Man against computer

Shhh… Silence.

Yes, we must have silence because the stakes are high. It is man against computer today in these games of checkers.

It is a question of dames [1] but we are not talking about the female sex of course. It is about the game of checkers. This game of strategy and of psychology is played in the cafes of the entire world probably.

The competition took place in La Roche sur Yon [2] in the context of the championship of France.

The representative of the human beings is N’Diaga Samb, the Senegalese grand master, ranked 11th in the world. He is confident of his superiority. About the computer he says:

In calculation and in mathematics it is very strong, it sees all the combinations and all that… on the other hand for strategy, it is missing that a bit.

Before him, the computer called ‘Buggy’ and its designer Nicolas Guibert who is himself a former champion of France. In contrast to chess, until now we have never seen a computer beating grand masters of checkers. But actually it is for that, that Guibert started developing his software three years ago…

For the challenge on the one hand, the game of checkers, and on the other hand the programming, and logic and mathematics because to make a program for the game of checkers there is a pile of problems to resolve. There is on the one hand, the difficulty of having to teach the strategy of the game to the software, transferring to it the theoretical knowledge, the theory of the game, what are the good cases, what are the good situations. And the second thing is what we have to see in the algorithm… so that the software calculates the most positions per second and the most efficiently possible in choosing the most interesting positions to calculate.

And while he recognises that Buggy has still several weaknesses, he expresses a paternal pride in his creation:

There are two types of surprises, there are the surprises when it is a tactical move, that is to say short term, a combination which we humans have not seen, of calculated moves, that is the area where computers are stronger than people… Sometimes there are bad surprises however in the area of strategy, that is to say in the area of the long term, in the area of the understanding of the game when the software sometimes plays bad moves because it does not understand the strategy of the game. The most enjoyable is when the computer happens to innovate in the strategy whilst that is the strong point of people. The real challenge is there.

There are about 1000 checkers players at the club level in France who are placed honourably on the world scale. Jean Luc Violeau is one of the organisers of the championship.

France is correctly placed I would say above average. On the other hand we must really recognise that there are countries which are better placed on the level of the number of players, notably in the Nordic countries, for example Holland and also the countries of the east like the former Soviet Union, that is to say Ukraine etc.

And if you have the idea that in the hierarchy of the nobility of games, checkers are the poor parents of chess, Jean Luc is there to correct you.

It is a bad idea which has been spread, but contrary to what you may believe, if the game of checkers is based on simple rules at first it becomes very complicated when you want to progress and get to a higher level.

In chess, we can easily see all of the checker board since all of the pieces are different whilst in checkers all the draughts look the same and in fact the power of the game comes from the relative power of the pieces some by comparison to others.

The competitors of this championship are proud of their game which for them has elegance and an unbeatable simplicity.

All of the draughts are the same, and starting from there the value of a position is not linked to the value of a piece, but there are strategic arrangements which are for me beautiful, there you are!

The qualities of good players; that would be… having the pleasure of playing… having the pleasure of playing; not playing a game without doing it with the heart, without doing it willingly.

In order to participate in the pleasure, you must first of all get yourself a real checkers’ board, because the pros do not play with a checker board of 64 squares like in chess (what treachery!) but with a checker board of 100 squares. And then to improve your game, you can always listen to some advice from the experts.

In checkers, the best plan is to occupy the centre of the checker board and starting from that base, remaining grouped, we are going to build what we can call columns of draughts which are going to enable us to attack the opponent in order to try to give him one, two or three pieces while taking two, three or four from him. That is to say that we are trying to give, at the moment of giving, pieces on the condition of being able to later recover an advantage, right, understood?

But the central strategy is not of course the only strategy… since some moves, starting from some positions allow you to surround your opponent. Then sometimes, someone who believes that he is holding the centre has himself surrounded and risks having himself shifted from one side of the board.

But if one day computers beat men, would that not spoil the fun?

Not at all. Because it is not a human player and the pleasure between two human players will be always the same; that does not change anything.

Personally I take pleasure in playing with a player, not with a computer. That it be stronger than man, that’s not… that’s normal, that thing calculates. It is like that.

N’Diaga Samb also gives the impression of wanting to return to man to man as soon as possible.

You have the feeling of playing with an empty chair, right, that’s the difference. While I am with a human being, you can, let’s say, note his emotions his feelings during the match.

And the result of the fight between the man and the machine? At the moment, N’Diaga Samb leads Buggy 1-0.

Sunday we will have the final result.

Addendum 19/08/01. It is N’Diaga Samb who won 2-0 against Buggy.

[1] Dame means woman and dames means women, but also the game of checkers.

[2] La Roche sur Yon is the principal city of the department of Vendée on the Atlantic coast of France to the north of La Rochelle.

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