It’s well known that Deep Blue, IBM’s supercomputer, beat chess world champion Gary Kasparov back during a rematch in 1997, but perhaps lesser known is how 50,000 people two years later played Kasparov in a crowdsourced online experiment.

Kasparov described the game as:

“It is the greatest game in the history of chess. The sheer number of ideas, the complexity, and the contribution it has made to chess make it the most important game ever played.”

Although Kasparov was the favourite and won the game, he remarked that he had never had to play with as much thought and as much range as in this tournament. Wikipedia notes that two flaws existed in the World Team’s approach:

  • It was clear from a look at the voting results that, although the World Team was managing to pick theoretically correct moves, many rank amateurs were voting as well. Demonstrably bad moves were garnering a significant percentage of the votes; even worse, on move 12, about 2.4% of the voters chose illegal moves which did not get the World Team out of check.
  • The World Team was not coordinating well with itself on the bulletin board. Typical posts were brash, emotionally heated, and confrontational; profanity flowed freely. Much more energy was being spent onflame wars than on analysis.
Could it be that the World Team of 50,000 players were disadvantaged because despite being many more minds, they didn’t have a coherent system for arriving at decisions?
Decision Making

Certainly the quality of players selected for the game is a factor, but also is how the group arrived at decisions. Using a process of plurality voting and discussions through the bulletin board, each move was decided upon during each 24 hours of play. What’s fascinating is that during the total 62 moves, the World Team’s 10-50 moves were the same that were recommended by one player: Krush, and as such her influence in the board grew with time. So how much was this really 50,000 chess players against one? Additionally as time drew on, Kasparov himself criticized the approach as he felt he was often just playing a hardcore of grand masters rather than the World Team as a whole. However, this changed as many of the grand master’s suggestions were overturned by the collective board’s votes.

Transparency

Kasparov admitted that he needed an advantage, especially midway through the game. He openly shared after the game that he was reading the openly available bulletin board of the World Team to get insight on their next move. Part of the beauty of chess is its quiet, intense, and silent concentration as the players battle it out, planning their moves and countermoves. If one side is showing its hand, isn’t this also a potential flaw in the approach? Could the World Team have won if the process was less transparent , at least for their opponent?

Why is all this relevant and interesting right now? Imagine 50,000 people playing chess against one person 50 years ago. It would be unimaginable. Forget the space restrictions, it’s the sheer ability for that many people to arrive at a decision when using physical convening as the starting point. It’s thanks to the internet and social media that we’re able to create phenomenal collaborations like this. And it begs the question: what other incredible social interactions at scale can we achieve with today’s collaborative technologies?