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Seven Games: A Human History

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Checkers, backgammon, chess, and Go. Poker, Scrabble, and bridge. These seven games, ancient and modern, fascinate millions of people worldwide. In Seven Games, Oliver Roeder charts their origins and historical importance, the delightful arcana of their rules, and the ways their design makes them pleasurable. Roeder introduces thrilling competitors, such as evangelical mini Checkers, backgammon, chess, and Go. Poker, Scrabble, and bridge. These seven games, ancient and modern, fascinate millions of people worldwide. In Seven Games, Oliver Roeder charts their origins and historical importance, the delightful arcana of their rules, and the ways their design makes them pleasurable. Roeder introduces thrilling competitors, such as evangelical minister Marion Tinsley, who across forty years lost only three games of checkers; Shusai, the Master, the last Go champion of imperial Japan, defending tradition against “modern rationalism”; and an IBM engineer who created a backgammon program so capable at self-learning that NASA used it on the space shuttle. He delves into the history and lore of each game: backgammon boards in ancient Egypt, the Indian origins of chess, how certain shells from a particular beach in Japan make the finest white Go stones. Beyond the cultural and personal stories, Roeder explores why games, seemingly trivial pastimes, speak so deeply to the human soul. He introduces an early philosopher of games, the aptly named Bernard Suits, and visits an Oxford cosmologist who has perfected a computer that can effectively play bridge, a game as complicated as human language itself. Throughout, Roeder tells the compelling story of how humans, pursuing scientific glory and competitive advantage, have invented AI programs better than any human player, and what that means for the games—and for us. Funny, fascinating, and profound, Seven Games is a story of obsession, psychology, history, and how play makes us human.


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Checkers, backgammon, chess, and Go. Poker, Scrabble, and bridge. These seven games, ancient and modern, fascinate millions of people worldwide. In Seven Games, Oliver Roeder charts their origins and historical importance, the delightful arcana of their rules, and the ways their design makes them pleasurable. Roeder introduces thrilling competitors, such as evangelical mini Checkers, backgammon, chess, and Go. Poker, Scrabble, and bridge. These seven games, ancient and modern, fascinate millions of people worldwide. In Seven Games, Oliver Roeder charts their origins and historical importance, the delightful arcana of their rules, and the ways their design makes them pleasurable. Roeder introduces thrilling competitors, such as evangelical minister Marion Tinsley, who across forty years lost only three games of checkers; Shusai, the Master, the last Go champion of imperial Japan, defending tradition against “modern rationalism”; and an IBM engineer who created a backgammon program so capable at self-learning that NASA used it on the space shuttle. He delves into the history and lore of each game: backgammon boards in ancient Egypt, the Indian origins of chess, how certain shells from a particular beach in Japan make the finest white Go stones. Beyond the cultural and personal stories, Roeder explores why games, seemingly trivial pastimes, speak so deeply to the human soul. He introduces an early philosopher of games, the aptly named Bernard Suits, and visits an Oxford cosmologist who has perfected a computer that can effectively play bridge, a game as complicated as human language itself. Throughout, Roeder tells the compelling story of how humans, pursuing scientific glory and competitive advantage, have invented AI programs better than any human player, and what that means for the games—and for us. Funny, fascinating, and profound, Seven Games is a story of obsession, psychology, history, and how play makes us human.

30 review for Seven Games: A Human History

  1. 4 out of 5

    Geoff

    I was expecting another entry in the (admittedly engaging!) gender of "history of underappreciated things that actually make us human," but what surprised me (and engaged me) about this book was its unexpected focus on AI and games and how humans have adapted successfully (chess or go) or less so (checkers) to computers gaining great skills at the games. As someone whose career is AI adjacent and fully in machine learning and statistics, games are an interesting space because they are constraine I was expecting another entry in the (admittedly engaging!) gender of "history of underappreciated things that actually make us human," but what surprised me (and engaged me) about this book was its unexpected focus on AI and games and how humans have adapted successfully (chess or go) or less so (checkers) to computers gaining great skills at the games. As someone whose career is AI adjacent and fully in machine learning and statistics, games are an interesting space because they are constrained by rules and patterns and usually have good data (which is why a system like Watson can destroy a game like Jeopardy but be an utter failure so far in health care). Roeder does a great job explaining the guts of the computer programs and the ways that they have affected game strategy and culture, but an even better job exploring the people that are/were champions facing a looking machine eclipse of their abilities or the creators of the algorithms with surprisingly diverse outlooks and motivations. Of particular interest was the final chapter on Bridge which does not yet have a computer program that is better than humans, partially because of the complex nautre of communication and bluff in the game and partially because, as Roeder describes it, it is a "dying" game, immensely popular in the 2th century but not much played now (and it's the only game f the 7 I've never personally played). The book doesn't go deep on the history or strategy of the games, but it is very interesting as an examination of the exponential rise of computing power and how it has affected our lives.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Scot Glasgow

