Thursday, June 30, 2016


Goro Hasegawa passed away last week at the age of 83. Hasegawa created and popularized the board game Othello based on an old British game Reversi.

Back in the 80's, a high school friend Chris Eisnaugle and I used to write programs together including the Frogger-like program Ribbit for the Apple II. We decided to try our hands at board games and aimed at Othello as it seemed simpler to manage than the more popular attempts at computer chess. Our first program played awful but we contacted and had some great discussions with Peter Frey, a Northwestern psychology professor who worked on computer games. Frey pointed us to some great techniques like alpha-beta pruning and table look up for edge positions. Who knew that I would become a Northwestern professor myself later in life (2008-2012).

Unlike many games, the number of moves in Othello are limited in the end of the game, so even on the old IBM PC we used, we could play a perfect endgame from 14 moves out. So a simple strategy of maximizing mobility in the early game, controlling the edges and corners in the mid-game and a perfect end game give a pretty strong Othello program. We called our game Excalibur after King Arthur's sword and the title of a great movie telling his tale. We traveled to Cal State Northridge for the 1986 computer Othello tournament and captured third place, not bad considering the limited hardware we used. I entered a human tournament myself and for a brief time ranked the 35th best Othello player in the US. 

In 1989 we tried another computer Othello tournament, this time just calling in and coming in fifth place. One of our games was against the eventual winner by then CMU professor Kai-Fu Lee. His program beat us of course but he was still impressed with the play of Excalibur. Kai-Fu Lee would later work for Microsoft then leave to build up Google China, leading to one of the more memorable lawsuits over a non-compete agreement.

Computer Othello improved greatly since then and in 1997 Michael Buro's game Logistello easily beat the best human players. Michael Buro worked at the NEC Research Institute and we met when I joined in 1999. We chatted Othello but of course Excalibur was not in the same league as Logistello. Michael Buro later would join University of Alberta, which became the academic center for computer games. 

Computer Othello gained popularity because no one could create a Computer Go program that could beat good amateurs. That changed with randomized search and machine learning that led to AlphaGo

So thank you Goro Hasegawa for creating this simple game that played such an interesting part of my life back in the day. 

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