Old world AI, Checkers, and The Champion

Read an article in The Atlantic this week (How checkers was solved) on Jonathan Schaeffer, the man who solved checkers, and his quest to beat Marion Tinsley, The Champion.

But first some personal history, while I was at university (back in the early 70’s) and first learned how to code in real (Fortran, 360/Assembler, IBM PL/I, Cobol) languages, one independent project I worked on was a checkers playing program. It made use of advanced alpha-beta search optimizations, board analysis routines and move trees.

These were the days of punched card decks and JCL, submitting programs to run as a batch job and getting results hours to days later. For one semester, I won the honor of consuming the most CPU time of any person in the school. I still have the card deck someplace but it may be hard to find a card reader, let alone a PL/I compiler/DOS system to run it.

In any case, better men than I have taken up the checkers challenge over time. And Schaeffer had made it his life’s work to conquer checkers and did it with his program, Chinook.

In my day checkers was a young kid and old person game. It was simple enough to learn but devilishly hard to master. My program got to look about 3.5 moves ahead, Schaeffer’s later program, used during an early match, was looking 16 moves ahead and was improved from there.

Besting The Champion

From the 50s through the early 90s there was one man who was the undisputed Champion of Checkers and that was Tinsley. Although he lost a few games during his time to other men, he never lost a match.

The article talks about how Schaeffer improved Chinook over time and at one time it had beaten Tinsley in two games but still lost the match. With a later version, it beat Tinsley a couple of times and then Tinsley fell ill and had to leave the game, later dying and forfeiting the match.

But even after Tinsley’s death, Schaeffer kept on improving Chinook.

Early on Schaeffer had a checkers endgame database and an opening database that were computed by Chinook as optimal move sequences from valid openings (professional checkers has a set of 3 move openings that players select at random and the game takes off from there) and endgames (positions with limited number’s of pieces to the end of the game).

These opening and endgame databases were stored for later retrieval during a game. This way if a game fell into a set opening or endgame the program could just follow the optimal play that was already computed.

Solving checkers

As computing power increased, Chinook’s end game database started earlier in the game with more pieces on the board and his opening database started working towards later into the game, following opening moves farther into the mid game.

When Schaeffer’s program solved checkers, essentially his opening database and his endgame database met in the middle of the game. And at that point he had the solution to every checkers position/game that could ever be.

AI vs. humans today

AI has changed to a different way of operating over time. When I was coding my checkers program, it was search trees/optimizations and board analysis. In fact, in 1996 IBM Deep Blue used variants of these techniques to beat Garry Kasparov, then World Chess Champion.

Today’s machine learning is less about search algorithms, game analyses, and game (or logic) databases and more about neural nets, machine learning and reinforcement learning.

New AI finally conquered Go only a couple of years ago, a game that’s very much more complex than checkers or chess. But in 2017 Google (Deepmind) AlphaGo didn’t use search trees and board analyses, it used neural nets, machine learning and reinforcement learning to beat Ke Jie, the then World #1 ranked Go Master.

Welcome to the new world of AI.

Photo Credit(s):