Theater archives

The Machine Plays High-Stakes Computer Chess


Despite its title, The Machine isn’t really about Deep Blue, the supercomputer that famously beat chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov in 1997. As rendered by Matt Charman and bombastically directed by Josie Rourke at the Park Avenue Armory, the story isn’t man bested by machine; it’s some good old-fashioned nerd-on-nerd pugilism. Kasparov (Hadley Fraser) devoted his life to mastering the chessboard. But Feng-hsiung Hsu (Kenneth Lee), his nemesis, devoted his life to perfecting Deep Blue’s motherboards.

Flashing back from the 1997 match—amid many bells and whistles from the elaborate set—the split-focus bioplay compares Kasparov’s career as a chess prodigy in the hierarchical Soviet system with Hsu’s early years striving in the hierarchical worlds of computer science and corporate America. Both biographies evince monastic rigor (Charman adds an awkward subplot involving Hsu’s ex-girlfriend: Working a hundred hours a week is—surprise—incompatible with pursuing life’s nonelectronic pleasures).

Which underdog will win? The hard-driving immigrant savant or the ferocious but fallible chess genius? It doesn’t matter. Charman’s sanguine play, perfect for our app-happy moment, rephrases the confrontation as old-style human achievement (knowledge and accumulated mastery) versus human achievement 2.0 (big wonks, big data). Never mind that it’s an easy leap from Deep Blue to Prism; let’s all play Angry Birds, and leave chess to the computers.