ESPN’s FiveThirtyEight, the blog founded and run by statistician Nate Silver, has debuted a short documentary exploring the second match between Gary Kasparov and IBM’s Deep Blue. Kasparov initially defeated the chess-playing computer in 1996, but granted IBM the second match, which took place in 1997 between Kasparov and a significantly upgraded machine.
Titled “The Man vs. The Machine,” the film clocks in at about 18 minutes, and it’s worthwhile enough just as a recap of the John Henry story of our age. Kasparov-Deep Blue II is considered the symbolic end of any illusion of humans’ ability to compete with computers on nearly any task that can be approached mathematically.
But weirdly, both promotional materials for the film, and the film itself, seem to bury the lede pretty deep. It’s revealed here that perhaps the turning point of this second man-machine matchup came when Deep Blue made a purely random, and in fact strategically boneheaded, move when it ran up against a time limit. Kasparov, unable to understand the logic behind what was a genuinely illogical move, came to the conclusion the new Deep Blue could simply outthink him, seeing angles that he couldn’t.
That moment, the documentary argues, led to the slow unwinding of Kasparov’s self-confidence, culminating in a hasty concession in the third game. But no one quite spells out the upshot — that the greatest chess player of all time was defeated less by the raw power of a machine than by a random glitch in its program.