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Among the many amusing literary inventions of the science fiction writer Douglas Adams was a computer called Deep Thought. Fans of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy will recall that Deep Thought had been asked by its programmers to compute the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything. It would take seven-and-a-half million years, but at the end of that span of time Deep Thought produced the answer: 42. This far from satisfactory response would have pleased the National Union of Philosophers, Luminaries and Other Thinking Persons, whose representatives, as Adams related, had been concerned that Deep Thought would make all of them redundant.

A similar anxiety must now be seizing the more apprehensive of the fraternity of chess grandmasters. Is it possible that the next generation of computers will solve chess? This would mean, in practice, finding out what the best moves were for both colours, beginning with the starting position. It might turn out that the initial position is a win for white, or (more likely, I suspect) a draw. However, in any event, once such a series of moves was discovered, chess could be said to have been "solved". Game over.

Computer scientists, for all the extraordinary advances in programming and miniaturisation, still regard this as unfeasible in practice. They point out that the number of possible chess positions greatly exceeds the number of atoms in the known universe. To hack through all of that might indeed be the work of millions of years. Still, some grandmasters have a deep hostility to our silicon friend—Nigel Short for one. He told me some time ago that he would never play in an event against a computer, on the grounds that "they are trying to do us out of our job, and I don't see why I should help make them any better." 

Unfortunately for Nigel, they are increasingly better at a dramatic rate, even without his assistance. In 1978, the year in which Adams's radio series was first broadcast, the chess master David Levy won a bet he had made in 1968, when he staked £1,250 (a lot in those days) that Silicon Valley could not, within ten years, produce a chess program able to beat him in match. Bear in mind that Levy, while a former Scottish champion—and also a noted authority on artificial intelligence—was not of grandmaster strength. It was considered a very rash bet at the time, but in 1978 Levy beat Chess 4.7 quite convincingly. He confessed, however, to being surprised at the strength of his opposition and, having originally said that "the idea of an electronic world chess champion belongs only in the pages of a science fiction book", declared, "Now, nothing would surprise me."

Levy was right to hedge his bets, this time. Ten years later, a chess program, called Deep Thought in honour of Douglas Adams's fictional computer, and built by the AI team at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, became the first machine to beat grandmasters in tournament conditions. In the 1988 Long Beach Open in California, Deep Thought crushed Igor Ivanov and Bent Larsen. They had tried to out-tactic the silicon monster, which was exactly how not to tackle it. So I thought it would be interesting if I, a mere county-strength amateur, were to challenge Deep Thought, but to do so having taken coaching from Levy. 

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