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Computer Chess - Wed, 11 Dec 2013

Today, I enjoyed some personal nostalgia as I went to see the Indie movie: Computer Chess. This was filmed in Austin Texas and released this past summer. It came to Winnipeg this week for a 4 show installment. I went to the fourth show, attended by 16 people in a theatre that holds about 100.

The movie is about a weekend tournament for chess software programmers set about 30 years ago. They said in the movie it was the North American Computer Chess Championship.

As one of the few actual participants of a North American Computer Chess Championship of that era, I really enjoyed it, and although the events and people in the movie were fictional, I found certain aspects of it quite realistic. Someone who knew something about those tournaments must have provided advice.

Below is the movie trailer:

I loved the characterization of the participants. They certainly covered the wide variety of personalities, and I could assign many of the film characters to some of the competitors I actually had the pleasure to meet. The emcee was definitely modelled after David Levy, an English chess master who was the emcee at the real tournaments, and who made the bet that no program would beat him in a match within 10 years.

Some things were not quite right. The actual tournaments were held in large hotels and large exhibition halls – not the small two-star hotel portrayed in the movie. Most of the computers were not micros on site but telephone modems that were used to connect to the developer’s mainframe computer back home. In my case, I was then a student at the University of Manitoba and was using the University’s IBM 370 mainframe. Long distance charges were covered by the Association of Computing Machinery who sponsored many of the computer chess tournaments of the time.

But other things were bang on. The setup of the large chess boards with the emcee commenting on the moves as they were made to an audience. The machines often made perplexing moves, just like in the movie. And competitors would be chatting with each other as the games went on. Yes, there were some who even stayed up late at night to try to fix a bug, myself included.

Here’s a picture I took at the 1977 tournament in Seattle, Washington. That’s David Levy on stage commenting on one of the games shown on the large upright chess-display boards:Photo I took at the 1977 NACCC

My program Brute Force competed in two tournaments. Seattle in 1977 and Washington D.C. in 1978. If I were to characterize myself then as one of the competitors in the movie, I’d probably be most like Peter, the young University student with the big glasses, except that I would never have thought my computer only wanted to play people, and I absolutely never would have done what he did at the end of the movie.

While at University, I also dabbled in creating a computerized genealogy report that was an early ancestor of what was to become Behold. Programming for genealogy would became more of an interest to me than chess programming. But my computer chess past will always remain dear to me.

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