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Computer Chess

Directed by Andrew Bujalski

USA, 2013

Cornerhouse, 23 November 2013

Computer Chess

The current (as of a few days ago) world chess champion, Magnus Carlsen, has been called ‘the hero of the computer era’ and quite rightly so.

His style of play – precise and correct, never overly aggressive – is a consequence of using the computer as a training tool and a sparring partner.  The computer will treat any unwarranted aggressive move as an imprecision and punish it accordingly.  You cannot play on its fears, since it has none.  Carlsen’s  game is phenomenally successful –  just glance at his astronomical rating – yet for all that he lacks the fiery imagination of a player like Alekhine or Tal.

In this film Bujalski takes us right back to the ‘80s, to a time when computers were patzers rather than chess colossi.  The computers here are barely able to compete with club players on even terms.  It’s a stylishly low-fi, wonderfully observed film and the more you know about the early days of computer chess (e.g. David Levy’s famous wager, paranoia about Pentagon funding of IT research), the more you’ll appreciate it.  Like the computers and the characters that operate them, the film  has an awkward grace.  My favourite moment occurs when one geek buttonholes another in a bar (after having specifically ordered a glass of  the house red: a nice touch) and recounts an experience when his computer seemed to display an independent intelligence.  He watched as it laid a series of questions on him, questions he couldn’t answer.  A Turing Test Reversed, kind of.

Recently a friend claimed that computers have ruined chess, something I don’t think is quite true.  They have, however, altered the game, forced it to develop in certain ways.  Or accelerated its development in a direction it was heading in anyway, towards greater accuracy, more exhaustive knowledge of the opening and endgame.  Mind, all areas of knowledge and many other sports have been altered by technology: cricket, tennis, rugby, athletics (miniscule false starts couldn’t have been detected without computer technology).  And football will be next.  The limited introduction of ‘video technology’ is just the start.

Anyway, Bujalski has made an excellent film.