Draught of Change

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Draught of Change

(Alamy)

“The mind is inured to caution, foresight and circumspection…” Dr Samuel Johnson, from his introduction to William Payne’s 1756 Treatise on the Game of Draughts.

My inspiration for this week’s title is taken from Harold Macmillan’s famous “Wind of Change” speech, delivered at Accra, Ghana on January 10, 1960.

It may seem perverse to focus on draughts at the midpoint of the match for the World Championship in chess, but I hope that readers will detect a method in my madness. Draughts, like chess, is a game played by two opponents facing each other over a board of 64 squares, with Black, unlike chess, moving first. The board is arranged with each set of pieces positioned solely on the dark squares on the first three ranks. It involves diagonal moves and mandatory captures, by jumping over as many opposing pieces as possible.

Draughts lovers would have us believe that a game similar to draughts may have been played in Egypt as far back as 1600 BC. Part of a board and pieces were discovered in the tomb of Queen Hatshepsut, daughter of Thotmes I, who ruled Egypt for many years. There is evidence too, from Egyptian monumental paintings and inscriptions, that the game was common at the time of the earlier pharaohs.

In the Dialogues of Plato, Socrates tells Phaedrus that the famous Egyptian God Theuth “was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters.” Homer, in the Odyssey Book I, says “The bright eyed goddess Athene… Found the insolent suitors, sitting on the hides of ox skin that they had taken and slaughtered themselves, playing at draughts.”

Of course, the use of “draughts”, in all such contexts may be the whim of a modern translator, but illustrations from ancient Greece (such as the famous Vatican Vase by Exekias) certainly show a board game, similar in appearance to draughts. Naturally, this may equally well refer to ancient race-style games.

Modern draughts may be said to have had its beginnings in Spain, with the publications of Antonio Torquemada in 1547, Pedro Rodrigo Montero in 1590, Lorenzo Valls in 1597, and Juan Garcia Canlejas in 1610. In France, Pierre Mallet, Mathematician to the King, published a manual in 1688 entitled Jeu des Dames. The derivation is interesting, probably coming from early chess, where the Queen or Dame had exactly the same diagonal move as a draughts piece, except that in draughts, unpromoted units cannot retreat.

Confident of his ability and knowledge of the game, Monsieur Mallet challenged any Christian or Barbarian champion to play a match “for a dozen pistoles.” (Antonio Torquemada, is, of course, not to be confused with Tomas de Torquemada, the first Grand Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition.)

The pioneer of draughts literature in England was William Payne, teacher of mathematics, who published his book in 1756. This book, Treatise on the Game of Draughts, contained 50 games, critical situations, situations for multiple capture coups, and many fundamental endgame positions, including an analysis of what is known as “the first position, by which more games are won than any other ending”. The book revealed that even two and a half centuries ago the experts of the day knew a great deal about draughts. More, indeed, than about chess.

Another valuable contribution to the literature of the game was made by the publication in 1800 of a work by Joshua Sturges, entitled Guide to the Game of Draughts, which contained a great deal of original analysis and corrected faulty play in Payne’s book. Sturges’s Book went through many revised editions, and furnished a foundation for later analyses. Other publications in the next half-century worthy of particular intention were James Sinclair’s Game of Draughts (1832), William Hay’s The Game of Draughts (1838) and John Drummonds’ The Scottish Draughts Player (also 1838).

However, the most important contribution to the science of the game during that period was that of Andrew Anderson of Carluke, Scotland, one of the greatest draughts players that ever lived and one of its most skilled analysts. His work, Guide to the Game of Draughts was published in 1848 and enlarged in 1852. Anderson‘s book offered a great deal of dependable analysis (it was rare indeed that a flaw could be found in an Andersonian line of play). This book also provided a set of “Standard Rules of Play”, and naming of the basic openings. As an analyst, Anderson was unrivalled, and as a player, he was the first man ever to be recognised as world champion, largely by his victory over James Wyllie in 1847 in a match for the title. He scored nine wins to six losses, with 31 games drawn.