    Thank you to Netgalley for providing an ARC of the audiobook for this title in exchange for an honest review. To be clear, this is the perfect book for a reader like me; someone very much into more then one of the games highlighted in the text (I have been an avid chess player for the better part of my life, as well as loving poker, backgammon and checkers.) In addition, my interest in areas such as computer science, game theory and artificial intelligence were all useful in appreciating this bo Thank you to Netgalley for providing an ARC of the audiobook for this title in exchange for an honest review. To be clear, this is the perfect book for a reader like me; someone very much into more then one of the games highlighted in the text (I have been an avid chess player for the better part of my life, as well as loving poker, backgammon and checkers.) In addition, my interest in areas such as computer science, game theory and artificial intelligence were all useful in appreciating this book. Here is my breakdown: Checkers - Possibly my favorite part of the book. Checkers is a game I've always felt like I should know more about - whenever I've played, I haven't been able to analyze what I was doing or why. The narrative about the very best players in the world and the hunt to solve the game of checkers using computers was absolutely fascinating. Chess - Strangely, this wasn't a section I enjoyed all that much, despite being by far my favorite game covered. It just felt like a shallow addition to most of what I already knew about the game and its history. I think an average reader will get a lot out of it. Go - Absolutely fascinating - this is a game I need to learn. Backgammon - Awesome section - I knew barely anything about the game beyond the basic rules, and felt like I got a lot out of this. Poker - I had some base knowledge of "solvers", but still really enjoyed this portion of the book. Scrabble - I really enjoyed this section. The narrative about the world's best player was both hilarious and crazy. Bridge - What can I say? I really had trouble following along here, as I don't know the rules and have little interest in the game. On balance, I think readers who enjoy one or more of these games, topics such as game theory, AI, neural networks, algorithms, mathematics, etc. will get a lot out of this. As it was the audiobook that I reviewed, I do have to say that the narrator William Sarris did a nice job with the narration.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Dan Trefethen

    The book provides brief histories of seven classic games: Checkers, Chess, Go, Poker, Backgammon, Scrabble, and Bridge. It leavens the histories with stories about some of the best players, including many contemporary players. The book's focus, however, is about computers' ability to master these games. In some cases, to 'solve' them to that it cannot be beaten. This is not emphasized in the descriptions I read. While there is some focus on tournament play by humans, there is much more descriptio The book provides brief histories of seven classic games: Checkers, Chess, Go, Poker, Backgammon, Scrabble, and Bridge. It leavens the histories with stories about some of the best players, including many contemporary players. The book's focus, however, is about computers' ability to master these games. In some cases, to 'solve' them to that it cannot be beaten. This is not emphasized in the descriptions I read. While there is some focus on tournament play by humans, there is much more description of how various programmers created programs that could eventually outshine any human player. Some of these you may have heard of, such as DeepMind which beat Gary Kasparov in chess, or AlphaGo that beat the best Go master. Each chapter follows a similar pattern: after a brief description of the game (if necessary), the author falls into a discussion of automating the game, mainly with brute force computation that plays millions of billions of games in order to master it. In other words, what is called machine learning. Only in Bridge (where humans have partners, not just opponents) have computers failed to beat the best humans. The author also spends considerable time explaining his involvement with each game, some more than others (such as participating in the World Series of Poker, or the national Scrabble championship). While this explains his interest in writing this book, it is more detail than necessary. Only in the epilogue does the author mention the next phase of gaming, one taking the younger generation by storm: video gaming. By definition, it is done only via computer code, so it doesn't really match his pattern of discussing how computers have overcome humans in classic games. The most salient point may also be in the epilogue: This ability at deep machine learning may mean the total gamification of reality, where all our endeavors are done more flawlessly by machines. If that happens, what value will humans still be able to produce? Will we be reduced to simply playing games that are 'the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles', as the book puts it?

