August 18, 2019, was the 25th anniversary of a personal and professional milestone. On that day in 1994, the University of Alberta program Chinook won the World Man-Machine Checkers Championship. Chinook was the first program in any game to win a human world championship, a feat recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records.
|Chess grandmaster Raymond Keene (left) speaking at the opening ceremony of the World Man-Machine Checkers Championship, with Jonathan Schaeffer (representing Chinook) and Marion Tinsley (World Champion)|
The victory was bittersweet. After Chinook narrowly losing the Championship in 1992 to Marion Tinsley, I spent most of the next two years preparing for the rematch. Then, in Boston, after 6 games of a 20-game match, all draws, Tinsley uttered the words that haunt me to this day:
“I resign the match and the title to Chinook.”
There is no need to go into the details of what happened next and why; they are recounted in my book One Jump Ahead (Springer-Verlag, 1997 and 2009). Suffice to say that Tinsley felt ill, and it was unthinkable to continue playing against an opponent who could not perform at their highest level. Chinook was awarded the match on forfeit and subsequently defended the title twice. Along the way there was much animosity expressed by a few people external to the match, taking a bad situation and turning it into an awful mess. It didn't end there -- less than a year later, Tinsley passed away from the disease that manifested itself at the 1994 match.
|Green Lawn Cemetery, Columbus, Ohio -- note the position on the checkerboard, taken from a Chinook-Tinsley game|
In 1997 Chinook was retired, having vanquished all comers.
Rob Lake, a member of the Chinook team, reminded me of this milestone a month ago. So, why has it taken me so long for me to post something? I am immensely grateful to have been part of an amazing and historic adventure, and I treasure my memories of the amazing Marion Tinsley. However, the events of 1994 were painful. It took an enormous effort in 1996/1997 for me to put the 1994 story into words for One Jump Ahead. Time has done little to diminish the discomfort. I find it more comfortable to contemplate the future rather than dwell on the past.