There are different styles of play for draughts. Three styles of play are contested at world championship level. “Go-as-you-please“ (GAYP), also known as freestyle, is the name given to the style in which each player has complete freedom as to his or her opening moves, from the very first move of the game. Because so many opening variations are known to lead to a draw (should neither player be able to force a win, through lack of superiority in material or position, the game is declared drawn), GAYP lacks popularity at the top echelons because many players would not want their opponents to be able to make an easy draw.

“Eleven-Man-ballot“ is another way of spicing up the game. Each player starts with 11 men (or pieces) instead of 12 (the missing piece is chosen by ballot and is the same for each player), so the traditional drawing variations may not be employed in the opening. Of the three, this strikes me as the least satisfactory solution to avoiding draws.

“Three-move-ballot” is the most popular and exciting form of the game and is played in almost all championship tournaments and matches. A number of three move sequences (Black’s first move, White’s reply and Black’s second move) are written on cards and placed in a bag. Immediately prior to an encounter, one of the sequences is chosen at random and the players then contest two games on the same day, using the balloted opening sequence, with each of them playing black in turn. In the 1992 World Draughts Championship between Dr Marion Tinsley and the “Chinook” Computer, 142 different opening sequences were contained in the bag.

“Chinook has an excellent programmer in Dr Jonathan Schaeffer,” Dr Marion Tinsley said at his 1992 World Championship match against the Chinook computer program. “But mine is better — God.”

Was Dr. Marion Tinsley (pictured above) the greatest mind sports practitioner of them all? Tinsley was born in Iron Town, Ohio in 1927. He is universally recognised as the premier draughts player in the history of the game. Tinsley was a winner of a record seven US National Titles and was World Champion from 1955 to 1958, after which he retired to pursue his teaching career in mathematics, as a professor at Florida State University.

Returning to the game in 1970, his 12-year absence was no obstacle to winning the 1970 US National Title at Memphis, Tennessee. He became World Champion once again in 1975, defeating E. Lowder, Don Lafferty and Paul Davis in World Title matches, retired again in 1991, and was declared World Champion Emeritus in 1992. Even at the age of 65, his tremendous analytical abilities were undiminished. Tinsley is the only player ever in the centuries-long history of draughts to remain unbeaten in any match since he first won the World Title.

In 1992 Tinsley faced his greatest ever challenge — a 40 game contest against the Chinook computer program at the Park Lane Hotel, London, scene of the third Kasparov v Karpov world chess championship in 1986, which I organised, along with Stewart Reuben, the chess impresario. This historic draughts clash in 1992 was the first between a human world champion and a computer program, and attracted more widespread media coverage than any other modern draughts contest.

The human prevailed, in what was arguably the finest high-level draughts match ever played, by the score of four wins to two with 33 draws. Thus I had the additional honour of organising (along with Tony Buzan) the very first world championship in any mind sport, between a human and a computer.

The match featured a dramatic finale, in which Tinsley gained a crushing victory in the last game. Chinook, the Canadian computer program, running on a Silicon Graphics parallel series supercomputer, had been ordered by its human minder, Dr. Jonathan Schaeffer of the University of Alberta, Canada, to play remorselessly for a win in game 39. Trailing by a full point against its human opponent, only two victories for Chinook in the last two games would enable it to win and make history, by becoming the first ever computer world champion in any mental game.

Spurning all chances to draw, Chinook hurled itself into the battle and on the 10th move it introduced an entirely new idea, designed to throw its opponent off course. Dr Tinsley, defending one of the sharpest opening variations in draughts, known as The White Doctor, never made an error. He mercilessly refuted Chinook’s bold effort, crowned two pieces as kings (the equivalent of promoting a pawn to a queen in chess) and forced the machine to resign.

