Jonathan Schaeffer

How to Build a Master

Reviewed by Steven Levy
Newsweek, June 16, page 12, 1997.

Deep Blue was not the first computer to take on a world champion in a beloved game. In August 1994 the greatest checkers player who ever lived, a 67-year-old born-again math professor named Dr. Marion Tinsley, faced the toughest challenge of a long career: Chinook, a.k.a. The Beast, a program written by obsessed Canadian computer scientist Jonathan Schaeffer. And just as in the recent Deep Blue vs. Kasparov match, the outcome turned out to hinge on human foibles more than technology.

All of this and much more is recounted in Schaeffer's surprisingly intense first-person account, "One Jump Ahead: Challenging Human Supremacy in Checkers" (496 pages, Springer. $34.95). Wisely downplaying the technical side of his odyssey to make a computer into a world champion, the author focuses instead on a personal quest that began when he figured that others were too far ahead of him in chess -- so why not take on checkers? As we follow his progress in programming Chinook and launching his surrogate in competition, we get a close look into the embarrassingly low-rent, codger-populated world of championship checkers (saving grace: these guys are friendlier than chess masters), and a few painful lessons in the game itself. There's also a solid discussion of how computers "think" when they play, and a useful account of how an artificial-intelligence project is managed. But the most memorable passages deal with Schaeffer's own bittersweet reactions. His brainchild does so well that he can see, all too clearly, its almost tragic effect on the cloistered society of checkers -- and on his fellow human beings.

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