Alex Wright

Kasparov and the Machine

August 27, 2004

Game Over Way back in May 1997, I spent a week holed up in the dank basement of New York's Equitable Center working on the live Webcast of the Deep Blue vs. Garry Kasparov chess match.

It was a pressure-cooker project, with tensions erupting all over the place. After losing a crucial game, Kasparov publicly accused IBM of cheating; IBM lashed back and called Kasparov a sore loser. Recriminations festered. It made for great theater, and the event generated public interest beyond anyone's expectations.

Meanwhile, down below decks, the Web team was feeling only slightly less stressed out than Kasparov. The Webcast was running in real time, using untested technology, and facing an unexpected onslaught of 17 million visitors (more traffic than the IBM-sponsored Olympics Web site had seen less than a year earlier). Our experimental SP/2 Web servers were taking a beating like Kasparov's ego. But thanks to a few all-night firefighting sessions by Ed and supercomputing uber-genius Chet Murthy, we managed to slog through and bask in the glow of positive press coverage (whew, if they only knew ...).

Looking back, that sleepless, stress-filled week seems a small price to have paid for what turned out to be a memorable personal experience.

A new British documentary, Game Over, chronicles the match and all its byzantine controversies. I haven't seen the film, so can't comment on its accuracy - but my impression from reading a few reviews is that it takes Kasparov's side of the story regarding the IBM Conspiracy accusations. Having been there, I can say with some conviction there was no conspiracy; just chaos and a lot of frayed nerves. But Kasparov seems to have exerted a heavy hand in the making of this documentary; and I suppose big corporations will always make for easy cinematic villains.

Unfortunately, the DVD won't run on US players, so for now I'll have to content myself with the trailer.

File under: Personal

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