Customer Reviews: Behind Deep Blue: Building the Computer that Defeated the World Chess Champion
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If you were around during the famous cold-war chess match between Fisher and Spassky in 1972, you will remember what a media event the match proved to be. It was not the most significant match of the century, though. That designation more fittingly belongs to the 1997 battle between Garry Kasparov and the computer Deep Blue. Now there is an engrossing history of how the match came to be, told by Feng-Hsiung Hsu, who founded the Deep Blue project, _Behind Deep Blue: Building the Computer that Defeated the World Chess Champion_ (Princeton University Press). We know the outcome of the final match, but even so, this is an exciting story. It would help to be at least slightly conversant with chess rules, in order to understand some of the drama of the final battle, but this is not essential any more than knowing about the design of silicon chips, which was Hsu's particular role. This is less a technical account than a recollection of a very human endeavor.
Hsu was a computer science graduate student at Carnegie Mellon, having emigrated from Taiwan in 1982. A member of the Artificial Intelligence faculty asked him in 1985 to help with the design of a chess machine. Hsu and his team, approached the task as an engineering challenge, not as an attempt at artificial intelligence. He took the project with him when he finished academia and moved to IBM. The engineering challenges spelled out here over a fifteen year period are enormously complicated. In the eventual machine, "...every single one of those 36,000 transistors for the chess move generator was drawn by hand on a computer. I also hand routed every single wire on the chip." The climax of the book, of course, is the 1997 six game rematch, played on a Deep Blue that could hunt out 200 million moves in a second. The excitement before the match was considerable; tickets were being scalped for $500 and a security guard was even punched by a photographer eager to snap a picture of the opponents at the table.
At one point, Hsu writes about a shockingly aggressive move made by the computer, "Deep Blue obviously had no idea that it was playing Garry Kasparov." With good humor, Hsu reflects on the paradox of an insensate machine eventually defeating possibly the best human player ever (never having lost a previous match). "Is it intelligent?" people wanted to know from Hsu after the famous contest. Hsu knows: "Deep Blue is not intelligent. It is only a finely-crafted tool that exhibits intelligent behavior in a limited domain." Nonetheless, this is an insider's view of a fascinating achievement. Deep Blue may only be a finely-crafted tool that cannot really think, but it has given its humans plenty to think about.
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Taiwanese-born Feng-Hsiung Hsu has written a most engaging and readable account of how Deep Blue came to be, and how it defeated world chess champion Garry Kasparov in perhaps the greatest chess match of all time. I say "perhaps" because there are many who still consider the 1972 encounter at Reykjavik, Iceland between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky to be the greatest match ever. One thing both matches had in common, in addition to a worldwide audience, is two deeply suspicious and idiosyncratic geniuses, Kasparov and Fischer.

However, while Fischer's triumph rejuvenated interest in chess, especially in the US, Kasparov's defeat, many fear, may have rung the death knell for the ancient game. Before Deep Blue's victory, it was easy to imagine that the human mind was light-years ahead of any artificial intelligence. After Kasparov slunk off mumbling vague charges of human intervention ("cheating"), it became necessary to face the possibility that machine intelligence was on its way to exceeding that of humans.

But what did the match really prove? According to Hsu himself, the triumph of Deep Blue "might be the more important human achievement when all was said and done." (p. 256) By a "more important human achievement," he means, more important than the one that would have been Kasparov's had he won.

This I think is the crux of the matter. Deep Blue, an IBM computer of enormous power, is the product of human minds and human engineering. Look at it this way: as computers become more and more powerful and their algorithms become more and more sophisticated, there will be no thought at all that a human might compete with them at chess. It would be like expecting the world's fastest human to beat a motor car in a race. Or for the world's best human calculator to add numbers faster than a personal computer.

In a deeper sense what was destroyed by this match was not human intellectual superiority but the delusion that somehow a board game--even the greatest board game ever invented--is a true measure of human intelligence. Quite simply, the ability to play chess at the highest level is only one talent, similar to (but different from) the ability to play the violin or to run fast. More significant is the greater human ability to conceive and build a machine that does something better than humans can do themselves.

Hsu's account includes a lot of information about his personal adventures in academia and the corporate structure, including rivalries with others in the race to build the ultimate chess-playing computer. He is candid, and self-revelatory to a surprising degree, and it is this candor that helps to make this a fascinating read, not only for computer specialists and chess players, but for anyone interested in how the human competitive spirit works. His portrait of Garry Kasparov--perhaps the strongest chess player of all time--captures the arrogant, suspicious genius at his most human and makes it clear how he came to lose a match he fully expected to win.