  4. 4 out of 5

    Kid Ferrous

    One of the oldest human activities, game playing dates from ancient times and retains its importance up to the present day and doubtless beyond. “Seven Games” by Oliver Roeder, an avid player himself, examines the origins of seven of the most familiar (and oldest) games - checkers, chess, Go, backgammon, poker, Scrabble and bridge. And, most importantly, he explores why we play. Roeder vividly brings to life the histories and genesis of these evergreen games, some of which date back millennia, y One of the oldest human activities, game playing dates from ancient times and retains its importance up to the present day and doubtless beyond. “Seven Games” by Oliver Roeder, an avid player himself, examines the origins of seven of the most familiar (and oldest) games - checkers, chess, Go, backgammon, poker, Scrabble and bridge. And, most importantly, he explores why we play. Roeder vividly brings to life the histories and genesis of these evergreen games, some of which date back millennia, yet are being transformed by rapidly developing artificial intelligence. Much is made of “machine learning” and the question of whether computers can think for themselves; one recurring theme is that of computers playing like “God”) However, many of the stories in these pages are very human ones, with dedication sometimes leading to divorce, illness and heartbreak. Alan Turing and Garry Kasparov, among other gaming and scientific notables, take centre-stage in this book to provide a human core. Well-written, often gripping and very easy to read, this excellent book is perfect both for experts and anyone interested in a deeper dive into the world’s favourite games.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Dee Arr

    The title and book description intrigued me. After all, I had played most of the games described (chess, checkers, backgammon, poker, and Scrabble) and knew about the others (Go, Bridge) and was curious where author Oliver Roeder would take the readers. I first learned that chess was not the child’s game I thought it was. There are plenty of strategies that go far beyond my rudimentary play that I considered to be of high quality. Mr. Roeder offers a history of the game and delves extensively int The title and book description intrigued me. After all, I had played most of the games described (chess, checkers, backgammon, poker, and Scrabble) and knew about the others (Go, Bridge) and was curious where author Oliver Roeder would take the readers. I first learned that chess was not the child’s game I thought it was. There are plenty of strategies that go far beyond my rudimentary play that I considered to be of high quality. Mr. Roeder offers a history of the game and delves extensively into the recent contests between man and artificial intelligence (which is similar to the chapters on most of the other six games). Note that this does not turn “Seven Games” into a “man vs. machine” book. The author also details how artificial intelligence has helped to improve the human players as they are exposed to moves that previous have not been considered. I had never played bridge as I had never had a chance as a child and was unable to decipher what seemed to be coded messages in the games sections of newspapers, and I was faintly aware of Go but had never met anyone (that I knew of) who played the game. Mr. Roeder does a great job of explaining enough of the rules of all seven games, and a beginner could potentially get started with the information provided in the individual chapters. In short, this book reintroduced me to checkers and reenergized my enthusiasm for chess and backgammon. Poker is definitely on the horizon and the book provides books for study. Scrabble is occasionally played in the house and I may seek out bridge players if they are willing to take on a complete newbie. As for Go, I have a brand new 19x19 board (magnetic was an option that I decided was a plus) and am itching for my first game. Five stars. My thanks to NetGalley and W.W. Norton & Company for a complimentary electronic copy of this book.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Ben

    Thanks to NetGalley and W.W. Norton for an ARC of this title. I've deeply enjoyed FiveThirtyEight's coverage of puzzles and games, and this new book from Oliver Roeder (creator of their Riddler column) is exactly the kind of cultural history book I like to read. Each of the seven games covered is well researched and reported, and has a fantastic story "hook" connecting all the info and Oliver's exploration into notable names in each game's field. I found myself slowing my reading pace so I could Thanks to NetGalley and W.W. Norton for an ARC of this title. I've deeply enjoyed FiveThirtyEight's coverage of puzzles and games, and this new book from Oliver Roeder (creator of their Riddler column) is exactly the kind of cultural history book I like to read. Each of the seven games covered is well researched and reported, and has a fantastic story "hook" connecting all the info and Oliver's exploration into notable names in each game's field. I found myself slowing my reading pace so I could spend just a little bit more time with each chapter of this. Well done!

  7. 4 out of 5

    Eden

    2022 bk 176. Did not quite finish. The book was not really what I was hoping for - although those who are really into AI and computer history will find it interesting. I was hoping for a longer view, the historical start of the game, transitions from country to country, how the positions of each type of game remain in today's society. What I got was how individuals worked on creating an AI that could beat humans at their own games, just not what I was in the mood for reading. 2022 bk 176. Did not quite finish. The book was not really what I was hoping for - although those who are really into AI and computer history will find it interesting. I was hoping for a longer view, the historical start of the game, transitions from country to country, how the positions of each type of game remain in today's society. What I got was how individuals worked on creating an AI that could beat humans at their own games, just not what I was in the mood for reading.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Annu

    "When the sucker wins, he thinks it's because he got better. When the sucker loses, he thinks it's because his opponent got lucky." Really fun overview of these games. I was surprised at first by the focus on teaching computers to play the games, but it works very well as a structure for explaining them. "When the sucker wins, he thinks it's because he got better. When the sucker loses, he thinks it's because his opponent got lucky." Really fun overview of these games. I was surprised at first by the focus on teaching computers to play the games, but it works very well as a structure for explaining them.

