How Checkers Was Solved
July 19, 2017 5:36 PM   Subscribe

From 1950 to 1990, Marion Tinsley had been the world champion of checkers whenever he wanted to be. He’d occasionally retire to work on mathematics or devote himself to religious study, but he’d eventually return, beat everyone and become champion again. In that 40-year span, he lost five total games and never once dropped a match. In 1994, he sat across a game board from a computer, dying.
posted by Horace Rumpole (17 comments total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
 
A good article!
posted by JHarris at 6:09 PM on July 19


Kinda beautiful.
posted by brennen at 6:15 PM on July 19 [2 favorites]


EXCEPT

Partly through reading it, a VERY LOUD ad started playing, automatically, and I couldn't pause it, and it even showed as "mute" even though it was OBVIOUSLY BLARING.

I had unblocked The Atlantic from my ad blockers out of concern for their well-being, but if that happens EVEN ONCE MORE, I am reversing that decision.
posted by JHarris at 6:16 PM on July 19 [2 favorites]


I remember when the news came out - checkers, solved! - and I remember that my well-thumbed copy of the Guinness Book of World Records from the '80s mentioned that the world contained an unbeatable checkers player, but I had no idea that the backstory was intertwined or so interesting. Thanks for the article!
posted by clawsoon at 6:40 PM on July 19 [1 favorite]


Tinsley sounds like an amazing, fascinating person!

I can't help but feel sad that checkers was "solved." It's amazing that someone could design a program to solve it, but there's this feeling of sterility that goes along with it. Maybe I'm jaded because of how many times people say computers will "solve" all of life's problems.

Also, it's a derail, but I remember the old Boston Computer Museum! I used to go there when I would visit my dad as a kid. It was one of my favorite places on Earth, with that giant computer you could walk inside. I don't think it was even the computers or the history that drew me, just the experience of being an ant next to that huge keyboard and trackball.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 6:50 PM on July 19 [5 favorites]


His relationship with the racial dynamics of the South is also fascinating. “I had thought of going to Africa as a self-supporting missionary," he told Sports Illustrated in 1992, "until a sharp-tongued sister pointed out to me that most people who wanted to help blacks in Africa wouldn't even talk to blacks in America.”

Instead, he became a lay minister at a predominantly black church and left Florida State University’s math department to teach at the historically black Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University. He spent 26 years there. A yearbook from towards the end of his time there showed a deep and lively campus life in which Tinsley might have been the only white person over the age of 40.


Checkers may not have been the most interesting thing about him (by a wide margin).
posted by cron at 7:50 PM on July 19 [25 favorites]


I'd easily recommend the book by Jonathan Schaeffer, the creator of Chinook and the eventual architect of the solution to checkers, mentioned in the article. It's a very readable account of Chinook's development and the matches against Tinsley.
posted by figurant at 8:07 PM on July 19 [4 favorites]


What a beautiful ending to the article.
posted by not_the_water at 9:03 PM on July 19 [2 favorites]


A very well written and engrossing article. I like how it covers both the technological feats and the human side of the story. Tinsley seems like he must have been an impressive, fascinating person.

Thanks for posting this!
posted by litera scripta manet at 9:07 PM on July 19 [2 favorites]


I live very near the site of the now-defunct International Checkers Hall of Fame, but sadly never got to go. It featured a bust of Tinsley and the worlds second-largest checkerboard!
posted by thebrokedown at 4:25 AM on July 20


In 2014 the Relatively Prime podcast did the story from the point of view of Jonathan Schaeffer, the professor who wrote the computer program.
posted by Homer42 at 5:20 AM on July 20 [1 favorite]


I can't help but feel sad that checkers was "solved." It's amazing that someone could design a program to solve it, but there's this feeling of sterility that goes along with it. Maybe I'm jaded because of how many times people say computers will "solve" all of life's problems.
I don't know if this helps, but for whatever it's worth, the word "solved" is being used in two different senses here! Checkers is "solved" like a math problem is "solved:" we found the solution (always a tie). Life's problems can't be "solved" in the mathematical sense, and anyone saying different is selling something. (*cough* Silicon Valley *cough*)

Also an interesting point point about terminology: Checkers is only considered to be weakly solved, since we only know how to play perfectly from the starting position and not from any position. In theory, it's possible to beat a computer with some funny randomized Checkers variant. (In practice, probably not—even without a database, modern Checkers programs are quite strong. It's like with Chess: the game will probably never be solved—the search tree is just too unfathomably large to be stored with even science-fiction technologies—but no human is capable of winning against a Chess bot.)

