ClayNation: Check your ambitions at the door against Chinook


July 30, 2007
By Clay Travis
SPiN Columnist
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There is no longer any mystery who the greatest checkers player in the world is. Not that many of you have ever wondered about this, but still, the mystery is gone.

It's not the old dude who sits outside Cracker Barrel and plays on one of those oversized boards while rocking in the rocking chair. Or your bachelor uncle who gave you your first whoopee cushion.


Ever play checkers at Cracker Barrel while waiting for a table? (Provided to SportsLine)


In fact, it's not even a person. Just a computer program that has mastered billions of possible moves and permutations to such a degree that it is mathematically impossible for you to ever win. What fun.

The fine folks at the University at Alberta are responsible for creating the uber-checkers master. The fine folks at Alberta spent the past 18 years formulating their unbeatable computer program and being laughed at by women in bars.

The computer program is called Chinook. If you don't believe Chinook is the undisputed world champion of checkers, you can go and play it yourself. Once you arrive at the site you're immediately faced with a cheerful greeting:

"Play against the World Checkers Champion! Chinook won the World Championship in 1994, the first program to win a human world championship. This feat is recognized by the Guiness Book of World Records."

Admittedly, this is a bit intimidating. Although made a bit less intimidating because the brilliant minds who have conquered checkers misspelled Guinness on their introduction page. But then Chinook really steps up the trash talking a few sentences later:

"The program on this site is the champion but it has been reduced in strength to allow you to 'have a chance' at drawing."

Yep, according to Chinook the best you can hope for is a tie. Once I read this, of course, I had to take on the machine.


Would you like to play a game of checkers? (Provided to SportsLine)


Confession time: I don't really like checkers and haven't played since I was a child. It always seemed to me like a more colorful version of tic-tac-toe. Only you couldn't play checkers during the sermon in church like you could play tic-tac-toe, hangman and other games that infallibly predicted the future like MASH, where you found out if you were going to live in a mansion, apartment, shack or a house. (Admit it, you played too.)

So tic tac toe, hangman and MASH were my preferred games. I attribute this to my parents drawing the line at allowing me to bring an actual checkers board to play in the pews. As a result the only time I ever played checkers was ... never. Especially once I discovered chess. But, when faced with trash talk like that from Chinook I felt obliged to compete.

Chinook is capable of playing up to fifty simultaneous games. Once you have decided to take it on, you can choose your color (white or black) level (novice, amateur or intermediate) and even select your board size (large or small). There are two rules to familiarize yourself with: 1. Jumps are compulsory; 2. You will lose.

For my first game against Chinook I decide to begin at the novice level. My goals are modest: 1. Win in rapid fashion, leading Chinook to commit computer suicide via overheating; 2. Tie; 3. Failing a win or a tie, do not allow yourself to be double-jumped.

As game time approaches I feel a bit of trepidation. Fear taps her icy fingers on my spine when I'm asked to enter my name. What do they need my name and e-mail address for? Are they going to send me a certificate of defeat if I lose, an e-card filled with laughing computer noises?

I decide this is just a form of psychological warfare. I brush off my inclination to type in "Roger Goodell" and instead type in my own name. Just to be safe in case they send a taunting e-mail, I decide to use my wife's e-mail address. I do this because my wife guards her e-mail address as if it doubles as the nuclear launch sequence.


What child's game would you play against a computer: Checkers or tic-tac-toe? (Provided to SportsLine)


Several years ago she started giving my e-mail address out whenever she signed up for anything. When I asked her why she said, "Because I don't want to get the e-mails from Burt's Bees." So now I get them. Swell. She'll be so upset if Chinook e-mails her. This will be some form of consolation.

Now I'm ready. It's checkers time. The screen opens up in front of me. My side of the board is closest to me and Chinook's side of the board is closer to "it." I squint my eyes, mutter a few curse words in Chinook's direction and make my first move. Post move, I smirk at the computer screen, and then sit staring for some time waiting for the computer to move. After about two minutes I realize that the computer has already moved. Chinook's move was virtually simultaneous with my own. So rapid that I didn't even notice.

I take a deep breath. This game is going to demand fortitude.

