Man vs. computer: a gaming history
Will Watson win against its human competitors on 'Jeopardy!'?
February 10th, 2011
11:31 AM ET

Man vs. computer: a gaming history

In 1997, a computer named Deep Blue took a historic victory lap after checkmating world chess champion Garry Kasparov. The IBM computer, capable of processing 100 million board positions a second, was an instant superstar. The win made it less crazy to ask a tantalizing question: Could computers think on their own, and if so, what kind of actions were they capable of?

The word "think" is tricky. Next week, the computer known as Watson will try to beat two "Jeopardy!" champions. Watson is a whiz at math but not at language, so if it wins, a new kind of man vs. machine history will be made. It will show that a computer can dominate at a game that requires reasoning as well encyclopedic knowledge. You can watch Watson in action here.

Years before Kasparov was defeated, in June 1979, computer programmer and chess player Hans J. Berliner's backgammon-playing program beat world champion Luigi Villa 7-1. It is believed to be the first victory by a computer at a game based on strategy, chance and multiple optional positions. Berliner reportedly said that his program wasn't built to analyze millions of moves, like Deep Blue would later, but it computed the benefits and risks of moves.

One of the lesser-known computer victories occurred in the mid-1990s. Marion Tinsley, a math professor and Baptist minister, was the global checkers champ from 1955 to 1992. He lost only seven games in his 45-year career, one of them to a computer in 1994. Called Chinook, the computer was designed by four scientists who worked more than a decade trying to build the perfect checkers dominating program. Tinsley played the machine several times, beat it and then lost in a follow-up match. Chinook went on to beat other humans at the game.

Naturally, the board game of all board games - Scrabble - was next. Don't let its name fool you; Quackle was a formidable Scrabbleist. David Boys, the game's world champion, found that out when the computer beat him in a match in Canada in 2007. But it wasn't like Quackle just walked up to Boys and said, "Let's go." Quackle earned the right to challenge the human only after it defeated another Scrabble program named Maven. Boys was a bit of a sore loser, reportedly telling people that losing to a machine is still better than being a machine.

The same year Quackle won, the first poker game between people and machines involving money was played. A computer project called Polaris, invented at the University of Alberta, beat poker greats Ali Eslami and Phil "The Unabomber" Laak. To be fair, the first time the players faced off against the computer, there was a draw. The computer beat them in the second match. Laak and Eslami brought their A games and won the next two matches.

Ever heard of the game Go? Last summer, a computer beat a Romanian player. The win was remarkable because Go is traditionally challenging for computers. How Stuff Works breaks down why Go is so tough for computers.

But the quest to find out whether man or computer is better at something goes beyond gaming. Computers have been asked to be coaches, design partners, teammates and friends capable of holding conversations with people. In the early 1990s, studies examined computers as social actors, finding that people applied social rules like they were dealing with a person capable of frailties, according to a Stanford University paper summarizing the studies. People even assigned gender to computers based on the sound of the voices coming from the machines, it said.

According to one study, "Individuals can be induced to behave as if computers warranted human treatment, even though users know that the machines do not actually warrant this treatment."

Perhaps that's easier on the ego than knowing a bunch of microchips beat you at the game you play best.

Post by:
Filed under: Technology
soundoff (125 Responses)
  1. drap

    Wow! this will be over the top excitement... .

    February 10, 2011 at 11:53 am | Report abuse |
    • Theodore

      I know! Can't wait!

      February 10, 2011 at 1:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • blob

      Why not just program the computer to ring as early as possible and use the 5 second time limit (or w/e it is) to compute and come up w/ the answer? id like to see humans beat that!

      February 10, 2011 at 1:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rick

      I think the winner will be determined by the "buzz in" rules. If the computer can buzz in and then is allowed x number of seconds to search/retrive an answer then it will win. if however, the question has to immediately be answered upon buzzing in then the humans have a chance to win.

      February 10, 2011 at 1:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • dmcgrain

      but even so, it is impressive the the computer can find the answer. type a normal jeopardy question into google and see what you get. category: rhyme time, clue: this lumberjack's southern accents. type that into google or any computer and see what you get. for watson to be able to say "Paul's Drawls" is a feat unto itself – and to do it in seconds.

      February 10, 2011 at 2:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Napping


      You are absolutely correct. The word play and puns on Jeopardy are the only reason anyone considers this to be a contest. Without those, the Jeopardy champions would be out before they knew what hit them.

      Additionally, I took your advice and Googled "lumberjack's southern accents". The first result is this article. Bravo, you're the number 1 result on Google.

      February 10, 2011 at 4:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • dmcgrain

      funny... i stole that clue from the jeopardy test a few nights ago. but proves the point.

      February 10, 2011 at 4:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Scoop

      I just hope they forget to program it to answer in the form of a question and it ends up $150K in the hole.

      February 10, 2011 at 4:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • rich phitzwell

      And to think, this is how the lottery and casino games are programmed. Good luck winning!

      February 10, 2011 at 6:51 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Pliny

    How could the author have forgotten about the history-making matchup of "Pliny -vs- Comodore Vic-64" in Sargon Chess??

    February 10, 2011 at 12:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dan

      Commodore 64....ah the memories...

      February 10, 2011 at 1:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • CJ

      He who speaks of floppy discs!

      February 10, 2011 at 4:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Moonraker

      Actually it was the Commodore VIC-20 that had the Sargon II cartridge, which I played against many times (and lost almost every time). For my Commodore 64, I bought Sargon 3 on a floppy, which was noticeably stronger. The best I could do against that program was a draw and that took tremendous effort.

