Kasparov vs. The World
It was going to be acres of good PR. After the success of Garry Kasparov's chess
matchup with IBM's Deep Blue, Microsoft wanted to host another computerized chess
match this summer -- Kasparov vs. The World. The setup was simple: Kasparov, the
John Henry of the Information Age, would play white, posting a move every other day
on the Microsoft chess BBS. "The World" consisted of four teenage chess experts who
would analyze the game and recommend counter-moves, which would also be posted on the
BBS. Chess aficionados from around the world could then log in and vote for which of
the four moves Black should play. This had everything Microsoft could want -- community,
celebrity, online collaboration, and lots of "Microsoft hosts The World!" press releases.
This "experts recommend, The World votes" method worked better than anybody dared hope,
resulting in surprisingly challenging chess and the ascension of one of The World's
experts, Irina Krush, into chess stardom. Things were going well up until last week,
when Microsoft missed a crucial piece of email and the good PR began to hiss out of the
event like helium from a leaky balloon.
While Deep Blue was a lone computer, here Kasparov's opponent was to be the chess
community itself, a kind of strategic "group mind." Since communication was the glue
that held the community together, it's fitting that the game came unglued after a missed
email. During last week's end game, it was generally agreed that The World had made a
serious tactical error in move 52, but that there was still the possibility of a draw.
Then, on October 13th, Ms. Krush's recommendation for move 58 was delayed by mail server
problems, problems compounded by a further delay in posting the information on the
Microsoft server. Without Ms. Krush's input, an inferior move was suggested and accepted,
making it obvious that despite the rhetoric of collaboration, the game had become Kasparov
v. Krush with Kibbitzing by The World. Deprived of Ms. Krush's strategic vision, the game
was doomed. The World responded to this communication breakdown by collective hari kari,
with 66% of the team voting for a suicidal move. Facing the possibility of headlines like
"The World Resigns from Microsoft," the corporate titan rejected the people's move and
substituted one of its own. The World, not surprisingly, reacted badly.
Within hours of Microsoft's reneging on the vote, a protest movement was launched,
including press releases, coordinating web sites, and even a counter-BBS which archived
articles from the Microsoft chess server before they expired. Microsoft had run afoul of
the first rule of online PR: On the internet, there is no practical difference between
"community" and "media"; anyone with an email address is a media outlet, a tiny media
outlet to be sure, but still part of the continuum. Since online communities and online
media outlets use the same tools -- web sites, mailing lists, BBS's -- the border between
"community interest" and "news" is far easier to cross. The Microsoft story took less
than a week to go from the complaints of a few passionate members of the chess community
to a story on the BBC.
Microsoft made the same famously bad bet that sidelined Prodigy: By giving The World a
forum for expressing itself, it assumed that The World's gratitude would prevent criticism
of its host, should anything go wrong. As Rocky the Flying Squirrel would say, "That trick
never works." What started as a way to follow on IBM's success with Deep Blue has become
a more informative comparison than even Microsoft knew. Two computerized chess games
against the World Champion -- one meant to display the power of computation, the other
the power of community -- and the lesson is this: While computers sometimes behave the
way you want them to, communities never do. Or, as the Microsoft PR person put it after
the game ended: "Live by the internet, die by the internet."