Why is it that, when it became time to teach computers to play games, chess is what we decided upon? What it is about chess that attracted the manufacturers of artificial intelligence? Plenty of games have infinite outcomes; why’d we land on chess? That question doesn’t really get answered in Computer Chess (2013), a mockumentary about a chess tournament among computer programmers in the early ’80s; in fact, it adds a wrinkle to it. The programmers don’t seem to care very much about chess either. “You could be the greatest chess master in the world and you still wouldn’t reach your full potential,” a woman tells Peter (Patrick Riester). “I’m not a chess player. I don’t want to be a chess player,” he says. “I’m a computer programmer.”
This is just as well because the movie isn’t really about chess or even computer programming. It’s about loneliness and male anxiety about imperfection. Does that seem like a good concept for a comedy? I would argue that it is, certainly on the basis of how funny Computer Chess is, but that should not be too surprising. Many comedies are about loneliness and anxiety; this one’s just a little more upfront about it.
In a shabby hotel, various teams of computer programmers come together to pit their machines against each other, the champion earning the right to challenge a real life chess master, Henderson (the film critic Gerald Peary), who acts as the master of ceremonies for the whole conference and crows about his unbeaten record against the machines. The conference begins with a panel discussion with Henderson and the leaders of the current teams, including last year’s reigning champion Beuscher (Wiley Wiggins) and his team. Last year’s loser is also present and his computer’s choke job is re-created on an overhead projector. “What looks like an easy victory for White,” Henderson haughtily narrates as the programmer stews like a sports fan watching a highlight of his team’s crushing defeat, “turns into a nonsensical loop of moves.”
Also present is Peter, a shy university student, various team members, cameramen and documentarians and John (Jim Lewis), a doomsday predictor who doesn’t know much about computers but is convinced that a conference of computer chess is one step on the road to the apocalypse. He attends every year. This time, there’s a woman programmer, Shelly (Robin Schwartz), who the boys awkwardly gravitate toward, not exactly sure what to make of her, an unknown wrinkle in the code. The cocksure Papageorge (Myles Paige) fancies himself as the rock star of the group. After relating to Shelly his appreciation for “the feminine side of programming,” he tells her there’s been a problem with his room and asserts that he ought to stay in hers. We think it’s a line but, after she politely declines, we discover that Papageorge is, in truth, without a room and there’s a running joke about the variety of places he finds to sleep. His polyester three-piece suit, slept in over the course of a long weekend, looks a little worse for wear on Monday than it did on Friday.
Papageorge’s nomadic arrangement allows him, and us, to cross paths with the other occupants of the hotel, particularly a group of New Age hippies whose ideas of free thinking and loosey-goosey behavior are in stark contrast with the computer programmers. The groups do overlap with their love of drugs (“A man on three scotches could program his way out of any problem in the world.”). A couple of the hippies, played by Chris Doubek and Cyndi Williams, trap the poor Peter, who is too polite to get away, and bring him to their room for an extremely awkward invitation for a threesome. After trying to connect with him (“Have you ever wondered how many squares there are on a chess board?” the woman asks Peter. This person has devoted a section of his life teaching a computer to play chess; I think he knows how many squares there are on the board), they try to be more direct, which does little but heighten the suffocating discomfort in the room.
With so much going on in one hotel (“We’ve made some strides this year; we’ve had a couple of issues on the other hand. I apologize to anybody here who has cat allergies—MEOW—it’s not going to happen next time; we’re going to be in a different hotel; don’t worry about it.”), there is plenty for the documentarians to capture. The movie looks fantastic, in grainy black and white and shot on the equipment of the time. Far from being a gimmick, it heightens the reality (and some of the sadness) of the proceedings. I enjoyed the primitive subtitles added on the screen in the classic computer font of the early’80s, inane information like “Controversial remarks from Mr. Papageorge.”
But beyond the look is the feeling of pathetic possession, the defense of a turf so undesirable and a competition with stakes so low that it can only be amusing how fiercely they compete for it. This is these people’s lives, this is what they do, and the movie delights in presenting them with reasons, even at their own personal Super Bowl, why what they do is irrelevant or not worthwhile. “This is a team that has a lady on it,” Henderson announces at the awards ceremony, as if a) that wasn’t obvious and b) that may be why they finished third. Henderson’s subtle discouraging of Shelly is to be assumed (of the 1,380 living chess grand masters, only 30 are women), but he is not immune to bouts of inadequacy as his façade of bravado in the face of the computer, which he knows will one day, perhaps sooner than later, beat him, comes tumbling down in due time.
Henderson’s fear is one that the whole group fears—the future. Far from the glossy nerds of Jobs (2013), who seemed to know that they are creating a capitalist windfall, the people here worry about the unknown as they argue for its creation. They worry they will program themselves out of the picture, the way any niche obsessives worry about the growing popularity of their obsession. If it can be anybody’s, it can cease to be theirs. The only prospect of the still-opaque computer age these guys are looking forward to is the concept of computer dating. Based on their success rate with Shelly, I would say they need the help.