Note: I've also sent a message to director John Carpenter, and will update this answer if and when he replies.
Update - Word of God from Producer Stuart Cohen:
I asked Mr. Cohen if the game was really cheating. He replied:
@wadcheber No. The idea of the scene was to record Mac's Trump-like reaction to being beaten...
- Stuart Cohen, via Twitter
If we take a combined in- and out-of-universe view, it seems highly unlikely that the game really cheated.
The Chess Program:
The chess game we see MacReady playing is actually a real program, designed for the Apple II system. Therefore, the game could only cheat if it was written incorrectly.
Producer Stuart Cohen explained on his blog:
MacReady's chess game was an actual program, something designed for an Apple II computer (the only one I knew of was owned and offered up by our Production Manager Robert Brown). On set we tried to photograph it operating in the same frame with Kurt, but the results were a mess. For photographic purposes it too was converted to 24 frame analog video, recorded onto 3/4 inch tape and played back later, which resulted in an acceptable image.
- The Original Fan: The Computers
According to Wikipedia, the fan site Outpost #31, some members of the Outpost #31 forum, the wikia for The Thing, and some Apple II enthusiasts, the chess game seen in the movie is a popular program from the time called Sargon.
In John Carpenter's 1982 film, The Thing, Antarctic helicopter pilot R.J. MacReady can be seen playing Sargon (called "Chess Wizard" in-film) on a modified Apple II computer.
The machine he's using is an Apple II computer dressed up to look like a dedicated chess machine.
I'm about 95% sure that the software running on the Apple is "Sargon II," a very popular chess program from the 80's.
- User Humbaba, Outpost #31 Discussion Board
The Chess Wizard game belonged to Production Manager Robert Latham Brown. It is an Apple II computer and the game is Sargon II.
- Outpost #31: Trivia
The computer and the program were both fully functional, and they operated the same way any Apple II computer with Sargon would have, despite the two purely cosmetic modifications that were made for logistical and artistic reasons:
The computer was disguised as a dedicated chess-playing machine, possibly to avoid product placement or trademark issues.
Carpenter added the female voice in post production, presumably to make the scene a bit easier for the audience to understand.1
The program was a real, very popular, well-regarded, and commercially available chess game called Sargon; the game's good reputation in the real world makes it unlikely that the program was prone to cheating.
The aforementioned fan site, Outpost #31, is populated by people so obsessed with each and every minute detail in the film that the director of the prequel built his set with blueprints drawn up by the site members. Unsurprisingly, they did not fail to notice that there are problems with the chess game as it appears on screen:
When Mac is playing chess, we are shown two different chess boards that are radically different from each other. There is no way that the second view of the screen can be created from the first in only three moves:
- Outpost #31: Goofs
In fact, there are several problems with the way the game progresses:
It would be impossible for the pieces to move from the first arrangement we see to the second arrangement in just a few moves - too many pieces have moved too far.
On top of too many pieces having moved too far, the second shot of the board also shows that some pieces that should be there are gone, and some pieces that weren't on the board in the first shot have magically reappeared.
Mac's pieces are white, the computer's are black. The first shot of the screen makes it clear that there are no white bishops on the board, but seconds later, Mac taps a few keys and the computer announces "Your move - Bishop to Knight Four". Thus, Mac just moved a piece he didn't have.
The second shot of the board occurs just before the computer declares checkmate, but if you look at that shot, there is no way for either player to achieve checkmate in their next move, and the move that the computer makes before claiming checkmate wouldn't even manage to pull off a check. The computer's last move is with her Rook; neither the rook, nor any of her other pieces, were in position to arrange a check or checkmate.
Thus, the computer does make impossible moves, and declares checkmate when there was no way to achieve check, let alone checkmate. However, MacReady also makes impossible moves; he uses pieces that are no longer on the board; and when pieces that had been taken out of play suddenly reappear on the board, he doesn't react at all. In fact, when the computer says "checkmate", his reply is simply, "Cheating bitch!" - that is, he gives no indication that checkmate has not occurred in-universe. We can explain this tangled mess of apparent impossibilities in a few ways:
- Chess doesn't work the same way in-universe as it does in the real world. In the world of The Thing, maybe pieces are in constant drift across the board, pieces that have been knocked out of play can randomly reenter the game, their Bishops are not the pieces we call Bishops, and their definition of checkmate is broader than out own.
I don't think this is the case.
- The game was malfunctioning all along, but MacReady was willing to roll with it for a while and keep playing. He was willing to tolerate the pieces being randomly rearranged, he accepted the fact that pieces which had been captured would suddenly reappear on the board, he exploited his ability to move Bishops he didn't have, and so on; his patience ran out, however, when the computer declared checkmate when none had occurred.
Again, I doubt that this is the real explanation.