Ah, the match itself! The book includes the moves of the games in an appendix, but one can readily see that the match turned on two very strange decisions by the hitherto nearly invincible Kasparov. Strange to say, it appears that Kasparov lost the match mainly because of poor psychological decisions. In game two, believing that he was lost, mainly because he believed that the computer would not have made the move it had made had there been a perpetual check available to the human player that would have drawn the game, Kasparov resigned. However, the machine had erred, and there was a way to draw the game. Against a human opponent, I believe that Kasparov would have closely investigated that line and found the drawing resource.

In the final game again Kasparov made a decision based on what he thought was the nature of the way computers play chess. He allowed a sacrificial line as Black in the Caro-Kahn Defense, a line that he believed Deep Blue would never play since computers are notoriously bad at figuring out how to conduct a complicated attack. Indeed, commercial chess software for PCs typically exclude this line from their opening repertoire so as not to burden the program! So Kasparov thought in playing 7... h6 that Deep Blue would retreat its knight giving Kasparov easy equality. Instead Deep Blue plunged in with 8. Nxe6! Eleven moves later Kasparov resigned--easily one of the quickest defeats of his career.

So, with better decisions, based on sound chess and NOT on mistaken preconceptions about Deep Blue's prowess, Kasparov might have won the match. However, the irony is that it is unlikely that there ever will be another match between the world chess champion and a machine simply because Kasparov and the whole chess world know that the ultimate victory of machine over man, in the arcane test of will and calculation that is chess, is inevitable. But what we also know is that it doesn't matter. We still hold races between humans even though our machines can easily out distant them. And humans will continue to play chess even though they would have no chance against a computer because chess is first and foremost a human sporting event, a test of mental strength and skill much as a boxing match is a test of physical strength and skill.
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on December 2, 2002
The Deep Blue-Kasparov matches were what pushed me from being someone who knows how to play chess, into a serious tournament chess player 5 years ago. I found the matches to be fascinating, as did the media who put the results of the matches on the front pages of newspapers such as USA Today. I also happen to be a computer science major, who works full time as a software engineer. This book for me was the perfect blend of my two main interests in life - chess and computers.
Hsu tells a very fascinating story. It is not just about chess and computers however. It is the story of a young immigrant who comes to the US to study, and ends up doing something that is of a major historical significance in the minds of many people.
This book was a real page turner. I did not want to put it down. I thought the path leading Hsu to work on chess programs was fascinating. He made a suggestion to the leading computer chess professor who did not like it. This inspired him to implement the idea. It was a case of several things coming together, which ended up leading to the creation of a great computer project.
Hsu's story of hard work was very inspiring. I liked how he did not consider the match to be "man vs machine", but man as a toolmaker vs man as a performer. If you found the Deep Blue matches interesting, you will certainly enjoy this book.
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on September 19, 2002
Amazon says it is published in November, but I picked up a copy in September. Anyway, this is an excellent book. The story intrigued me but I was a litlle nervous that the computing and chess would be way over my head (I know little about either). However, the author does a great job of telling a story and the few more technical paragraphs can be skipped without losing anything. In addition to describing big leaps in technology, the book is full of tales of professional rivalries, backbiting, prima donna behaviour and lots of battling male egos. Great stuff. Couldn't put it down, particularly when the book got to the matches with Kasparov - although I knew the result the re-telling made it seem like you were there. The author won't win prizes for literature, but he certainly knows how to tell a good story. You'll love this book.
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on October 26, 2002
I am no chess player, nor does one have to be to understand and enjoy this book. Sensibly, the subject matter has been tailored to a general readership (apart from a few references to chip design) and tells a fascinating story, mixing intellectual endeavour with political intrigue. We know the end of the story, but that does not diminish the pleasure to be gained from reading this informed and fluent account of it: Alan Turing would have been delighted! In some ways it reminded me of 'The Double Helix'-which is a 'must' read.
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on February 3, 2003
Hsu makes it clear that he doesn't like software. His focus in "CS" (Computer Science) is actually Electrical Engineering. Thus, almost nothing is mentioned about the Chess software itself. What does the evaluation function do? How does Deep Blue/Deep Thought, etc. work? We aren't told much. So if you want details about Deep Blue, look elsewhere. If you want to learn about chip design, then this book will interest you. Mostly, it is a narrative about Hsu and his team and their adventures. It is about Hsu's career and the competition. But not really so much about what went into Deep Blue. Try J. Schaffer's book, One Jump Ahead. Although it is about checkers, not chess, it is much more interesting from a software development point of view.
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on July 6, 2003
I was slightly disappointed with this book, but since much of the material is only available from the author, it was worth reading. Having played tournament chess, having written chess software (non-commercial), and especially having been one of a thousand or so at the final games where Kasparov lost, I had high expectations for this book. Perhaps too high. That might explain why I was disappointed.
As the author points out, it is not a book on chess analysis and that seems obvious. However, even the analysis from a software standpoint is weak -- it merely seems to be a hardware let's-build-it-one-thousand-times faster. Come to think of it, the author DID state that he was writing the book that way, so I shouldn't be too surprised.
I was delighted that the author liked "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman" (a fantastic book) and that further heightened my expectations. Unfortunately, the book lacked the creativity and humor of anything like that.
It was not a "bad" book, just not quite what I expected. That does not discredit the great work done or what might come in the future as a result of it. For that, the accolades are already present.
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on April 18, 2006
Behind Deep Blue was written by the man who lead the research and development team which created the chess computer that beat the World Chess Champion, Gary Kasparov. Hsu tells a lot of fascinating stories about his involvement with IBM, academia and the world of computer-vs-computer chess tournaments. It never got too bogged down in computer or chess jargon.

