In a Deep Blue mood

the trials of following the match online
On the opening day of the great chess match in New York, when Garry Kasparov began his doomed attempt to uphold the honour of humanity against the combined forces of IBM's best programmers and hardware engineers, the message section of CompuServe's Chess Forum read like a farce entitled Six Characters in Search of a Chess Game. Whenever anyone tried to call up the official Web page of the match, some obstacle seemed sure to block the path.

Chess, in the opinion of many of its devotees, is what the World Wide Web was invented for. The pace of a chess game makes it the perfect Internet spectator sport. You can follow a game live by tuning in every now and then and catching up on the moves that have been played since your last visit. You can even argue the merits of various possible moves with fellow enthusiasts around the world. Or you can download the moves of thousands of games in minutes, then play them through at your leisure. And all for the price of a local phone call.

With the netterati's affinity with computers, a chess match between human and machine was pure heaven and last year, when Kasparov first played Deep Blue, IBM was overwhelmed by the level of interest. At one point, the official Web site was registering more than 1 million hits an hour. Unfortunately, IBM had not catered for such a colossal demand and the server collapsed under its weight. For the first couple of games of the match, the majority of people trying to get through saw only the frustrating "Unable to connect to server" message. By mid-match, they had sorted it out, but many must already have deserted the IBM site for more reliable (or, at least, less popular) sources of chess information.

This time, of course, things would be better. They knew how much interest there would be. But still the poor chess chaps on CompuServe were reduced to sending plaintive messages: "Does anyone know how to ...", or "What am I doing wrong ...", or "Do I have the right address for ...". I tried myself, but, not being highly experienced at Net wandering, was not surprised when, on the first day, I could not get beyond the home page, and on the second, I had a fine guided tour of the players' biographies, the programmers' biographies, the match schedule, last year's games and a mountain of other peripheral information, but could not find the moves of the current game. Was I insufficiently Java-enabled? Was my Netscape Navigator last year's model? Probably, but I didn't know how to tell. I gave up on day three, but, on day four, tried again and found it all changed. Suddenly, I could follow the game, read a transcription of a live commentary, and even join in a discussion. This was state of the art chess spectating.

But why, if they can program a computer to slay Garry Kasparov, can't IBM get a simple thing like a Web site working at the first attempt?n

Kasparov vs Deep Blue