You're not wrong that there's a sense of loss, though. There's been some research into games that are hard for computers to play, but so far no luck: it seems to take decades or centuries for humans to study a game enough to be experts, and computers can become experts in much less time (as evidenced by DeepMind's successes with Go, going from nothing to world champion in about a year of self-play).
I'd easily recommend the book by Jonathan Schaeffer, the creator of Chinook and the eventual architect of the solution to checkers, mentioned in the article. It's a very readable account of Chinook's development and the matches against Tinsley.
I also recommend Schaeffer's book. What I liked about it was how he didn't paint a very flattering picture of himself: he's kind of a jerk, and was (in particular) a jerk to Tinsley and to his family in pursuit of winning. But at least he's an honest jerk!
posted by ragtag at 5:42 AM on July 20 [6 favorites]


> In 2014 the Relatively Prime podcast did the story from the point of view of Jonathan Schaeffer, the professor who wrote the computer program.

This article is also mostly from the point of view of Schaeffer. It's a great piece; the one bit I didn't understand is this:
It’s hard to know what to make of Marion Tinsley from the perspective of the 21st century. He seems otherworldly or, at the very least, othertimely. His life was composed of checkers, mathematics, and his abiding faith. He was kind, by literally every account, and yet his style of play was relentless and aggressive.
What the heck does any of that have to do with "the perspective of the 21st century"? Does Alexis C. Madrigal (name the author!) think that people like that don't exist any more, or that somehow everybody in the 20th century found that kind of person normal, just your everyday checkers/mathematics/faith-based guy? Very odd.
posted by languagehat at 7:28 AM on July 20


yet his style of play was relentless and aggressive

That seems odd to me. The rules of checkers enforce aggressive play. The pieces must move forward.

In checkers the only way to win is through is relentless aggressive play. You must be on attack and you must move on your opponents pieces to provoke disadvantageous captures.

What the hell? Are some people playing checkers and sending their pieces off to the spa?
posted by bdc34 at 7:46 AM on July 20 [1 favorite]


What the hell? Are some people playing checkers and sending their pieces off to the spa?

Well, there are probably players who use a more defensive style, waiting to reel in attackers who over-reach. Since the only way to win is if your opponent makes errors, this could be pretty effective. Although passive play itself could become an error, if that is not what is called for in a position.

I remember Chinook used to be playable on a public server. It thoroughly crushed me.
posted by thelonius at 9:32 AM on July 20 [1 favorite]


In checkers the only way to win is through is relentless aggressive play.

One aspect of the Chinook matches that I really like was that Tinsley was tired of playing against people who, knowing that extracting a win from him was hopeless, would play extremely conservatively against him to try to draw. Chinook didn't know or care about who it was playing against, and it always played to win. Tinsley was apparently enormously tickled by this, and it contributed to his enthusiasm for the matches against Chinook. It's not mentioned in the article, but he resigned as World Champion when the American Checkers Federation and the English Draughts Association refused to sanction a match against Chinook (which Chinook had technically earned the right to by placing second at the 1990 US nationals).
posted by figurant at 9:32 AM on July 20 [7 favorites]


What the heck does any of that have to do with "the perspective of the 21st century"?

I kind of read this as "religious people are weird from the perspective of the 21st century, particularly if they are smart". Which may well be true, depending on just where you draw your boundaries around "the perspective of the 21st century".

(I don't really mean this comment as a dig on the article. I thought it was for the most part very well-written and sympathetic.)
posted by brennen at 3:24 PM on July 20 [1 favorite]


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