  9. 4 out of 5

    David

    enjoyable overview of some history, along with the author's deep dives into as a participant, of seven classic games (checkers, chess, go, backgammon, poker, scrabble, bridge). lots of emphasis on development of AI/machine learning programs to master the games -- i wasn't aware that bridge (alone among these 7) still hadn't really been conquered in this sense, i.e., the best computer programs still cannot beat best human players. Funny firsthand observations of tournaments, top players, etc. Appa enjoyable overview of some history, along with the author's deep dives into as a participant, of seven classic games (checkers, chess, go, backgammon, poker, scrabble, bridge). lots of emphasis on development of AI/machine learning programs to master the games -- i wasn't aware that bridge (alone among these 7) still hadn't really been conquered in this sense, i.e., the best computer programs still cannot beat best human players. Funny firsthand observations of tournaments, top players, etc. Apparently I've not been taking checkers quite as seriously as some -- he quotes a top player who never married as saying "It is a very rare woman who can be married to a real student of checkers" (p. 25). some interesting commentary on whether pouring resources into AI for mastering these games is actually helpful for solving other problems vs. just fun and informative in its own right. I know vanishingly little about this area, but to extent i could understand it, one fault line seemed to be whether you try to teach the machine to be really efficient at playing like a human (taking advantage of accumulated wisdom we have gained from playing the games, in most cases for a very long time) vs. sort of start from scratch and let it figure it out. Latter strategy seemed in most cases to be working better. anyway, didn't prompt me to want to jump on any of the sites that allow game players to consult "what the computer says is optimal here" to practice game play, but for an amateur who enjoys several of these games it was fun to read.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Naz Koont

    A more incomplete history of each game than I would have liked

  11. 4 out of 5

    Manuela

    Interesting book, would recommend to lovers of games and AI - or just anyone really, I am not huge on neither of those subjects and quite enjoyed it! Got admit it was a little different then what I was expecting - not so much focus on the history of the game but instead on the AI developments to optimize them and the story of its developers. It also goes in the author's own experience on tournaments, sometimes - scrabble one is coming to mind here - in a bit too much detail. But overall the writi Interesting book, would recommend to lovers of games and AI - or just anyone really, I am not huge on neither of those subjects and quite enjoyed it! Got admit it was a little different then what I was expecting - not so much focus on the history of the game but instead on the AI developments to optimize them and the story of its developers. It also goes in the author's own experience on tournaments, sometimes - scrabble one is coming to mind here - in a bit too much detail. But overall the writing is quite pleasant and I feel like I learned a lot about these subjects, which I have very little knowledge about (unless you count watching the Queen's Gambit lol) I received a free digital ARC from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest and unbiased review

  12. 4 out of 5

    John

    An interesting study and personal journey into seven different games, including chess, backgammon, and bridge. The human history of the title seems almost a misnomer because the book does examine how artificial intelligence has developed to the point where it can beat the best humans. Well-written and avoids personal digressions in order to keep the focus on the games.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Jack

    A little underwhelming for me, mostly because the ratio of science/tech talk outweighed the more human-interest and historical stuff, which are vastly more interesting to me.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

