Borges’ chess and digital democracy

Borges' chess and digital democracy

The Bloc Notes of Michele Magno

Vulnerable king, mobile tower, ruthless
queen, shrewd pawn and sinister standard bearer
on the way of black and white boxes
they seek and fight their bloody battle.

They don't know the precise hand
of the player dispenses their fate,
they know only adamantine rigor
subdues their will and everyday life.

But the player is also in an aviary
(the sentence belongs to Omar) on another chessboard
of black nights and white days.

God moves the player who gives orders.

As God before God the plot weaves
of dust and time and agonies and dreams?


(Jorge Louis Borges)

According to Mauro Ruggiero ("Chess Italy", 2005), it is not risky to give a political interpretation to this Borges lyric. The various pieces of the chessboard, in fact, can be compared to the social classes always present in the history of humanity. Indeed, especially in the European version of the game that spread in the middle of the Middle Ages, its pyramidal structure ranges from the pawn (from the Spanish "peòn"), the simple soldier-worker, to the sovereign. But everyone (including the bishop, who represents the clergy), fight side by side. The end, in fact, is common. And all are subject to the same rules of life and death, regardless of their position on the hierarchical scale.

In the second verse, however, the pieces become mere wooden figures docile to the designs and will of the players, whose choices determine their fate. However, the player is also prisoner on another board, that of the will of a divinity that limits his free will and establishes his fate. Because, as the 12th century Persian poet said Omar Khayyam, "We are pawns in the mysterious chess game played by God. He moves us, stops us, rejects us, then throws us one by one in the box of nothing."

At this point the central theme of poetry manifests itself with a question that will not be answered; a question that recalls great dilemmas of philosophical and religious thought. Who is the God who starts the game before God? Who is the player who plays chess with God himself and whose chessboard is the universe? Borges depicts in his verses the whole universe as an infinite series of chessboards contained one in the other, and whose pieces are in turn puppets and puppeteers of another game.


Philadelphia, 10 February 1996: the IBM Deep Blue supercomputer defeats for the first time the world chess champion Garry Kasparov (who in the next five games, however, will win three by drawing the other two). Equipped with an algorithm capable of calculating one hundred million positions per second, it was a derivation of the "Deep Thought" project developed by the Chinese computer scientist Feng-hsiung Hsu. The Pennsylvania metropolis was thus the site of a small miracle, which however left the Russian master perplexed. Kasparov, in fact, had noticed in the moves of his mechanical competitor human-like creativity. The suspicion of an external "help" was reinforced when it became known that the computer was not located near the room where the race was held, but a few kilometers away. Furthermore, Deep Blue's calculation printouts were never disclosed. Because, as Feng-hsiung Hsu himself later admitted in an autobiographical book, the technicians modified his software during the games to adapt it to the opponent's strategies.

The machine that wins in the noblest and most complex of games, chess, is a dream that has its roots in the eighteenth century, during the scientific and technical explosion that laid the foundations for the industrial revolution. It was then that the automatons were born, which performed preordained and extremely precise movements, such as "The Flautist" by Jaques Vaucanson (1738). To see it at work, the Parisians were queuing kilometers by paying three lire of entry, equal to the weekly wages of a worker of the time. But the invention that aroused an indescribable enthusiasm throughout Europe was an artificial chess player. In the sumptuous and frivolous Vienna of the second half of the eighteenth century, the court of Empress Maria Theresa was a theater in which illusionists, mediums and magicians of every ream performed. After attending a show of conjurers, the empress urged one of her advisers, expert in mechanics and hydraulics, to create a very special game capable of surprising a nobility always on the hunt for new emotions.

This adviser was Baron Wolfgang Von Kempelen, a native of Pressburg (present-day Bratislava). In 1770 von Kempelen presented the fruit of his work. It was an oriental-style puppet, sitting on a large wooden crate and smoking just like … a Turk! In front of him the puppet had a chessboard, and he was able to regularly beat all the opponents chosen personally by the sovereign. A success immediately followed by a triumphant tour in the main European capitals and in Russia, where "the Turk" (as the mechanical puppet was renamed) prevailed, among others, over George III, Benjamin Franklin, Napoleon and Frederick II of Prussia. Scholars, mathematicians and even some exorcists examined the automaton to find its secret, but without success. The halo of mystery that surrounded von Kempelen's strange machine fueled the most bizarre legends: there were those who claimed that it was possessed by an evil spirit, while others murmured that the baron had sold his soul to the devil.

After von Kempelen's death (1784), the sons sold the automaton to Johann Maelzel, the famous inventor of the metronome, for the astronomical sum of thirty thousand francs. He continued his performances all over Europe until 1811, when Eugenio de Beauharnais bought it regardless of expenses. Having discovered the real nature of the device, the prince sued Maelzel for fraud. The automaton, in fact, was not a technological prodigy at all, but a cunning trick: it was simply operated inside by a small stature player, who cleverly concealed himself behind the gears. During the game, the movements of the pieces on the table were signaled to him by small magnets, so that they could be reproduced on a pocket chessboard, and then responded by maneuvering the movable arm of the puppet. The trick also worked in the United States (where Maelzel had taken refuge), until a series of accidents started what the newspapers of the time pictorially called "the curse of the Turk": two children saw a tiny body coming out of the cash after the show, while the deductive Edgar Allan Poe wrote an article where he said that there was a petite woman who appeared in the hall before and after the show, but never during.

Kempelen and Maelzel certainly had an extraordinary power of persuasion, which they used to earn fame and money. Today, however, quite other sophisticated tools provided by the IT revolution transform the ingenuity and wonder of the masses into powerful consensus mechanisms. Today, moreover, visual deception and the casual diffusion, through social networks, of false news passed off as incontrovertible truths strongly influence the battle of ideas and the political struggle itself. It is not only an Italian phenomenon, but with us it has a very particular aggression and virulence. Let's think it over. Digital democracy can play tricks on representative democracy, violating one of the fundamental principles of the rule of law: the visibility of power and the controllability of its exercise.

This is a machine translation from Italian language of a post published on Start Magazine at the URL on Sat, 20 Jun 2020 05:00:15 +0000.