‘Computer Chess’ brings up Caltech’s faux past

What do you know about chess and computers? If you don’t know much, then you might be pleasantly surprised and even fooled by this gentle spoof about a chess tournament that matches computers against people.

Director Andrew Bujalski wrote and edited this mockumentary that plunges us back into the early 1980s with the best of intellectual geek fashions and relatively grainy black and white. This isn’t the polished black and white of “The Artist” or “Biancanieves” but it also isn’t about the silent era or its style. This is about a chess tournament taking place at about the time when chess-playing computers were becoming better, but not enough to win against the top chess players. Cinematographer captures that time with muddy low-contrast film that has all the defects usually found in amateur films but just enough to give us the idea that this is a documentary of a low-cost record of a very small chess tournament.

So here’s the reality timeline according to Wikipedia. International chess master David Levy makes a get that no chess-playing computer will beat him in a decade. That bet is made in 1968 and by 1978 no program had. Levy beat Chess 4.7 by Larry Atkin and David Slate of Northwestern University in Illinois.

Levy was defeated by the computer Deep Thought in 1989. Deep Thought was developed by Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and would later be further developed by IMB.

Deep Thought could not defeat the reigning world champion, Garry Kasparov. In 1996, Kasparov would finally be defeated by IBM’s Deep Blue in the first game of the match, but Kasparov would eventually win the match by winning three and ending two in a draw.

The movie, however, it set in the early 1980s and the we understand that last year, the Tsar 2.0 from Pasadena’s Caltech won the tournament. The person filming is a complete amateur. He focuses on an oil stain in the parking lot, a car bumper and then the sky, only to get yelled at by his supervisor.

To introduce us to the main players, and to set the tone, the North American Computer Chess Tournament begins with a panel. The panel consists of head organizer Pat Henderson (Gerald Peary), Les Cabray (James Curry) from Allied Laboratories, psychologist Martin Beuscher (Wiley Wiggins) who is standing in for the detained Dr. Tom Schoesser (Gordon Kindlmann) of Caltech, Roland McVey (Bob Sabiston) of MIT and wild card all-around obnoxious guy Michael Papageorge (Myles Paige).

Henderson is a self-professed chess master and he’s made a prediction that a computer won’t beat him at chess by 1984. We learn that year is quickly coming up and Cabray feels that beyond that year, sometime soon, a computer will beat Henderson.

For us West Coasters, if you have Caltech you must have MIT. McVey is with MIT and this computer Stasia had an embarrassing endgame problem at the last meet. The Caltech team is especially good at endgames, which, we’re told, is where computers usually falter. The Caltech team includes the young and socially awkward Peter Bishton (Patrick Riester). The MIT team has a first–a woman attending the conference, Shelly Flintic (Robin Schwartz).

The cheap hotel where the tournament takes place has other people meeting there–a therapy group where people get in touch with their feelings and a group who is all too much about touching in the swinging and not so single way. Because of this, independent programmer, Papageorge, doesn’t have a room. Throughout the weekend,  he tries different tactics to find a place to sleep–first hitting on the only woman there.

The other two groups will interact with the herd of nerds. Poor Peter will get hit on by a school teacher and a secretary. When the woman coos to him “Don’t you see how limited that is?” referring to the squares on the chess board, Peter reacts with math, “it’s close to 10 to the 120th power” but she still feels he won’t live up to “his potential.” In a sad way, Peter will find his potential, but the ending is particularly satisfying for me as a woman. For guys like Peter, and I’ve meet a few at Caltech, perhaps they’ll conclude his tournament ended fairly well.



The movie isn’t out to get a lot of laughs but does effectively convey the problem between nerds and the real world and make you wonder what happens when the world is run on technology built by men and a few women who are so socially awkward.

I haven’t played chess in a while and never been to a computer chess tournament so I don’t know how accurate this film is as a mockumentary, but it is convincing enough in many respects. Bujalski is an idiosyncratic auteur much in the vein of the Coen Brothers. Bujalski uses people who look like ordinary people you might meet at Trader Joe’s or Caltech or anywhere in the U.S. where nerds might rub shoulders with normal people. The people at Northwestern or Carnegie Mellon might feel a bit snubbed.

“Computer Chess” is available on Netflix for instant streaming. Due to nudity, this is not recommended for children.

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