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For Some, Big Kickoff Will Mean a Chess Tournament

Starting three hours before the Super Bowl, Garry Kasparov will battle a computer.

January 26, 2003|Thomas S. Mulligan | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — It is a bold, if unintentional, stroke of counter-programming.

In one corner, with a crowd of 70,000 in San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium and a U.S. broadcast audience of 80 million, is pro football's Super Bowl.

In the other corner, in a function room at the New York Athletic Club that seats 250 and with a mouse-clicking Internet audience that promoters hope will reach 100,000, is chess giant Garry Kasparov and a computer nicknamed Deep Junior.

The man-versus-machine chess match has the advantage of a head start, beginning today at 3:30 p.m. Eastern time, while the Super Bowl kickoff is slated for 3:25 p.m. Pacific.

You get the feeling, however, that the room at the New York Athletic Club isn't exactly going to drain out the minute the Super Bowl starts.

"I'll be there and I'll be as excited as the next guy," said Larry Tamarkin, a longtime chess instructor who holds the ranking of life master. He was referring to the chess match, of course.

The six-game tournament is sponsored by Manhattan-based X3D Technologies Corp., makers of a software that, together with futuristic wraparound eyeglasses, makes computer images appear to leap from the screen.

X3D Chief Executive Elliot Klein said it was nobody's wish to go head to head with the biggest television event of the year, but with Kasparov's tight travel schedule and after several postponements, "the only time to get it done was on Super Bowl Sunday."

The tournament will be Webcast on X3D's Internet site (www.x3dworld.com) and on America Online.

Kasparov stands to pocket $800,000 if he wins, $500,000 if not. To put that in perspective, the top prize would buy 12 seconds of television air time during the Super Bowl, where half-minute ads go for $2 million.

The stakes may be different, but some story lines are similar.

The Super Bowl is something of a grudge match, with John Gruden, the volatile coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, looking to knock off the Oakland Raiders, the team he was coaching last year.

The chess tourney's grudge story has Kasparov looking to avenge his 1997 loss to Deep Blue, an earlier computer programmed by some of the people behind Deep Junior.

Deep Blue's victory shocked the worlds of chess and technology. Although most experts agreed that computers eventually would beat the best human players, few expected the day to come so soon, or the victim to be Kasparov, whom many consider the greatest player ever.

Deep Junior is regarded as a craftier, more human-like opponent for Kasparov, having less of Deep Blue's brute-strength calculating power but better strategic judgment, Tamarkin said.

And although the Raiders are owned by maverick Al Davis, who has successfully sued the National Football League while shuttling his team from Oakland to Los Angeles and back again, the chess world boasts a similar maverick in World Chess Federation head Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, a millionaire businessman who is pushing to make chess an Olympic sport.

In his day job, Ilyumzhinov is president of the former Soviet republic of Kalmykia, where the predominantly Buddhist population claims descent from Genghis Khan. Among the reforms Ilyumzhinov has instituted is mandatory chess instruction in Kalmykia's schools.

At a press conference at the Athletic Club last week announcing the tournament, Ilyumzhinov dispensed with any pretense of neutrality.

"We'll be rooting for the human," he said.

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