Thursday, September 29 2022

In 2016, Lee Sedol, at the time the best go player in the world, was beaten by AlphaGo, a powerful computer built by Google’s artificial intelligence division. The South Korean expected to win easily. Instead, he found himself crushed, losing 4 games to 1. Still, he won a standing ovation at the press conference after his only victory, as if humanity had suddenly been redeemed in the face of a crushing defeat. .

Similar scenes of face-saving occurred in chess, most obviously two decades earlier when IBM’s Deep Blue supercomputer took down grandmaster Garry Kasparov. “The Deep Blue team was instructed by the company’s public relations divisions to dress well and not smile at the closing ceremony – out of respect for the human race,” as Oliver Roeder writes. in seven games.

A journalist and gaming geek, Roeder’s book is part memoir and part meditation on how the overwhelming superiority of machines is changing both games and those who play them. His account is particularly insightful about the quirks of the game’s subcultures, especially those he plays well himself, like Scrabble, where he was briefly one of the top 200 or so players in the United States.

The seven games in question – the other six being checkers, backgammon, chess, go, poker and bridge – have been affected by advances in computing in different ways. Chess is experiencing a machine-driven renaissance, as players flock to compete and watch online. Rather than giving up, computers even inspire human improvement. Magnus Carlsen of Norway, not only the best player in the world but arguably the best ever, says he learned to play in an even more attacking style after studying games played by AI-powered machines .

Not all hobbies were animated. Roeder spends an enjoyable chapter recounting his trips to Las Vegas to play in the World Series of Poker, a tournament once known for high-stakes glamor and excitement. Rather than a contest dominated by oversized personalities and the drama of bluffs and storytelling, however, it found the best players sitting quietly in sunglasses and hoodies, ignoring their opponents while quietly reminiscing from memory. the optimal strategies taught by the software.

Anya Taylor-Joy in the Netflix series “The Queen’s Gambit” © Phil Bray/Netflix

seven games seeks to answer another question: why do humans play? Individual games can go in and out of fashion. Backgammon was cool in the 1970s; poker became popular in the 2000s; chess is having a moment now, also helped by The Queen’s Bet, a hit series from Netflix. Still, board games in general seem more popular than ever, even in the face of smartphones and other digital distractions.

Historically, the author suggests, gambling was a sort of Darwinian survival technique, teaching humans how to calculate probability and strategy. Now, they’re popular for a variety of reasons, the most obvious being their ability to satisfy our deep psychological desires “to solve an elegant problem,” as Roeder puts it. At their best games, they provide a sense of control and agency in an often chaotic world.

Will their popularity last? It has done so so far at least, proving wrong those who feared gamers were losing interest in hobbies in which humans were blatantly inferior to computers – or even those, like ladies, that computers have long since been resolved in full.

The persistent psychological challenge of gambling and puzzle solving is of course not always pleasant, especially if you lose. It’s a point Roeder makes during a tongue-in-cheek recounting of the time he ended up facing Carlsen on all 64 squares, in an exhibition match in which the Norwegian star faced a large number of amateur players at a time.

Pushing his first pawn, Roeder had no doubts about what was to follow: “Carlsen was about to do to my psyche what Mike Tyson would have done to my face,” he recalls. He kept playing, relishing the challenge even if it came with the prospect of certain defeat – as if it was a small part of what makes us human after all.

seven games: A human story by Olivier Roder, WW Norton, £19.99, 320pp

James Crabtree is the author of “The Billionaire Raj”

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