Saturday, November 4, 2017

John Sharples's "A Cultural History of Chess-Players"

John Sharples is a cultural historian. He completed his PhD at Lancaster University. He has published on the chess-player, flying saucers, and Jules Verne.

Sharples applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, A Cultural History of Chess-Players: Minds, Machines, and Monsters, and reported the following:
My book puts forward the idea of the chess-player as a fragmented cultural figure. In an attempt to engage with the various forms of its subject, it is divided into three sections – Minds, Machines, and Monsters. The thought that a solitary page could encapsulate the entire work’s themes was an intriguing one. Despite initial doubts, it arguably does do so. Page 99 comes from the concluding remarks of chapter four, entitled ‘Future Shocks: IBM's Deep Blue and the Automaton Chess-Player, 1997-1769.’ This chapter examines a range of cultural responses to Garry Kasparov's 1997 defeat by the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue and to Wolfgang von Kempelen's eighteenth-century Automaton Chess-Player. By suggesting that ‘both Deep Blue and the Automaton Chess-Player functioned as highly ambiguous cultural messages congealed in one object’, I frame the chess-player as a kaleidoscopic cultural figure capable of generating multiple meanings. This is the main theme of the whole work. Other chapters apply this theme to chess-player forms including the human, animal, child-prodigy, and super-villain, utilising comics, detective fiction, sci-fi, and film.

On page 99, I conclude by summarising some of the ways cultural construction occurs and consider the efficacy of the crude binary oppositions which have been used to assert the superiority of the human chess-player over machine counterparts. Characterisations of Kasparov’s contest as ‘Linda Hamilton vs. the Terminator’, for example, raise questions of historical timeliness and cultural power. In an age of pervasive computer systems, the ‘historical moment’ of the chess-player as a figure of reason and intelligence may have passed. This thought is amplified elsewhere throughout the book, in the context of a number of more disreputable, more monstrous, and more Gothic theoretical readings of the human chess-player. These themes are closely linked to chapter four’s readings of the machine chess-player, particularly the idea of the chess-player as a statue, often static and frequently isolated in performance, and the way the chess-player is viewed as a distant emblem of ‘intelligence’ and ‘reason’ under the gaze of others. In this regard, the ‘quality of the whole’ work is revealed on this single page.
Learn more about A cultural history of chess-players at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue