|Behind Deep Blue: Building the Computer that Defeated the World Chess Champion|
|publisher||Princeton University Press|
|summary||A real-life historic triumph of the nerds|
My wife gave me this book as a birthday present. I was thrilled that finally someone wrote what really happened behind the scenes at the two historic matches, but Behind Deep Blue turned out to be far more than just about the matches. The early part of the book is equally absorbing and full of surprises.
Who & What
Feng-hsiung Hsu, the author, was the father of the Deep Blue project and a troublemaker. When you see a section title like "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" in a book about computer history, you know something is up. What he did in this particular section would have been an awful career move today, like landing him in a jail. As it was, he almost got kicked out of grad school. This precarious position played an important role in how the project got started.
The book has two main parts: the beginning and the history of the project at Carnegie Mellon University, and the successful conclusion at IBM, including the two matches with Kasparov.
During the matches, the IBM web site de-emphasized the Carnegie Mellon part of the project. The instant chess books also failed to fill the void. It was a shame.
The main ideas behind the project apparently were formed at Carnegie Mellon--several of them at a fateful night in Hsu's apartment. I know little about IC design, but his description of the new ideas discovered at that night, underlying the first single chip chess move generator, made me feel like that I could design the chip myself. His thought process in coming to the discovery is also quite interesting. Hsu seems to be a diehard Trekkie. In his description of the selective search algorithm "singular extensions," he repeatedly used the Starship Enterprise in his analogies.
For fans of AI, the book contains a big surprise. Even though Deep Blue's triumph over Kasparov might be considered as a major victory for AI, several of the early members involved in its creation had a definite anti-AI opinion. An exact quote from the book is "AI is bullshit." Hsu himself had an ambiguous feeling toward AI. The main approach taken by the Deep Blue project was to push the technology envelope, which is certainly non-AI, but he also talked of the need for chess knowledge repeatedly in the book.
The central story at Carnegie Mellon revolves around the rivalry between a ragtag group of graduate students and a powerful professor, Dr. Hans Berliner, who is a former World Correspondence Chess Champion and world renowned authority on computer games. I have a feeling that there are things left unsaid in the book, but the intensity of the rivalry and the male egos all come through clearly. One of the thorny points to the students, strangely enough, was that they were not Dr. Berliner's students but the press kept on saying they were.
After the students came out with Deep Thought, the first Grandmaster strength computer, the incorrect press perception produced a very funny story. The story of "The Poor Lieutenant Colonel at Darpa" tells how an overzealous reporter wrote a cover article for the British magazine Spectator, purporting to have discovered that the U.S. Department of Defense had enlisted the service of chess computers. In the process of this discovery, the reporter phoned Dr. Berliner, whom the reporter thought was heading the Deep Thought project, for the inside scoop, and afterwards cold called a Lieutenant Colonel at Darpa in charge of expert systems research, which had nothing to do with the Deep Thought work...
I did not realize that the Deep Blue team played Kasparov publicly three times. The first time was with the machine Deep Thought, during the transitional period when the team moved to IBM. Kasparov won that match 2-0. The publicity from this match and the subsequent confusion between "Deep Thought" and "Deep Throat" were partially responsible for the new Deep Blue name. The original Deep Thought name came from the sci-fi trilogy Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy.
The story of the completion of the first Deep Blue repeats a theme that recurs throughout the book--the machines always barely work in time. "Four Hours to Spare" describes a period when the first Deep Blue chip had to be used in a new program and had to win or tie an exhibition match, in order for the project to survive. The team barely got the new program "working" with four hours to spare. They managed a tie.
The late-to-arrive situation in the 1996 Deep Blue match itself was not much better--the very first ever game played by Deep Blue was none other than its first game with Kasparov. Deep Blue itself was being put together only weeks before. Deep Blue won this game. What Kasparov said right after the historic game is priceless. There should have been a microphone at the playing table. The behind-the-scenes coverage of this match is more detailed than available anywhere else, but not quite as extensive as that of the final match in the book.
Deep Blue's loss in 1996 spurred a series of activities by the team. I don't recall seeing them mentioned explicitly during the 1997 match. A new Deep Blue chip was designed, along with new software tools for match preparations. The story of "The Phantom Queens" is quite amusing. The team discovered a design bug in the new chip that caused phantom queens to be generated on the chip's internal chessboard. One way to fix the bug was to slow down the chip by disabling a design feature. As a result of this slowdown, we have the only match outcome of what might have happen if Deep Blue had been running at the same speed as commercial chess programs when competing against them. I will let you find out for yourself what the outcome was. A workaround was later implemented, and Deep Blue did not suffer the same slowdown in the match against Kasparov.
The big chapter on the 1997 match alone is worth the price of the book for me. It was a great deal of fun to read. The wild accusations, the missed opportunities, the psychological war game off the board, the battle through the media, and plain simple misunderstanding all make for wonderful reading. The arbiter, Carol Jarecki, summed it up quite well, "This match has it all." I don't want to spoil all the fun for you, but I will mention two interesting tidbits from game 1 and game 6. Deep Blue played the last move of game 1 as a result of bug, although the game was already lost. Kasparov's team was surprised by the move and spent all night to find out why Deep Blue played the move and concluded that Deep Blue played its move because it saw a very deep mate if it had played what should be played... Game 6 was widely reported as Kasparov forgetting his own opening preparations. It could very well have been a deliberate gamble instead. All the other programs at the time, including the 1996 version of Deep Blue, very possibly would have lost the white side of the game.
The epilogue of the book contains a short description of what happened after 1997, including an aborted attempt to answer Kasparov's repeated challenge for a new match. The first appendix gives autobiographic materials. The other two give selected game scores and pointers for further reading.
This is not a chess book, and you don't need to be a chess player to enjoy it. The few paragraphs on technology should be readable for high school students or younger kids with scientific interests. Or you can just skip them.
The book is not really one contiguous story, but a collection of short stories and anecdotes. I read the whole book in one setting, but you could easily read the book in smaller chunks at a time.
Okay, you probably don't need an index for this book, but it would have been nice to have one. Interestingly enough, at www.bn.com, the review mentioned "a strange, inaccurate index", which must have there in the prepublication copy.
I highly recommend the book for general reading. You are not going to learn how to build something like Deep Blue from this book, but you get a good sense of what kind of human struggles it takes. Computer scientists and electrical engineers should get a good kick out of the book, but a layperson can enjoy the book just as well. If you have young kids with interests in engineering or science, this might be a good gift for them.
You can purchase Behind Deep Blue from bn.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.