You don’t have to be a chess fan or even know how to play the game to get caught up in the tension of Vikram Jayanti’s documentary about the famous bouts between Russian chess master Garry Kasparov and the IBM computer Deep Blue. Even if you know the outcome (if you don’t, the film makes a point of telling you ahead of time) it doesn’t matter, as the film’s concerns lie elsewhere. In Game Over, the crux of the Kasparov/Deep Blue encounters isn’t who beat who (or what), but rather what happens when a man’s intelligence, tinctured with emotion, encounters a machine that seems capable of effectively imitating those qualities that we’ve always thought of as being uniquely human. There were two battles between man and machine; during the first in 1996, Kasparov was contemptuous of the computer’s abilities, calling it a “stupid machine.” Deep Blue could make rapid multi-calculations in response to Kasparov’s moves but it didn’t have the creative deviousness to make misleading moves and it certainly couldn’t extrapolate its opponent’s motives. It had technique but no psychology. And so Kasparov beat it.
But technical progress allowed the computer’s game to improve; during a rematch a little over a year later, Kasparov had to deal with a more astute Deep Blue. The first game of the match was routine, with Kasparov winning. But during the second something extraordinary happened: The Russian tried to feed the machine a distracting pawn and the machine didn’t take the bait. It responded to Kasparov’s possible intentions rather than what was happening on the board. The great chess master’s mind was effectively blown. With ambient intensity, the film documents Karapov’s ensuing paranoia that since a machine couldn’t possibly do what Deep Blue did then IBM must somehow be cheating. But the implication that IBM really was cheating isn’t very convincing since the “how” of it isn’t very clear. The film’s position is made apparent in a series of interspersed clips from a silent French film called The Chess Players, about an unbeatable 18th century chess-playing automaton that turns out to have a man inside. But it’s a bogus revelation, because an unbeatable man is just as remarkable, if not more, as an unbeatable machine. Game Over is an entertaining film, but it would have been more effective without the menacing subtext and with a more objective view of Kasparov’s reaction to what must have been a seismic humiliation for him.
Showing at 7:30, p.m., Monday, April 11, at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237).
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].