    Hmm. I read this book piecemeal, over a few weeks, and I think for most of that time I expected to write a review that, in some way, claimed a little bit of misadvertising on the book's part. Certainly, picking up a book called Seven Games: A Human History made me expect something more sociocultural—that is, more related to the history of the seven games themselves. Instead, it's a book less about the history of the games and more the history of humans' competitive relationship to them. In many Hmm. I read this book piecemeal, over a few weeks, and I think for most of that time I expected to write a review that, in some way, claimed a little bit of misadvertising on the book's part. Certainly, picking up a book called Seven Games: A Human History made me expect something more sociocultural—that is, more related to the history of the seven games themselves. Instead, it's a book less about the history of the games and more the history of humans' competitive relationship to them. In many ways, it's a book about humanity's need to win. It's also a book about the encroaching dominance of A.I., which I wasn't expecting at all. Each chapter folds inevitably into a story about the A.I., singular or plural, built to "solve" that particular game—the years it took, and the toll it took on the men (always men) who created them. Each story seems to be more grandiose than the last, more relationship-destroying, more amplified in its computing power. The only one of the seven games left unsolved, bridge, enjoys that "special status" simply because nobody cares about it enough anymore to fund the work. I won't deny I found focus on A.I. gameplaying frustrating: not just because I have at least a semi-luddite, contrarian personality (all that glitters is not machine, if you will), but because one of my own personal fears is that the beauty of the world is being destroyed by our association with—and our desire to be more like—machines. I'm sure math and physics can be very beautiful things, but they aren't what's beautiful to me. A machine will never be able to put the emotional impact into a sunset or a well-prepared meal, but one of the bywords of our age seems to be how little that matters. Welcome to the Metaverse, bitches. From that perspective, then, I found the book frustrating as soon as I identified the pattern of its structure. I felt like it was pointing toward the inevitability of human obsolescence, and in some way, asking me to agree that this was both an inevitable and probably even a good thing. And that rankled—genuinely rankled—to the point I found it harder and harder to continue each succeeding chapter. (I probably only really made it to the end because I know nothing about bridge, wanted to learn what I could, and have some sort of latent obsessiveness that worries about "dishonestly" skipping to the last chapter.) Then, suddenly, in the epilogue, the author asked a question I hadn't considered: does it really matter that A.I. can play games better than we can? That's a genuinely interesting question, and it reframes the entire book for me. Now, the book is not so much about winning, but about the value artificially placed on winning by humans, which might be at the heart of what I found troubling in the first place. I don't play games to win (although winning is nice when it happens); I play to enjoy them, even when I suck at them. They're a social experience, and sometimes a meditational one. And that, I think, is what the book is ultimately trying to promote - a reidentification of what gaming says about humanity, and perhaps, a shift in our priorities when we play games. We are never going to be as good as the machines at being machines...so why be machines? Let the machines do their thing, and us do ours. That's an oversimplification, and it's also a little trite, but I think it's necessary to cut through the book. This isn't a bad work by any means, but it is just a bit more pretentious than it has any need to be, and I think the pomposity helps to obfuscate its real intentions until a very late stage. Seven Games may not be misadvertised, after all, but I think it's easily misinterpreted from the off—and those are close to being the same thing. While I'm ultimately glad I read it, I would be careful in how I represented it to other potential readers, for sure.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Tom Donaghey

    Seven Games (2022) by Oliver Roeder. Yet another book on the history and nature of a group of like items and how they impact humanity. Usually I have paged through these, generally liberally peppered with photographs of the things in question, and appreciated the beauty and nature of the items. It was also how they linked together to form something more than the separate parts that fascinated me. Things that made New York unique, or the Civil War top 100 items, or whatever. But this is differen Seven Games (2022) by Oliver Roeder. Yet another book on the history and nature of a group of like items and how they impact humanity. Usually I have paged through these, generally liberally peppered with photographs of the things in question, and appreciated the beauty and nature of the items. It was also how they linked together to form something more than the separate parts that fascinated me. Things that made New York unique, or the Civil War top 100 items, or whatever. But this is different as it celebrates not the physical aspect of the games portrayed but the ideas and thoughts surrounding these seven games. There are paragraphs detailing the history of each, giving some dates and locations of origin and famous players and some of the top games. Mr Roeder also provides illumination onto his involvement with them and why they fascinate him. Be it Chess or Checkers, Go, Poker, Backgammon, Scrabble or Bridge, the details of the history fascinate. But the gist of the book is how AI and the world of the computer has changed everything for the players of these games. There is a world of professional players out there and they have seen their dominance of a set game fall to the glory of the computer, be it Watson or any of the various game specific programs. Some players have fallen away from their games but a majority have embraced the new technology to better their understanding, and hence their play, of their beloved game. It is pointed out early on that games are not just mere toys or diversions in their ability to transfix us. They are now and always have been safe training methods for individuals to hone their abilities for the real world. Generally it is the brain that gets the training. These are tables games and as such require little or no physical strength or ability. But to be a good player you have to devise strategies and ploys to win. Ask any good poker player and they will explain the game is far more than the hands you are dealt. Each of the seven chapters has unique strategies involved; therefor there are different methods of thought that cohabitates with the game. I have played Chess and Checkers most of my life, not a big fan of Poker, love Scrabble (but I am a bit of a showoff), discovered Backgammon while in the military or all places, had my mind blown by Go, and never played Bridge, so as a consequence I found the book fascinating. It has been several months since I received this book through Goodreads, and I used the time to get reacquainted with my past and revel in the details Mr. Reorder had provided of his own Game quest.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Annie

