Done in by a Disk

updated 09/19/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/19/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

THE PROMOTERS COULD HAVE billed the match as champ versus chip. On one side of the table sat Garry Kasparov, the normally cocky, 31-year-old Russian who is one of the world's Top 10 chess grandmasters. Facing him at the Intel World Chess Grand Prix, held in London from Aug. 31 to Sept. 3, was a Pentium Plus processor loaded with a program called Genius 2. As a crowd of 300 watched, the machine's monitor was "flickering anxiously," according to one British paper—but that was nothing compared to the way Kasparov was behaving.

"Garry was rattled, completely distraught," says Srimath Agalawatte, a marketing manager with the microprocessor company Intel. One reason, maintains Agalawatte, is that Kasparov "felt he was carrying the responsibility for humans." He was also getting his tail kicked by $129 worth of software. The program, in fact, pummeled him twice, knocking him from the tournament in the first round. Angry and frustrated, Kasparov threw up his hands, then stormed off the stage. "Everyone was stunned," says Agalawatte. "No one thought the computer had a chance."

Well, maybe no one but Genius 2's unlikely creator. Richard Lang, a shy, 38-year-old physicist from Poole, England, says he was "absolutely overjoyed" as he watched his baby become the first such device to beat a world champ in a match limited to 25 minutes total thinking time per player. He should be pleased; Lang, married with three children, says he never had computer training—and he claims to be lousy at chess. "I can't really work out which are the good moves and which are the bad," he says. Because the theoretical possibilities fascinated him, though, Lang started designing chess programs as a hobby in 1981. As technology advanced, he and other programmers perfected their software. By 1990, only about 1,000 players could beat the best computers.

Now even Kasparov has experienced the agony of high-tech defeat. The day before his loss, the champion had demonstrated just how much of a chauvinist he still is. "The computer," he said, "is a lot closer to winning the title than a woman." But one thing Genius 2 didn't win was the Intel tournament; it was knocked out in the semifinals by Indian grandmaster Vishy Anand (who was defeated in the final by Ukrainian grandmaster Vassily Ivanchuk). Anand thinks human players still have at least one advantage over technology. "At the end, there were a lot of people cheering for me," he says, "and no computers cheering for him."

From Our Partners