Playing Chess with God

1/19/2008 8:25:59 PM

Playing Chess with God

Although the title is appropriate, I wasn't actually planning on writing a post about the legendary chess grandmaster, Bobby Fischer, who died in the past few days, but I will take a few moments to pay my respects.

I was a long admirer of him, and, over the years, I identified with him ever more over the years. Here was this young natural talent who defeated several highly trained Soviet chessplayers to end Soviet domination of the chess world title. He was also very individualistic, provocative and controversial, breaking taboos and openly defying the government, by traveling to Serbia despite sanctions. In the same vein now, I do fancy myself competing against other companies and speaking freely.

Back to my intended post, I found this interesting post called "Play Chess with God" by an interesting new blogger, Russ Cox. This and his other post, SuperOptimizer, deals with computer solutions to traditional human problems mainly through brute force techniques.

Starting in the late 1970s, Ken Thompson proved by example that computers could completely analyze chess endgames, which involve only a small number of pieces. Thompson's key insight was that when there are only a few pieces on the board, there might be very many possible move sequences, but there are relatively few distinct board positions.

Given six pieces in the board, it became a simple lookup with Ken's endgame database to determine the best next move to make. Russ quotes former championship chess player Tim Krabbe describing his experiences using said database:

Playing over these moves is an eerie experience. They are not human; a grandmaster does not understand them any better than someone who has learned chess yesterday. The knights jump, the kings orbit, the sun goes down, and every move is the truth. It's like being revealed the Meaning of Life, but it's in Estonian.

While my software relies more on intelligent rules rather than brute-force techniques, the feelings and experience that I have experienced are more or less the same. My initial thought sometimes on seeing a strange result calculated by my NStatic tool is denial with the full belief that I am witnessing a software bug, only to discover after careful analysis and to my surprise that the computer's solution is in fact correct.

I don't claim this experience to be unique. This should be familiar to anyone who has ever played chess against the computer or used a declarative programming language with unpredictable control flow.

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Net Undocumented is a blog about the internals of .NET including Xamarin implementations. Other topics include managed and web languages (C#, C++, Javascript), computer science theory, software engineering and software entrepreneurship.

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