You: Hey? Didn’t you say you were going to write a post about procrastination last night?
Me: Huh? … Uhm, yeah, I guess so.
You: Well? Where is it?
Me: Uh, well, I thought it might be more clever if I waited a few days.
You: Seriously? What were you really doing last night?
Me: Well, it kind of started in the morning.
You: As any good procrastinator does. Go on.
Me: I was side tracked, … somehow and found myself on Kickstarter. Do You know what that is?
You: Of course, it’s a website where people can go to help get funding for creative projects. Say an artist, a writer, a painter, whatever, has always wanted to do a personal pet project, but money is an issue. They can start a project on Kickstarter, offer rewards stemming from the project, to people who donate.
Me: Exactly! I decided I should be a patron of the arts. I donated to Gabriel Böhmer’s novel, Beetle Days. After all, maybe I’ll want to do a Kickstarter project one day. I should invest in the system. And if I don’t ever start a project, then I helped out a fellow human being fulfill their dream. The best part, if a project doesn’t meet the minimum funding the creator asks for, then none of the people who promised backing are charged, and alas, that’s the end of the project. So not everyone gets their dreams fulfilled, but at least it’s a way for modern day creative types to find themselves a benefactor. It’s called crowd funding.
You: Okay, not bad, but you said this was in the morning. What did you do last night that stopped you from blogging?
Me: **Sigh** Way to stay on point. You can be pretty sharp. Anyway, in the late afternoon, the project was funded so I went to check the page out. From there, I started looking at other projects.
You: You spent the whole evening looking through Kickstarter projects?
Me: Don’t be silly. I started looking through the board game projects.
You: Board games?
Me: Yeah, I’ve always enjoyed the classic style board games like Checkers and Chess. I remember sitting down as a teen and searching for the shortest possible game in Chinese checkers using ten marbles and no opposing army. My best solution was 32 moves.
You: Why waste the time? There’s always an opposing army.
Me: Why do people sit around and play solitaire? To procrastinate. To waste time.
Me: By the way, it was only in 2008 that George I. Bell proved that the shortest game possible for solitaire Chinese checkers is 27 moves.
You: Did you just link to an academic paper on Combinatorics?
Me: He also showed that with opposing armies acting cooperatively, rather than opposing each other, the shortest game is only 30 moves. Think about that. There’s 20 marbles in such a game and they each have to move at least once!
You: Hmm, okay I admit that’s kind of interesting as trivia, but you didn’t spend your whole evening reading that paper did you?
Me: No, I came across a message board, a forum, where people discuss the creation of these types of board games.
Me: Since I am trained as a mathematician and I almost opted to get a PhD in Computer Science instead, I got sucked into the discussions about classic games being, for the lack of a better mundane word, computable. By that, I mean algorithms and/or databases of moves that allow a computer to play perfectly. Think back at how lame computers were back in the early and mid 90′s. Even back in 1992, Chinook, a checkers program lost in a series of games to the World Champion, 4 games to 2 (with 33 draws). Chinook’s two wins against Dr. Tinsley, a professor of mathematics (of course), represented Tinsley’s 6th and 7th loss since 1950! Unfortunately, a rematch was never completed since Tinsley passed away in 1994. The creators retired the program when they realized no human could beat it. Finally, in 2007, computers finished the task of “breaking” checkers. Chinook now plays the perfect move every time. Go try it.
You: Why would I want to play a checkers program that plays perfectly? No thanks. Besides, you’re just paraphrasing a NY Times article.
Me: Yeah, but I read it back in 2007. I knew where to go to find it so I could at least get the facts straight.
You: Alright, so you were looking into discussions about people computing board game stuff and you read about this all evening? How sad…
Me: Not exactly. I admit I read for a couple of hours, but then I came across a game that was compared to chess, though it’s really nothing like chess other than it’s played on an 8 by 8 square board.
You: Are you going to go on a long soliloquy about chess now?
Me: Uhm, … No?
Me: Suffice it to say, that there is so much human created chess theory over the past 150 years, the game is getting to be “played out”. It is not uncommon for grandmasters, the best players in the world, to run through essentially memorized sequences with nothing new being played until each player has moved thirty or more times. More than two-thirds of these games end in a draw. It almost seems as though the only new theory that’s being created, though rarely, occurs in games between computers. Chess is fine for the every day player, but the best in the world have kind of dried up the field.
Stop rolling your eyes. That’s the short soliloquy on chess. The game I was fascinated by is called Arimaa. Two things make this game special. The first, solves the chess problem in that the player is allowed to set up his or her own pieces. Thus, creating strategies from a fixed starting position is solved because there are no fixed starting positions. The second, is the simplicity. The rules are even simpler than chess. It can be a bit trying to teach a four or five year old to move the pieces in chess. The abstract interactions between pieces that all behave differently is a bit daunting for most children at that age. In Arimaa, all the pieces move the same, one square up, down, left, or right.
You: So how is Arimaa more complex than chess?
Me: First off, for each turn, a player can make up to four moves. You don’t have to play all four, but you do have to move at least once. There is a hierarchy to the pieces: Elephant, Camel, Horse, Dog, Cat, and Rabbit.
You: Sounds like a kids game.
Me: Quiet you. The truly interesting thing about Arimaa is that a larger animal can push and pull smaller enemy animals. You don’t capture opposing pieces by moving and taking over the square. There are four “traps” on the board. You capture pieces by pushing or pulling your opponents pieces into the traps. Even though the Elephant is the biggest piece and cannot be pushed or pulled, it is the rabbit (akin to the pawn in chess in that you have 8 of them) that is the most important piece. A player wins by getting one of their rabbits to the far side of the board. Of course, you can also win by trapping all 8 of your opponents rabbits, thereby making it impossible for them to win. And finally, you can win by immobilizing all of your opponent’s pieces. If they can’t move, they lose.
You: Doesn’t sound so hard.
Me: It’s not. But like any game, there are some subtleties that go into making it interesting. Like when a trap captures a piece. (The trap only works if there are no other friendly animals nearby.) And if a smaller animal is next to a larger animal, that piece is frozen, unless it has a friendly animal nearby. (Nearby = up, down, left, or right. Nothing acts diagonally in this game! See, it’s nice and simple.) The freeze rule prevents smaller animals from running from a larger animals without help.
You: So you spent your evening learning to play a kids game? Worse yet, a kids game that teaches them it’s okay for larger animals to bully smaller animals?
Me: Now you’re just twisting things. It’s not a kids game. Several thousand adults regularly play this game online. Considering how hard it is to market classic style board games these days, that’s a pretty impressive number.
You: How do you know it’s not several thousand kids?
Me: Because the game was invented by Omar Syed. He has degrees in Computer Engineering and Electronic Engineering. He designed it specifically so that it would be impossible for current computers to crack the game without new advances in computer science and artificial intelligence. There is nothing elegant about the way computers have solved checkers and currently analyze chess. The program simply looks through millions of moves and counter moves until it determines the best one. The number of moves a computer would have to analyze to determine the best one in Arimaa is beyond current technology’s ability to brute force it’s way through. Thus, new methods of getting computers to analyze information will have to be created. Necessity is the Mother of invention, after all.
You: **Fake snoring sounds** I no longer care why you didn’t post last night. Just end this would you.
Me: Alright, let me just finish by saying that in order to encourage other computer scientists to be interested in this particular problem, Omar Syed has offered a $10,000 prize to anyone who can create a program that can beat three chosen humans best two out of three games against each opponent. The challenge will remain open until 2020. After ten years, the humans are still undefeated.
You: **Sigh** …hooray…