Whether by canny publishing design or mere chance, Monty Newborn’s Kasparov Versus Deep Blue benefited from a considerable accident of timing. The book was in stores on the heels of the May, 1997, match in which world chess champion Garry Kasparov suffered a stunning defeat at the silicon “hands” of Deep Blue, the world’s strongest chess-playing computer program. The result of that contest sent shock waves through the chess world, induced euphoria in artificial intelligence aficionados, and brought the principal members of these arcane and typically obscure communities an enormous amount of unaccustomed attention from the mainstream media. The human champion’s defeat was generally discussed with an undercurrent of alarm, as an ominous sign of the inexorable and apparently inevitable ascendancy of technology over purely human ability. Chess is often viewed as the ultimate test of pure intellect; if humanity’s best can be overcome by an assemblage of circuits, countless pundits asked, what hope is there for the rest of us?
Public interest in such questions made the 1997 duel the most widely followed chess match since the 1972 Cold War confrontation between Soviet champion Boris Spassky and American challenger Bobby Fischer. Television analysts, newspaper columnists, science critics, social commentators, and seemingly anyone else with access to a camera or a byline used the event as a pretext for the discussion of man-versus-machine issues, and literally millions of fans followed the games live over the Internet. The author and publishers of Kasparov Versus Deep Blue were no doubt delighted with the attendant interest in their topic, but prospective readers and purchasers should be forewarned: The book was written well in advance of the 1997 match and does not cover it at all; nor, despite some passing attention in brief chapters at the book’s beginning and end, does the author give much consideration to any larger implications of the confrontation of mind and machine.
Instead, Newborn traces the evolution of chess-playing computer programs up through the February, 1996, match between Kasparov and Deep Blue, a contest that Kasparov won handily (a result that may have led him to underestimate the computer’s playing strength in the 1997 rematch). Although Newborn provides a thorough and informative overview of the subject, his account is likely to appeal chiefly to readers with a serious interest in either chess or artificial intelligence. Readers whose primary interest is in the drama of Kasparov’s defeat would do well to wait for the publication of works devoted to the second match.
For those with an abiding interest in either computers or chess, however, Kasparov Versus Deep Blue is a first-rate read. Beginning with the efforts of computer pioneers Claude Shannon and Alan Turing in the post-World War II era, Newborn recounts the steady advances in chess program sophistication and playing strength. In 1950, Shannon, a Bell Telephone researcher and a leader in the early development of information theory, published the first paper outlining the design of a chess-playing program (although no program was built precisely according to his outline, virtually every actual program has built on his ideas). Turing, a British scientist also regarded as one of the giants of computer history, earned celebrity for designing the machine used to crack the German military code during World War II; by 1951, he too had published simple algorithms that could be used as the basis for an artificial chess player.
From these beginnings, progress was slow but steady. By the 1960’s, scientists on both sides of the Iron Curtain were...
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