Game over: Kasparov and the Machine

10/19/2003 – On October 13th the documentary ‘Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine’ had its world premiere at the Sheffield International Documentary Film Festival. The movie charts the events surrounding Garry Kasparov’s match against Deep Blue in 1997. Joanne Pittaway watched the film and spoke to its makers. Here's her review.

Game over: Kasparov and the Machine

Can you remember where you were when you heard that Garry Kasparov had lost to Deep Blue? The match was a defining moment of chess history, making the headlines every day in a way that fans of the game can usually only dream of. Practically no one predicted such an outcome, and yet there we were on the final day, watching a visibly overwhelmed Kasparov shaking his head as he exited the stage, looking for all the world as if he was trying to deny what had occurred. Garry had lost, humanity had lost and suddenly it seemed as if we weren’t so smart after all.

Six years after those six games in May, I sat in a movie theatre, together with the team behind the documentary, waiting excitedly to see what a non-chess fan makes of the whole affair. Would they bring a fresh perspective to it? Expose startling new findings? I had no idea what to expect, but the very fact that chess was getting such exposure was reason enough to be there, even if I didn’t get any popcorn! And by the end, when the crowd started to applaud with final credits, my praise was amongst the loudest and longest.

The Basics

Various ‘actors’ make up the film, such as the creators of Deep Blue (Feng-hsiung Hsu, Murray Campbell), Joel Benjamin who worked with Deep Blue team, and of course Garry Kasparov. Our very own Frederic Friedel plays a huge part in the documentary, not only on camera and providing commentary; the film also extensively utilises his home video footage. ChessBase columnist Mig Greengard also appears.


Garry Kasparov vs Deep Blue, New York 1997

The film ‘plot’, for want of a better phrase, follows a basic timeline. Garry’s early career is touched upon, mainly his victory over Karpov and his stand against the Soviet establishment. It then moves to its primary focus – the match against Deep Blue. The games follow each other as scenes in a play, with the action building towards Garry’s final loss. It then wraps up with the Bled Chess Olympiad, showing a victorious Kasparov and also his December 2002 X3D match against Anatoly Karpov, with a losing Kasparov.

The Deep Blue Match – A Three-Team Affair

Don’t expect this film to be a game analysis. If you’re going for the actual chess you’ll be disappointed. Also don’t expect this to be a sanitized investigation into the various allegations surrounding Deep Blue. This is a film about emotions, about the breaking of a chess giant by a corporate giant. The film makes no apologies for its viewpoints, which serves to turn this into a drama, the tension building as we draw to the inevitable, terrible conclusion.

The big shock of ‘Game Over’ is the portrayal of Garry Kasparov. Garry pre-Deep Blue is the brave, new warrior of chess, a young man who stood firm in the face of extraordinary pressure from a hostile system. Enter then the contrast of a Kasparov post-machine. This isn’t big, beastly Garry Kasparov in this film. This is a man in pain. Making clever use of the actual locations where the match was played and where the team stayed, Jayanti returns Kasparov to environments where he is uncomfortable. Unable to play to the camera like he usually does in interviews, the past haunts him, and it shows. His ever-expressive face, usually contorted into a grimace over the board, now seems to shrivel up, shying away from old ghosts in grand hotel rooms and corporate hallways.

Stood on the stage where he won his world title for the first time, Kasparov protests that he doesn’t like to return to his past. That it should remain where it is. For a man so obsessed with the history of others it seems a curious objection. Why should the director force him away from where he is comfortable? Because this awkward, injured Kasparov is the one who emerged from the Deep Blue affair. Jayanti uncovers the Kasparov who lived through it all, and presents it to the audience as a visual slap in the face.


Garry Kasparov in the original Plaza Hotel suite

On the other side of the board we have the Deep Blue team, who can be described as passionate (Hsu), geeky (Campbell) and defiant (Joel Benjamin). All of them seem flabbergasted by Kasparov’s allegations that there was human interference on the part of Deep Blue, and Benjamin speaks of the resentment he felt at not being allowed to celebrate their victory.


