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How Man Dominated Computer: The Marion Tinsley Story

Marion Tinsley is widely considered to be the greatest checkers player to ever exist. His 8x8 draughts record is unparalleled, losing only seven games in 45 years. In fact, from 1950 to 1995, Tinsley finished in first place at every tournament that he participated in. He got so good that he began to feel bored by playing against humans that didn’t come close to challenging his skills. This changed late in his life as the checkers computer program, Chinook, reignited his passion for the game by proving to be a formidable opponent.

Derek Oldbury, a world-class checkers legend in his own right and widely considered to be the second best player of all time, wrote in his encyclopedia of checkers: “Marion Tinsley is to checkers what Leonardo da Vinci was to science, what Michelangelo was to art and what Beethoven was to music.” This checkers maestro, Tinsley, had a modest upbringing in Northeastern Kentucky, along the Ohio River. The son of a schoolteacher and farmer turned sheriff, he used math competitions and spelling bees as a way to win his busy parents approval. Though Tinsley was a noted introvert, he revealed some of his motivations to the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1993, saying he felt “unloved” by his parents.

This thirst for approval drove brainiac Tinsley to skip multiple grades and enroll in college at the age of 15. At college, he allegedly discovered checkers by chance at the library. Tinsley was searching for mathematics books, but instead found two books on checkers: “How To Win at Checkers” by Millard Hopper, and the famous “Guide to the Game of Checkers” by James Lee. These books ignited a love of the game in Tinsley, and he was on his way to becoming a champion.

Tinsley swept the Ohio State Opens in the 1940s, as well as winning six Cedar Point Tourneys in the late forties and early fifties, and two Canadian Opens in 1949 and 1950. He went on to become an eight-time three-move world champion and a world champion once in two-move checkers. He competed against and won against other famous checkers luminaries of his time, including Derek Oldbury and Walter Hellman. Tinsley won the Florida Open, the British Open, the Southern States Championship, and a US vs USSR match among many others. He was simply the best draughts player ever.

Enter Chinook, a computer program that plays checkers developed by Jonathan Schaeffer at the University of Alberta. First developed in 1989, Chinook does not use AI, but rather relies on information which has been programmed by its creators.

Chinook finally shook Tinsley out of retirement in 1992, as he leaped at the opportunity to outsmart a machine. Though Tinsley trained for a few weeks before the showdown in London, he remained confident because of his faith. He told The Independent: “I can win, I have a better programmer than Chinook. His was Jonathan, mine was the Lord.”

Tinsley’s matches with Chinook have come to define his career. He ended up never losing to Chinook, with the score for the match in London being four wins for Tinsley, two wins for Chinook, and 33 draws. Chinook’s two wins against Tinsley are counted in his record of losing only seven games in 45 years. Tinsley and Chinook faced off for the last time in 1994, and after 6 draws, Tinsley resigned from the match, citing poor health. Tinsley died of pancreatic cancer seven months later, at age 68.

With such an illustrious draughts career, many wonder if Tinsley dabbled in chess. Tinsley mainly played checkers, and his Elo is unknown. Chinook was reported to be rated at 2814 Elo shortly after retiring in 1995, so it is fair to think of Tinsley’s Elo as rated similarly. On the subject of chess, Tinsley famously said: “Chess is like looking out over a vast open ocean; checkers is like looking into a bottomless well.” Tinsley’s exact IQ seems to be unknown, it was reported to be that of a “genius” in his obituary.

So what made Tinsley the best checkers player of all time?

Jonathan Schaeffer writes that Tinsley seemed to possess an extraordinary memory. He remembered games he played decades ago in excruciating detail, remembering individual moves, even. An immaculate memory is not a unique feature of geniuses, however. Tinsley also seemed to have a “sixth-sense” for the game and always knew outcomes several moves ahead. Whether he got this sense from his hours of intense game study, or some kind of innate ability is up to debate, but these factors surely led Marion Tinsley to be the greatest draughts player of all time.