Kasparov for the Oscar?

1/25/2004 – No, we’re not talking about the chess prize awarded by the venerated Russian publication, 64, but the Oscars given out in Hollywood each year. With a full-length feature film on Garry Kasparov's infamous match against Deep Blue in 1997 starting in movie theatres in Britain we bring you a spectacular trailer and an interview with the director here...

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Not content with taking Russian politics by storm, Garry Kasparov is now advancing on British cinemas with the nationwide release of the documentary film; Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine. The documentary is a review of the events surrounding Kasparov’s shock defeat at the processors of Deep Blue in 1997. It features many of those involved at the time, including Garry Kasparov, Feng-hsiung Hsu, Murray Campbell, Joel Benjamin and ChessBase’ s very own Frederic Friedel.

The British press is filled with reviews of the film. The Guardian writes that, "Chess has never been so exciting", and compares the computer with another great image from world cinema saying, "Deep Blue looks like a formidable character, as implacable as HAL from Stanley Kubrick's 2001 (the name, famously, a variant of IBM)."

The film is on limited release at present, details of which are listed below. It will go to other UK cinemas in a few weeks, and ChessBase will publish listings as they become available.

Not to be missed: the trailer

For those of you who cannot wait for your fix of chess at the movies, here are a series of links to the film’s trailer. Warning: once you watch this you’ll have no choice but to visit your nearest cinema to check it out for yourself…

Interview with the Director

The film had its world premiere some months ago, in October 2003. ChessBase was there to cover the event, with our own review: Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine. Not only did we enjoy the film screening (and a free buffet), we also spoke to the film’s director, Vikram Jayanti. Vikram was part of the Oscar-winning team that brought us When We Were Kings, a documentary focused on Muhammed Ali’s famous ‘Rumble in the Jungle’.


Earlier films by Vikram Jayanti

Jayanti was eager to share his experiences of directing the chess movie. It provides a fascinating insight into the world of documentary filmmaking. Jayanti had little exposure to chess before directing this piece, but seems to have been entirely bitten by the drama of the story. He also has some surprising views on Kasparov himself, providing a refreshing point of view on a man who is so often, and so routinely, written about.


Vikram Jayanti at work shooting Game Over in New York

What attracted you to take up the project?

I have no idea why I did it! The day it happened, the day Garry lost I was in an operation and I couldn’t move for several months, so I missed it all completely. I missed all the news. All I was vaguely aware of at some point was that the giant Kasparov had played the IBM computer. But it didn’t really impinge on my consciousness. I wasn’t aware of who’d won.


Vikram with Hal Vogel, who initiated and managed the project

The producer, Hal Vogel, had been trying to get the film made within days of it happening. In May of last year he met me and told me the story. And what was really interesting to me was that there was a couple of moves that you could analyse which illustrate the difference between how humans think and a computer thinks. So I thought "How interesting, this could be a thriller". I tend to make films about larger-than-life characters, who are completely gigantic at whatever it is they do, but somehow what it is that they’re about is bigger than they are. And Garry struck me as one of those people. In New York I met him. And he was. So I did it.

What was it like working with Kasparov?

Well, he’s fantastic, and he knows how to work the crowd in a way that keeps them distant. I liked being around him because you’re with the best person in the world at something, probably the best person of all time at chess. I kinda expected him to be sixty or seventy years old. He’s dominated my awareness of chess since I was a teenager. And to find he was thirty-nine, well I told him that I was expecting an old man!

The film has raised many questions for me. I must admit that previously I just thought that Kasparov was being paranoid...

Garry has a reputation for taking losing – how can I put it? – badly! But I think that that’s what makes a great champion. For some time I followed Bill Clinton round, and what was clear with him is that every vote counted. And I really like that. As a filmmaker, I think every frame counts, and watching Garry, every move counts. He remembers everything. He’s got to win every single move. For me, that must be what makes a champion. So I don’t mind if he loses badly. It would be terrible if he lost well!

What I liked most about the film is the way you captured his emotions as he walked into the hotel room where he’d stayed, and into the building where the event occurred. And you could see the anger, see the fear. He didn’t want to face it.

You know, some of that stuff, you only find that when you’re editing. You look and look and look at the same shot, and gradually you seem able to read their minds.


Garry Kasparov vs Deep Blue, New York 1997

At the time it just seemed as if we were in the Equitable Life building, just talking about it. And I was struggling to see if he would get emotional about it. But it’s only when you start editing it, and you begin to break through the surface of what he’s saying to what he’s really feeling, then your job as a filmmaker is to cut away just to that part.


