It was Sunday, May 11th 1997, and a mammoth head-to-head between two great chess minds at a special challenge series in New York had just ended with the defeat of the reigning champion and “best chess player in the world” Garry Kasparov.

The Russian had already beaten his current opponent in the first game of the New York contest, and a year before in a challenge series in Philadelphia. But this was the first time he had been beaten over a professional series by any rival let alone this particular one.

The statistics for the six-game match were that Kasparov had won one match to his rival’s two, with three draws.

The winner didn’t celebrate the achievement of that day because the winner was Deep Blue, IBM’s chess playing computer, and machines don’t to do such things. But this defeat was more that just a bad day at the office for Kasparov. It was the first time a machine had ever beaten a chess champion at this level and bested a human opponent in an area of endeavour considered to require a level of sophisticated intelligence.

By all accounts, Kasparov has never recovered from that day. He is said to have left the chess room with his hands held aloft, a motion reminiscent of Greek tragedy or perhaps just his way of expressing a puzzled surrender.

As the then head of IBM Lou Gerstner said later at a company press conference. “I just think we should look at this as a chess match between the world’s greatest chess player and…[pause]…Garry Kasparov.”

Could this be the beginning of the end for the primacy of human intelligence? Some thought so.

Comfortingly, Feng-Hsiung Hsu, who headed the machine’s design team and authored a book on the subject, Behind Deep Blue, is doubtful. He should know, having dedicated most of the working life since his student days to creating and tuning the machine’s hardware and software design with the help of a myriad other geeks and chess experts. In Hsu’s analysis, Deep Blue ranks as a great human achievement because it was human ingenuity that built, programmed and tuned it.

What the silicon added was the ability to churn through 200 million possible moves a second, a calculating inferno and humming nemesis for the unwary Kasparov who consistently underestimated its potential as a serious challenger.

Granted, without its creators’ considerable knowledge of chess nuance, Deep Blue would just have been an electricity-consuming curiosity, a lone participant in a machine freak show, but there’s a deeper issue that Hsu ignores - as well he might. Even if Deep Blue had somehow created and programmed itself without human intervention, does the fact that it could beat a human at chess (some of the time) actually signify anything?

There is no doubt at all that chess is very difficult to play at the level of grandmaster. The further ahead you assess your opponent’s game-plan the better, and anticipating his/her/its possible moves, however many they are, is bound to give you an advantage. Chess, then, is precisely the sort of application that, suitably tuned, a super-machine should excel at, relying as it does on brute calculation and the memory of documented chess gambits.

It is more mysterious, all in all, that humans are as good at such a task as they sometimes obviously manage to be. It is unclear whether any of the important achievements of science, art or human history have called much on these curious abilities. No matter the fascination of initiates, to outsiders chess can look like little more than a prestigious mental sport.

The defeat of Kasparov probably tells up more about the extraordinary strides made in the field of putting computers to “thinking use” than it does about the fate of humanity. But deeper ruminations on the significance of it all will have to wait for a better book than Hsu’s. He is driven by a creator’s viewpoint, like a father writing about a favoured child, and he turned out to be no great storyteller either.

If Behind Deep Blue deserves to go a list of “books worth reading” it is for its unresolved theme – Hsu’s rivalry with Kasparov himself. It was and is a clash of two extraordinary but oddly configured minds in the obsessive arena of the chess universe. Now that would make a great story.

Behind Deep Blue
Feng-Hsiung Hsu
Princeton University Press, 2002
ISBN: 0-691-09065-3