It is the greatest game in the history of chess. The sheer number of ideas, the complexity, and the contribution it has made to chess make it the most important game ever played.
-Garry Kasparov (World Chess Champion) in a Reuters interview conducted during his 1999 game against the World
In 1999, world chess champion Garry Kasparov, widely acknowledged as the greatest player in the history of the game, agreed to participate in a chess match sponsored by Microsoft, playing against “the World”. One move was to be made each 24 hours, with the World’s move being decided by a vote; anyone at all was allowed to vote on the World Team’s next move.
The game was staggering. After 62 moves of innovative chess, in which the balance of the game changed several times, the World Team finally resigned. Kasparov revealed that during the game he often couldn’t tell who was winning and who was losing, and that it wasn’t until after the 51st move that the balance swung decisively in his favour. After the game, Kasparov wrote an entire book about it. He claimed to have expended more energy on this one game than on any other in his career, including world championship games.
What is particularly amazing is that although the World Team had input from some very strong players, none were as strong as Kasparov himself, and the average quality was vastly below Kasparov’s level. Yet, collectively, the World Team produced a game far stronger than one might have expected from any of the individuals contributing, indeed, one of the strongest games ever played in history. Not only did they play Kasparov at his best, but much of the deliberation about World Team strategy and tactics was public, and so accessible to Kasparov, an advantage he used extensively. Imagine that not only are you playing Garry Kasparov at his best, but that you also have to explain in detail to Kasaparov all the thinking that goes into your moves!
How was this remarkable feat achieved?
It is worth noting that another “Grandmaster versus the world” game was played prior to this game, in which Grandmaster and former world champion Anatoly Karpov crushed the World Team. However, Kasparov versus the World used a very different system to co-ordinate the World Team’s efforts. Partially through design, and partially through good luck, this system enabled the World Team to co-ordinate their efforts far better than in the earlier game.
The basic idea used was that anyone in the world could register a vote for their preferred next move. The move taken was whichever garnered the most votes. Microsoft did not release detailed statistics, but claimed that on a typical move more than 5000 people voted. Furthermore, votes came from people at all levels of chess excellence, from chess grandmasters to rank amateurs. On one move, Microsoft reported that 2.4 percent of the votes were cast for moves that were not merely bad, but actually illegal! On other occasions moves regarded as obviously bad by experts obtained up to 10 percent of the vote. Over the course of the match, approximately 50,000 individuals from more than 75 countries participated in the voting.
Critical to the experiment were several co-ordinating devices that enabled the World Team to act more coherently.
An official game forum was set up by Microsoft so that people on the World Team could discuss and co-ordinate their ideas.
Microsoft appointed four official advisors to the World Team. These were outstanding teenage chess players, including two ranked as grandmasters, all amongst the best of their age in the world, although all were of substantially lower caliber than Kasparov. These four advisors agreed to provide advice to the World Team, and to make public recommendations on what move to take next.
In addition these formal avenues of advice, as the game progressed various groups around the world began to offer their own commentary and advice. Particuarly influential, although not always heeded, was the GM school, a strong Russian chess club containing several grandmasters.
Most of these experts ignored the discussion taking place on the game forum, and made no attempt to engage with the vast majority of people making up the World Team, i.e., the people whose votes would actually decide the World’s moves.
However, one of the World Team’s advisors did make an effort to engage the World Team. This was an extraordinary young chess player named Irina Krush. Fifteen years old, Krush had recently become the US Women’s chess champion. Although not as highly rated as two of the other World Team advisors, or as some of the grandmasters offering advice to the World Team, Krush was certainly in the international elite of junior chess players.
Unlike her expert peers, Krush focused considerable time and attention on the World Team’s game forum. Shrugging off flames and personal insults, she worked to extract the best ideas and analysis from the forum, as well as building up a network of strong chess-playing correspondents, including some of the grandmasters now offering advice.
Simultaneously, Krush built a publicly accessible analysis tree, showing possible moves and countermoves, and containing the best arguments and refutations for different lines of play, both from the game forum, and from her correspondence with others, including the GM school. This analysis tree enabled the World Team to focus its attention much more effectively, and served as a reference point for discussion, for further analysis, and for voting.
As the game went on, Krush’s role on the World Team gradually became more and more pivotal, despite the fact that according to their relative rankings, Kasparov would ordinarily have beaten Krush easily, unless he made a major blunder.
Part of the reason for this was the quality of Krush’s play. On move 10, Krush suggested a completely novel move that Kasparov called “A great move, an important contribution to chess”, and which all expert analysts agree blew the game wide open, taking it into uncharted chess territory. This raised her standing with the World Team, and helped her assume a coordinating role. Between moves 10 and 50 Krush’s recommended move was always played by the World Team, even when it disagreed with the recommendations of the other three advisors to the World Team, or with influential commentators such as the GM school.
As a result, some people have commented that the game was really Kasparov versus Krush, and Kasparov himself has claimed that he was really playing Smart Chess, Krush’s management team. Krush has repudiated this point of view, commenting on how important many other people’s input was to her recommendations. It seems likely that a more accurate picture is that Krush was at the center of the co-ordination effort for the World Team, and so had a better sense of the best overall recommendation made by the members of the World Team. Other, ostensibly stronger players weren’t as aware of all these different points of view, and so didn’t make as good decisions about what move to make next.
Krush’s coordinating role brought the best ideas of all contributors into a single coherent whole, weeding out bad moves from the good. As the game went on, much stronger players began to channel their ideas through her, including one of the strongest players from the GM school, Alexander Khalifman. The result was that the World Team emerged stronger than any individual player, indeed, arguably stronger than any player in history with the exception of Kasparov at his absolute peak, and with the advantage of being able to see the World “thinking” out loud as they deliberated the best course of action.
Kasparov versus the World is a fascinating case study in the power of collective collaboration. Most encouragingly for us, Kasparov versus the World provides convincing evidence that large groups of people acting in concert can solve creative problems well beyond the reach of any of them alone.
More practically, Kasparov versus the World suggests the value of providing centralized repositories of information which can serve as reference points for decision making and for the allocation of effort. Krush’s analysis tree was critical to the co-ordination of the World Team. It prevented duplication of effort on the part of the World Team, who didn’t have to chase down lines of play known to be poor, and acted as a reference point for discussion, for further analysis, and for voting.
Finally, Kasparov versus the World suggests the value of facilitators who act to channel community opinion. These people must have the respect of the community, but they need not be the strongest individual contributor. If such facilitators are flexible and responsive (without being submissive), they can co-ordinate and focus community opinion, and so build a whole stronger than any of its parts.
This essay is an abridged extract from a book I’m writing about “The Future of Science”. If you’d like to be notified when the book is available, please send a blank email to
email@example.com with the subject “subscribe book”. I’ll email you to let you know in advance of publication. I will not use your email address for any other purpose, nor reshare it with anyone else!
Subscribe to my