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THE CUTTING EDGE / CYBERCULTURE | THE SCENE / NEW YORK

Fans Are a Curious Match at Deep Blue, Kasparov Face-Off

May 05, 1997|THOMAS S. MULLIGAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The crowd at the Equitable Center is well-versed with the mannerisms of Garry Kasparov, the world chess champion, as he engages in his presumably epochal struggle with IBM's Deep Blue, promoted as the most-advanced chess program ever developed.

"When he has his watch off, he's thinking. When he has his coat off, he's in trouble," says Mehmet Noyan, 9, of Bedford, N.Y., a tournament chess veteran who has been playing the game since age 2.

Kasparov never did take the coat off during Game One on Saturday. The enormous gold wristwatch--an analog device--lay on the table next to Kasparov for a good part of the match. But at Move 45, just before Deep Blue--a digital device--threw in the towel, Kasparov snatched up the watch and put it back on his wrist, to the cheers, whooping and laughter of most of the crowd.

But on Sunday, it was a different story when the Silicon Swami came back from Saturday's defeat and bested Kasparov in the same 45 moves, to even the six-game series at one victory apiece.

It's a curious mix in the auditorium of this midtown Manhattan skyscraper. The overlap between chess enthusiasts and computer enthusiasts is almost complete. Laptop chess boards and laptop computers cover a large number of the available laps.

Some in the audience of about 450--who paid $25 apiece to attend--depend on Big Blue, the corporate parent of Deep Blue, for their meal ticket.

One IBM engineer, nameless by request, attended the weekend matches with his pint-sized daughter, whom he said had thrashed him at chess in their most recent contest. Father and daughter were both rooting for the machine, largely out of corporate loyalty.

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The $1.1-million tournament has been played up in many quarters as a pivotal face-off between man and his creation. Sure, a steam engine is stronger than any human, but that's merely brawn versus brawn. Our species, the argument goes, has much more on the line in chess, regarded as a contest of pure intellect.

Yet few of those watching the match have much patience with that idea.

At some point, a computer will surpass the greatest human player, "but that's not going to affect the way we play," says John Dillon, a software developer who plays chess tournaments as an amateur. "If the computer becomes unbeatable, it won't keep us from playing."

Susan Polgar, the world's leading female chess player, says it's for the reason that track meets and Olympiads keep being run despite the fact that cars go faster.

"It's the same thing as the Knicks versus Chicago," adds Arnold Agree, a New Yorker in a tweed jacket who brought a small chessboard to the auditorium so that he could play along.

Joe Hoane, a member of the Deep Blue development team--four scientists who have been working full time for five years to try to defeat the world's best human--acknowledges that the computer "just knows a few things about chess" and isn't able to appreciate the aesthetics of the games.

Deep Blue, in the language of both fans and detractors alike, is described as above to accomplish profound feats of memory and calculation but just as likely to drop the ball on a fairly simple assessment of board position.

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The richness of emotions displayed by Kasparov--the right leg jumping when he's nervous, the fingers splayed tightly across his face and forehead when he's contemplating the next move--are in no way reciprocated by Deep Blue, which isn't even in the same room as its opponent.

Without the face-to-face interplay of two creatures capable of feeling exhilaration or humiliation, one observer says, Kasparov's "biggest problem is to make this look interesting for a $1.1-million purse."

Stanley West, an endocrinologist from suburban Bedford, is following the games with his son, Jonathan, a 7-year-old who is one of the best players nationally in his age group.

The senior West achieved master status as a teenager but gave up serious pursuit of the game to take up medicine.

Asked what's at stake for humanity in the current contest, West says: "You want my opinion? Money."

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