Microsoft chess: Call it a draw?

The virtual match "Kasparov vs. the World" ends in chess suicide, offering a glimpse into the nature of online community.

Published October 20, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Sabotage. Ballot stuffing. Mass suicide. Protest Web sites. Welcome to the world of online chess.

For the last four months, chess addicts and duffers worldwide have engaged in a struggle to beat the world's top chess player, Garry Kasparov, in the ongoing chess game Kasparov vs. the World, presented by Microsoft's Gaming Zone.

Every two days, Kasparov, playing White, makes a move. Then, chess players who have signed up with MSN get to vote on an answering move. On each turn, "the World" makes the move that gets the most votes from the chess players who've signed up with MSN. (According to Microsoft, 6,000 to 10,000 players vote on a typical turn.) Think of it as a contest pitting the democratic process against one brilliant chess player.

Well, that was how it was supposed to work. But several days ago -- somewhere around Turn 58 -- things began falling apart, as detailed in an MSNBC story yesterday.

The World team was provided by MSN with assistance and advice from four expert commentators. On the 58th turn, the World's only hope was to eke out a draw from a difficult position. At this critical moment, however, one commentator's suggestion didn't make it online in time for thousands of MSN players to read her analysis. The result? Black made a questionable move; the commentator, Irina Krush, resigned; and on the next move, the World -- or possibly just a few disgruntled chess players who'd stuffed the online ballot box -- voted to commit chess suicide by giving up Black's queen.

Microsoft canceled this self-defeating vote, and Web pages sprang up in protest of Microsoft's treatment of Krush, denouncing the match as "the greatest scandal in chess history."

Oh, brother. "You live by the Internet, you die by the Internet," a Microsoft spokeswoman told MSNBC. "This was only possible because of the technology, but in this case the technology caused a problem" -- meaning the glitch in posting Krush's advice.

For once, Microsoft's official line hit it pretty much on the nose. "You live by the Internet, you die by the Internet" is exactly right -- but it's not technology that is at issue. It's online democracy that here, in the limited forum of an online chess game, shows itself flowering with almost distressing abandon.

This squabble may only be about the moves in a chess game, but to the players who have taken the time to puzzle over Kasparov's strategy, those moves are well worth arguing about. As soon as Microsoft set up the game and its online voting mechanism, it brought a community into being. Not a "community" of shoppers, as so many Web companies hope to create; but a real community, with its own discussions, its own fights and even its own politics.

Setting up an online democracy is a scary thing. The citizens are rarely grateful -- more often than not they tend to rise up and complain. So it is no surprise that Microsoft has ultimately had its efforts rewarded with a stream of protest. Participants in online democracies of any sort tend to be awfully vocal. When you live by online democracy, you die by online democracy, too.

It is not a pretty process, and there are plenty of people who will be turned off by the idea that a simple chess game can end in protests and recriminations. But it is also possible to look at this debacle in another way: If a dispute over a move in game of chess can spur an active online debate, it bodes well for the intellectual health of a world in which the Internet plays an ever-increasing role.

By Mark Gimein

Mark Gimein is a staff writer for Salon Technology.

MORE FROM Mark Gimein

Related Topics ------------------------------------------