Kasparov vs. the Monster

WORLD chess champion Gary Kasparov refers to his high-tech opponent as ''this monstrous machine.'' That characterization adds a touch of medieval drama to the man-versus-machine contest that's riveting millions of chess enthusiasts - mostly to their computer screens, where move-by-move action can be followed on the Internet.

But Deep Blue, the IBM computer that's battling Mr. Kasparov, is neither monster nor, strictly speaking, machine. At least not in the sense of the mechanical inventions that have pushed aside millions of humans - from cotton pickers to welders - since the dawn of the industrial age.

This souped-up computer is operating in the rarefied arena of pure intellectual firepower. Kasparov has been considered a chess prodigy since boyhood. He's the Michael Jordan of his game, an unquestioned genius. Yet, after Tuesday's draw against Deep Blue, he rather humbly allowed: ''In simple practical terms, the computer played today at a level of some of the best players in the world.''

That's high praise for what may be the toughest competitor Kasparov has faced. Deep Blue's engineers have diligently hiked its calculating capacity to 200 million moves a second. An earlier, less speedy model was whipped by Kasparov in 1989. But this time, so far, it's been nail-biting tight: first game to Deep Blue; second to Kasparov, who had found a chink in the monster's armor.

And the chinks are there. This is, after all, an extraordinary second cousin of the unit that sits in our offices and studies. One of Deep Blue's builders admitted nervousness because ''you never know if the computer is even going to work.''

Kasparov doesn't have that worry, which is why this information-age battle of titans may not go down as another instance of human skill displacing skilled humans.

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