gordon's students at Beachy Avenue Elementary School in Pacoima, who are themselves learning to play chess against a computer and have suffered their own defeats.

"I want the man to win," said Uriel Barreda, 8.

"If the man wins, everybody's going to be proud of him because he beat the hardest, smartest computer in the world," agreed Juan Garcia, 10. "But if the computer wins, who can be proud of it?"

Lots of people, apparently.

"For you carbon enthusiasts who insist on playing a game where silicon can't compete, I guess you'll have to switch" to another game, gloated one Internet writer after the first-game defeat of Kasparov. (He came back to win Game 2, and played the computer to a draw in Games 3 and 4.)

Then there were those who saw the triumph of the computer in more apocalyptic terms.

"Very sad news for the human species," said one.

So sad was he that this computer correspondent appended a morose line from Shakespeare, about the eventual fall of the mighty. "O, gentlemen, the time of life is short! And if we live, we live to tread on kings."

Most of David Esser's customers at the Gym for the Mind, an exercise club and game room in Woodland Hills, feel the same. Esser, 48, said their glum faces and dour predictions are a bit much, asking: "What if after Galileo" pointed his pioneering telescope skyward in 1609 "everybody said, 'What a sad thing for human eyes?' "

He said he is excited to be a part of the historical moment when a human being is no longer the world's best chess player. He is especially thrilled at the possibility of delving deeper into the mysteries of chess.

To him, it doesn't matter if he can't have a cup of coffee with his tutor after the match.

"The first game the computer played was a masterpiece," Esser said. "It did some things that had never been seen before."

For instance, the second move, which gave Kasparov the early advantage. Skilled chess players have always considered the move laughably inept, Esser said, but the computer saw more deeply into the game and used the move to draw Kasparov out, then beat him back.

"I've been waiting for this for 20 years," Esser said.

Others have feared it a lot longer, probably since the first protohuman picked up a stick and used it to dig a hole, thereby making fingernails old-fashioned. Of course, mankind has much more at stake in a test of mental agility than in one of brute strength. It's brainpower, after all, that allowed a small mammal that wouldn't have made a decent nighttime snack for T. Rex to evolve into the world's most dominant creature.

So if Kasparov loses, would that signal the end of humanity's reign?

"Of course not. This is only the betterment of it," said Kelly Fitzgerald, a spokeswoman for IBM. "Nothing will ever replace the human brain."

After all, it was a human brain that figured out there would be lots of interest in such a match. And it was a lot of human brains at IBM that built the computer and were celebrating their smashing success in holding off Kasparov so far.

"There is an unbelievable amount of interest," said Fitzgerald, speaking from the site of the matches.

She said the Web site set up on the Internet by IBM to provide information and a running commentary on the matches has received millions of inquiries. Journalists from around the world have flown in, and hundreds more people packed a room to watch the matches in person and debate the latest strategies by man and microcircuit.

Watching from afar at Hale Middle School in Woodland Hills, student favorites depended on their own experiences, said Mark Schatkun, 43, a librarian who sponsors the school chess club. Those who had played the computer in the library were certain Kasparov could not win. Those who had never played the computer had more faith in the human species.

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