Deep Blue: The First Time A Computer Beat A Human Being At Chess


Kasparov in 1985. (Rob Bogaerts/Anefo/Wikimedia Commons)

Developed in part by computer scientist Feng-hsiung Hsu, Deep Blue is a chess-playing computer whose style has been described as "like a wall coming at you." In 1997, that tidal wave of chess moves defeated Garry Kasparov, the reigning world champion at the time. How could a computer beat a champion? And what does it want from us?

Deep Blue

It all started with a $100,000 prize offered by Carnegie Mellon University in 1980 to anyone who could create a computer that could beat the best human chess player in the world. Within five years, Hsu created ChipTest, a chess computer that didn't perform very elegantly but served as the basis for Deep Thought, named after the computer tasked with the considerably more difficult problem of calculating the answer to life, the universe, and everything in Douglas Adams's sci-fi series The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy. Sorry, were you expecting computer scientists not to be nerds?

Deep Thought brought Hsu and his team international fame, winning the North American Computer Chess Championship in 1988 and the World Computer Chess Championship in 1989. It could analyze and interpret thousands of games played by chess masters, and its opening book contained more than 4,000 positions and 700,000 grandmaster games. The second version of Deep Thought took home the Fredkin Intermediate Prize in 1989, but it played so poorly in a tournament against Garry Kasparov that year that it was removed from play and taken to I.B.M. to receive upgrades. By 1996, Deep Thought was reincarnated as Deep Blue, and Hsu was certain that it was ready to defeat the Russian chess master.