    Originally posted on my blog: Nonstop Reader. Seven Games: A Human History is an engaging history of human development through our (probably) unique ability to enjoy games (not just play) capably examined by Dr. Oliver Roeder. Due out 25th Jan 2022 from W. W. Norton, it's 320 pages and will be available in hardcover, audio, and ebook formats. I've long been interested in games, gaming, history, psychology, and I'm a professional bionerd in my day job. This book really does represent the confl Originally posted on my blog: Nonstop Reader. Seven Games: A Human History is an engaging history of human development through our (probably) unique ability to enjoy games (not just play) capably examined by Dr. Oliver Roeder. Due out 25th Jan 2022 from W. W. Norton, it's 320 pages and will be available in hardcover, audio, and ebook formats. I've long been interested in games, gaming, history, psychology, and I'm a professional bionerd in my day job. This book really does represent the confluence of all those interests and is like some sort of Venn diagram bullseye for me. I was fascinated from the first chapter. That being said, the author writes very accessibly and well and this is a book for laypeople interested in games and how they have shaped and sometimes defined human history. There are plenty of anecdotal stories relayed here: a devoutly religious mathematician who dominated at checkers for decades (with a mysterious Fisher-esque abrupt hiatus in the middle), computer programs and the theorists behind them, a Kiwi ascetic hermit who lives in Malaysia and who, after memorizing the French dictionary, won the French national scrabble championship without the benefit of speaking French. Dr. Roeder relays these stories (and more) with wit and warmth and I really enjoyed reading this book. The unabridged audiobook version has a run time of 9 hours and 11 minutes and is capably narrated by William Sarris. He has a warm and nuanced voice with a non-intrusive (midwestern?) accent which is perfect for this nonfiction selection. The sound and recording quality and production values are high throughout the recording. This is an interesting book, full of fun and engaging trivia and actual history and would be a good selection for public or school library acquisition, gift giving, or for games-interested general readers. No previous mathematics knowledge required and no "heavy lifting" involved. Five stars. Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher for review purposes.

  17. 4 out of 5

    BooksRgood

    an enjoyable skim about computers playing these games thanI expected but an enjoyable skim/quick read. the superstar players of each of the games are profiled and I always (mostly) like to read abut geniuses...like this Scrabble playing god: "Nigel Richards, of course, is the greatest Scrabble player the world has ever seen. We don't know much about the man, an ascetic who typically shuns interviews. He has no television, no smartphone, and no internet presence. But we do know that he is a an enjoyable skim about computers playing these games thanI expected but an enjoyable skim/quick read. the superstar players of each of the games are profiled and I always (mostly) like to read abut geniuses...like this Scrabble playing god: "Nigel Richards, of course, is the greatest Scrabble player the world has ever seen. We don't know much about the man, an ascetic who typically shuns interviews. He has no television, no smartphone, and no internet presence. But we do know that he is a New Zealander who lives in Malaysia and that his other great interest isbicycling. He rode fourteen hours from Dunedin to Christchurch to compete in his first national championship in 1998. After winning the tournament, he rode back. To tournament Scrabble players, Richards is a shamanistic figure, the man with the bowl cut and wizard's beard and mystical control over the bag of letters and the board on which he plays them. He not only has the dictionary memorized but is also able, if you give him a word, to tell you the number of the page on which it appears. He's wonfour world championships (the only player to win morethan one), five U.S. national championships, and has alifetime scoring average of 448 points per game. A Scrabble board after two strong players havefinished a game might look, to the uninitiated, as thoughthey had played in Martian. Here's a taste: in a single, randomly chosen game from a recent nationalchampionship, Richards played the following words: ZIBET (an Asian civet), WADI (a dry riverbed), PAIK (to beat or strike), INIA (parts of the skull), CALX (a mineralresidue), and SERED (burned). That was an utterly pedestrian game. Other "Nigel stories" are legendary. For example he once held a rack of CDHLNR? with two disconnected O's and an E open on the board. (The ‘?’ denotes a blank tile.) He could've played the eight-letter bingo CHILDREN. Instead, he played through the three scattered tiles, dropping down the ten-letter bingo CHLORODYNE. He once played SAPROZOIC through the word ZO. He once played DECAGONAL through the words GO and AL. In 2015, after studying a dictionary for nine weeks, he won the French-language world championship. He doesn't speak French. He was once asked, after winning a tournament, if he'd like to say a few words. "I don't know any," he said."

