In Chicago: Playing Hitech Computer Chess

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The hotel ballroom near Chicago's O'Hare Airport is crammed with rows of banquet tables covered with paper chessboards. In silent confrontation, 700 miniature armies face one another across half as many checkered playing fields. The National Open, a major annual chess tournament, is about to begin. A short, plump man dressed completely in black calls the contestants to order. "If you lose a game," he wryly suggests, "congratulate your opponent. Do not disturb the tournament by exploding, screaming or weeping loudly." On hearing this, Hans Berliner breaks into a grin. A former world chess-by-mail champion, Berliner will not play in the tournament himself. Instead he has entered his computer, a formidable piece of work named Hitech. "Hitech," ( says Berliner with quiet pride, "is inexorable -- like Bobby Fischer."

Hitech shares a special table, strategically located near a phone jack and an electrical outlet, with a second computer contestant named BP. BP runs on a Compaq PC, a crowd pleaser with its flashy electronic chessboard. Hitech is not even physically present. An ungainly-looking brute, with circuit boards that poke out of a metal rack like truncated wings, Hitech remains in Pittsburgh, hidden away in a laboratory on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University, where Berliner teaches computer science.

During the tournament, Berliner communicates with his electronic protege via a laptop computer patched into a telephone line. While Hitech "thinks," Berliner watches the moves being considered as they scroll rapidly down the laptop's screen. In one second, Hitech can analyze as many as 160,000 possibilities. "Hitech," beams Berliner through thick-framed glasses, "is two orders of magnitude smarter than any other computer chess player in the world."

In fact, Hitech is so smart it disdains playing its fellow computers. Since 1986, Hitech has been competing on the regular chess circuit, matching wits only with humans. It has a solid master's rating of 2376, well behind former World Chess Champion Mikhail Tal, the top-ranked player in this tournament, with a 2700 rating, but Hitech is a dangerous enough competitor to have caused a minor furor last August by scoring a first-place finish in the Pennsylvania State Chess Championship. It is the 22nd-ranked player in the National Open.

Hitech's opponent in the opening round is an auditor from Milwaukee named Greg Wichman. A large rumpled man with a pocketful of pens, Wichman, whose own rating hovers just under 2000, does not look at all pleased about competing against Hitech. Playing White, he makes a traditional first move, advancing a pawn to King 4. Hitech counters, directing Berliner to move a Black pawn to the opposing square. Twenty-two moves later, the board is completely transformed. Hitech has massed its forces around the Black king. Across the way, the White king has a much smaller escort. Sunk in thought, Wichman plunges his chin onto his arms. "This is tricky," whispers Berliner. "Very tricky. Even an awfully good player could spend a long time thinking about this one."

Suddenly the phone line rings, causing Berliner to jump with alarm. The connection to Hitech is broken. Frantically, Computer Scientist Carl Ebeling, a former student of Berliner's, redials the number that restores the vital link to Hitech. "This is a perpetual problem in hotels," mutters Berliner. "Sometimes we have to go to the chief operator and tell her we'll strangle her if she puts any calls through." Soon after this, Hitech makes what Berliner thinks is probably a mistake, but he's not completely sure. "Whenever we disagree," he whispers, "usually it's right." To his relief, the game soon turns decisively in Hitech's favor. A few minutes later, Wichman concedes and marches out to the lobby to calm his nerves with a cigarette. "That thing doesn't miss much," he says. "I guess my first reaction when I found out I had to play it was 'Oh, no!' Computers are so meticulous. There's no psychology involved. You can't even stare your opponent in the eyes."

Wichman cheers up considerably after Hitech makes mincemeat of two more players: an inventory manager for a Racine, Wis., restaurant and a university student from South Bend, Ind. The latter winces as an unfeeling observer calls out, "You didn't let the machine beatcha, did ya?" Contestant Daniel Kamen, an Arlington Heights, Ill., chiropractor, is considerably more empathetic. "It's a monster! You can't blow smoke in its face," he complains. "It doesn't care if you're obnoxious or if you have bad breath. You just can't rattle it. I wouldn't want to play Hitech in a tournament, but I'd sure like to borrow it for a year."

After three consecutive wins, Hitech draws a tougher player. Berliner becomes visibly nervous when he discovers that the opponent is Grand Master Sergei Kudrin, a slender Soviet emigre with long wavy hair and sleepy eyes. Kudrin has been matched against Hitech in tournament play twice before -- and has beaten it both times. A large crowd of onlookers presses in around the table. "This is going to be a wild game," Berliner predicts.

Kudrin stares down at the chessboard with perfect concentration, looking up from time to time like a swimmer surfacing from a deep dive. As Kudrin meditates, even the smallest background noises are amplified. The ticking of the timer clock on the table, the clinking of the chandelier on the wall, the splash of drinking water into plastic cups all seem unbearably nerve-racking. On the twelfth move Kudrin, playing Black, guilefully offers Hitech a pawn. Hitech can't resist taking it -- thereby opening up the board to a masterful attack. From then on, it's Kudrin's game. Mikhail Tal wanders over from time ( to time, nodding approval. "The game is over," says a downcast Berliner, "only Hitech doesn't know it yet."

Soon the situation deteriorates so far that Berliner intervenes, pronouncing it hopeless. Kudrin smiles. "Playing against Hitech is always fun. As a machine, it's very, very strong. If I play badly, I know it will win." Reviewing the match, Berliner shows Kudrin an alternate move near the end of the game that would have been as good as the move he made. "Hitech saw this?" asks Kudrin, impressed. "That's very nice."

In the final match, even Berliner's wife Araxie is torn between wanting Hitech to win and not wanting its human opponent to lose. "He's so nice," she says of John Burke, the manager of a manufacturing plant in Carol Stream, Ill. Near the beginning of the game, Hitech startles Berliner by choosing to move one of its bishops on a bold diagonal, driving deep into enemy territory. But Burke, who has a master's rating, is no pushover. Indeed, he fights back so well that Berliner is worried about the outcome. His concern increases when Hitech suddenly seems to get cold feet, agonizing over how to avoid losing pieces. "It keeps going round and round the mulberry bush," Berliner sighs. Ultimately, Hitech stops dillydallying and resumes its attack. The win gives Hitech an impressive seventh-place finish, just after six humans who tied for first.

Burke is a good-humored loser. "I lost to the box," he says, as he hands in his scorecard. "If it reaches the point where a computer becomes the world chess champion, I guess that would take some of the fun out of the game. But then I suppose we'd all get used to it as just one more thing computers can do better than us." Will a computer ever threaten the likes of Gary Kasparov? "No," argues former World Champ Tal. "Chess cannot be put down simply as algorithms. Chess takes imagination. The computer does not have imagination." Bill Maddex, a philosophy student from the University of Oregon, agrees. "I don't think a computer will ever get that good," he says to Berliner. "There's too much abstract thought involved."

Hitech may not be that good, Berliner acknowledges -- yet. But he adds, with quiet conviction, "Ever is far too long a time."