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Computer Chess

A sometimes amusing, sometimes thoughtful mockumentary about man and computers set in the early 1980s

Of men and machines: Patrick Riester portrays a computer-chess whiz.
Of men and machines: Patrick Riester portrays a computer-chess whiz.

If you reckon there's not much interesting about watching some guys play chess on computers, you wouldn't be wrong. But if you're willing to give it a shot, there's much about the new film Computer Chess that's amusing.

Computer Chess is a mockumentary, set in the early 1980s, during a computer-chess tournament. A couple dozen guys — there is one woman, who is treated like an intriguing alien — spend the weekend at a bland hotel. They rig up their bulky computers, fire up the chess programs they've coded and pit the machines against each other. Because this is rudimentary computer-gaming, there's still some level of human engagement: The other team's plays must be keyed in by hand, for instance. 

And of course, the "intelligence" of computers must be programmed by humans, and this existential bridge between man and machine is one of the topics bandied about by the competitors. So is the likely future use of artificial intelligence in warfare — and in computer dating.

On one level, it's an affectionate look back at when working with computers involved a select fraternity of nerds, charting the limits of new — and newly accessible — technology. Knowledge of computers or chess isn't necessary to enjoy this film, though those with such insights might get a few deeper chuckles. Old heads will smile at the outmoded eyewear (double-barred aviators); clunky, noisy keyboards; overhead projectors; and AMC cars in the parking lot.

Chess is written and directed, in vintage-video style and in black-and-white, by Andrew Bujalski, among the originators of mumblecore (Funny Ha Ha). It's an ensemble piece (with these chess nerds, there is some mumbling), covering several of the competitors and organizers, as well as the participants of a couples-encounter retreat also at the hotel. The couples are the touchy-feely yin to the chess guys' machine-based yang, but there's overlap of purpose: "We're all kind of like seekers," says one man in the encounter group.

This isn't a film for everyone. There's not much story, but rather a few threads that start, stop, weave and often just get lost. (A few go down rabbit holes.) For those who have the patience for self-indulgent filmmaking, especially of the studiously lo-fi variety and on esoteric subject matters, Computer Chess does offer a nostalgic, even thoughtful, snapshot of sorts: of when the banality of a hotel room could glow not just with flat fluorescent bulbs, but with the rosy dawn of a new age; when explorers mumbled, fumbled and grumbled toward the future; when humans still beat computers at chess; and when it took two people to carry a hard drive.

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