Web Summit 2021: From chess board to the silver screen

Grace Macej 24 Nov 2021

Avast Security Ambassador and chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov talks about his work on The Queen’s Gambit

“The series played a crucial role in dismantling the negative image of the game,” Garry Kasparaov told JOE.co.uk’s Serena Kutchinsky in a fireside chat at this year’s Web Summit in Lisbon. The discussion was primarily focused on Garry’s role as special consultant on the Netflix smash hit series The Queen’s Gambit. Series director Scott Frank recruited Garry to help bring the book by Walter Tevis to life, and Garry was happy to be part of a project that depicted chess in a positive light. “It basically destroyed the barriers for millions and millions of kids, especially girls, to enter the game,” Garry said. 

Initially, Frank wanted Garry to act in the series as well, typecast as the world chess champion. Garry was tempted, but he had to say no. Three months tied to a production set was just not doable for a man involved in human rights, acting as Avast’s Security Ambassador, and speaking about AI at conferences around the world. But Frank didn’t want to take no for an answer – he offered to have Garry’s wife and kids in the series as well, acting as his family. Garry thought about it, then settled on how he could best help the production. He wouldn’t act in the show, but, “I can help you create real games,” he said.

One of Garry’s pet peeves is seeing chess games in movies where the pieces have been set on the board in ridiculous fashion or the actors make illogical moves. Sadly, he noted, this is the case with most movies, two notable exceptions being the chess game in From Russia with Love and the open to Casablanca, where Bogie analyzes real theoretical positions from the early 40s. Garry was more than happy to help all the games in The Queen’s Gambit look authentic. 

Further reading:
Garry Kasparov interviews The Queen's Gambit creator Scott Frank
Garry Kasparov and Ondrej Vlcek on taking back control of the internet

He also added some verisimilitude. Originally the script (and book) had the world champion, a Soviet character named Borgov, traveling alone. “My personal experience – you couldn’t leave the Soviet Union with your family without being followed,” Garry told Serena. “So all the men in grey suits speaking to Borgov? My own creation. That was my personal contribution.”

Also, Garry wrote the dialogue between Borgov and the KGB agents when they talk about the show’s protagonist Beth Harmon. “She’s like us,” Borgov says. “Losing is not an option.”

Serena’s questions for Garry then moved on to his own chess history, specifically his legendary matches against AI computer Deep Blue. In 1996, Garry won against the machine. In 1997, he lost against it. But while the loss stung, it taught him a lesson that shaped the rest of his life. “I thought a year after the match,” he said, “if you can’t beat them, join them. So I think it offered me an insight to understand the future is us working with machines, not competing with them.” 

Contrary to Hollywood movies, Garry wants to be clear that tech is not the bad guy. “AI is not a harbinger of utopia or dystopia. It’s not a magic wand, but it’s not the Terminator. It doesn’t offer you a free pass to the heavens, but it also doesn’t open the gates of hell. It’s a tool we created to make us smarter.” Slipping into his Avast mode, he added, “In cybersecurity, it’s not about computers that threaten us. It’s about the humans behind them.”

The key is having the correct perspective. Computers are powerful, but they are just tools. Garry is passionate about the potential of AI, and he is inspired by all it can do for humanity, but his greater passion is humanity itself. “I’m very sensitive to any attempt from any institution, any group, any country to regulate and to limit freedom of speech,” he told Serena and the audience, proving as he always does that on the chessboard of life, Garry Kasparov operates with the strength of a queen, the wisdom of a king, and the heart of a knight.

Tune in to Garry's full fireside chat below.

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