  18. 5 out of 5

    Ben Taylor

    I first encountered the author—Oliver Roeder—when he was the games and puzzles journalist at 538, Nate Silver’s data-centric news site focused mostly on politics and sports. I remember being pleasantly surprised to see articles about Scrabble tournaments and chess strategy amidst the usual deluge of US elections polling analysis. Now Roeder has graduated to a full book. Seven Games explores the history, current strategy and (perhaps most heavily) artificial intelligence (AI) behind each of 7 clas I first encountered the author—Oliver Roeder—when he was the games and puzzles journalist at 538, Nate Silver’s data-centric news site focused mostly on politics and sports. I remember being pleasantly surprised to see articles about Scrabble tournaments and chess strategy amidst the usual deluge of US elections polling analysis. Now Roeder has graduated to a full book. Seven Games explores the history, current strategy and (perhaps most heavily) artificial intelligence (AI) behind each of 7 classic games: checkers, chess, Go, backgammon, poker, Scrabble and bridge. Whether you enjoy the book will depend largely on two things: how many of these games have you played? And how interested are you in humans teaching machines to play games? For me, the answers are “4 out of 7 games” and “moderately, but not greatly.” This, it turned out, was more than enough for me to enjoy the book almost all the way through. Roeder goes out of his way to make the book accessible, even moreso than his columns at 538, despite the complex subject matter. I particularly enjoyed the sections on chess, poker and Scrabble, where Roeder himself enters at least one tournament or exhibition to play real pros. His personal anecdotes about his own tactics, triumphs and mistakes make for fun, absorbing reading. He also gets into a bit of philosophical musing about the value of games, and how they might apply to our real lives. These are worthy questions, to be sure, but I found these sections of the book (especially the prologue and epilogue) to be too abstract, too divorced from the satisfying particulars of each game’s rules and strategy. Even if you’ve only played one or two of the games featured in the book, I still recommend it. Roeder does a good job referring back to previous chapters, comparing and contrasting the nature of these 7 games, that even just having one entry point (Ex: Scrabble) might be enough for you to being to appreciate the complexities of Go. Speaking of which, I think I finally want to play a few games of backgammon. Thanks, Oliver!

  19. 5 out of 5

    Howard

    Originally posted at myreadinglife.com. Author Oliver Roeder in his book Seven Games uses those seven games (checkers, chess, go, backgammon, poker, Scrabble, and bridge) to explore both the human history of games in general as well as how the approach to creating artificial intelligence (AI) has changed as it has been applied to games. At first those developing AI tried to develop machines that think like humans do. But that direction was unfruitful due to the depth of the games. There was s Originally posted at myreadinglife.com. Author Oliver Roeder in his book Seven Games uses those seven games (checkers, chess, go, backgammon, poker, Scrabble, and bridge) to explore both the human history of games in general as well as how the approach to creating artificial intelligence (AI) has changed as it has been applied to games. At first those developing AI tried to develop machines that think like humans do. But that direction was unfruitful due to the depth of the games. There was simply too much to these games to simply use brute force calculations. New approaches were attempted and the results were a completely different way to think about games, a machine way. The book also highlights the best players of each of these games and how AI has affected them and game play in general. The author does an excellent job of showing the human side of playing games and their importance to human development. And he takes what could be a very dry topic (AI) and makes it extremely relatable. For anyone interested in games in general or the development of AI, I highly recommend this book.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Gayle Turner

    I love games. I actually felt guilty when I picked up this book at the library. I had work to do and it seemed other more important reading. The chapters on checkers, chess, poker, etc we're engaging but it was the introduction, the chapter on bridge, and the epilogue that make this book worth five stars. It's a brilliant expiration of the of games and artificial intelligence in our world today. If you have a passion for any of the other games, I'm sure you'll enjoy the exploration of how comput I love games. I actually felt guilty when I picked up this book at the library. I had work to do and it seemed other more important reading. The chapters on checkers, chess, poker, etc we're engaging but it was the introduction, the chapter on bridge, and the epilogue that make this book worth five stars. It's a brilliant expiration of the of games and artificial intelligence in our world today. If you have a passion for any of the other games, I'm sure you'll enjoy the exploration of how computers and artificial intelligence have solved these games. But if you have an interest in how we're going to live our lives alongside artificial intelligence I cannot commend enough the three chapters I mentioned above. I'm going to buy a copy this book and read and reread the intro, the chapter on bridge, and the epilogue. Plus at least a half dozen of the books that he lists in his "Sources and Further Reading." The contributions that Gwen Bradford, John Huizinga, C. Thi Nguyen, Frederick Nietzsche, and Bernard Suits made to this work have made me hungry for more of their wisdom. Now I'm going to take a break and go play Wordle on my phone. Let's face it, all work makes Jack a dull boy.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Thomas Kelley

