Plugged In

Games your computer will win — and some it won’t

Plugged In

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Man vs. Machine

We all like to think we're smarter than our computers. We pretty much have to be, right? After all, we invented them, and when it comes
down to it, they're nothing more than glorified calculators.

As far as board games are concerned, however, being a glorified calculator is enough to achieve quite a lot. You're already inferior to your computer in a substantial number of complex games, and the list is getting longer all the time. Here are a few games where your computer can (and will) beat you -- and a precious few where humanity is still on top.


You can't beat your computer at least, not if you
have a good enough program.

Since Deep Blue sensationally bested grand master Garry Kasparov in 1997, humans have
been second banana to machines when it comes to playing chess. A few factors
make chess an easier prospect for computer analysis than other games: each
player has exactly the same amount of information about the state of the game
(unlike games with hidden cards, like poker), there are no random elements, and
the board is comparatively small. These days, just about any off-the-shelf
chess program should be capable of handing you an embarrassing defeat.


You can't beat your computer at checkers, either.

No matter how good you are, you'll lose to checkers-playing
program Chinook, a development of a research team at the University of Alberta.
It's been proven that the best a Chinook opponent can ever expect is a draw,
because in a straight-up match, the machine is literally unbeatable. But that
doesn't apply to competition checkers play, where the combatants must begin
with three randomly chosen moves. In those games humans still have the edge, at
least for now.


You can't beat your computer at backgammon. Not consistently, anyway.

A slew of computer backgammon programs promise the ability
to outmatch any human opponent over a sufficient number of games, and as far as
anyone can tell, they're right. Thanks to the random factor introduced by rolling
dice, though, it's tough to make a categorical determination: as any backgammon
player will know, if the dice aren't with you, it doesn't matter how well you


You probably can't beat your computer at poker. Sure, your
soggy human brain might be able to read faces, analyze your opponents'
weaknesses, and leverage its near-legendary intuition, but it'll still be
crushed by the raw power of probability.

Leading "pokerbot" Polaris has proven competitive at the
very highest levels, beating numerous poker pros in controlled contests, and
that means the odds are pretty good it can school you, too. It ain't over yet,
however, as Polaris is limited to head-to-head limit Texas Hold 'Em, and has
yet to be extended to larger games. We doubt that will take too long, thanks to
the significant financial incentive inherent in developing a human-beating pokerbot
that's adaptable to more realistic scenarios. If you've ever ventured into a
real-money online poker game, you'll probably have already realized this - and
if you've ever lost your shirt in one, you may have wondered if it has already


The answer: yes, you can probably beat your computer at Jeopardy.

Machines are great at all the number-crunching analysis that's behind most board games, but when it comes to understanding the subtle nuances of language, they're outpaced by your average four-year-old. Assuming your computer is a regular, common-or-garden variety, it'll probably struggle to play Jeopardy at all.

One exception, though, is in the unlikely event your computer happens to be "Watson," a machine designed by IBM's boffins to be a world-beating Jeopardy champ. Those IBM white-coat types do a pretty good job, too, as past Jeopardy masters Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter will attest: in a high-profile February match-up, the machine dominated both of them.


You can beat your computer at Go, if you're reasonably good.

Popular in the Far East for centuries, this outwardly simple game is a
surprisingly tricky proposition
for computer programmers, largely thanks to
its colossal variability -- typically, there are hundreds of possible legal
moves open at any one time. Extend that variety over just a handful of turns,
and you're already into a mushrooming universe of complexity that'd tax even a
supercomputer, let alone whatever you happen to have sitting on your desk.

Human brains are much better at trimming out non-productive
moves, so with a little practice you should be able to take down any current Go
program. Don't get too comfy, though: being largely a problem of available
computing power rather than anything inherent in the game, the machines will
catch up to us sooner or later.

Connect 4

Believe it or not, you can always beat your computer at
Connect 4.

In fact, as long as you go first and play a perfect game,
you can beat absolutely anyone or anything. Mathematicians working in the 1980s
found that the opening player in a Connect 4 game is inevitably able to force a
win, as long as they start in the middle column, regardless of whether they're
human or a machine. All you have to do is not make any mistakes, though that's
harder than it sounds.

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