Deep Blue programmer Murray Campbell

As much the ‘victims’ as anyone else involved, the negative feeling that grew between the two camps is tangible, you can feel it – in as much as Garry demands to know why his repeated requests for logs and adequate preparation were not met. The Deep Blue team want to know why they were painted as such devilish figures. Why couldn’t Garry just take the loss and let them have their day?


Frederic Friedel's video footage during the match

Lurking like a dark shadow under the board is the third player in this match, IBM itself. Whispered messages of stocks going through the roof after the match and millions of dollars of publicity enjoyed, bounce around the screen trying to find their target. The director’s finger is pointed very firmly at the company as the real guilty party, that it sensed an incredible opportunity to make a new name for itself out of a Kasparov loss. Jayanti asserts that IBM went all-out to destroy Kasparov, at odds with what the then-World Champion believed was the aim of the match, a scientific endeavour. So, from fighting the communist corporation that was USSR Inc, Garry then took on the might of a capitalist corporation – and lost.

The Good

Some parts of this film are a real joy to watch, making you smile, go ‘oooh’, and generally laugh out loud. Old Soviet footage is used to great effect. Witness a screeching Russian car swerving up to the kerb, the motion barely halted, a door flinging open and Anatoly Karpov emerging with a flourish. More like watching Dirty Harry than a chess champion! We get to see a very young Garry Kasparov using his halting English to make audiences laugh at his anti-Karpov jokes on a talk show.

Frederic Friedel’s video footage brings us incredible insight into those dark days of the Deep Blue match. We watch a moody Kasparov turning round to the camera and demanding to know why he is being filmed. Or Kasparov’s mounting anger at press conference after press conference, dry mouthed, muttering to himself darkly through the protestations of Joel Benjamin. The cinema audience is forced to stand back as the Kasparov volcano erupts, sound bites and allegations spilling out of the screen to swamp the senses.


Director Vikram Jayanti, producer Hal Vogel at the premiere

The Bad

Some things jar a little. For instance, the film uses the Turk as a visual reference point. It is introduced it at the start, stating that Napoleon lost to it and took it badly.

That statement is left in the air and never really made proper use of. In my interview with Vikram Jayanti (to follow in another report), the director told me that he was attracted to monsters, to figures that are larger than life. Well, that side of Kasparov does not come across. We see the broken shards, the awkwardness, but not enough of the genius or monster before. Hence, at the end when we see Garry in Bled and Garry in New York, the film loses its way. Instead of tying up loose ends the message is confused. If the audience is to be gladdened to see Garry still scoring victories in the 2002 Olympiad, we should be made to understand the extent of his extraordinariness in the first place. If the audience is to feel sympathy for the dejected Kasparov stood beside a triumphant Karpov, then we should made to realise the complete transformation from arrogance to little-boy lost.

And The Ugly

I recommend this film for chess enthusiasts and non-players alike. As a chess fan I loved it. After first seeing it I raced back to my hotel room to write my thoughts down, so moved was I by the drama. For people with no knowledge of chess or the events it is entirely accessible. The film is aimed precisely at this audience. As Jayanti told me, “I wanted to make a fight film, not a film about chess”. In that he has succeeded admirably.

Go see it. Hopefully we should be seeing the film on release in cinemas, but at the time of going to press we have no further details, though I suspect it will be reach wider audiences as Jayanti was already enthusiastically talking about the possible DVD extras.

Just be warned that the film does imply that IBM was up to something. However, that doesn’t interfere with the viewers’ experience. You don’t feel so overwhelmed by the message that you can’t form your own opinion. I, for one, don’t believe that there was human interference. So – why ‘The Ugly’ you ask? Well, that comes on October 21st when this reviewer gets to meet Garry Kasparov for the first time at the London Chess and Bridge Shop – and he shouts at her for disagreeing with him!

Joanne Pittaway

Joanne Pittaway was born on 10th February 1977. After school she studied Russian, and lived in the country for some time. On graduation she chose finance as her vocation, but is now returning to her studies in 2004 in order to gain her PhD.

Joe has been a follower of chess for ten years, but in the past year it has become a serious addiction. In her spare time she writes short stories, poetry and other prose, anything that allows her to sit down and spill her thoughts over paper.

More than anything she wants to return to Russia, to the people and the land where she spent the happiest days of her life so far.

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