On the 34th move it was all over. Chinook’s position was a wreck. Dr. Schaeffer resigned on behalf of his creation, conceding both the 39th game and the match. Game 40 did not need to be played. The score was 20½ to 18½, an unassailable lead for Dr. Tinsley. Amazingly, the human used just half an hour’s thinking time for this historic game, while Chinook used an hour and a half, during the course of which it “saw” no less than 270 million different draughts positions, but to no avail.

When Jonathan Schaeffer extended his hand in resignation on behalf of Chinook, Dr. Tinsley rose to his feet, raised his fist in triumph over his head and exclaimed to a thrilled audience: “Three cheers for human beings — and that includes Jonathan.“

The final game of the match had a packed hall enthralled as the advantage swung from Chinook‘s side to the doctor. After the game was over, Dr. Tinsley said that this had been the most exciting match of his entire career. According to the many watching draughts experts, the standard of play was possibly the highest ever seen in a draughts match.

Prior to the match, there were some draughts enthusiasts who felt that the participation of computers in what had, hitherto, been an almost exclusively human activity, was a retrograde step. But the massive publicity created for their game and the enormously exciting atmosphere at the Park Lane Hotel, caused a large number of conversions.

Dr. Schaeffer, when asked why the apparently invincible machine had lost, said: “Certain holes still need to be plugged in its knowledge of draughts openings. Once this has been done we would like to challenge Dr Tinsley again.“ Dr. Tinsley responded: “I am game for a rematch, but not one of 40 games. It must be 20 or 30. Look into my eyes — I am deeply tired. After game 14 this time I almost did not have the strength to go on.” Dr Tinsley, a devout Christian, said his faith had helped him. In fact, it had also been the source of some worry to him: he had been visibly depressed by a vision of God appearing to him personally in a dream before the championship, in which the Almighty had said, “I love Jonathan too.”

By the autumn of 1994 Schaeffer’s team was ready for the rematch, having raised the power of the computer by many degrees so that it could now calculate 12 million moves every minute, and had accumulated a database of 118 billion positions. Again Tinsley enthusiastically accepted the challenge, explaining that even at this phenomenal level the computer was still not able to play truly artistic games.

However, obviously ill and suffering from crippling abdominal pains, Tinsley heroically held his silicon opponent to six draws at the Science Museum in Boston USA, before being ordered to stop for medical reasons. (He was later diagnosed as having advanced cancer of the pancreas and died in April 1995). Dr. Tinsley thus conceded the World Title to Chinook, creating a landmark in the history of mind sports, the first ever Computer World Champion, in any such game.

And now the answers to two questions: why was the program called Chinook, naming it seemingly after a US military helicopter? In fact, Chinook signifies “wind” or “mighty force” in the Ita’xluit language of Indigenous Americans, and from “Wind” we reach “Draught”.

Secondly, given the apparently endless glut of draws in World Chess Championship matches of the current period (as I write, only two of the last 29 classical games have not been draws) why not adopt the three move ballot for chess openings? A ballot just before each round would decide the opening, there would be two games per day with all moves to be made in a total of four hours, with no bayomi or extra time, and the players, after a break for a rest, would play the second game with the opening of the day, with colours reversed. This would ensure parity and fairness. There are in fact precedents in both matches and tournaments for such thematic games, even involving such luminaries as Emanuel Lasker, Mikhail Tchigorin, Rudolf Spielmann, Nigel Short and Garry Kasparov.

Bayomi, the extra time originating from the Japanese games of Shogi and Go, is the bane of modern chess and extracts much of its tension, since losing on time has become virtually impossible.

This week’s links: the current World Championship matches between Magnus Carlsen and Ian Nepomniachtchi, and in 1972 Spassky vs. Fischer, the quintessential epic chess encounter, when no fewer than nine games were decisive out of twenty played.

Raymond Keene’s latest book Fifty Shades of Ray: Chess in the year of the Coronavirus, containing some of his best pieces from TheArticle, is now available from Blackwell’s

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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 98%
  • Interesting points: 98%
  • Agree with arguments: 95%
38 ratings - view all

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