World Computer-Bridge Championship
by Al Levy
(Al pictured left watching over the competition)
It’s hard to believe that this started 17 years ago. In 1996, my first year of the ACBL Board of Directors, Alan Truscott suggested that I look into running a bridge-robot championship. One of my idols…how could I refuse? That ended with the first World Computer-Bridge Championship being held at the 1997 summer NABC in Albuquerque. Well it didn’t end there…it all began there. Feeling empowered as a new ACBL board member, I declared this event the official World Computer-Bridge Championship, and that was all it took! With the backing of the ACBL and in 1999, the WBF, it has run annually since its inception
As I look back on those early robot championships, and the computers we used and the play, I see it was more of a happening then a true expert bridge contest. The first year we had a robot-human sanctioned two session IMP pair event scored barometer style. The robots sat NS and the humans EW. The players enjoyed the event and the Directors and staff were great, helping to set it up by running miles of wires for the computers. The ACBL sanctioned the event but drew the line at awarding masterpoints to the robots. Other robot-human matches were held in the first few years including matches between a team of robots and star studded human teams. They all went off well with the humans winning all the matches, but only narrowly.
For the first five years we had sponsorship, and gave out prize money to the high finishers. In time, the robot developers where much more interested in the event, improving their robots’ play and any PR generated, than in the prize money, so I stopped bothering with sponsors. Besides the robots didn’t have anywhere to spend their winnings. Of course you can’t have an activity without a website. Another one of my pastimes after retiring as a rocket scientist in 1997, I picked up a book on HTML and a domain name, and started a website that contains the history, play, photos, stories and links as a showcase for robot play.
Computer Chess made the news big time when IBM’s Deep Blue beat world champion Gary Kasparov in 1997. Will this happen in bridge? Not yet, but a million dollar challenge by Zia was withdrawn after seeing some of the recent play. Computer chess and bridge now have a link as I now publish an annual article in the International Computer Games Association (formally the International Chess Association) Journal.
Things have now changed…the robots are getting much better and the play is now the thing. Robots ‘think’ differently than humans so the play often looks strange even if the result is good. You might see the robot execute a marked double squeeze rather than simply taking tricks off the top.
Over the sixteen years we have had 21 software developers entering the championship. Well, actually 20…one was an imposter, if you can believe that, and it ended with an official sanction against the developer. Actual it is a very wild story that none of the participants will ever forget, but that’s for another day.
For me the most amusing thing is observing the developers watching their creations play. It’s like seeing a parent’s pride when their child takes their first steps. The anxiety is great and when a good play is made the excitement is unbounded. We have a rule in bridge…no gloating or high-fiving but here we allow it, as well as an occasional explicative when the play goes badly.
It’s now the seventeenth year and we will see the best robots competing in Bali. The entrants are dedicated software developers, some for profit and some for amusement. Many of the robots are commercial sold and used for player entertainment and as a teaching aide.
The robots are all tuned up, so let the games begin.
The list of entrants is here
Results will be found here
Additional photographs from the event are here