Sunday, July 22, 2007

Game of the Week: Checkers

It isn't often boardgames make the news, but a rather big deal was made this week of checkers being "solved" by a computer program. Turns out that there are a finite but measurable number of possible board positions (500 billion billion) and if played perfectly the game will invariably end in a draw.
Here's a link to one of the many stories about this development:

Like most "serious" gamers I "moved on from checkers a long time ago. Compared to chess, it seems a much less involving game and I'm not surprised that it can be solved.
What does impress me, however, is that there's much more to the game than I would have guessed. 500 billion billion is an awful big number. It's a big enough number that it makes me reconsider not just checkers, but games in general, especially abstract games. If checkers has 500 billion billion possible board positions, then how many must more involved games have?
Non abstract games, such as wargames, may have uncountable possible positions, although it appears to me that wargames are generally more subject to factors that make many different board positions meaningless variations that really don't affect play. I think that in abstract games minor variations in board positions may genuinely represent different things more so than in some other games.
Still, this was astounding news and gave me a deeper appreciation of checkers. I don't look at it as a kids game so much.
Another fact related to checkers that came out in these stories was the incredible record of a certain Michael Tinsley, who lost a grand total of seven competitive games of chess over the course of four decades -- and several of those losses were to computer programs. He played thousands of games against top-flight opposition and lost just seven!
The news stories called him the greatest checkers player who ever lived. I can't think of a similar record of dominance in any other game or sport. Even the Yankees, Celtics, Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan could never dream of 1000+ to 1 win ratios. Indeed, has there ever been anything like that in any game? Games with random elements such as poker, backgammon or wargames would make achieving such a record impossible. The dice and cards would ensure that.
But even games with no randomness such as chess, go or Diplomacy see nothing like this guy's record.
The gentleman passed away without much fame outside checker-playing circles, it appears, but it was a singular achievement.

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