Some interesting things concerning the identity of Deep Blue (or computers in general) emerge from Hsu's story. Hsu speaks of his computers' identities in ways which facilitate his sportsmanship. So for instance, almost every time one of Hsu's computers loses a game it is retrospectively explained by reminding the reader that the computer had been regrettably forced to play when it still needed a few more weeks of software or hardware tweaking. It never lost because it was an inferior machine - it lost because its superiority could not manifest because its update/debugging had been interrupted by the tournament schedule. As the book makes clear, Hsu's computers were continuously undergoing relentless tweaking, providing Hsu with this excuse every single time one lost. This may be par for the course when diagnosing machines - since any sub-desired performance which can be corrected can, therefore, be "explained" as the unfortunate consequence of the machine's present uncorrected state. For humans it's different. When I lose a foot-race I can't say, "Well the only reason I lost is because this race was scheduled a few years before my training made me fast enough to win it."

Another fascinating element of the book is Hsu's recounting of Deep Blue's now-famous rejection of 36. Qb6 in game two against Kasparov in the 1997 match. Kasparov broadly hinted that the computer's decision not to move that way was a human decision - implying that the IBM team had cheated. Hsu's defense of Deep Blue is convincing. But there is raised an interesting point regarding computer intelligence. If Deep Blue did in fact choose to avoid 36. Qb6 without human intervention then Kasparov's heartfelt identification of the move as cheating has Deep Blue passing a simple version of a Turing Test.
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on December 2, 2002
Hi -- this is a delightful read. I realize I am not unbiased
in this regard, being the West-Coast operator of Deep Thought
but I wanted to just say that this is an easy read of a very
conversationally-written book about a highly technical
subject that is not written opaquely at all. You'll be
surprised at a lot of what went on. I was. And remember:
good engineering beats quasi-spoofy "ghost-A.I." If you
want some good engineering, grab GNU Chess for free at...
Stuart Cracraft
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on December 11, 2009
This book was an entertaining read but my one criticism was that it is a little too hardware focused. Hsu spent a lot of time talking about the custom VLSI design he did that sped up the processing. However he gave only cursory treatment to the software design: the opening books, the AI, deep blue's ability to "learn" from other games played with grandmasters, and how the programmers adjusted the "weighting" of different components (such as an open rook file) to improve deep blue's positional capabilities. I was hoping to get a little more insight into how chess programs work and what made deep blue unique and special besides its custom circuits and hardware. It is a bit quaint reading about his hand drawn layout on 3 micron cmos and his hand soldered circuit boards. I remember those days and it is a fun reminder. However it makes the book dated because naturally computer processing has sped up so fast that you can essentially run deep blue today on a generic PC, and it is the software design, not the custom hardware enables a computer to play at the grandmaster level
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