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May 8, 1997

Victory Eludes Champion
After a Tense Fight
With the Computer


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During the fourth game of the man-versus-machine chess match Wednesday between Garry Kasparov, the world champion, and the I.B.M. computer Deep Blue, Louis V. Gerstner, the chairman of I.B.M., visited the Deep Blue war room on the 35th floor of the Equitable Center in midtown Manhattan.

The purpose was to congratulate his research team for the achievement of teaching a computer to play chess at the championship level, but when he arrived, the game, a precarious affair throughout, had just taken a turn toward the grim.

After playing cautiously in the beginning of the game, Kasparov had just seized the initiative with a bold pawn sacrifice. Gerstner had walked into a tense environment. It remained tense for 56 moves and more than five hours before the game ended in a draw.

"Is there anybody doing anything critical in here?" Gerstner asked as he entered the room, putting his finger to his lips. "Do I have to be quiet?"

The answer was no.

The mood in the tiny room, ordinarily a television studio control room, was that of an unease borne of helplessness.

Several people hovered over a chessboard. A few others watched the video screen on which the coded thoughts of the computer were being recorded. Another screen showed Kasparov in the next room, pacing behind the chessboard, and the people in the room were puzzled enough by what was happening on the board that they were watching Kasparov on the video screen for clues.

"Look, now he's happy," said Miguel Illescas, a Spanish grandmaster on the Deep Blue team. "He has chances." Joel Benjamin, the grandmaster who has worked with the Deep Blue team since last summer, observed the champion, nattily attired in a blue jacket and tan trousers.

"Hey, he wore those same pants when I played him," Benjamin said.

"Deep Blue is thinking a lot," said Illescas, gnawing on a knuckle. "I don't like our position."

Kasparov was apparently in agreement, because several moves later, Deep Blue offered him a draw, and he declined. The game devolved into a complex endgame with each side in possession of two rooks, and the computer, playing white, having a pawn advantage. Kasparov, however, had greater positional strength, and at one point, Yasser Seirawan, a commentator, suggested it was up to Kasparov to decide whether to go all out for a victory or allow the match to end in a draw.

Deep Blue was playing a very fine positional game, and suddenly the storm came.

Miguel Illescas,
Spanish grandmaster

"It's an incredibly complex position," said Patrick Wolff, a grandmaster and former United States champion, with the outcome still in doubt. "Black has all the chances to win, but the thing is, this is an endgame that probably has a solution, and it's impossible to figure out the solution without analyzing it for a day. One of the things we'll find out from it is how good the computer is at endgames."

In the end, grandmasters seemed to lean to the view that Kasparov may have agreed to a draw in a position that had winning chances.

"It looks to me as though Garry let one get away," Seirawan said.

This would be particularly poignant after Game 2, a victory for Deep Blue, in which analysis has shown Kasparov resigned when he could have forced a draw.

"My instinct tells me that black had winning chances," Wolff said.

"But it's impossible to know without extensive analysis." That said, Wolff added, "Garry knows this game better than anyone else in the world."

The match, after a victory for each side and two draws, is tied at 2-2. The final games will be on Saturday and Sunday.

"I think I was winning at one point," Kasparov said afterward, uncharacterisically confessing to a human frailty. "But I didn't manage well. I was very tired, and I couldn't figure it out." Neither Kasparov nor the Deep Blue team was certain whether the final position was without winning chances for Black.

"The computer never saw a clear loss," said Murray Campbell, a member of the I.B.M. team.

Kasparov spent most of the game struggling to pull even from the natural disadvantage of playing the black pieces. (White makes the first move. Playing white is akin to having the serve in tennis.) Trying to force the computer away from its prepared openings, he opened idiosyncratically for the second straight game, in his first two moves pushing queenside pawns ahead one square. ("Don't ask me what to call that opening," said one grandmaster, Gabriel Schwartzman. "I don't know.")

I just think we should look at this as a chess match between the world's greatest chess player and Garry Kasparov.

Louis V. Gerstner,
IBM chairman

But the opening ploy failed to rattle the computer, and early on Kasparavo suffered from time pressure. He took an hour and 20 minutes for his first 20 moves, leaving just 40 minutes for his next 20, but his 20th move turned the game around.

Aggressively, in characteristic fashion, Kasparov sacrificed a pawn in the middle of the board, gaining in return some badly needed room to breathe. It was a surprising move, and the commentators reserved judgment. But it was not many moves later that the grandmasters in the Deep Blue war room turned gloomy.

The pawn sacrifice, they said, had been a clear example of Kasparov's intuition superseding the computer's brute force calculating ability.

"It was a move the computer probably wouldn't have made," said Ken Thompson, a computer chess expert who is one of the arbiters of the match. "It gave away too much too quickly, and the computer can't see far enough beyond the material sacrifice to the future benefits."

"It was brilliant," Illescas said. "Deep Blue was playing a very fine positional game, and suddenly the storm came. He's amazing."

As it happened, this was just about the time Gerstner visited the Deep Blue team. He shook hands with C. J. Tan, the Deep Blue project manager, and gave the rest of the team a pep talk.

"It's great what you've done," Gerstner said, "getting the message across that it's not important who wins and who loses, but that this is a way of getting people turned on to technological solutions." He paused.

"I didn't mean to say it doesn't matter if you win or you lose," he said.

The publicity for I.B.M. hasn't hurt the company, of course, and Gerstner reported that on Tuesday, during Game 3, the Kasparov-Deep Blue Web site had 22 million hits. But beyond the I.B.M. research involved, he declined to join the discourse surrounding the math concerning its metaphorical significance.

"I just think we should look at this as a chess match," he said, "between the world's greatest chess player and Garry Kasparov."

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