HAL 9000 Playing Chess in 2001

How “futuristic” was a chess playing computer at the time 2001 came out?

I turn 30 this year, and I begin to think that I “missed” most of the wow factor of the scene.

I then read a book, from the same time period, that basically said a chess playing computer would never happen.

I’m not sure how much of it, if any at all, I missed.

Interesting fact: accordingly to Clarke’s book, HAL was programmed to lose 50% of the games he played; otherwise, he’d win them all easily.

Although the film depicts HAL only winning one game, perhaps he has been winning more than his 50%. An early warning sign that his ego problem was manifesting itself.

Alan Turing wrote a chess program more than 60 years ago but never ran it on a machine. The link goes to a Register story and clip of Garry Kasparov playing it. Says Kasparov:


Dreyfus lost.

According to this, the first computer chess program was written in 1950. 2001: A Space Odyssey came out in 1968.

The movie was also supposed to feature a scene with HAL playing Dave 9or the other guy) at Pentomi noes. The scene was actually filmed, but not incorporated. A game company marketed Pentominoes, with plastic pieces on a board in place of the computer display-based game depicted, but, without the publicity from the movie, it flopped. Clarke later used Pentominoes as a theme (with a piece at the head of each chapter) In his book Imperial Earth.
the pieces were same as those that later surfaced in tetris. Although Pentominoes looks like an archetypal computer game, it goes back to the beginning of the 20th century:

In terms of the ‘wow factor’, the chess scene stood out in my mind when I saw the movie as a kid in 1968. I remember very clearly, thinking that it would be absolutely amazing to be able to play chess with a machine. That I did so within 10 years was amazing.

I remember my dad had a chess computer - an actual computerized board with actual pieces, that would blink to indicate its move - which would have been in the middle to late 1980s, if not earlier than that, so it definitely followed pretty quickly on the movie.

Nitpick: though some have similar silhouettes, they are not the same. Tetris blocks are built from four contiguous squares, pentominoes from five.

From what I understand, the chess game shown on screen was from a semi-famous (in the chess world) game between two human grandmasters, and was chosen because it represented a style of play very uncharacteristic of the chess computers of the time.

And the concept of a chess machine is much older: There was a 19th-century hoax called the Mechanical Turk, which purported to be a chess-playing automaton (in reality, there was a human hiding inside the machine directing the moves). One of the arguments that it had to be faked was that it occasionally made mistakes, which a real machine supposedly wouldn’t do.

Roesch vs. Schlage, Hamburg 1910

David Levy, an International Master (not a grandmaster) made a bet in 1968 that there would not be a computer able to beat him under match conditions by 1978. He won comfortably, though not by a clean sweep. Computers caught up with him a decade later and beat Kasparov by 1997. So for sure, by 2001 HAL would have been well able to hose even really strong amateurs.

I had one. Sadly, it was missing after a move across the country.

Even more problematic, HAL says “I’m sorry Frank, you missed it” and explains how it’s mate in two, to which Frank promptly resigns. Thing is, it’s not mate in two. There are a few delay tactics that can extend the game by about two moves. HAL lied!

Is it ever shown that HAL had a chess program hard coded? If he had hard AI, he might have to learn how to play chess the same way as a human, and thus not win against and amateur 100% of the time, let alone play to the level of dedicated chess computers.

A chess-playing computer was a wow factor for me, but believable in the context of the movie (the lip-reading scene was the only thing that I found hard to swallow).

I think that by having HAL winning and politely pointing out Bowman’s error, the scene was intended to show HAL’s superiority over the humans, but I didn’t get any hint of ego. At that point in the movie, I think Kubrick’s intention was just to seduce the audience with the wonders of technology without planting any suspicions, so that HAL’s murderous breakdown is more unexpected and shocking.

There’s a site, www.collativelearning.com/, which goes into incredible detail examining what Kubrick was really up to in 2001. One of the things they point out is that in the chess playing scene Poole is seen thinking out loud and moving his lips (but without really speaking) in planning his next move. The implication is that since HAL can read lips and the astronauts didn’t know this yet, HAL is cheating.

Some of the stuff they posit seems far-fetched, but Kubrick was a certifiable genius, so I think they’re on to something…

I agree.

In 1983, the place I worked at had a computer chess board that slid the pieces around the board with moving magnets underneath the play surface. Very eerie, it even moved the pawns out of the way so the knight could slide out, then the pawn would slide back.

HAL certainly hosed astronaut Frank Poole all right.