BWW Reviews: Chess champion Garry Kasparov Matches Wits with IBM Computer Deep Blue in THE MACHINE
September 9
by Jonathan Mandell

In any chess game, as we are told early in The Machine, there are 400 potential moves on the chess board after both players have made their first moves. After two moves apiece, there are 72,000; after four moves apiece, 288 billion.

In telling the tale of the 1997 chess match between Man and Machine – Garry Kasparov, the world’s top ranked chess player, and the IBM chess-playing computer Deep Blue — playwright Matt Charman, director Josie Rourke (artistic director of London’s famed Donmar Warehouse) and the rest of the creative team had many potential moves as well.

They chose a nearly mechanical bio-drama masquerading as a modern gladiator sport, staged with great flash in cavernous Drill Hall of the Park Avenue Armory, complete with arena (in-the-round) seating, mock Jumbotron video projections, TV sports commentators, a logo that looks like something that would be used for the Super Bowl. Once or twice Garry Kasparov even stands up on the table and does the kind of dance a wide receiver does on a football field after scoring a touchdown.

This is presumably a fantasy, not meant to be taken literally, and it is actually a welcome relief from the little, leaden scenes of flashback biography that are threaded throughout The Machine. We see 10-year-old Garry with his mother trying to convince the Soviet Union’s best chess school to admit him. We see a computer graduate student named Feng Hsiung Hsu meet fellow student Murray Campbell and then vie for the attentions of a cheerleader named Tasmin. (I wish I were making that up.) The two go on to collaborate on the computer that they originally called Deep Thought, but that IBM executives who hired them thought this sounded too much like Deep Throat, so changed the name to Deep Blue.

It is difficult to fault the hard-working cast of 15, most of whom play multiple roles, for a play that, in almost 30 scenes over 100 intermission-less minutes, manages to tell us less about chess or computers than one might have expected.

There is plenty of precedent for intelligent, insightful works about both.The first short story that novelist Amy Tan wrote, Endgame, was about a child prodigy in chess, which forms the anchor for her bestselling book The Joy Luck Club.There is a memorable scene in an early episode of the HBO TV series The Wire, where one low-level drug dealer is explaining the game of chess to fellow gang-bangers, and the metaphor for their own lives is subtle and spot-on. Hugh Whitemore‘s play Breaking the Code told the fascinating story of Alan Turing, the pioneering computer scientist who broke the German code during World War II — and who incidentally was the first to write a chess-playing computer program. Despite his status as war hero, the British prosecuted Turing for being homosexual; he died two years later, an apparent suicide.

If the true story behind the match between Kasparov and the computer doesn’t contain such stark tragedy, there is plenty of opportunity to offer glimpses into some great minds at the forefront of these rigorous intellectual disciplines, or at least to explain what all the fuss is about. Kasparov, now a leading political activist and human rights advocate in Russia, seems a complex, intriguing figure in real life. Instead, The Machine sets up the contest as being between two similarly obsessed, anti-social geniuses who are both outsiders hungry for respect: Kasparov (portrayed by Hadley Fraser) and Dr. Hsu (Kenneth Lee.) There is little effort at explaining the game of chess; an absence of thoughtful metaphor; not much resonance. The best thing to be said about The Machine is that it should inspire the audience to learn more. They can start with the program, which has the large size and shape of a glossy chess board. Inside, there is an informative and intriguing essay by chess grandmaster Daniel King.

The Machine runs through September 18th at the Park Avenue Armory.


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