Meet the men who took the digital chess world by storm
Deep Junior's creators just wanted to teach something new about the game. They ended up making history.
On Super Bowl Sunday in 2003, millions of viewers watched the Tampa Bay Buccaneers blow out the Oakland Raiders. But not everyone was tuned into the game; a smaller but significant audience was watching a different battle of wills, this one on ESPN2, between chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov and the personal computer program Deep Junior.
The men to thank for this high point in the chess world were two men who wanted to be like Kasparov, but made their mark via their programming skills instead. Amir Ban and Shay Bushinsky grew up in Israel wanting to be accomplished chess players, but at a certain point realized they were just a couple of amateurs who loved the game. So they created Deep Junior, one of the top computer chess programs of all time.
It all started in the 1980s when Ban, the man who eventually developed the USB flash drive, decided to make up for his lack of competitiveness in chess by creating a program that could compete for him. Around the same time Bushinsky, a pioneering software engineer, had switched from playing to writing about developments in the digital chess world.
In 1993 the two met, and Bushinsky helped optimize Ban’s program for serious competitions with real people.
“The first competitive version was introduced into the Israeli leagues in local championships benefiting from a large Russian immigration in the mid-'90s,” Bushinsky told The Grapevine.
“There was an influx of strong grandmasters, and the Israeli Chess Federation was open to Junior competing against those guys, even though it didn’t normally allow competition between man and machine,” he said.
In 1994, Junior won its first match against a grandmaster. The event was a sensation because, since the 1980s, only programs with massive hardware put out by companies like IBM were making strides. Junior, a seemingly inferior competitor because it was a PC program as opposed to a monster computer, defied the thesis that a high calculator was necessary to score well against a person.
After that taste of success, Ban and Bushinsky entered Deep Junior into the 1995 World Computer Chess Championship, sponsored by the International Computer Games Association (ICGA).
The on-again, off-again tournament was traditionally won by supercomputers, but that year, first place went to a German PC program, and Junior tied for third. In 1997, Junior returned to win its first title and won a second championship in 2002.
Shortly afterward, a match was proposed between Deep Junior and Kasparov, the man considered by some to be the greatest chess player of all time.
Kasparov had played against computers before and was still licking his wounds from a 1997 loss to IBM’s Deep Blue. As an incentive, he was given a copy of Deep Junior and a database of all of its previous games to practice with. Taking the challenge very seriously, Kasparov formed a team and studied Deep Junior in depth, later claiming he knew the program better than its creators. At the match, he almost proved himself correct.
Held at the New York Athletic Club in February 2003, the event was billed as the "Man vs. Machine" championship and drew a large audience on ESPN2, despite being on Super Bowl Sunday.
It included some of the most exciting moments to date between a digital chess program and a human – in particular, Junior's landmark decision in Game 5 to sacrifice a bishop, seemingly for no reason. Kasparov was convinced he had won, until it became clear Junior had a strategy. The move sent the game into perpetual check, and it ended in a draw.
For Ban, Junior's decision represents a milestone in the history of computer games. “It was a very interesting move ... because it was not played on some deep precise calculation,” he recalled. “It was a creative move by a computer to orchestrate a position which turned out to be very serious. In a strange way it was evaluating, judging the position.”
Chess enthusiasts wear 3D glasses as they watch the Man vs. Machine chess championship broadcast live in three dimensions by X3D Technologies on Feb. 7, 2003, in New York City. (Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)
To date, Junior has won eight ICGA championships – including the most recent one, held in 2013 – but hasn’t competed in a major man vs. machine match since 2005. By then, computer programs had become so advanced that all matches were being won by machines, resulting in little public interest in a rematch.
So with no humans to play against, where is Deep Junior today? Bushinsky’s edition is in his closet at home, but the commercial version is up to 13.8 and one of the most popular chess games worldwide. For Ban, the program's popularity attests to his belief that aside from being competitive, Junior has personality and is fulfilling a mission greater than just beating world champions.
“I think the real challenge is to actually teach humans something about the game that they didn’t already know, and this is something I feel we achieved with Junior,” he said.
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