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Computer Chess: Geek, gaming and retro-tech movie of the year

‘The chessboard is the world, the pieces the phenomena of the Universe’

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Board not boring

Pleasingly, Bujalski avoids the temptation to make easy jokes about what to the characters is the distant future but to the audience thoroughly familiar. There’s a gag about the future of computers being dating, but that’s entirely appropriate given the movie’s interest in nerd relationships. But there are no knowing winks to the internet, Facebook or mobile phones.

Computer Chess’ main characters may be eggheads, but Bujalski stresses their humanity. What got him working on the project was a fascination with old-school nerdery from a time long before being geeky was cool, back when technology wasn’t about the next shiny new toy and wasn’t taken for granted.

Computer Chess

Not just guys: nerdette Shelly Flintic (Robin Schwartz) considers her code

The guys he’s interested in are the giants on whose shoulders today’s app millionaires and Kickstarter celebrities are standing.

Bujalski carefully avoids laughing at the stereotype. Sure, some of these guys have difficulty socialising, but they’re no more or less maladroit than anyone else from that period. Like the couples attending a double-booked weekend guru-led encounter session being held in the same hotel the the chess convention is checked into.

So the thick, black-framed spectacles, the Woz-style facial hair, the Bill Gates tanktops, the moustaches, the short-sleeved shirts - these are all the grotesqueries of the time, not of nerds or computer guys specifically.

Computer Chess

Monitoring the opposition

And while they’re driven to stay up all night chasing down solutions to bugs, these folk are not averse to a little R&R. They’re sorted out for weed and pills. Booze too: one British programmer even maintains you can’t code effectively on anything less than three glasses of Scotch.

Bujalski has a good observer’s eye. He shows subjects tapping away on virtual keyboards, minds absorbed in new code. They’re not dispassionate academics either. One flees from a threesome – not, you sense, because of his sexual innocence, but because the middle-aged man and woman trying to lure him into bed are so grotesque.

Even the movie’s foil, Michael Papageorge – wonderfully played with Larry Ellison three-piece suit egocentricity by Myles Paige – has no problem slagging off everyone else’s code, and even the tournament itself, though he’s no less keen than the rest of them to win. “It’s World War Three!” a fellow player enthuses. Everyone eagerly looks out for the rumoured presence of government spooks; they all want better-paying jobs.

Computer Chess

Scrambled eggheads

The contest begins, and it’s not long before team member Patrick Riester (Peter Bishton) realises that the program he’s working on, Tsar, is losing on purpose. It wants to pit itself against people, not machines. Team leader Tom Schoesser - played by real-life computer scientist Gordon Kindlmann of the University of Chicago - has been adjusting the code’s compiler to add its own algorithms.

Schoesser’s number two, Martin Beuscher (Wiley Wiggins), later confesses he was present at the ‘birth’ of their artificial intelligence, and event signalled by the appearance of an foetal ultrasound scan on Tsar’s screen. Off camera, Schoesser’s wife is giving birth to Schoesser’s human child.

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