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January 11, 2003

Review: Behind Deep Blue: Building the Computer That Defeated the World Chess Champion, by Feng-Hsiung Hsu

An interesting look behind the most publicized chess match since Fischer-Spassky, Behind Deep Blue was written by the engineer who designed the evaluation chip at the heart of Deep Blue. Hsu is careful not to go full-geek on the details behind the hardware and software, but he gives enough to whet the hardcore geek's appetite.

Deep Blue was initially a project at Carnegie Mellon called ChipTest, where Hsu and a small group of graduate students found themselves occasionally in opposition to a team (called Hitech) led by Dr. Hans Berliner, a former world postal chess champion whose academic specialty was computer chess. Berliner's Hitech system was designed around selective software searching rather than optimized hardware running a brute-force search. The advantage of the second approach, especially as Moore's Law marched on through the late '80s, became clear as ChipTest, rechristened Deep Thought, won the ACM computer championship and the world computer chess championship, and became the first computer ever to beat a grandmaster in a single regular (non-blitz) game (against Denmark's Bent Larsen, a former world No. 2).

In 1989, the team joined IBM, where they had access to a budget for the first time, and rebuilt their hardware to work on the RS/6000, running multiple evaluation boards in parallel. In 1996, the computer, by now renamed Deep Blue, faced World Champion Garry Kasparov, losing a 6-game match 4-2, but shocking the world with a win in Game 1, the first victory by a computer over a World Champion with regulation time control.

In 1997, Deep Blue got a rematch. Outfitted with smarter evaluation functions, more and faster hardware, and grandmasters to help with preparation (especially of the opening book), Deep Blue put humanity in its place, beating Kasparov 3.5-2.5, and driving Kasparov to accuse the IBM team of providing human help to the supercomputer, which would be akin to having Adam Sandler give Charlie Chaplin comedy tips.

Making an occasional cameo is Ken Thompson, one of the fathers of Unix and C. Thompson developed 'Belle', itself an '80s ACM champ, and helped arrange the first Kasparov-Deep Blue match, which was scheduled in conjunction with the ACM's 25th anniversary and ENIAC's 50th.

Occasionally, it becomes clear that Hsu's first language was not English, and so would have benefited from closer editorial attention. Here and there, the syntax is strained, while idioms get twisted and words are sometimes misused. At one point, he describes the setup for the 1997 Kasparov-Deep Blue rematch, in an office building in Manhattan, as "homely" when I'm nearly certain he meant "homey":

The front half of the game room was the playing area. Compared to the sterile environment of the 1996 match, it looked almost homely. The room...was set up to look like the study of an aristocrat or perhaps a rich lawyer...Several paintings of medieval scenes adorned the walls. The bookshelves were full of old law books. On the shelves was a ship model as well as several wooden duck decoys. Potted plants livened up the well-lit room.

Still, Hsu provides a perspective no one else could, and his ideas are clear enough, even through two languages.

January 11, 2003 in Reviews | Permalink

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