Human beings love a good showdown between man and machine.


I'm a big fan of the TV show "Jeopardy!", so I eagerly tuned in when IBM's computer, Watson, went up against long-time champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter in February 2011. The outcome -- Watson as the runaway champion -- wasn't surprising, but it was fun to watch. IBM got to showcase how far artificial intelligence has come, but it took more than a few decades to get there. The roots of Watson's triumph lie in a much humbler machine playing an ancient game: chess.

The first references to chess date back to about 600 AD in what is now northern India, and trade routes spread the game across the world. By the 1800s, there were official chess organizations and championships. But before that, there was the very first chess-playing machine -- sort of. An inventor named Wolfgang von Kempelen created The Turk for the Empress of Austria-Hungary, and the machine toured around Europe for years. But The Turk was a fake; there was a person hidden inside.

Still, it showed that we were interested in the idea of being beaten at our own game by a machine. It might seem silly at first to put time and energy into having a computer play chess. But the idea was that if a computer could "think" well enough to play chess, maybe it could help solve even more complex problems. Before we'd even built computers to take on the task, there was a computer program designed to play the game. Alan Turing, considered the father of artificial intelligence and computer science, wrote a program and played chess with himself on paper in 1947. By the late 1950s, an IBM programmer who just happened to also be a chess player had created a computer program that could play a full game of chess.

Being able to play chess is one thing. Being able to actually win -- and beat master chess players -- is an entirely different thing. Read on to find out how a computer finally became a chess master.