Sometimes the box lets me win
When I play chess I like to flatter myself that I am enjoying an intellectual pursuit that once engaged such disparate figures as William the Conqueror, Benjamin Franklin and various titled ladies of his acquaintance, and Leo Tolstoy. For more than a thousand years the game has been a ritual combat between human beings.
But advanced technology has put me far ahead of such earlier enthusiasts as Pushkin, who wrote a chess game into ''Eugene Onegin.'' I can play chess against a computer program, and sometimes I wish I couldn't; the machine beats me too often and too easily.
One of the memorable humiliations of my chess-playing life took place 30-odd years ago. I was competing for the junior championship of the Marshall Chess Club in New York, and my opponent, who was well on his way to becoming one of the best players in the United States, beat me in only 17 moves.
That was quick work; I should have liked to hold out longer, and in those days I generally didn't lose serious games in 17 moves. Now it is long past time to have put youthful carelessness behind me, and I am sorry to report that a little plastic box has just beaten me in 12 moves.
Sometimes the box allows me to win, and sometimes I manage to lose honorably. If I can see no particular mistake that lost the game for me, I feel less inclined to reproach myself, and dignity is served. My fortunes have declined insidiously, like an overcautious investment, and for much the same reasons.
Blunders are something else. Painful as it is to make a foolish mistake against a human opponent, I can always tell myself, Look, it's not so bad; he did the same thing 20 minutes ago. Great masters make beginners' mistakes, though not terribly often. But a computer, whatever its limitations, avoids the very simple errors of calculation that I fall into.
It can be difficult to think seriously about the future, even in a game. I would like to win by virtue of my baby-blue eyes and my cute dimples, plus a dash of intuition. My computer is willing to calculate.
As it happens, it is possible for me to control the amount of ''thinking'' the machine does. There is an adjustment for levels of strength, which means thinking time. In principle, the more time a machine (or a human being) is given to think, the better the moves that will be made.
Like so many other general ideas, that one has a flaw, which we may call the Hamlet problem. Even a silicon chip can be sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought; my solid-state opponent seems more ferocious and indeed dangerous when given less time to think.
Contrary to expectation, I have lost plenty of games at Level Zero, where the machine has to move immediately, because I failed to defend against something like Pickett's charge, or the Charge of the Light Brigade. The adage that fools rush in where angels fear to tread seems as true of a silicon chip as of me and my kind.
Whether the machine fights a slow war of maneuver, like Fabius, or goes straight for the jugular, like Patton, I tend to lose. And as a man who never wasted a moment on Pac-Man and would rather not use electric typewriters, I ask myself how I got into this.
It began in an almost Edenic way, with a primitive device called Compu-Chess. It always lost. No matter what mistakes I made, no matter how bad my position, I fought on and eventually won every game. Except for certain natural wants, such as food, clothing, and shelter, I could have spent the rest of my life playing against that machine.
Then an idea intruded. Had it taken visible form, I suppose it might have resembled a serpent, but I thought I was making progress. It became clear that I ought to do something more ambitious; an arrangement that worked was not enough.
I went out and bought the most advanced electronic chess player money could buy. No doubt this was a speeded-up version of man's ascent from the spear to the Pershing missile. We want something with more zip, at least in its specifications, and technology supplies it. As it turns out, a device as advanced as my current chess-playing computer is more than I need, or can comfortably deal with. Apparently the tale of the sorcerer's apprentice will never die: If we don't learn the lesson in childhood from a kindly grandmother, a lot of nasty silicon chips stand ready to teach us later on.