Jonathan Schaeffer

I Can't Lose

After making the first three moves of the checkers game, the arbiter, Con McCarrick of Ireland, reaches out and starts White's clock running. The White pieces are commanded by a tall, slim man dressed in a modest green suit, tie held in place by a clip with "Jesus" spelled out in colored stones. He pauses for a moment, makes his move, and then presses a button that stops his clock and starts Black's. His opponent, playing the Black side, immediately captures a piece. Just two friends playing a game of checkers, or so it seems. For the first few moves there is a flurry of camera flashes as photographers jockey for position. After five minutes of this, McCarrick indicates that the time for picture taking is over; it's now time for the players to think. As the reporters withdraw, the field of view for the spectators widens, and they can see not just the adversaries, but a computer terminal perched beside the Black player. On a large screen overhead, a realistic-looking white hand occasionally reaches out and makes a move on a large computer-generated board. Once complete, a sinister-looking black hand makes the next move. Back and forth the two hands move on the screen, mirroring the moves played between the two combatants. White and black, metaphors for good and evil. The careful observer notes that both hands have a wedding ring on the second finger from the right, and the second finger from the left is bent, as if it has been in an accident. Realism versus animation, metaphors for man and machine.

The White player, Dr. Marion Tinsley, is clearly the crowd favorite. He is a young-looking sixty-five years old, with a determined look on his face. At the start of the game he is relaxed and smiling, confident about the match's outcome, seemingly oblivious to the obvious tension that fills the air. The day before, at the opening ceremony, Tinsley gave a speech in which he said, "A reporter over here said a while ago, 'You can't lose, can you?'...right now I am just free of all stress and strain because I feel I can't lose." Dr. Tinsley is St. George and his opponent is the dragon. Confidence is a knight's greatest asset. Without it, all is lost from the start.

Moving the Black pieces is Dr. Jonathan Schaeffer, whose appearance is most undragon-like. At thirty-five years old with brown curly hair and looking uncomfortable in a jacket without a tie, he looks ill at ease playing the moves. While Tinsley exudes confidence, Schaeffer seems hesitant and unsure of himself. Each move is checked and double checked, as if he isn't sure how to play the game. In fact, Schaeffer is a novice player at best. Yet surprisingly, he's here playing for the highest honor in the world of checkers -- the world championship.

If you watch the participants on stage closely, you notice that every time Tinsley makes a move, Schaeffer reaches over to a computer keyboard, types a few key strokes, and then stares intently, not at Tinsley or the checkerboard, but at the computer screen by his side. The screen is at an angle so that only Schaeffer can read the contents; Tinsley is forbidden to look at it. Sometimes Schaeffer's eyes wander off the screen and stare intently at his adversary. Tinsley pays no attention; he is lost in the world of checkers, as move sequences and checkers patterns dance in his mind. Abruptly something interrupts Schaeffer's stare, and after a quick glance at the computer screen, he reaches out and plays a move. Other than relaying moves to and from the computer screen, he hardly ever looks at the checkerboard.

On the other side of the room a large refrigerator-like box stands alone, shunned by everyone. Yet every time Schaeffer interacts with the keyboard a panel of lights on the box starts dancing, as if excited by the contact. If you listen closely you can hear the hum of fans inside, keeping the contents cool, and a noticeable clicking sound resembling that of a Geiger counter. Few in the room know that the "box" is a $300,000 state-of-the-art Silicon Graphics computer. Even fewer care that the machine actually contains eight computers, all working cooperatively to solve a problem: find the best move to play in the game.

It is August 17, 1992, and the venue is the five-star Park Lane Hotel in central London, England. Dr. Tinsley is defending his world championship title against the computer program Chinook. Dr. Schaeffer, a duffer checkers player by his own admission, is just babysitting the program. His role is solely to relay moves between the board, which is the battleground, and the computer. In the physical domain, machines have been superior to man for many decades. Would you want to run a race against a car? Would you want to compete against a forklift at weightlifting? But in the mental domain humans remain supreme. For the first time in history a computer has earned the right to play for a human world championship. Man, confident with his God-given gift of intelligence, is being challenged by a computer, a mere machine. Man the creator is being challenged by his offspring the computer. Are we witnessing history in the making? Will the electronic computer master mankind, his maker? Can a computer win the world checkers championship?

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