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  A view from ACF Player's Representative Richard Beckwith : 2007-07-18

Chinook Solves Checkers?


Jonathan Schaeffer, from University of Alberta, and his checker computer "Chinook" are in the news again. I first saw Mr. Schaeffer in Tupelo, MS at the 1990 Southern/U.S. National when Chinook was one of two computers entered into the National tournament. Chinook later won the 1996 National and was featured in "man vs. machine" matches toward the end of Tinsley's career. Mr. Schaeffer wrote his experiences of this period in the book One Jump Ahead, which mentioned many well-known checker players.

A new journal article (geared to a computer science audience) is being released this week where Mr. Shaeffer claims to have achieved mathematical proof that the starting position in checkers is a draw and that the game has been "solved" despite its 500 billion billion positions. Many of our national newspapers are jumping on the story, perhaps introducing an angle that checkers has been reduced to other solved diversions, such as tic-tac-toe, Connect 4, etc. Naturally, a novelty "man vs. machine" match against Chinook would now be less interesting since Chinook cannot lose a game.

I applaud Mr. Schaeffer's artificial intelligence achievement, as he has been hard at work for many years on this project. However, the fact that the game is a draw (if both players play optimally) was known long ago as a result of much human analysis, as Mr. Schaeffer points out. I don't expect any impact on face-to-face competition, as no human can possibly memorize the billions of combinations that Mr. Schaeffer has covered. Checkers still remains a highly strategic game when played head-to-head.

However, advances in computer technology have already made at least two impacts on the game. Strong checker programs have rendered competitive correspondence play (where people research and mail their moves to their opponent) nearly obsolete, as the top players have programs that help the competitors avoid losing moves. Such a modern match would end in all (or nearly all) draws if programs are relied upon. On a more positive note, checker programs have been a great tool for analyzing positions and games to determine where a losing move was likely made, or whether a given position is a theoretical win, loss, or draw. In the old days, experts had to rely on their own abilities to make such conclusions (a talent that we should not lose sight of).

Read more articles from your ACF Players Representative in the Rep's Corner Archive.

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