In 1770, the Mechanical Turk, a machine featuring a robotic ‘Turkish Gentleman,’ was hailed as a mechanical device that could beat a human being at chess. It allegedly beat several famous human players including Benjamin Franklin and Napoleon Bonaparte.
Fast-forward to some time in the 1980s, and this fascination with the idea of machines beating humans at their own game is at the heart of a weekend tournament of Computer Chess at a small hotel. In this tournament, computer programmers pit their chess programs against one another, with the victor facing off against human chess player, Pat Henderson. At the same hotel, in the same function room no less, a new-age couples therapy convention is also taking place. And while these two events seem like polar opposites, by the end of the weekend they’ll have much more in common than first thought.
Filmed entirely using vintage Sony AVC 3260 tube-powered video cameras, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was an old documentary Bujalski found in his garage. But the visual style/mode of production perfectly highlights our continual love of speculating about technology and its applications for humankind. There’s a lot of general discussion (and drug-assisted ones too) in this film about ‘artificial intelligence’ and what we’re really teaching computers to do by teaching them how to play chess. Bujalski shows us that whenever there is a technological breakthrough, it is almost guaranteed that a bunch of people under the influence of drugs will be discussing how people will inevitably militarise it – or use it for dating.
The mechanical Turk turned out to be a grand illusion: the device actually required someone inside it in order to function and was invariably operated by the greatest chess players of the age. And at the end of the day, is computer chess any different? Arguably the programs are only as good as the human programmers developing them. And it’s through the relationships between humans and computers that the film asks its biggest questions: Can intelligence ever be artificial? Can these technologies exist without human connection?
One thing is certain: Bujalski’s skill as a filmmaker is genuine. And in Computer Chess he crafts a truly humorous (and at times incredibly odd) film that uses a seemingly obscure moment in time to ask questions that persist in the present day. Whether you’re a rook-ie or a Fischer-man, Computer Chess is well worth your attention. And so were the twenty minutes I spent looking up Chess-related puns for the previous sentence.
Written, Edited and Directed: Andrew Bujalski
Starring: Wiley Wiggins, Patrick Riester, Myles Paige, and James Curry
Reviewer: Sallie Pritchard