The gospel according to Enrique Irazoqui!

4/18/2003 – It is the closest thing to paradise, this side of Redendo Beach. The north Spanish costal town of Cadaqués was home to famous artists, writers and intellectuals. Today its most prominent resident is an economist, professor of literature, actor, revolutionary and computer chess expert. Here, quite appropriately for the Easter festival, is an in-depth interview with Enrique Irazoqui.

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The tiny little coastal town of Cadaqués (pron. "Kaa-daa-'kess") lies in the northeast of Spain. Many famous painters lived here, for instance Picasso, Miro, Duchamp, Cage and Dalí. There they practiced all forms of arts and they invented new ones. And during all this time, in the cafes next to the sea, they played chess.

Today Cadaqués is an exclusive (and expensive) seaside resort, and it is the home of Prof. Enrique Irazoqui, who is occupied by a completely different pastime. Enrique is not just anybody. An economist and a professor of literature, he is also an expert in information technology and artificial intelligence. For many years he edited a magazine on computer chess – in the end in electronic form. He always loved chess and has played against Marcel Duchamp, who was a master class chess player.

But apart from all of this there is another unusual chapter in the life of Enrique Irazoqui. In 1964 he played the lead in Pier Paolo Pasolini's highly acclaimed film The Gospel According To St. Matthew – and you know who that film was all about!

However, if you enter the names Cadaqués and Irazoqui in an Internet search engine today the top entries are not famous painters or bible films. It is the computer chess tournaments run by Enrique and published all over the world. These tournaments are traditionally conducted once a year in Cadaqués and overshadow all previous achievements of the town or its multi-talented inhabitants.

Interview with Enrique Irazoqui

By Mariano Sigman

Organizing and being referee of computer chess tournaments is a strange job. How did you get there?

It all started in 1979. I was living in the East Coast of the United States where the winters were horrendous. I bought the two computers that where available at that time to play chess, but it turned out that they played so badly that it was more fun to see them play against each other. That's how I became a spectator of computer chess. Today, programs running on home computers can play hard against the best grand masters.


Enrique Irazoqui was the arbiter in the match Kramnik vs Deep Fritz in Bahrain

Do the new programs today play better than supercomputers like Deep Blue? Actually, why did Deep Blue stop playing after the successful match with Kasparov?

Deep Blue was dismantled one day after having defeated Kasparov, and it is then hard to know whether the new programs on smaller computers could defeat Deep Blue. After the match IBM had all to lose and nothing to win. It had already won. It had beaten Kasparov. And the day after, their stocks hit the roof and there was no reason to risk that at all.

Kasparov played surprisingly bad in his match with Deep Blue, maybe even suspiciously bad.

Suspiciously bad, definitively not. Kasparov wants to win everything and against everyone: man or machine. Each time he sits in front of a chessboard he has to prove he is the king. And indeed, this may not be the best strategy to play a machine that calculates millions and millions of positions. It may be healthier to play solid, conducting the game on positional and strategic grounds, where one can win slowly. Kramnik's style is more suited for computer chess.

Is there really a uniform way to play computers? Is it the same to play Fritz than to play Junior? It is said that Junior plays with some form of intuition, as it could even pass the Turing test and give the impression that there is a human under the box.

Computer programs do not have intuition. The Junior programmers implemented an interesting function in their program by making it speculate. Junior can give one or two pawns for the initiative, without calculating all the variations that lead to a straight win. This leads to the illusion that it plays human-like. This strategy worked really well in the first part of the match against Fritz in Cadaqués (to decide who would play Kramnik) but not as well in the second half.

Isn't such a big difference in performance between two halves of a tournament strange when the players are computers, which do not get tired, or depressed...

No, actually it happens frequently, because randomness plays a more important role in computer than in human chess. That's why we play long tournaments to decide the champion and even then, in the end, it turns out to be always a somehow arbitrary decision. We don't have enough time, even with computers that can play day and night to make them play for sufficient time to decide which program is definitively the best. The role of the referee is then impossible. A few days before the match between Junior and Fritz ended, people all around thought that Junior was going to win.

