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True Deep Blue

Feng-Hsiung Hsu’s ‘Behind Deep Blue.’

The challenge to build a computer that could beat a chess grandmaster, let alone the world champion, seemed an impossible task in the early 1980s. The so-called computer chess problem was one of a few Holy Grails for computer science, and most major universities devoted a portion of their research to the problem.

At Carnegie Mellon University, the foremost authority on computer chess, Dr. Hans Berliner, and his team of graduate students had designed the leading chess computer of its day-called Hitech. In 1985, a struggling graduate student was asked by Berliner to help out with Hitech on his summer leave in exchange for brownie points. The graduate student didn’t like the fundamentals of Hitech and set out to solve the computer chess problem on his own, without much support from Carnegie Mellon or Berliner.

The graduate student’s name was Feng-Hsiung Hsu, and by 1989, his solution-a computer chess program on a single chip-had eclipsed Berliner’s life’s work. And in 1997, after Hsu moved the project to IBM, the computer called Deep Blue beat World Champion Garry Kasparov in a six-game match. That a weak chess player could design a machine (with the help of several programmers and grandmasters) that beat the world champion has to rank as one of the great upsets of the 20th century. The story of this upset as humbly told by Hsu himself in “Behind Deep Blue” (Princeton, 2002) makes for riveting reading.

My only complaint with the book is that it assumes a great deal of its readers. Those with a solid understanding of integrated circuit design, programming, and chess theory will find it a fun and entertaining read. But those who lack these skills will struggle through the detailed explanations of the choices Hsu and his team made at critical junctures in the journey to create the ultimate chess machine. If any one of these decisions had gone differently, like the chess match itself, it could have led to defeat.

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