July 5, 2013 6:23 pm

Classic geek drama

Playwright Matt Charman talks about the contest between chessboard and circuitboard in ‘The Machine’
Matt Charman, who wrote ‘The Machine’, on the set of the rehearsal studio in east London©Rosie Hallam

Matt Charman, who wrote ‘The Machine’, on the set of the rehearsal studio in east London

There are moments in history when we sense that something has shifted: the moon landings, say, or the first IVF baby. For playwright Matt Charman, a chess match was such a moment. The match was the 1997 contest between the world chess champion, Garry Kasparov, and Deep Blue, the IBM supercomputer. Deep Blue won. It was, says Charman, a tipping point in human history.

“Part of the reason so many people wanted Garry to win was that the idea that suddenly we weren’t the smartest thing on the planet was really scary,” Charman says. “Where might that lead?”

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Charman’s new play, The Machine, seizes on the encounter and the controversy that followed when Kasparov accused IBM of cheating. It’s a story full of symbolic potential about our increasingly ambivalent relationship with technology and cyberspace. But as drama? If there is anything with less dramatic potential than a man playing chess, isn’t it a man playing chess against a computer?

I put it to Charman that this contest between chessboard and circuitboard might seem a little dry: not so much Greek drama as geek drama. Charman laughs good-naturedly and admits that when he first started to research the piece, he thought he would be writing about chess moves and algorithms. But he soon realised that not only did the contest have immense symbolic weight in terms of human beings’ relationship with artificial intelligence, it was also a gripping personal story about two exceptional individuals: Kasparov and Feng-hsiung Hsu, the principal designer of Deep Blue.

“I expected to write a play about a man playing a machine,” says Charman, 34, who has previously written three dramas for the National Theatre. “I didn’t expect to write a play about two geniuses playing each other ... It’s pugilism. It’s kind of a boxing drama in a strange way. The ring is smaller and the guys don’t hit each other but it’s just as impactful in terms of everything they put on the line. Hsu, who pioneered Deep Blue, put everything into that, years and years. Garry’s entire career was staked on this match. They both bet the house on winning – and one of them is not going to be able to win.”

Indeed, IBM realised the scale of this 20th-century gladiatorial contest and spotted, says Charman, “an amazing marketing opportunity”. The match, held in the Equitable Building in New York, was staged with all the razzamatazz of a major sporting tournament. Josie Rourke, directing the play, has picked up on that idea and will turn Manchester Campfield Market Hall into a bustling sports arena.

“We watch this match unfolding,” says Charman. “But, really, chess is such a tiny part of it: it’s more about how these guys got to this position in their lives ... They’re both outsiders. And they both sort of get chewed up.”

Garry Kasparov plays against the IBM Deep Blue chess computer, May 1997©Getty

Garry Kasparov plays against the IBM Deep Blue chess computer, May 1997

The drama spirals out from the match to trace the story of the two men, one Russian, the other Taiwanese, who ended up on opposite sides of the board in New York. Both driven and determined, they both faced setbacks on the way and were both, in different ways, sucked into the bigger geopolitical and commercial forces at play. And both, says Charman, were left somewhat bruised.

“Garry still had room to grow and he was just going to keep raising the bar and raising the bar,” he says. “And then this thing happened and I really think it stopped him in his tracks. It unwound him as a chess player and he was never the same again. He recognises that in the way he writes about it and talks about it, I think. The idea of the best and brightest among us being broken down like that – there’s something almost Arthur Miller-like about it. It feels like a big tragedy at the heart of this play.”

The play also raises questions about the nature of intelligence and the quality of genius. Charman says that he enjoyed imagining “what is it like to be the greatest at anything, particularly at chess, which is essentially the ultimate test of intellect”.

But in that brilliance lies vulnerability. Central to the play is the fragility of success. Just as love contains the danger of loss, so success contains the shadow of failure: every great sportsman, dancer or scientist could eventually be overtaken. And the defeat of the champion here becomes particularly intense because of the question of who won – man or machine – and how and why. Kasparov was convinced he had been cheated, maintaining that in one match, the computer had made such sophisticated moves that there must have been human intervention.

“You’ve got Hsu who by his own admission was not a very good chess player,” says Charman. “But what he could do was build a tool that could do the elements he couldn’t and that could then beat Garry. Garry is hung up on who beat him. A machine? Someone in a locked room? This guy from Taiwan? Who actually robbed him of this thing?

“It comes down really to Garry’s humanity,” he adds. “The reason he lost against Deep Blue was that he was a real human being: he wasn’t able to stop himself getting frustrated and upset and obsessed.”

Perhaps what makes this such a touchstone moment is that Hsu couldn’t beat Kasparov at chess but made a machine that could – whereas Kasparov couldn’t do the opposite. And it was by making an apparently human move that the computer upset Kasparov. Whatever happened in that game – and Charman deliberately leaves the questions open – the impact was intriguing.

For Josie Rourke, the play’s concerns are hugely topical, given the current debates about hacking, online privacy and the potential for sophisticated software to assess our interests and even our moods. “We seem to have reached this tipping point in the ability of computers to analyse us and get a grip on what our behaviour is and what our behaviour is likely to be,” she says. “The play may be set in 1997 but it seems to me it gives us space to reflect on some pressing 2013 issues.”

It is, of course, a world that is changing at phenomenal speed. Charman shows me round the rehearsal room where, alongside the chessboards and manuals (everyone in the company is learning to play chess), there are also some wonderful examples of obsolete hardware: a couple of 1980s IBM computers and an Amstrad among them. Although less than 30 years old, they look as quaintly ancient as medieval ploughs. Charman says that because the play moves around in time, it will point up just how fast technology has changed and how deeply we have become entangled with it.

“We are coming to a moment where we are going to be signing away quite a lot of power to different bits of kit,” he says. “And I think a lot of people are nervous about that.”

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‘The Machine’, Campfield Market Hall, Manchester, July 10-21, www.mif.co.uk;

then Park Avenue Armory, New York, September 4-18, www.armoryonpark.org

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