A few months ago, in the course of writing about the phenomenal track record of the UMBC chess team, we briefly flicked at the notion that chess intelligence is a unique beast that doesn’t necessarily predict classroom (or life) success. The ability to imagine a game’s progress several moves ahead, as well as consider the implications of certain strategies before an opponent can even respond, is obviously a great skill, but one that doesn’t have nearly as many real-world applications as we’ve been led to believe.
Ever since churning out that post, we’ve been thinking about a related topic: How does chess intelligence compare to checkers intelligence? Though the games take place on more-or-less identical boards, it’s widely acknowledged that checkers is the far inferior test of mental acuity. Yet some impressive minds have nonetheless made the game their life’s work, and none have been as venerated as Marion “Two Ton” Tinsley. In the world of checkers, Tinsley’s status as the greatest to ever play the game is unquestioned. And his legend is burnished by the fact that he never lost outright to Chinook, the computer program that eventually went on to solve checkers a dozen years after Tinsley’s passing. (Tinsley did lose to Chinook in 1994, the year before his death, but only by forfeit after he withdrew for medical reasons.)
We naturally wonder, then, what it is about Tinsley’s brain that made him the greatest checkers player that our species will likely ever produce. The man behind Chinook, Jonathan Schaeffer, attempted to answer that question in a chapter of his book One Jump Ahead. He cites various theories, including Tinsley’s stubbornness and focus. But Two Ton’s chief asset seems to have been his raw memory:
When Tinsley was young, he studied checkers eight hours a day, six days a week. In later years, after he became a strong player and his enthusiasm for competitive play waned, he only studied eight hours a week. The claim was that Tinsley could remember details from every one of those eight-hour sessions.
I first saw Tinsley analyzing one of his tournament games in 1990. I listened incredulously as he began to ramble on like this:
“I first played h6-g5 in the fourth round of the 1948 Cedar Point tourney against Leo Levitt. He responded with b4-a5 and went on to lose after g7-h6. After the game, I was analyzing the position with Walter Hellman at Morrison’s Cafeteria and we concluded that b4-c5 was the right move. Freyer played b4-c5 against me in the third round of the 1952 Canadian Open, and the g7-f6 attack failed to materialize. A few weeks after the event, while analyzing with Don Lafferty at his home in Kentucky, I discovered that b8-a7 instead of my f6-e5 follow-up would lead to a forced win, but I had to wait until the 1970 Southern States tourney before springing it on Fortman.”
Tinsley said he didn’t have a photographic memory. Whatever kind of memory he had, he seemed to supplement the checkers analysis with an incredible number of useless details. Maybe the useless details were the key to how he remembered things.
It sounds so easy when phrased like that. But keep in mind that checkers offers roughly 500 billion possible positions. It would seem that a human brain wouldn’t be able to conceive of the implications of each and every one of those arrangements. But Tinsley appears to have had a wee bit o’ cyborg in him.
He also did a killer job on a 1957 airing of To Tell the Truth.