Do programs have fans?

Yes, they do. It is less natural to identify with a program than with a player, but they still do. The speculative style of Junior builds up the illusion that it is more human, and thus it has many supporters.

How much, or which aspects of human intelligence is captured by computer chess programs?

In my opinion none. But then we get into a very arduous discussion and on to a problem of definitions. Chess is presumed to be intelligent and thus machines that play chess are thought to be intelligent. But also calculation is a form of intelligence, and no one would think that a pocket calculator is intelligent. A chess program is a sophisticated calculator.


Cadaqués, which Dalí called "the most beautiful village in the world"

And we are not?

That I do not know. But at least, an important difference is that we can learn and computers do not. They can repeat over and over the same mistakes.

Is there anything we have learned by watching computers play chess, or by programming them. Is chess programming also a journey to understand intelligence?

Probably not much, mainly because chess programs have an important reason to be there, they have to win. They are not designed to test different aspects of reasoning but to win tournaments, and so far it has been more economic to do so with brute force. That's partly why no one is writing programs that learn. So far it is easier, takes less time and less money to teach them everything. But in addition I think that there is a more fundamental problem, which is that today we only have a very vague idea of what intelligence is. Reading the definition in the Encyclopedia Britannica gives a good idea of our state of knowledge: it is chaos. Very descriptive but not explicative.

It is not intelligible.

It is intelligible but in a poetic sense. I still have a program that someone gave me in 1987 that writes haikus, a highly structured form of Japanese poetry. I have given haiku readers poems written by my program, and they where not able to find anything that suggested them that they had been written by a machine. Poetry is at the same time the most intellectual and exact form of literature. And in some sense it is said, that to write poetry, as to play chess, intelligence is required. However, this program, just using a database of nouns and verbs and a precise rule to combine them, not very intelligent, produces, as a final result, a haiku.

Isn't human intelligence on a way like Junior, the illusion of playing with uncertainty?

Maybe, but in chess at least, our way to approach and play the game is completely different than that of a machine, even Junior. A program calculates millions of positions per second and a grandmaster one or two. And they do not need to calculate many more. We can recognize patterns, we can learn and we are much slower than machines.


This is where you will always find Enrique, in his favourite Café in Cadaqués

Your interest on chess programs is not a way to understand intelligence, is it only about the passion for chess?

Partly it is passion for chess and in part it is a window to perfection. I have spoken to many friends also involved in literature to try to understand why chess programs fascinate us. Part of it is that we are chess amateurs, we like the game but not enough to become professionals. But mainly, while watching the programs playing and improving one has the impression that we are approaching the moment of perfection (which actually I don't think that either you or me will ever see) where chess will have been solved – where for example Black will resign before White has made the first move, because he knows that it will be check mated in 349 moves. This is at the same time fascinating and horrendous. I can show you a position which indeed is mate in 128 moves, and the program will find it in a blink. The spontaneous reaction is of course to unplug the computer, but passed this moment of fear, it becomes a captivating mystery.

It is on a way paradoxical that the computer chess championship is played in Cadaqués, a village so…

So enchanting and so delightful. It was played here actually for a fairly simple reason: this is where I live. But Cadaqués has a strong chess tradition. In this same Café we used to play chess every afternoon with Marcel Duchamp, his wife Teeny, John Cage and many others.


Marcel Duchamp, the chess lover

How was it to play with Duchamp?

For me it was a pleasure but I am not sure it did him very well. He usually finished being very upset. Teeny, his wife, asked me not to play him any more because he would not sleep after that. It was tender, on a way, very fragile. After that I mainly played with Teeny.


Marcel Duchamp and Eve Babitz playing chess at Pasadena Art Museum (1963)

And John Cage?

He used to ask Raymond Keene to teach him how to defeat Duchamp, but he never made it. I remember one day we were playing as usual, in the Café, and he placed a pentagram of thin translucent paper on the windows. He drew one note on top of each star and composed a melody of the night. Fortunately I never heard it, but this gives you an idea of how were these people and these days.


