Movie Reflects the Rivalry of Humans vs. Computers
Published: July 20, 2013
The movie “Computer Chess” — which premiered last week in New York and will open in the rest of the country over the next several months — takes place over a weekend at a nondescript hotel during a North American Computer Chess Championship tournament in the late 1970s or early ’80s, when computers were beginning to master the game.
Though the movie, written and directed by Andrew Bujalski, is fiction, there are references to real games and real people like David Levy, an international master who made a bet with programmers in 1968 that no computer would be able to beat him within 10 years. He won that bet, though he finally lost to a computer in 1988. He is now the president of the International Computer Games Association.
In the movie, there is a Levy-like character named Pat Henderson, a master who makes a similar bet involving a champion computer program called Alliance. But it does beat him.
The critical moment in their game is shown in the top diagram. Henderson, who is White, should have played 1 Kd2, when he would have had a clear edge. Instead, he played 1 Rc5, and after 1 ... b4 2 Rd5 ba3, he resigned by overturning the board because he could not stop one of the Black pawns from promoting to a queen.
Bujalski said in an interview that he played chess “very infrequently and very poorly.” He was inspired to make the movie, he said, when he bought a chess trivia book that included questions about computers and their games. “The notion of a computer chess tournament lodged in my head,” he said.
He focused on early programmers because “what they were doing was fringe enough to the culture at the time.”
“The questions that were science fiction there are now part of our lives now,” he added, “and they don’t seem as important now. Of course, it has had this hugely large impact on chess and how it is played. It is something that players of today are adapting to. That is something that goes beyond chess.”
Bujalski often uses nonactors in his movies, which include “Beeswax,” about twin sisters, and “Mutual Appreciation,” a musician’s story. For “Computer Chess,” he hired computer scientists who helped him make the movie appear as real as possible. He also consulted programmers of the era depicted in the film, including Robert Hyatt, a creator of Cray Blitz, the world computer chess champion in 1983 and 1986, and David Slate, who helped write the program Nuchess.
Peter Kappler, the author of the computer program Grok, researched or created the games used in the movie. The match for the championship showdown between Alliance and a program called Checkers is based on one in the 2001 World Computer Chess Championship between Deep Junior and Shredder.
For the movie, Kappler started with the position from that game after 66 ... Rd6. He then changed the moves so that it ended 67 Qe4 Rf6 68 Nh5 Ra6 69 Qd5 Qd5 70 Bd5 Re6 71 Be6, checkmate.