How Not to Network a Nation. The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet

(Ben Green) #1

The Undoing of the OGAS, 1970 to 1989 179

long concerned itself with the advancement of computer chess programs,
which grew exponentially more sophisticated from 1970 through 1989,
when Gary Fields was first defeated, and then again until Deep Blue’s con-
troversial victory over Kasparov in 1996. Since at least Wiener in 1964, crit-
ics have contended that superior computer chess programs were inevitable
but would diminish the value of chess as a human activity.^45 The situation
led early computer chess critics to bemoan their state with the defeatism of
the final scene in the 1980s film War Games. After all, if the heirs of Botvin-
nik’s Pioneer program dominate the best players today, the human will to
be the best has already been undermined. What is the point of playing, the
chess enthusiasts worried, when everyone loses every game?
Such handwringing by chess purists against the artificial intelligence
community has since been sidelined—and by neither the triumph of tech-
nology over humanity nor the triumph of humanity over technology. Chess
as a human pastime has not dwindled in the face of virtually indomitable
computer programs. Instead, networked computers have sped the spread
and growth of the global chess community. The number of online human-
to-human and human-to-computer chess has exploded since Kasparov’s
defeat for unrelated and seemingly mundane reasons. No longer encum-
bered with the burden of serving as a shadow stage for cold war intrigue,
long-distance chess in real time over computer networks is now an every-
day reality.
Botvinnik’s influence on networked computers and chess continues to
surprise. It is not Botvinnik’s sophisticated computer algorithm but his
foundationally basic notational system that has had the most lasting effect
on the now globally networked game of chess. Thanks to well-codified chess
notation systems that were popularized by Botvinnik, computer record-
keeping capacities have allowed millions of games of top-level chess to be
catalogued into a database known as “the Book.” Recently, for example,
a German company named ChessBase has been scrutinized for its widely
used database of chess moves that organizes prior games, new move oppor-
tunities, and errors in human play, which effectively reduces chess games
to enormous decision trees of known and unknown pathways of game
progression. Critics have accused its founder, Frederic Friedel, of having
“ruined chess” because few games now occur that include new combina-
tions of moves that are not found in “the Book.”^46 The result is a new cold
war tension of human players against the book, in which top chess players
and their opponents know that, given almost any chess board arrangement,
the best game they can play is played out in “the Book.” Botvinnik’s secret

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