A play based on Kasparov vs Deep Blue

8/17/2013 – It's called The Machine and it played in July in Manchester. If you live in America you can catch it at the Park Avenue Armory in September. And maybe you are going to have to, since it appears to be a well-made, dramatically compelling stage production that captures the atmosphere of the monumental battle between man and machine. Allan Beardsworth caught it in Manchester – here's his review.

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The Machine – a play based on Kasparov vs Deep Blue

Review by Allan Beardsworth

This review is about The Machine, a new play by Matt Charman about the 1997 rematch between Garry Kasparov and Deep Blue, which Kasparov lost narrowly and harrowingly. The match was a tipping point, the crossover: since then, engine supremacy in chess has become undoubted.

Playwright Matt Charman, who wrote The Machine

Producer and director Josie Rourke (photo Hugo Glendinning)

The play was premiered at the recent Manchester International Festival, a biennial fortnight of theatre and the Arts performed throughout the city. It now moving to New York. It was produced by Josie Rourke, with Hadley Fraser playing Garry, and Kenneth Lee playing Feng-Hsiung Hsu.

My chess-widow wife Jane gamely agreed to come along, though some of our friends declined to watch a play about chess. Jane's strategy was well calculated: if the play was awful, she would have an anecdote to use against me for the rest of our lives; and if the play was good, she would have had a nice evening out. As it was, the play was great. Yes it was all about chess, but it was also about the human struggle and the development of machines.

Firstly, the venue was a great success. The Manchester International Festival staged it in the Campfield Market Hall (picture above), an empty building, kitted out wonderfully for this event. Part of the success of MIF is that most of the events take place in unusual venues: I pass the market hall more or less every working day, but never gave it any notice. As an interior space, it was excellent for a theatrical production.

The set looks like a TV studio, and right from the start, in fact before the start, the audience is given that impression. As the audience gathers in the half an hour or so before the play formally starts, there are occasional and increasing tannoy announcements about when filming is due to start, cameramen test their equipment, officials come out and check the board and pieces etc: the drama begins to build up prior to the play starting: somehow, you knew it was going to be good.

Hadley Fraser as Garry Kasparov in The Machine (all stage photos by Helen Maybanks)

Kenneth Lee as Feng-Hsiung Hsu in The Machine

Secondly, no knowledge of chess nor the match is needed. It was framed as a fight between two people, Garry and the chief programmer Hsu; about how programming took over Hsu's life; about how both people are used by big business: IBM refused Garry a third match, because their commercial aims had been fully met by their victory, so they has all to lose, and nothing to gain, from playing one further time.

The set is excellent. Lighting is strong, using a 'railway track' on the floor for very good dramatic effect, bringing on at different stages a number of chess sets (to flick back to simultaneous displays – flash backs to Garry's childhood and to other times is key to how the play is structured) and the chess scenes are well done: a mixture of some real moves, and then theatrical gestures and movement. The combined effect is very strong.

Nigel Short? Really?? Cornelius Booth and Phil Nicol in The Machine

I couldn't fault the actors. They were well cast, and whilst Nigel Short and in particular Joel Benjamin won't like how they are portrayed, their characters makes for good theatre. Nigel is show as a bald, tweed jacketed English country gentleman; he raised a laugh, but far from the true Nigel.

Joel, played by Brian Sills (above) is an emotional, vain character: he is also portrayed as being a weak GM, in awe of Garry, amazed when Garry offered him a draw in their 1994 Credit Suisse Masters game, wanting Garry to sign the scoresheet so he could have Garry's autograph – generally Joel is given a harsh portrayal, but it has dramatic purpose.

There is a question left open as to whether Deep Blue got assistance in the second game, the inference my wife drawing being that it did, from Joel. Other non chess playing friends who have been to see it also thought that this was the inference the audience is meant to be given, or that the assistance was by Karpov, who appears on stage at a key moment.

Hadley Fraser as Garry Kasparov and Francesca Annis as Clara Kasparova

John Ramm as Owen Williams in The Machine at MIF

I tried to resist watching the play as a chess player, and instead sought to follow it purely as a theatre-goer. That was of course well nigh impossible: I was really pleased that the production got the chess more or less right, and any departures were minimal and inconsequential. In particular, Hadley Fraser moved the pieces around 'like a proper chess player', and both he and Kenneth Lee had clearly memorised the starting moves of several of the games (first five or six moves, sometimes more), and all the moves of the fateful sixth game. Most impressive, I thought; and I also loved the dramatic way the players portrayed the other moves of the other games – very physical, but totally fitting with the mood and pace of the play.

The play is now moving to New York, being shown at the Park Avenue Armory from 4th to 18th September. If you can get to see it, do so. There are previews on September 4–5 at 7:30 p.m. and then regular staging from September 6–17 on Tuesday & Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday at 2:00 p.m. & 7:30 p.m., Friday 8:00 p.m., Saturday 2:00 p.m. & 8:00 p.m., Sunday 2:00 p.m. & 7:00 p.m., and Sunday, Wednesday, September 18 2:00 p.m. Tickets start at $45, preview tickets at $25.

Interview with director Josie Rourke at the MIF13 programme


About the author

Allan Beardsworth, 50, was a strong junior chess player, learning the game because of Fischer-Spassky in 1972. His first clubmate was Nigel Short, three years his junior, who followed Allan to his senior school, and a lifetime of friendship has been the result, including playing for England Juniors together. In 2004 and 2006 he captained the England’s mens’ teams in the Olympiads.

Allan is now a tax partner at Deloittes, Manchester, and with the demands of work and family is now only a keen internet blitz player and follower of chess: His 2012 rapidplay rating was 2466, although it is based on only the one tournament he plays each year. Allan suspects his true current rating is a couple of hundred points lower. For many years he has sponsored chess in the UK. His biggest fear in chess now is not knowing how strong (or rather, weak) he will be when he retires and finally has time to resume playing over the board.

Allan is a great friend of the ChessBase news page – hardly a day goes by when we do not receive a message from him, correcting typos or even the tiniest of errors that have crept into our stories.

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