John Cage

What is left of this tradition?

There is not even a chessboard in the bar we used to play. I do not know if it is a symbol of these days but the most interesting form of chess today here in Cadaqués is the computer tournament.

How come chess in general can proliferate so profoundly in Spain?

I don't live in Spain; I live in Cadaqués. And I don't mean this as an issue of nationalism; it is just that Cadaqués is an island. You get out of it through the sea, not through the mountain. But I think that the big wave of chess started with a (very successful) attempt by Luis Rentero to promote tourism in Linares. Not to many years after that Linares became, together with Madrid and Barcelona, one of the three most popular Spanish towns in the Soviet Union.

While you are not organizing computer chess tournaments you teach literature…

I studied economy. In my first job, right after graduation, I was in charge of human resources and it frightened me. That wasn't what I was. I had spent my career reading Marx and the Marxists, and I learned nothing about accountings. It lasted five months, until I quit, and since then I have been involved in literature.

From heading a company you went straight to Pasolini?

No, actually Pasolini was before that, in 1964, during the Franco regime. I was the only one from the clandestine union that spoke Italian, and so I was sent to Italy to a mission to contact people that could help us fight against fascism. I was 19. The last day, in Rome I was taken to the house of a poet. There, in his living room, I delivered the same speech, which by then I knew by heart. Contrary to what everybody else did, which was to interrupt, to ask, to converse, this man heard me in complete silence until I finished my speech, and only then he stood up and started circling me without saying a word. He told me he would go to Spain, and he would help us, but that at the same time I could do him a favor. For two years he had been preparing a film about Christ, following literally the Gospel according to St Mathew. But he could not find the actor to be Christ. He wanted me to do it. In about five seconds and four words I told him he was nuts, and I told him I had more important things to do: establishing human fraternity.

It was not revolutionary to act the Gospel at that time

The gospel was a symbol of the very oppressive church of Spain at that time. On top of that it was a Hollywood theme, and I wasn't interested at all. In the end Elsa Morante convinced me of the relevance of the project. She was a good friend of Pasolini, and she ended up being the best friend I have had in my life.

It was probably very intense to be Jesus at 19

Actually not. The most intense experience was, from one day to the other, to switch from being a son of a Barcelona bourgeois family to being part of the Rome of Pasolini, Moravia and all this people who were inventing a new life. Being Jesus or starring in a Western would have been about the same.

Borges refers frequently to the player and the observer of a chess game is an iconic image of god. Is there any relationship between the two characters: the chess player and observer, and Christ?

Depending on how you play chess you are more likely to feel miserable than a god.

Well, there are good and bad gods.

Gods, in chess, remains for Kasparov or Kramnik. But you don't even feel Christ during filming. You spend your time speaking with friends, playing football, and suddenly there is a combination of lights that makes the scene, and you are asked to be immediately ready, and you film for two minutes, and that's it. You don't get to relate very much with the character, not in the way Pasolini worked. However, the film was shot in Calabria, and at that time this region was even more south than the south of Spain. And there were lines of people with their black suits asking me to accomplish a miracle, and they were not willing to accept that I was not Christ. They would even be offended when I smoked, because Christ didn't smoke.

What's your reading of the Gospel today?

It is a wonderful story of which I actually do not know very much. I have always been agnostic and, until I was 19, even with a strong allergy towards the Franquist Church. I never read the Gospel again, and my relation with this story is through the people that ask me about it. It is a cyclic story, a Borges-like story. I have been sitting at this table many times, and the years pass and I lose my teeth, and I lose my hair, and people keep asking me about that story.

So what happened when you returned form Italy?

When I came back to Spain the police took my passport away for having worked in a Marxist film. It was funny, the film was "The Gospel According to Saint Mathew" which had won two international catholic prices and hade been shown in the Vatican Council.

Original Spanish version of the interview


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