HAL Plays Chess

In the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey" astronauts relieve the tedium of a long voyage to Jupiter by matching wits at chess with HAL, a supercomputer that can see, hear and think. The film's basic theme is the working partnership between man and machine, who must rely on each other for mutual survival.

But the trip goes awry when a malfunction causes the crew to lose faith in the machine. They unplug it briefly while deciding what to do, unaware HAL can still read their lips. With icy logic, perceiving that their irrational behavior will foul up the mission it was created for, HAL eradicates all but one of the humans as they sleep.

Director Stanley Kubrick and I both played chess at a Times Square club featured in "The Killing," one of his early films. A stickler for accuracy, he cited several flaws in a book about the making of 2001 but curiously missed one in the scene where Frank Poole plays chess with HAL on a video screen.

The game is nearly over. In a menacingly calm voice, HAL says, "I'm sorry, Frank. I think you missed it. Queen to Bishop three. Bishop takes Queen. Knight takes Bishop, mate." This is not shown, and after a beat Frank says, "Yeah, looks like you're right. I resign."

We see the board before White's 14th move. But HAL, playing black, didn't say "Queen to Bishop SIX," which is the right way of describing this move from black's viewpoint in descriptive notation. However, in our algebraic notation each square has one name and one name only no matter who is on move.

Surely the slip was unintentional, yet it has the merit of showing that the machine was indeed flawed. HAL also overlooks White can delay his doom for one move after 15...Qf3 by 16 h4 Nh3 17 Kh2 Ng4 mate.

The game in the movie replicates a real one that took place at Hamburg in 1913 between Roesch-Schlage, two German amateurs. Safer is 9 d3, though White's fatal error came a few moves later. Correct is 12 d4! Bb7! 13 Qxb7 (or 13 Qxf4 Nd3 14 Qe3) Ne2 14. Kh1 Nxc1 15. Rxc1 Nd3 16. Rf1 Nxb2 17 Nd2.

In real life what happens aboard spaceships when chores are done, exercise is over, and time drags? You guessed it -- they play chess. The first game between earth and outer space took place during the flight of Russia's Soyuz 9 in 1970, two years after the movie was released. One of the cosmonauts became head of the Soviet Chess Federation.


White: FRANK POOLE Black: HAL 9000
Ruy Lopez 1968

1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bb5 a6 4 Ba4 Nf6 5 Qe2 b5 6 Bb3 Be7 7 c3 O-O 8 O-O d5 9 exd5 Nxd5 10 Nxe5 Nf4 11 Qe4 Nxe5 12 Qxa8? Qd3 13 Bd1 Bh3 14 Qxa6 Bxg2 15 Re1 White resigned when HAL gives 15...Qf3! 16 Bxf3 Nxf3 mate.