Behind Deep Blue

10/13/2002 – The old adage that behind every good man there’s a good woman is true more times than not. More or less the same can be said for chess computers: behind every good chess computer there’s a good designer. James DuBois takes a first look at Behind Deep Blue by Feng-Hsiung Hsu.

Behind Deep Blue

A review by James E. DuBois

The two main objectives successfully achieved in the book Behind Deep Blue, Building the Computer That Defeated the World Chess Champion by Feng-Hsiung Hsu were to capture the true essence of the contest and to clarify his role in the project. Personally I was surprised to see at this late date that another book on Deep Blue had been published. The author was quick to point out in his preface that this is not an “instant chess book” and concludes the story that encompassed a twelve year span of his life with making a conscious decision to write a book about the match “to set the record straight” and that he has stories to tell.

Many of those stories illustrated the mischievous nature of Hsu. How on earth could Fred Rogers (of the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the PBS television show) ever managed to be included in a quasi scientific work such as this if it didn’t involve a prank? The author seems to be well steeped in American pop culture since he chooses to make a hilarious connection to the Dilbert comicstrip.

The book indeed delves into some fairly heavy discussion of chip design while maintaining an efficient balance with the chess aspect. Certainly this must have been a concern when writing the book to not dumb down either topics, but to include material that people in the know in both fields of expertise found engrossing. I found the chip design chapters informative and never boring, while in all honesty I did not read anything groundbreaking concerning chess.

It was enlightening to discover how the Deep Thought name was derived and the fact that Hsu was involved in a car accident that seriously hampered progress. Some of the best tournament experiences of the machine to be captured in the chapter entitled, The Race for the First Machine Grandmaster chronicling Deep Thought’s coming out at the 1988 US Open held in Boston. Perhaps most intriguing was his emotions during the matches, in particular the 1997 final game when Hsu writes, “At the moment of Kasparov’s resignation, I suddenly felt very tired. The 12 years of work was finally over. I should have been exulting, but I was feeling empty inside. The game felt too easy, although, in hindsight, it wasn’t. Without our hard work the year before, Kasparov might have won the game. A part of me also felt robbed. I am not a chess player, but the chess player in me was definitely disappointed. Winning or losing the game, I wanted the last game to be a real fight. I wanted the win to be another great game like game 2, except without the final mistake. If it had to be another loss, I wanted it to be another hard fought loss like game 1, preferably without the bad moves from Deep Blue.”

Kasparov vs Deep Blue 1997

Hsu tactfully sidesteps the controversies surrounding the rematch even though I had the feeling throughout the entire book that he wanted to disclose more concerning certain personalities. The book concludes with the chapter entitled, Life After Chess that fully answers the question, “Where are they now?”

Certainly of interest to visitors of this site is the inclusion in the book of how ChessBase as a company played an integral role in the Deep Blue story (or Kasparov’s story, depending on your point of view) and the development of computer chess as we know it today. Fritz is frequently mentioned along with some knocks on “commercial” chess programs.

A first prototype version of the final Deep Blue chip

Regarding computer chess in general, Hsu writes about the goal to, “... finally solve the Computer Chess Problem [sic], creating a chess machine that could beat the World Chess Champion in a match.” The computer chess problem as discussed throughout the book is technically incorrect, but from a developer’s aspect this was the “holy grail.” The computer chess problem proper involves developing a machine to solve the game regarding the absolute best moves by brute force. In essence the game would therefore be “played out” or solved. Had Deep Blue truly solved the computer chess problem, in game one of the rematch after Kasparov made his first move of Nf3, Deep Blue would have known the outcome of the game with best play by white. It’s not in the realm of this review to even consider what would be required to actually solve the problem of chess.

Princeton University Press produced a physically solid book with a somewhat predictable, but certainly attractive dust jacket. Missing is an index and glossary. Hsu’s use of footnotes sometimes added little to the text and I found him to be redundant on occasion. The appendixes provided a detailed account of Hsu’s life in Taiwan and some important references for further reading.

Behind Deep Blue deserves to be placed alongside Monty Newborn’s epic, Kasparov Versus Deep Blue, but for a different reason; Feng-Hsiung Hsu presented the match in the distinction in which he intended for his book, not as man versus machine, but man as toolmaker.


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