Editor’s note: The Trivia Geek is on extended leave, but he did get off his slacker butt long enough to pull this Classic Geek, which originally ran on May 10, 2005, from the archives.

Almost 10 years ago, one of the last bastions of the argument
for the human race’s supremacy over computers finally fell. On May 11, 1997,
IBM supercomputer Deep Blue bested chess world champion Garry Kasparov in Game
6 of their series rematch—becoming the first computer ever to defeat a sitting
chess champion under strict tournament rules.

For those of us squashed by many an off-the-shelf chess
program, take heart. Computers have defeated chess grandmasters on multiple

However, until Deep Blue’s 1997 triumph, no computer had
been able to win a formal best-of-seven series with a grandmaster. (This
includes Deep Blue; Kasparov handily won his first series against Deep Blue in
1996.) Humans had previously been able to adapt to the powerful capabilities of
their computer opponents.

Indeed, many chess purists insist that computers alone are
still unable to defeat the most able chess opponents. In its 1997 series
against Kasparov, Deep Blue was never the same computer from game to game.

Between each game, IBM engineers would update Deep Blue’s
software to better prepare it for the next contest—in effect,
“learning” on the computer’s behalf. Thus, one could reasonably argue
that, while computers can now compete with humans in the rarified air of
grandmaster chess, they still can’t do it alone.

In some respects, it’s not surprising. For all its
successes, Deep Blue is really just an exercise in raw, unbridled computing
power, rather than sophisticated artificial intelligence. The components of
Deep Blue are hardly cutting-edge, even by 1997 standards.

Developers coded its software in the C programming language,
and it ran on the IBM AIX operating system. While engineers designed some of
its underlying hardware specifically to calculate chess positions—to the tune of
100,000,000 positions per second—Deep Blue was actually just a massive parallel
number-cruncher. So it’s little wonder that this mountain of big iron needed
some intellectual hand-holding from a few mere mortals to earn its signature

Moreover, given Deep Blue’s nominal history, that’s
appropriate. Deep Blue is actually the technical descendant of an earlier
supercomputer, called Deep Thought—named in honor of a famously fictional
computer that also needed help from humans.


What’s the origin of the Deep
name for the early chess supercomputer, a fictional reference that
represents perhaps the ultimate instance of computers needing assistance from

Developed at Carnegie Mellon University in the late 1980s,
the original “real” Deep Thought supercomputer took its name from the
fictional supercomputer Deep Thought, a character from the best-selling sci-fi
comedy novel, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to
the Galaxy
, first published by the late, great Douglas Adams in 1979.

In the novel (and its numerous sequels), Deep Thought is an
immensely powerful computer designed for the sole purpose of determining the
“answer to Life, the Universe and Everything”—which, incidentally, is
the title of the third book in the series. The fictional Deep Thought is
successful, returning the answer of “42.”

Thus, while Deep Thought can tell you the great answer to
life, it cannot tell you the question that produced the answer. It’s a solution
without insight, a notion with no context, which is why the number 42 has since
become an inside joke to both Hitchhiker’s
fans and the larger geek community.

To overcome the obscure 42 result, the fictional Deep
Thought designs a successor that will be able to determine the question that
produced that answer. That computer was the planet Earth, with its myriad life
forms and (in particular) human inhabitants unknowingly serving as independent
processors, unwittingly working out the great metaphysical question of all
existence. Thus, the greatest computer in this fictional universe was literally
and figuratively dependent on human assistance.

That’s a pretty heady namesake for a chess supercomputer,
but it’s also rather fitting given how Deep Thought’s descendant, Deep Blue,
earned its signature victory. Beyond the literary reference, engineers also
named the Deep computer series (which also includes models dubbed Deep Fritz and Deep Junior) in honor of the “deep” algorithms used to calculate
extended permutations of possible chess positions.

The final manifestation of Deep Blue—nicknamed Deeper Blue, thanks to its several
upgrades needed to best Kasparov—currently resides in the Smithsonian’s
National Museum of American History. Now that’s some in-depth Geek Trivia.

Get ready for the Geekend

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The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week’s Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in a future edition of Geek Trivia—namely, when the Trivia Geek gets back from his extended leave. (To read the original quibble from this article, see Listing A.)

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The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who’s duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.