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Friday, March 12, 1999


2001: A chess odyssey

By Quah Seng Sun

DO YOU know that legendary British director Stanley Kubrick, who died in London on Sunday at the age of 70, was a keen amateur chess player?

The "grand master of filmmaking" (in Steven Spielberg's words) of such classic films as the 60s' 2001: A Space Odyssey was not a strong player but he could count on the American grandmaster Larry Evans as one of his friends. Stories have been told of Kubrick playing chess with his stars before the start of filming.

2001, together with many other thought-provoking films like A Clockwork Orange (1971), gave Kubrick cult status.2001 was about astronauts on a long voyage to Jupiter. To relieve the tedium of the voyage in the USS Discovery One, the astronauts matched wits at chess with HAL 9000, a supercomputer that could see, hear and think. Here was the working partnership between man and machine, who must rely on each other for mutual survival.

IBM contributed advice about computers of the future, but insisted that all references to the giant computer company be removed from the film when it realised that HAL 9000 was to become a renegade device.

IBM bigwigs were even less pleased when they saw that H, A and L were the letters of the alphabet that preceded the I, B and M in IBM's name. The producers maintained that this was purely a coincidence, but the conspiracy theorists maintained that it was Kubrick and science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke (the co-writers of the movie) having a swipe at IBM.

Nevertheless, despite IBM's reluctance to be associated with the film in 1968, it could not escape its eventual destiny. Almost 30 years later, the film's theme of artificial intelligence was reprised in 1996 and 1997 when IBM's own supercomputer machine, Deep Blue, played Gary Kasparov, in two celebrated chess matches in the United States.

HAL was programmed to ensure that above all else the mission was to carry on to Jupiter at all costs. HAL was given details of the true purpose of the mission, which was withheld from the crew, but it was also programmed never to lie to humans and to administer psychological tests to determine if the crew was in danger of jeopardising the mission.

In the movie, the trip went awry when a malfunction caused the crew to lose faith in the machine. They unplugged it briefly while deciding what to do, but they were unaware that HAL could still read their lips. With icy logic, perceiving that their irrational behaviour would foul up the mission it was created for, HAL got rid of all but one of the astronauts as they slept.

In a memorable scene from this film, one of the astronauts, Frank Poole, played chess with HAL on a video screen. The game was nearly over. In a menacingly calm voice, HAL intoned: "I'm sorry, Frank, I think you missed it. Queen to Bishop three, Bishop takes Queen, Knight takes Bishop, mate."

This was not shown but Frank then said: "Yeah, looks like you're right. I resign."

The board before White's 14th move could be seen. But HAL, playing Black, should have said: "Queen to Bishop six," which was the right way of describing this move from Black's viewpoint in the old descriptive notation.

Surely the slip was unintentional since Kubrick was a chess player, yet it had the merit of showing that the machine was indeed flawed. HAL also overlooked that White could delay his fate for one move after 15...Qf3 by 16 h4 Nh3 17 Kh2 Ng4 mate.

The game in the movie replicated a real one that took place at Hamburg in 1913 between Roesch and Schlage, two German amateurs. Here is the game (Frank Poole vs HAL 9000) as played in the film: 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 Nf6 5. Qe2 b5 6. Bb3 Be7 7. c3 O-O 8. O-O d5 9. exd5 (safer is 9 d3, though White's fatal error comes a few moves later) Nxd5 10. Nxe5 Nf4 11. Qe4 Nxe5 12. Qxa8? (correct is 12. d4! Bb7! 13 Qxb7 (or 13. Qxf4 Nd3 14. Qe3) Ne2 14. Kh1 Nxc1 15. Rxc1 Nd3 16. Rf1 Nxb2 17. Nd2) Qd3 13. Bd1 Bh3 14. Qxa6 Bxg2 15. Re1 and White resigned when HAL gives 15. ... Qf3! 16. Bxf3 Nxf3 mate.

In reality, what happens aboard spaceships when chores are done, exercise is over, and time drags?

You guessed it--they play chess. The first game between Earth and outer space took place during the flight of the Soviet Union's Soyuz 9 in 1970, two years after the movie was released. One of the cosmonauts, Vitaly Sevastianov, later became head of the Soviet Chess Federation.

Big turn-out

THE second leg of the Bank Pertanian Malaysia national allegro chess circuit, held last weekend at the Kuala Terengganu regional maritime office, received an astounding 214 entries which included international masters Nasib Ginting (Indonesia) and Malaysia's own Mas Hafizulhelmi.

