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from the draughts = checkers dept. || More Print News »
After 18 years of practice, computers have finally conquered the game of draughts.

The result, described as a "truly significant advance in artificial intelligence", is a draughts programme which cannot be beaten.

Draughts, known as checkers in America, is a popular board game with a history that dates back 5,000 years. Disc-shaped counters move diagonally on a chequered board one square at a time and jump over an opponent's pieces to capture them. Counters that reach an opponent's end of the board are crowned "kings" and can then move backwards as well as forwards.

The game is essentially simple, but working out responses to every possible move meant sifting through 500 billion-billion (five followed by 20 zeroes) different play positions.

An average of 50 computers were run together every day for years at a time to complete the programme, known as Chinook. At peak periods, more than 200 computers were in use.

Scientists led by Dr Jonathan Schaeffer, from the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, sought the help of top-level draughts players to programme the computers.

Chinook now contains all the information needed to predict the best move to play in every situation of a game. Even making no mistakes, the best an opponent taking on the programme could achieve would be a draw.

Dr Schaeffer, whose team describe the programme in the journal Science, said: "I think we've raised the bar - and raised it quite a bit - in terms of what can be achieved in computer technology and artificial intelligence. With Chinook, we've pushed the envelope about one million times more than anything that's been done before."

Dr Schaeffer, who chairs the University of Alberta's Department of Computing Science, started the Chinook project in 1989, with a view to winning the human world checkers championship.

Chinook lost the championship match in 1992, but won two years later, becoming the first computer programme to win a human world championship in any game - a feat recognised by the Guinness Book of World Records.