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The Making of Computer Chess Print E-mail
By Dr. Alexey Root   
July 17, 2013
The film Computer Chess begins its theatrical run on July 17, after screening at prestigious film festivals such as Sundance and SXSW. It’s a narrative feature set at a computer vs. computer chess tournament in 1980, when computers’ strategic skills were fairly rudimentary. Justin Chang, reviewing the Computer Chess for Variety, described it as, “An endearingly nutty, proudly analog tribute to the ultra-nerdy innovators of yesteryear.” New York Times also ran a positive review just as the film releases at the Film Forum this week. 

The film is expected to receive an “R” rating, due to language and adult content.  Dr. Alexey Root interviewed its producer Alex Lipschultz and its chess consultant Peter Kappler.

Root: What were your tasks as producer?
Lipschultz: The casual analogy I always use to explain what a film producer does is this: If a film’s director is the captain of the ship and the one who charts its course, the producer is essentially the one in charge of building the boat and overseeing its crew. Producers find a script then put together a plan entailing the many steps and logistics necessary to bring it to life.

Director Andrew Bujalski had this terrific idea about making a movie set at a computer chess tournament in 1980. Yet Andrew is neither a chess or programming expert, so it was my job to help find him people to help enhance his knowledge base. People like Peter Kappler and David Levy, an International Master who used to organize these tournaments back in this era. Jim Stallings of The University of Texas at Dallas Chess Program, along with Gary Gaiffe and Lori Balkum of the Austin Chess Club, found folks involved in the local chess scene to be background actors in the movie.

Root: Tell me about creating the chess in Computer Chess.
Lipschultz: The Web site http://computerchessmovie.com/ (Reference Games tab) shows famous computer chess games that Andrew Bujalski used in researching the film. The games played in the movie itself were all designed by Peter Kappler, our computer chess consultant. Peter is a master-ranked USCF player, an amateur computer chess programmer, and former Google executive. His help on the film was absolutely invaluable.

Kappler: Let me give you an example of how I picked chess games. For a game near the end of the film, Andrew Bujalski wanted the scene to begin with the character Henderson (the tournament organizer and a master-strength player) in complete control. But some noise in the playing hall distracts Henderson and he blunders. Andrew only wanted to film a couple of moves and warned me that the camera would be zoomed in closely, meaning that parts of the board might not be visible.

So, I needed to find a position with a short, game-changing move sequence, where all the action takes place in a small area of the board. And since Henderson is a strong player, I didn't think his blunder should be crude and obvious. I thought it should be a superficial move that meets an unexpected refutation.  After quite a bit of searching, I found this position from Gelfand-Lautier (Belgrade 1997).  

From the diagram, the game continued 39. Rc5?? Bc4 40. Kd2 and Black resigned.  But Lautier could have completely turned the tables with the surprising 39... b4!!

40. axb4 b2 41. Rxd5 b1=Q -+
40. Rxd5 bxa3 -+
40. Kd2 bxa3 41. Kc3 b2 42. Rb5 Be4 -+

Instead of 39. Rc5??, White could have won easily with 39. Kd2.

In the scene for the film, the moves played by Henderson (as White) and his opponent are 39. Rc5 b4 40. Rxd5 bxa3 (and Black is winning).

What other chess promotions are planned? 
Lipschultz: Our distributor, Kino Lorber, is currently trying to plan some events, but nothing is set in stone yet. If Chess Life Online readers have any ideas, I'd love to hear them! Connect with me and with the film via its Web site, which has Twitter and Facebook links. 
It would be great to get the USCF involved in the film's release. 

Root: What have been the reactions of chess players who have seen the film? 
Lipschultz: Most of the chess players and computer programmers who have seen the film have really loved it. We were initially quite concerned about how David Levy would react to the finished product, and he ended up really enjoying it and feeling that it very accurately portrayed a lot of what those events were about at the time.

My own parents, who run Food for Thought Software (which created the Think Like A King school chess curriculum), seemed to find the film very interesting, if not a little baffling as well.

We're hoping that Computer Chess can appeal not just to lovers of adventurous cinema, but to anyone with a serious interest in chess, computer programming, or artificial intelligence. It’s not every day that a narrative film addresses any of these topics. As far as I know, I'm pretty sure no one has ever made a movie entirely set at a chess tournament before, let alone a computer chess one.