Due to the large number of entries, the organisers had to hold a preliminary three-round elimination event to trim the participants down to a more manageable 116 players who then took part in the actual six-round tournament.

After a tense struggle, Kelantan player Mohd Nizam Hamzah won the tournament with a perfect score which included a win over Mas Hafizulhelmi. Half a point behind the winner were Ghalam Sani and Nasib Ginting, but Ghalam was declared the runner-up on the basis of a better tie-break.

Other prize winners were Fikrul Saiffudin, Ismail Ahmad, Mas Hafizulhelmi, Abdul Rahim Ramli, Abdul Haq, Senu Mohd Nor and Mas Harithul Fadli who scored five points each.

The three prizes for the best players from the Terengganu Chess Association went to Nor Azmi Md Nor, Hashim Jusoh and Md Sallehuddin Salleh. Abdul Kadir Othman took the best veteran's prize, while Md Shazali Ruslan won the prize for the best Bank Pertanian player.

The prizes for the best women's players in the tournament went to Atikah Mustaffa, Haslindah Ruslan, Rusdiah Rozanna, Azwani Hussin and Wan Nor Shazni. Siti Zulaika Firdaus won a prize as the best under-12 girl's player.

The under-16 prizes were given to Md Saiful Adli, Azman Anuar and Ahmad Izzuddin Yusuf; the under-14 prizes went to Noor Haziq Noor Ariff, Che Wan Hafez, Hafex Saifuddin and Musa Azmi; while the under-12 prizes were won by Muaz Nor Azmi, Md Johan Iskandar and Md Kamal Firdaus.

Playing sessions

THE Penang Chess Association meets on Sunday mornings at the Berjaya Georgetown Hotel in Pulau Tikus, and on Sunday afternoons at the clubhouse of the Bayan Baru Residents Association in Bayan Baru.

In Johor, there are weekly playing sessions organised by the Johor Chess Association at Level One of the Leisure Mall in Taman Pelangi, Johor Baru.

Up Next

THE fifth leg of the Bank Pertanian Malaysia (BPM) national allegro chess circuit will be staged in Johor on March 28. The venue is the Leisure Mall in Taman Pelangi, Johor Baru. Entry fees are RM10 for members of the Johor Chess Association, Bank Pertanian employees, women, under-12 and veteran players, and RM15 for all other participants.

The total cash prize is RM1,500. The bulk of this prize money will go to the main winners while RM500 is set aside for the minor winners. The winner of each leg will qualify automatically for the Grand Prix final. To register, contact Sumathy ( 07-332 4366), Wong ( 07-333 0931), Lim ( 07-861 5951) or Cheong ( 016-720 2272).

For details of the fourth leg in Kota Kinabalu on March 21, call the Malaysian Chess Federation secretary Abdul Latif Mohamed ( 03-282 6341 / 013-301 0204). There will be 10 other legs in various cities and towns around the country before the grand final in October.

Meanwhile, according to the Chess Association of Selangor calendar, three tournaments are scheduled for this month. The first is the fifth friendly chess match for the disabled at the Sunway Pyramid in Petaling Jaya on March 21, the second is the 13th Royal Selangor junior open for the under-10, under-14 and under-18 age categories on March 27 and 28, and the third event is the association's first quarter allegro open on March 29.

The junior and allegro open events will be played at the Sunway College. For more details, contact Mrs Jackie Wong ( 03-703 8237) or Lim Tse Pin ( 03-733 0927).

April will be a busy month in Penang. Chess players can look forward to the Penang Free School Open on April 4 and the Union High School Open on April 18. Incidentally, these two events will double as the first and second legs of the third Penang Grand Prix chess circuit.

A week later, on April 25, the sixth leg of the BPM national allegro chess circuit is scheduled to be held at the Kolej Damansara Utama in Jalan Anson, Penang. There will be more details on these three tournaments in a fortnight's time.

In Ipoh, the second leg of the Perak Grand Prix, organised by the Perak International Chess Association (PICA), will be played at Sekolah TAR on April 3 and 4. For more information, contact W.K. Wong at 05-366 1692.

In the meantime, PICA will hold its annual general meeting at 9am at the Taman Dr Seenivasagam in Ipoh this Sunday. As there will be an election this year, the association is appealing for new blood to strengthen the organisational structure of the committee. A blitz tournament will be organised after the meeting.

Quah Seng Sun's chess articles are archived at ( or ( Readers can write to him at:


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