Little-known sci-fi fact: HAL 9000 cheats at chess in 2001: A Space Odyssey

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Sep 6, 2017

One of the most famous villains in sci-fi history was also a cheater at chess.

2001: A Space Odyssey is a sci-fi classic for many, many reasons, not least of which is that you can almost always get something new from it every time you watch it. It could be a particular visual detail, an aspect of the editing, or some little quirk of the soundtrack. Or, you could finally realize that the supercomputer HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain) cheats in a game of chess with astronaut Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood).

In the scene, the game is played on a screen rather than on a board, and the characters use "descriptive notation" (rather than the algebraic notation method of describing chess games) to move their pieces, meaning they speak the piece they're moving and the location on the board they're moving to aloud. To wrap up the game, HAL says this:

"I'm sorry Frank, I think you missed it: queen to bishop three, bishop takes queen, knight takes bishop, mate."

Frank chooses to trust HAL's assessment of his future moves and resigns the game, giving the computer the victory. Here's the thing, though: HAL didn't describe his moves properly. He should have said "queen to bishop six." He's describing a mate in two moves when in reality Frank could have prolonged the game and didn't need to concede it so early. In describing the wrong move, HAL cheats his way to a victory.

The interesting question is what exactly prompts this. Was it an error in the script that simply went unnoticed? That's unlikely, because 2001 director Stanley Kubrick was a chess master and he poured his legendarily obsessive nature into the strategy and history of the game. He even seems to have based the game played in this scene on an actual German Chess Federation contest from 1910. It seems nearly impossible that one of the most detail-oriented directors in filmmaking history would have let such a thing slip up, but Kubrick went to his grave with the answers.

So, what happened? It's more likely that HAL is either testing Frank's intelligence and attention to detail, or that the computer is already beginning to malfunction in a way that will eventually threaten its crew. One of the great hallmarks of the film is watching HAL slowly come unglued, and this could be an early indicator of that. Or he's simply scheming, trying to see if Frank will call his bluff (something Kubrick may have done in actual chess games played around the time the film was made).

You can watch the scene for yourself here. Whatever actually happened, it just adds another layer of mystery to an already mystery-laden masterpiece.

For more little-known sci-fi facts, check out the tag.

(Tip of the hat to the TIL subreddit)