I Could Have Been a Contender

My first close encounter with a computer came in 1978 when I joined the Home Office as a programmer. The computer was enormous and lived in its own pressurised room. An ICL1904S with a massive 48k words of RAM – a word being 24 bits. Yes, this was a time before the byte – a time when we were so poor that we only had 6 bits for each character. But at least our computers would never fit inside a shoebox.

My day job was working on MI5 payrolls. Well, all the Home Office payrolls but I knew that one mistake in the payroll suite and a fleet of Aston Martins would be heading our way with orders both to shake and stir.

My other job was designing games. I love games. And now I had access to a computer. I’d just finished an intensive 4-week COBOL course and was raring to write something really spectacular.

What did I choose? Well, back in 1970 or so someone had offered a million pounds to the first person to write a Chess program that could beat a grandmaster.

Could I do that? Of course I could. I was young and ambitious. But how was I going to get my program onto the Home Office mainframe?

Did I mention I was young, ambitious and cunning? I discovered that the Civil Service sponsored employees seeking professional qualifications and one of the requirements for the BCS (British Computer Society) Part I exam was that the entrant submit a computer program for evaluation.

Would they accept a Chess program? They would. One of the advantages of having Q in charge of Training Branch.

And so TR George was born. TR because it notionally belonged to Training Branch (they let me run it from their domain) and George after George 3 – ICL’s operating system.

George analysed moves to a depth of four turns and weighted each move according to a series of algorithms – giving points for taking pieces, attacking pieces, protecting pieces and controlling squares. With no graphics or colours available all it could do was print out letters for pieces (P for pawn, KT for knight) and use brackets (P) to denote black. Thus the board was printed out on a teletype and the opponent prompted for his or her move.

Now this was the aggressive age of Chess. An era when certain players might employ a psychic to sit and stare at their opponent from the front row and beam confusing thoughts at them. I didn’t have a tame psychic. But I did have control of the teletype. And George wouldn’t just prompt his opponent for their move he’d uh … comment as well.

I’m not sure if sledging is allowed in tournament chess but George had a selection of phrases which he’s randomly hurl at his opponent. And it worked. George consistently punched above his weight because he was fast and tried to get his human opponent to play at the same speed. And there’s nothing worse than being taunted by a mouthy computer.

George was aggressive on the board as well. In fact the first game he ever played is widely recognised as the most aggressive game of Chess ever played. I couldn’t believe it and I’d programmed him.

A crowd gathered around the teletype to watch. I’d only just compiled the program so this was George’s first outing. No one knew quite what to expect.

Playing white, he opened with Pawn to King’s Four. Then followed with King to King’s Two. A silence descended. What gambit was this? What subtle ploy? By the third move, we all knew. King to King’s Three. This was not subtlety, this was a player out for blood. A White King who had but one thought – to fasten his hands around the Black King’s throat in the minimum number of turns. Four moves later it was all over. A solitary White King, deep in Black’s half, surrounded by enemy pieces and yelling abuse at the Black King.

I poured a bucket of water over George and got out the cardpunch. A little editing was required.

A week later I entered George in the Home Office Chess tournament. A tournament that boasted the Blind Chess Champion of Great Britain – as I found out when I lost to him in the first round.

However, George drew the biggest crowd. And with several large straps holding down George’s king, and a telling comment or two, he actually won. His human opponent was tricked into playing faster than he wanted, made a mistake and fell apart.

I could smell the million pounds … until George’s next match which he should have won but drew, his pieces ambling around the board in the latter stages with no idea how to finish the game. He needed an end game module. Which wasn’t easy. And a repertoire of openings that didn’t include solo charges by enraged kings.

And he needed to learn from his mistakes. And so Super George was born. Super George had openings, endgames and played with himself. My plan was to run Super George for a whole day – he was programmed to play against a version of himself with slightly different weightings assigned to the move choice algorithms. The winner then played against another variant and so on until George had selected his best combination.

Unfortunately, I left the Home Office before Super George could take over the world. He’s probably sitting on an archive tape at this moment, mumbling to himself that he could have been a contender. And, one day, he could have.


Chris Dolley is an English author living in France with a frightening number of animals. His novel – Resonance (Baen) – can be downloaded for free here. More information about his other work can be found on his  BVC bookshelf .

Just released from Book View Press:  Magical Crimes – a fun CSI with Magic and … ‘a little something else’ story. Also available from Amazon and Smashwords.

Coming in March: International Kittens of Mystery. If you like a laugh and looking at cute kitten pictures this is the book for you. It’s a  glance inside the International Kittens of Mystery – the only organisation on the planet with a plan to deal with a giant ball of wool on a collision course with Earth. Forget  Bruce Willis and his team of miners. Send for the kitties! 

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I Could Have Been a Contender — 6 Comments

  1. Well done, Chris!
    My own attempt in this field, around 1974, at school, didn’t go much above a representation of the board and BASIC movement of the pieces.

  2. That is awesome! I remember hearing about that contest, it sounded like the ultimate in cool we-are-living-in-a-science-fiction-age.

  3. Mr. Dolley, you obviously need to release a memoir about your time checking expenses reports for OO7, Moneypenny, M and how Q encouraged your programme-writing. Also, I am in awe of you writing a programme for those machines.
    I never really understood what I was doing with BASIC on the school computers in the middle 80s.

  4. Estara, I’d like to but I signed the Official Secrets Act when I was working there.

    I will have a memoir coming out this year via BVC though. It’s called Nous Sommes Anglais and it’s the unfortunately true account of our first eight months in France which culminated in my identity being stolen, our life savings seized and a bank account opened in my name in Spain to take the proceeds.

    You think that’s bad? It gets worse. We’re then abandoned by the police forces of four countries who all insist the crime is in someone else’s jurisdiction. So I have to solve the crime myself. Which I do, but unlike fictional detectives I have an 80 year-old mother-in-law and an excitable puppy who insist they come along if I’m going anywhere interesting – like a stakeout.

    It’s like A Year in Provence with Miss Marple and Gerald Durrell.

  5. Sherwood, and the prize was eventually claimed in the 90s I think when Big Blue or Giant Green or some such computer beat the then current world champion.