Four moves in, I'm feeling good. Chinook and I are engaged in what appears from my perspective to be an even struggle. But then, out of nowhere, Chinook starts trash talking me on the fourth move: "You are in serious trouble," the computer says. I scoff, staring at the computer screen trying to assess where I am vulnerable. I see nothing. Two moves later Chinook has managed to advance onto my side of the board and pin two of my checkers with one of his own. This is a bit troubling. I have given up the wings of the board without realizing it.

I take my eyes off the board and see that anyone who wants can watch my game. And comment. Thank God I didn't tell anyone I was doing this. No one is commenting right now.

Chinook and I exchange captures twice. Then Chinook taunts me again, "Chinook is winning." I wonder how this can be since we've only exchanged pieces twice. I count my pieces ... nine. Then I count Chinook's pieces ... ten. Uh oh. Somehow I've been double-jumped and not even noticed it. This is alarming.

I redouble my efforts. Chinook makes his 15th move. Then it taunts me, "You lose. Another game?" I refuse to acknowledge defeat. Three moves later, I can't move a single piece in any direction without being taken. Unfortunately for me, I can't choose not to move. The game continues. I am sweating now. On move 20 Chinook is kinged. The end times are nigh. Five moves later I am wiped off the board while Chinook has six pieces left, including two kings.


Screenshot of a game in progress. (Provided to SportsLine)


I leave my defeat and scan over every other game currently taking place. Untaxed by my match Chinook is winning in all 22. I go into one competitor's room and watch his game. Chinook has twice as many pieces as his human foe. For some reason the human Chinook is playing is writing messages in the room that only he can see. "You cannot beat this guy," the human competitor exclaims. This is pretty weird even for me. Feeling sort of like a rubbernecker at the scene of a bad accident, I leave this game behind.

Being a glutton for checkers punishment I decide to go back for another run at Chinook. Only this time I decide to play the hardest level. For this game my goals have shifted. They are: 1. Do not get double-jumped. This is my only goal. Getting double-jumped in checkers is the rough equivalent of getting dunked on in basketball and ending up with the groin of the opposing player in your face. This will not happen to me again.

At the commencement of our game I redeploy my checkers pieces so that I don't immediately give up the sides of the board. Things appear to be going well. Chinook is relatively understated in his commentary through six moves. "Chinook has a small advantage," he says. We have traded men, one for one, three times thus far. We're tied 9-9 through ten moves. I'm en fuego. Then, it happens, on Chinook's 11th move, I get double-jumped. And never see it coming until afterwards when suddenly two of my pieces are gone. By the 12th move, Chinook has risen from the dead. "You lose," it says. "Another game?"

I soldier on. There is no quit in my checkers game. At move 34 I have kept things relatively even. Chinook has four pieces (two kings and two regular) while I have two pieces (one king and one regular). I am advancing on one of Chinook's pieces with my king, which I am planning to take and whittle down the difference even more. Then, you guessed it, on move 35 I am unceremoniously jumped, and then jumped again, to end the game. Chinook's three pieces are all that's left on the board. Double-jumped to end the game? I can barely stomach my own ineptitude. I sit staring into the computer screen, a vanquished man.

All of these defeats make me long for a man named Marion Tinsley, the former checkers world champion, who, get this, had not lost a checkers game since 1950. Unfortunately, Tinsley died of cancer in the 1990's to end his 40-year unbeaten streak and taking mankind's last, best hope with him. So now we have Chinook, that rat bastard Chinook.

To cope with Chinook's checkers perfection I decide to play MASH online. And let me tell you, I'm going to be living with Keira Knightley in a shack, driving the KITT car, work as a lawyer, have zero kids and live in Gary, Ind. These were my legit results and I can't wait to grow up. Let's see Chinook top that.


Clay Travis is the author of Dixieland Delight: A Season on the Road in the Southeastern Conference, available July 31, 2007, from HarperCollins. Called "as indispensable to college football fans as ibuprofen on Sunday morning" by Warren St. John, the New York Times' best selling author of Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer, Dixieland Delight is Travis' hilarious, loving, irreverent and endlessly entertaining chronicle of a world that goes a little crazy on football Saturdays.