Programming computers to play games has been central to Artificial Intelligence research since its early days back in the fifties. By now, most of us have heard of IBM’s Deep Blue supercomputer defeating world chess champion Garry Kasparov in the game of chess and becoming the first ever computer to defeat man in this very complex game. Less than 3 years ago, we wrote about Jonathan Schaeffer’s unbeatable checkers program known as Chinook; it took the researchers in Schaeffer’s group 18 years to explore enough of the search space to solve the game of checkers. The same group is now trying to develop expert poker playing programs and recently they organized the first ever man-machine poker challenge (man was the winner of this first encounter.)
However, few people know about the first ever chess playing program.
This program was designed by no other than the famous British mathematician and computer pioneer Alan Turing. Starting in 1948, Turing wrote the program in collaboration with D.G. Champernowne, a former undergraduate colleague of his. Four years later in 1952, when it was time to have a match against a human opponent, Turing had no access to a computer fast enough to execute his state-of-the-art program and so he did what every one of us would do in the same situation; he simulated the program using pen and paper requiring half an hour of computation for each move!
The game was won by the human participant Alick Glennie who was another of Turing’s colleagues. Alick defeated the computer in 29 moves playing the black pieces.
If you are a chess enthusiast, you can check out the full game here. The image at the top of this post shows the board at its conclusion.