      February 10, 2011 at 5:30 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Bobolink01

    This all goes back to "Rosie the Robot" on "The Jetsons". She not only always won the George vs. Rosie multiple chess games, but she made great snack food out of thin air at the same time.. Rosie vs Ken.. Now, that's my idea of a challenge!.

    February 10, 2011 at 12:14 pm | Report abuse |
  4. T-1000

    Rise of the machine...Skynet is coming!!

    February 10, 2011 at 12:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • maplejet

      What did I say? Terminator reference

      February 10, 2011 at 6:18 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Matt

    What do you mean Tinsley lost in a follow-up match? He won the first time and then had to step down during the second match when the only games played had been draws because he had cancer. If you say that a human loses just because he gets sick then you have to say the computer loses when the electricity goes out. Be fair.

    February 10, 2011 at 12:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • JohnR

      Tinsley didn't lose the match, but he did lose two games in the match.

      February 10, 2011 at 1:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Gameplayer


      Tinsley lost two games in the first match, which he won 4-2 with 33 draws. The second match included all draws in only six games, but Tinsley had to withdraw for health reasons. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a week later and died seven months later, so it's not really accurate or fair for CNN to report that he lost the second match unless, as Matt suggests, they would have faulted the computer for a power outage. Btw, Tinsley's birthday was February 3rd. Happy late birthday Dr. Tinsley!

      February 10, 2011 at 1:43 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Jason B.

    I plan on watching this matchup. It's just amazing how quickly computing has blossomed just in my own lifetime! (i'm 36)

    February 10, 2011 at 12:48 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Kingfisher

    He looks really impressive, this is going to be so much fun to watch. If Watson wins, I hope they try to teach him to play Texas Hold-'Em with that bankroll. 'Cause I think I can take him.

    Hey, if he's making money and incorporates, does that mean he gets a vote? Would he cast it for Skynet/Borg 2012? ;D

    February 10, 2011 at 12:55 pm | Report abuse |
  8. daniel z

    ill take sean connery over watson on jeopardy any day of the week.

    February 10, 2011 at 12:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chitown Jason

      I'll take The Rapists for 400, Alex.

      February 10, 2011 at 1:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • MIA Jason

      I must ask you about the PenIs Mightier...

      February 10, 2011 at 1:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kingfisher

      I'm waiting for those moments like a Nascar wreck.

      "Alex Trebek: Let's just go with FOREIGN FLICKS for 800.
      Sean Connery: [buzzes in] Ursula Andress, Catherine Deneuve, and Charo twice.
      Alex Trebek: That's foreign FLICKS, Mr. Connery."

      February 10, 2011 at 1:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • Todd

      Chinatown, that's THERAPISTS for 400. Loser

      February 10, 2011 at 2:12 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Chitown Jason

    LOL @ Ali Eslami and Phil Laak being poker "greats"

    February 10, 2011 at 1:04 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Josh

    I sure hope that Watson has a robot arm, with which, he MUST ring-in.

    Part of the required skill to win at Jeopardy, is a quick trigger finger. If Watson is allowed to electronically ring-in, THAT IS CHEATING.

    February 10, 2011 at 1:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Permit

      How would it even matter if they gave him a robot arm? It'd still be electricity driving it essentially as quickly. The skill isn't how fast you can move your thumb, it's how fast you can read, interpret and figure out an answer to the question. The slowest part of this equation is not reaction time.

      February 10, 2011 at 1:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Josh

      No, you are forgetting the "red light", which the contestants see, but rarely does the TV audience. You can't ring in until the red light turns 'on'. Press too soon, and you get locked out. It is that eye-finger coordination that is an essential skill, and if not mimicked by Watson, gives him an unfair advantage. And that's CHEATING.

      February 10, 2011 at 1:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Reader998

      Watched the NOVA special last night on this. Watson has to 'buzz-in' using the same plunger as the human contestants, but he/it 'pushes' it with a solenoid (or pneumatic?) actuator.
      Also, he/it gets the questions at the same time as the humans, but as a text message. Watson is not voice-recognizing Alex Trebek like the humans are...

      February 10, 2011 at 1:47 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Bob

    My computer beat me at Chess... but it was no match for me in Kickboxing.

    February 10, 2011 at 1:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Texas Pete

      Yeah, you need the T-1000 for a kickboxing challenge

      February 10, 2011 at 3:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • ScottyB85

      Hahaha well done. Take THAT machines!

      February 10, 2011 at 3:11 pm | Report abuse |
  12. T-800

    I'll be back...

    February 10, 2011 at 1:06 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Mccccccccc

    This should be a 1 on 1 vs Ken or 2 vs the machine. The 2 "men" are also competing against one another and it kind of ruins the novelty of man vs machine.

    February 10, 2011 at 1:09 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Realistic

    This is great for our future. Maybe we can create a socialist computer to run our country because we need to balance against the authoritarian conservatives computer that runs the republicans robots in congress and the senate.

    February 10, 2011 at 1:21 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Daniel

    Once a machine is built that possesses all the knowledge of it's creators it will naturally improve itself, over and over again exponentially, eventually doubling its intelligence ever millisecond, microsecond, nanosecond, approaching infinte knowledge.

    It's not far off people. I say fifty years. Fifty years and humans will no longer be the dominant species of Earth.

    February 10, 2011 at 1:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Billy Z

      Whoa dude, you are scaring me!

      February 10, 2011 at 1:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • E

      "I've gotten 2,415 times smarter since then."

      February 10, 2011 at 4:26 pm | Report abuse |
1 2 3 4 5