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Stanford Report, April 28, 1999

Kasparov on sports: 'Human actions in extreme conditions' at Stanford


A funny thing happened on his way to Stanford last Thursday night, Garry Kasparov told the overflow audience at the SEQ Teaching Center that had gathered to hear him speak about the "Limits of Performance."

He was late for the talk, he said apologetically, because he'd had to wait in the lobby of his hotel for 30 minutes while an "antiquated machine" printed out the 11 pages of his speech.

"Can you believe that a hotel in Silicon Valley does not have a laser printer?" he asked, grinning, enjoying the moment immensely. "Not even a chess player can predict some of the obstacles that happen, but it seems I was kept away from you by the limits of the performance of the hotel."

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World chess champion since 1985 and, some have argued, the best professional chess player ever, Kasparov carries himself with well-earned confidence. But there is also a streak of the rebel and a hint of the prankster in the Azerbaijani native.

As flash bulbs exploded in the auditorium, Kasparov surveyed the audience thoughtfully. Fastening on several different youngsters in the crowd, he welcomed them with private winks.

His affinity with children became clear partway through the evening when Kasparov predicted that he would continue to play chess professionally for another four or five years.

"I want to keep playing until my son can recognize who his father is," he said about his 4-year-old.

The audience laughed often and clapped loudly as Kasparov spoke about some of the particularly dramatic moments of his chess career. His talk for the second of the spring-quarter Presidential Lectures and Symposia in the Humanities and Arts was less a play-by-play reenactment of key games and more a reflection on the qualities of players and the pressures of championship chess.

"Sports give us a unique opportunity to study human actions in extreme conditions," he said. "By studying world records in many different sports we can get very useful information about the ability of the human organism and nervous system to adjust to very difficult conditions."

Kasparov argued that chess should be considered a professional sport because it requires considerable endurance and strength.

"Chess seems to be a very passive and quiet game where people are sitting for hours, just moving pieces across a board, and nothing is happening," he said, pausing, as laughter began to ripple through the audience.

"And yes, the board is very small," he added, to appreciative applause.

"But if we evaluate the pressure a chess player suffers during world events, we see that it's at least as difficult to cope [in chess] as in any other professional, physical sport," Kasparov said, noting that matches can last for weeks at a time.

While many sports require bursts of energy for one event, Kasparov argued that the pressures experienced by chess players rarely dissipate.

"Your mind is constantly preoccupied, not only at a game but also during preparation for the game," he said. "I think from my own experience that psychological stress is far more dangerous than physiological stress, because psychological stress can happen on its own and always leads to physical weakness."

Kasparov said he has experienced fevers, allergic reactions and even "dental problems" while playing long matches.

By working out in the gym, swimming and rowing, Kasparov said, he tries to keep himself in peak shape.

Although he said he feels "like a dinosaur" at most of the tournaments he plays today, Kasparov added, "I am sure that my recent successes against much younger players partly depend on my physical superiority."

Every match has a definitive moment, Kasparov said, and the outcome often depends on the players' moods. Noting that "first you lose psychologically, and then you lose on the board," Kasparov said that during one match with Anatoly Karpov, "I looked at his eyes and realized that he did not believe he could save the game."

At the start of another recent world-class tournament in Wijk aan Zee, the Netherlands, Kasparov said, "something told me I was about to play a real great game."

Chess commentators later confirmed that "it was probably the best game ever played in the history of chess," he added.


"It was an amazing combination of human intuition, determination and calculation that helped me to create a really beautiful game," Kasparov said.

What also helped in that game, he said, was practicing with a computer and learning to "think geometrically."

"I could see the geometry of the board, and could see very clearly 15 moves ahead," Kasparov added. "I felt very comfortable ­ not as comfortable as a computer, but much more comfortable than my opponents."

Kasparov also spoke at length about his loss in 1997 to the 1.4-ton IBM supercomputer named Deep Blue that reportedly could analyze 200 million moves per second.

Noting that it was 200 processing chips, rather than the host machine, that generated the calculating speed, Kasparov suggested: "It's as though a Honda Civic with two Pratt and Whitney jet engines broke the world land-speed record on Salt Lake Flats, and then the manufacturer claimed that Honda makes the fastest car in the world."

Although he did not have prior access to Deep Blue's programming, Kasparov said, "the machine could use my mistakes [in previous matches]," and won because of that advantage.

He also said he felt there had been human intervention in game two of the match, when the computer had two options and chose the "human" move, a play that "normally would be rejected by a computer."

When IBM dismantled the computer and declined to provide printouts of the calculations involved in the match, Kasparov said he thought it was an "extremely unfair" decision.

"I believed Deep Blue could give us valuable information and show at what point, at what depth of calculation, a machine decision-making process could produce the same result as human creativity and intuition.

"What we were witnessing was some sort of artificial intelligence," he added. "And I think that's what chess could contribute to the computer science field, because only in chess do you have this very thin and subtle balance between creativity and calculation."

After his talk, Kasparov responded to questions about the limits of performance posed by six panelists: Oksana Bulgakowa, visiting professor of Slavic languages; Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, professor of French and Italian and of comparative literature and director of the Presidential Lectures; Brian Hoffman, professor of internal medicine at the School of Medicine; Adrian Keatinge-Clay, a member of the Stanford chess team; football coach Tyrone Willingham; and Terry Winograd, professor of computer science.

The exchanges between Kasparov and Willingham were particularly lively. After agreeing with Gumbrecht that a chess team could be housed within the athletics department, Willingham wanted to know if Kasparov's skills as a chess player could be taught.

"You need intuition first," the champion said. "You need something inside that rings the bell, so that you can see the whole picture [of a match].

"It is just there, and if you are not born with it, no training could build it." SR