Jonathan Schaeffer

John Henry at the Checkerboard

Behind the scenes of a U of A computing professor's triumph

Reviewed by Colby Cosh

Popular books about the pure sciences, like physics or mathematics, almost always reveal the strain of the effort. The author's voice is like the patter of a magician, constantly misdirecting the reader from the difficulty and aridity of his subject. But the artists in the ever- growing genre of computing-science drama are lucky. Work with computers has the excitement and magnetism of a novel built into it. Computers have the Platonic beauty of math, physics and logic, but they are clunky, complicated physical machines, too. They do not behave predictably. Computing science, still in its infancy, resembles nothing more than the trail-and-error procedures behind medieval cathedrals: every new piece of hardware or software must stand or fall on its engineering merits. And fall some do.

The newest entry in the computing-drama field is from Jonathan Schaeffer, University of Alberta computer science professor and creator of Chinook, the strongest checkers-playing computer program ever designed. Prof. Schaeffer, a master-class chess player, had started out in the 1980s trying to design a computer chess program. The result, Phoenix, could compete with just about any other program in the world, but programmers at other universities had bigger budgets; Prof. Schaeffer became discouraged because he knew he had nowhere to go but down. Then, one day, a friend happened to ask him, "Whatever happened to computer checkers?"

What had happened was that computer scientists decided that teaching a computer to play checkers was too easy. But a day's study taught Prof. Schaeffer otherwise. "Many people infer from the simplicity of the rules that the game is simple," he writes. "But one need only pick up an introductory book on realize that the game has a beauty and subtlety all its own."

Convinced that checkers was no poor cousin to chess, Prof. Schaeffer entered the small and little-known world of competitive checkers. His portrait of this world is poignant and superb. Prof. Schaeffer was a refugee from chess, a game with million-dollar stakes and young, abrasive players. The denizens of competitive checkers, by contrast, tend to be aged, polite and friendly. One of the top-ranked American checkers players during Chinook's career was nearly 90, an age unthinkable for a tournament chess player. Unfortunately, the top checkers players were dying out like Shakers, and the checkers world, to this day, remains devoid of young talent.

Prof. Schaeffer soon learned about the Wayne Gretzky of checkers: Marion "the Terrible" Tinsley, who had been awarded the permanent title of "world champion emeritus" by the American Checkers Federation (ACF). a mathematician from Kentucky, the miserly septuagenarian had lost three games of 1,000 in 40 years of tournament play. His inhuman perfection, which made his play ostensibly more computer-like than Chinook's buggy and unpredictable technique, proved an irresistible target for Prof. Schaeffer. The duel between the men would fill six years of their lives, and both paid high prices. Prof. Schaeffer sacrificed academic advancement and was away from his wife and young daughter for up to six months on end. And Mr. Tinsley resigned the title of world champion when the ACF refused to let Chinook challenge him for it.

The friendship between the two men would deepen as they fought. both are painted with a skill admirable in an author who claims he "hates to write." Prof. Schaeffer is unsparing of himself, and it is easy to see why readers of early drafts told him he "came off as a jerk" in his own book. It is also easy to see the fire that made him build an artificial brain that conquered checkers. His opponent, on the other hand, is even more fascinating. He has an all-pervading Christian faith, but he is obsessed with getting money and respect. He is civil yet ruthless. When beaten at the board, he feels he has betrayed God. Late in the book there is an unforgettable scene in which the champion reveals to the challenger that God has told him that He loves Prof. Schaeffer, too. Prof. Schaeffer looks at Mr. Tinsley and realizes that the old man has lost his supreme faith in certain victory: he has discovered that Chinook is a product of human ingenuity, of its creator's dedication and love and, ultimately, of God.

The rivals are not the only fascinating characters in One Jump Ahead. There is Norman Treloar, a checkers player from B.C. that novice Schaeffer cultivates as a freelance advisor. The reader observes with nausea as the relationship between the men degrades: Prof. Schaeffer needs Mr. Treloar, but he has problems with his work. Mr. Treloar comes to believe that Prof. Schaeffer's obsession with beating Mr. Tinsley is destroying his perspective. There is also the unforgettable Ron King, a colorful Barbadian champ who tries to cheat against the computer, and Derek Oldbury, a brilliant Englishman who helps Chinook because his own lifelong checkers war on Mr. Tinsley has been stonewalled.

The book starts slowly, with excellent and simple explanations of computing science and checkers strategy. Later, endowed with this background, we are capable of following and understanding the story of the Chinook-Tinsley war. It is a story like no other, even in the excellent class of computing-science books. Dark and troubling, it ends with some of the principals dying. There are moments that almost move one to tears. Reading other computer books, one sometimes thinks, "This would make a great movie!" One Jump Ahead might be the first book about computers which could be turned into an opera-because, of course, it is not really about computers at all: it is about passion, competition and human will.

[University of Alberta] 
University of Alberta 
[Department of Computing Science] 
Computing Science