When the definitive history of the computer era is written, it is my profound hope that Dr. Arthur L. Samuel will merit at least a footnote.
Samuel was a pioneer programmer who made key advances in helping machines learn from their mistakes -- the kind of programming known today by the grandiose, but misleading, name "artificial intelligence."
Samuel's passion, though, was checkers. With enormous effort, he taught an IBM mainframe the secrets of that game. By 1961, his computer had earned a "master" rating and could hold its own against the top human checkers stars.
Smirk if you will, but teaching a mindless machine to play an artful game of checkers (or anything else) is no trivial task. As I noted in a recent column on computer chess, everybody talks about "computers that play chess," but, in fact, computers don't know beans about chess. The mightiest supercomputer couldn't tell a castled king from a passed pawn without laborious instruction from homo sapiens.
That column on chess drew an unusually strong response from readers. Many of you asked an interesting question: "What other games can computers play well?"
Computers can be, and have been, programmed to play just about any board game (chess, checkers, Monopoly, etc.) and every imaginable card game, from blackjack ("Casino Blackjack" from Survey Systems Inc. 301 927-1113) to Go Fish ("Go Fish" by Dynacomp 716 442-8960).
But it's one thing for a computer to play a game, and quite another for the computer to play it well (that is, on a par with top human players). Some games are more susceptible than others to computer mastery.
Normally, computers will do best in games with the least hidden information. One reason Samuel could create a checkers champ was that, in checkers, all the information is known: where all the pieces are, where all the open squares are, etc. Stud poker, by contrast, is tougher for a computer to play well because of the unknown elements, such as which cards the other players have.
Still, computer programs have fared well at some games with built-in unknowns. The legendary program "BKG 9.8," operating on an IBM mainframe, won the world backgammon championship in 1979. Some programmers claim to have beaten the house in Las Vegas at roulette and blackjack; the computer's ability to calculate odds at high speed makes up in part for the uncertainties of the game.
One game where computers have performed poorly is contract bridge. Although many top programmers are first-rate bridge players, they've had trouble teaching their machines to play well.
Why? Bridge has lots of unknown information: 39 of the 52 cards are hidden from the player. Further, bridge requires much more foresight than other games. You can play fine chess if you look three or four moves ahead, but any decent bridge declarer has to look 13 moves, or tricks, ahead before playing the first card.
Nonetheless, two good new bridge-playing programs for MS-DOS computers have appeared just this fall. They're quite different, but I strongly recommend both.
If you're interested in programming, you ought to look at "Turbo GameWorks" ($70) from Borland International ( 800 255-8008). This is a first-rate set of three games -- chess, Go-moku and bridge -- written in Borland's Turbo Pascal. The package offers an interesting bridge game, but the real delight of this system is that you can rewrite the code (using Turbo Pascal) to make your own bridge-playing program.
The creme de la creme of bridge games for personal computers is the brand-new program "Cybron" ($125) from Alurus in Falls Church, Va. ( 703 532-3355).
This is a marvelous piece of software: stunning sound and graphics (you hear the deck being shuffled and watch each card land on the table as it is played), remarkable ease of learning, an excellent manual, and an almost infinite variety of options for playing or learning the game.
I've had lots of fun playing straight bridge against Cybron (the computer shuffles and deals each new hand and instantly updates the score sheet). But the program's real power is in the options. You can set it to use different bidding conventions, or to be timid or daring.
You can can ask it to deal only game-contract hands, slam hands, no-trump hands, or whatever. If the opponent makes some unexpected bid or play, Cybron will let you peak into his hand. If you blunder, you can take back your bid or card -- or replay the whole hand.
Cybron is always ready to suggest a bid or play, but if you don't want advice, it will shut up.
The best thing about these bridge games is that they're not world champions. Anybody who's played chess against a computer program knows how frustrating it is to be beaten game after game.
Against Cybron, in contrast, my decidedly amateur bridge is often good enough to win. That's what I call an enjoyable game.