This week marks an athletic grudge match sure to rivet the attention of millions. No, basketball fans, not the NBA playoffs between the New York Knicks and the Miami Heat, who, in turn, have benefited from the strategic genius of coach Pat Riley. But Garry Kasparov vs. Deep Blue.
Last year Mr. Kasparov showed that he was more than a match for IBM's digital chess master, which had a carefully engineered capacity to consider 100 million chess moves per second. The IBM team now has boosted Deep Blue's grasp of files, ranks, diagonals, pieces, and pawns to 200 million positions a second. Some in the chess world wonder if the odds have tilted in the machine's favor.
With the contest at a win apiece (the third game is today), Deep Blue's new skills are still a matter of speculation, though the computer's decisive win in Game 2 has doubtless shaken Kasparov partisans.
But the reigning world champion, never one to doubt his abilities, has said all he has to do is play against a computer a few times to find its weaknesses. Then human ingenuity will triumph, as it did last year. We shall see.
Extraordinary human ingenuity, after all, is what produced Deep Blue. The man-vs.-machine hype is a little overplayed. It's really not so surprising that some smart computer scientists can build something that amplifies their command of numbers.
No more surprising, certainly, than that 10-year-olds can become chess whizzes and utterly confound their elders. That kind of genius was on display last week at the Super National Scholastic Chess Championships in Knoxville, Tenn. More than 4,000 players from all over the country gathered to show their grasp of the ancient game. Teachers from many areas report a growing interest in chess. That kind of enthusiasm for mental athleticism is already deeply rooted in other parts of the world, not least Kasparov's homeland of Russia.
Deep Blue will never have a shortage of opponents.