Garry Kasparov in the original Plaza Hotel suite

I had no idea how to make the film – I never have a clue how to make my films. I thought maybe if I could introduce him to these places, maybe then I could get something from him. So, looking back, I think it must have been hellish hard for him to go back there with me.

So getting your subjects to interact to their environment is key? I suspect that must be especially so with this film, where it’s easy selling it to me because I’m a chess fan. But you’re aiming for the wider audience.

I worked on a film called "When We were Kings" about Mohammed Ali, and that was shot over a long period of time with an unlimited supply of film. Really it was a fairytale situation. That became a gladiatorial epic between Forman and Ali, and I used that structure for this film. I thought that if I could build up Garry and build up IBM into a battle royal that it would be much more interesting for the non-chess fan. I was much more interested in the human tragedy.


Talking with and filming Garry Kasparov at a computer fair in Munich

Yes, and that’s what comes across in this film. People often dismiss chess as this cerebral, staid game, and it is just so not the case. And you have translated that into your film. This is a film about emotion.

That’s what I wanted. I wanted it to be a combat film. One of the first things Garry said to me was, “Chess is a contact sport”. You know he’s very physically fit. And I asked him why he has to work out so much, and he told me that you had to be very fit in order to play.

I guess the big question that I want to ask is: do you think that IBM brought in human interference?

I don’t think I know enough about it. I was much more interested in dramatizing how it would feel if they had brought in a ringer. I wanted to do a film about what it felt like to be Garry during the match.

Each of the films I do is about something I don’t know anything about. I spent a lot of time with computer scientists and good chess players, and studied it to the extent that I’m capable. But Garry is enormously persuasive. What I will say is that IBM hit the jackpot. Their share value went up and up. And it strikes me that someone in the corporation had a brilliant idea that if they could beat Kasparov, people would think that IBM were in the frontline of computing.

IBM was seen as a dinosaur before this match. No one saw them as an innovator. They’re still using Deep Blue in their advertising. I like the circumstantial whiff that they had to win. And I liked to then break it out into what they had to do in order to win.

The thing that bothers me about the conspiracy theory is that Garry would have to have been very naive to enter a match thinking that it was just going to be a scientific experiment. Surely, with all his experience he should have judged that IBM would go all-out to get him?

I genuinely think that he never thought of it like that. Here’s what I think. Garry was one of the first to adopt computers in chess. He was one of the very first to wonder about chess computing. I think, and this is my secret thought I’m telling you, is that he just wanted to find a good enough opponent to play against.


At work on the film

At that time people would rather leap out of windows than play Garry. I think that part of his obsession with computers is that he’d like a reliably good player, that doesn’t feel emotion. I think deep, deep down, that’s one of the motives inside him. I can’t prove it. I’ve watched him play inferior players. He just wants to get it over with. I mean, when you’re that good at chess you want a good opponent. And I suspect his fantasy was that a computer would give him that.

That’s me. In terms of walking naively into the lions den, I think he thought there was a chance to make some money and to do something of scientific interest. I also think that as a Russian who had spoken out against communism, casting himself as a new Russian man and embracing capitalism and embracing the West, he probably thought that these people were good guys. I don’t think that he ever thought that an American corporation, which represents freedom to him, would act as a tyrant.

Though, you also show The Deep Blue team themselves in a sympathetic light.

One of them makes a really fair point, all they did was program a computer. To that extent, it wasn’t just man against machine. It was chess playing man against computer-designing people. So it was unfair to portray it as man vs. machine. In fact, it was a triangle, Garry, the team of scientists, and the corporation.

Do you think that the team, the programmers, were as much victims of IBM as Garry was?

I think that everyone on Garry’s side and Deep Blue’s side came away from it hurt. The guy who designed the chip (Hsu), he is devastated still by the fact that IBM shut down the computer, to the extent that he quit the company, and raised the money to buy the chips back to get Garry a rematch.


Jayanti and Vogel celebrating the success of their documentary on chess

Thank you for talking to ChessBase, Vikram. We wish you the best of luck with your venture.

Thank you for allowing me to share my thoughts with you.

Joe 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.

Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine is now showing at:
The Other Cinema,
11 Rupert Street, London W1D 7PR
Information: 020 7437 0757
Booking: 0207734 1506

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