Alex Wright

Game Over

February 14, 2005

Last night, I went to see Game Over: Kasparov vs. the Machine, the BBC-produced documentary about 1997's Garry Kasparov vs. Deep Blue chess match.

Having played a minor role in the event, I was curious to find out whether the film was really as one-sided as I anticipated, given the filmmaker's close relationship with Kasparov. I was pleasantly surprised to find the film more balanced than I expected, if ultimately still sympathetic to Kasparov's point of view.

The backstory: After losing Game 2 of the match, Kasparov accused IBM of cheating, contending that there was no way a computer could have made a particular decisive move at a critical juncture in the game. The Deep Blue research team was stunned by Kasparov's accusations, and responded by insisting that Deep Blue had won fair and square. From that point on, the tensions kept mounting until the end of the match, when a shaken Kasparov resigned Game 6. Kasparov continues to press his claim to this day, convinced that there must have been some kind of foul play - despite the absence of any supporting evidence to this effect.

Having worked on-site with IBM during the match, I can say that if there was anything untoward going on, it was an unbelievably well-kept secret. More likely, I believe Kasparov was so psychologically shattered by losing the first chess match of his life, that his ego could allow for only one possible explanation: they must have cheated.

To give credit where it's due, the film does a reasonable job of setting up the background story, capturing Kasparov's brilliance, his high-octane personality and the psychological intensity that quickly enveloped the whole event. Paranoia and intimidation are central components of championship chess - especially so for Kasparov, famed for his relentless attack and intimidating style of play. During the match, paranoia and intimidation were in plentiful supply on both sides.

The film does make an interesting case that Kasparov's particular flavor of paranoia has its roots in the old Soviet system, where as an upstart young chess player he appears to have been the object of a real conspiracy to keep him out of the championship (Kasparov was an Armenian Jew, and the Soviet chess powers-that-be were apparently scheming to keep the Russian grandmaster Karpov in the championship seat). The film intimates that Kasparov's Soviet experience flavored his whole world view, and that perhaps his belief in an IBM conspiracy was really an echo of his haunted Soviet memories; that when he went to battle with a big institution, he started seeing ghosts where perhaps there were none?

Absent any smoking guns to back up Kasparov's claims of human interference, the film resorts to a pastiche of spooky music, narration in hushed whispers and stock footage from old 1920s movies to suggest an atmosphere of nefarious goings-on; but in the end, neither the filmmaker nor Kasparov makes much of a case. The film just kind of wallows in paranoid atmospherics, summoning all the credibility of one of those UFO documentaries on the Discovery Channel: ultimately specious, but kind of fun to watch.

File under: Movies

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