- Carpenter and co. didn't pay much attention to whether the chess game in the finished film was logical, or even possible. Their goal for the scene was to convey a few pieces of information: This hard drinking, bushy-bearded, hot-tempered manly-man is a bit of a bad ass; he's bored out of his mind; he tried to kill some time by playing chess (which he isn't very good at), he got whooped, and he threw a tantrum because he's kind of a sore loser; and when he gets annoyed, he's willing to kill stuff with booze. This character development/exposition was all Carpenter cared about, so that's what he shot. He didn't worry about making the chess game consistent or true to life because this isn't a movie about chess, it is a movie about a bunch of guys in the middle of nowhere drowning in paranoia and mutual distrust as they battle a shape-shifting alien monster bent on taking over the world.
To me, this is the most plausible explanation.
Not only is it the simplest and most logical possibility, it is also consistent with what we see elsewhere in the film - Carpenter prioritizes the shot and the mood of the scene, and doesn't obsess over realism or practicality.2
The most plausible explanation for the inconsistencies we see in the chess game is that Carpenter simply wasn't that concerned with getting it right in every detail. For him, the scene was supposed to let the audience know that MacReady is bored, tough, moody, gruff, short-tempered, and better at kicking ass than mastering the so called "game of kings".
It bears repeating that the program was a real, commercially available, and quite popular chess game. Obviously, no one would buy the game if it declared non-existent checkmates, drastically rearranged the board at random intervals mid-game, allowed players to move pieces they didn't have, and so on. Thus, the inconsistencies are best understood as the result of the filmmakers combining real footage of actual gameplay from totally different games.
By all indications, we aren't supposed to focus on the details and inconsistencies, and it seems highly unlikely that the computer was actually cheating. Mac calling the computer a "cheating bitch" isn't about the computer being programmed to cheat - it's about Mac being a sore loser with a temper.
Producer Stuart Cohen indirectly confirms this in a fan Q&A on Outpost #31:
Q: What was the intended significance of the chess game?
A: None beyond the usual – no specific significance with the number of pieces, their positions, etc.
- Outpost #31: Q&A with Stuart Cohen on John Carpenter's The Thing
Cohen says that there is no significance attached to the number of pieces or their positions on the board. This suggests that the inconsistencies were, as I have argued, unintentional. The problems - the incompatibility of the two shots of the board, the moves made by both players, and the outcome of the game - are likely the result of Carpenter and the editors using the best footage they had. I suspect that they shot several takes of the scene. After one take, the computer was shut down, and the game that had been in progress was lost. Before the next take, they had to reboot the computer and start a new game. Even if the human player repeated the exact same moves he had made the first time, the computer's moves would be different the second time, so there was no way to get the pieces into the same positions they had been in for the previous take.
In short, it is true that both MacReady and the computer are making impossible moves, and the computer declares victory despite the fact that her final move couldn't possibly have won the game. However, these problems are almost certainly a reflection of technical restraints related to the filming and editing processes, and not an indication that the game is actually this incomprehensible in-universe, or that the computer is cheating. Carpenter didn't intend for us to study the scene and conclude that the computer is dishonest - he simply didn't care about total continuity in the chess game, because the movie is about murderous aliens, not a sentient computer with a mean streak.
1 On a side note, the computer voice - provided by Carpenter's wife at the time, Adrienne Barbeau - is the only human female presence in the film, aside from a brief appearance of female contestants on a videotaped episode of Let's Make a Deal. If we assume that all the sled dogs are male, then the computer is the only female of any species with a presence in the film (aside from the contestants mentioned above).
2 For example:
The men are in Antarctica in the winter, where it is so cold that going outside at the wrong time could kill you in minutes. Yet when Palmer-Thing transforms, attacks Windows, is set on fire, and smashes through an exterior wall to escape, we see that the walls of the outpost are made of balsa wood panels that appear to be about 1/4 inch thick.
It seems pretty obvious to me that Carpenter wasn't trying to say that paper-thin wood paneling is perfect insulation for coping with the Antarctic winter, he was trying to get a cool shot of an alien, engulfed in flames, bursting through a wall and getting blown to smithereens with dynamite.
The men are in the interior of Antarctica, where there are no animals to speak of aside from the occasional penguin or gull, and when people are around, maybe some sled dogs. The men have sled dogs, but the outpost's location - at the top of a glacier in a small hollow near a high mountain peak - would keep even the aforementioned penguins away. There are no animals that could pose a threat, and none worth shooting for food.
The nearest humans are a lengthy and dangerous helicopter trip away, and international law prohibits military bases/equipment/operations on the continent. Thus, the men had no reason to believe that they'd need to defend themselves from any external threats besides the weather.
This being the case, it is hard to explain the cabinet full of rifles, shotguns, and ammunition - let alone the Garry's decision to carry loaded revolver on his hip at all times, or the fact that Blair, a biologist, keeps his own loaded revolver in his desk. Antarctic researchers at MacMurdo Base, who watch The Thing together at the end of each deployment, have confirmed that firearms are not standard equipment in Antarctica. Again, I think the only explanation here is that Carpenter gave the men guns because he needed them to shoot the Norwegian, the dogs, the Thing, and each other.