    This a look at a handful of games with some that you probably remember from childhood unless you still play them now like checkers and chess and poker, scrabble along with backgammon and at least you have heard about contract bridge and a popular game across the world call Go. Beside looking at some of the history of these games and how they are played. Along with this there is a deep look into all these games and the effects on these games with those developing computers to play these games and This a look at a handful of games with some that you probably remember from childhood unless you still play them now like checkers and chess and poker, scrabble along with backgammon and at least you have heard about contract bridge and a popular game across the world call Go. Beside looking at some of the history of these games and how they are played. Along with this there is a deep look into all these games and the effects on these games with those developing computers to play these games and to the consternation of mankind make them successful in beating human players. How can a person compete against a machine that can process up to 70 million moves a second? Concerning the game of Go it is thought that this maybe the oldest board game that is played present day and considered by many to be the most complex. Thought it was interesting to read about those playing scrabble and those high-level players who could win a scrabble tournament in a language they do not even speak. This book gets a little deep when it is discussing the various computer machines develop to play most of these games but overall, a good read.

  22. 4 out of 5

    DJNana

    I picked this up purely based on the title, and my interest in games in general - I've only ever been below average at all 7 games listed here, but I've enjoyed every one. Each of the 7 chapters focuses on a different game, delving a bit into origins, mentions in early literature, cultural effects, famous players and tournaments, some of the author's personal history with the games, and invariably leads to the endgame of all games - the victory of the computer. There was a surprising focus on AI I picked this up purely based on the title, and my interest in games in general - I've only ever been below average at all 7 games listed here, but I've enjoyed every one. Each of the 7 chapters focuses on a different game, delving a bit into origins, mentions in early literature, cultural effects, famous players and tournaments, some of the author's personal history with the games, and invariably leads to the endgame of all games - the victory of the computer. There was a surprising focus on AI - a pleasant surprise, to be sure, but not what I was expecting from the title and synopsis. It also gets a little philosophical, asking what games are, why we play them, and if that's a worthwhile pursuit. Unsurprisingly for someone who's written a whole book on them, Roeder is on the side of books as a net positive. It's not particularly deep or insightful, skimming the surface rather than diving too deep - as it probably has to be, covering 7 games in one book - but it's an easy recommend if you're interested in any of these games. Would I re-read: no.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Jeremy Bagai

    Charming and informative history of seven strategy games (checkers, chess, go, backgammon, poker, scrabble, bridge), and the efforts to get computers to play them well. I'm a well traveled tourist in this world -- I'm a backgammon author and competitor and know lots about how neural networks have changed that game. I know less about computer chess and go and poker, but still enough that there were few surprises there. I know least about checkers, scrabble, and bridge. So a third of the book was Charming and informative history of seven strategy games (checkers, chess, go, backgammon, poker, scrabble, bridge), and the efforts to get computers to play them well. I'm a well traveled tourist in this world -- I'm a backgammon author and competitor and know lots about how neural networks have changed that game. I know less about computer chess and go and poker, but still enough that there were few surprises there. I know least about checkers, scrabble, and bridge. So a third of the book was new for me, a third was review, and a third seemed just a little too breezy and spotty (but only to someone with my background). All very pleasant, with enough emphasis on characters and stories to keep some narrative drive. Five stars would be a classic that somehow tied together the state of AI and how it maps the world, and the human desire to play games and play them well. This book has a final chapter which makes an attempt but does not transcend. No matter -- charming and informative is worth a lot.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Pete

    Seven Games: A Human History (2022) by Oliver Roeder is a good book that looks at seven classic games, checkers, chess, go, backgammon, Scrabble and bridge. Roeder writes for the website FiveThirtyEight, has studied AI at Harvard and has a PhD in economics. As well as this he’s played a number of the games seriously and indeed the book has him involved in the US championships for one of the games. Each chapter has a brief history of each game and then goes into how they are now being played and i Seven Games: A Human History (2022) by Oliver Roeder is a good book that looks at seven classic games, checkers, chess, go, backgammon, Scrabble and bridge. Roeder writes for the website FiveThirtyEight, has studied AI at Harvard and has a PhD in economics. As well as this he’s played a number of the games seriously and indeed the book has him involved in the US championships for one of the games. Each chapter has a brief history of each game and then goes into how they are now being played and in how well AI is now playing each game and how that has changed each game. It was disappointing that there wasn’t more on the actual histories of each game and some more on how each game works. There is something on the role of chance in each game and how large the possibility space is for each game. Seven Games is a good read. For anyone interested in where AI is on each of the games there is quite a lot there. Alas there is less than expected on the actual history of each game.

  25. 4 out of 5

    CeltAtom

    "Stories let us record narrative, and games let us record agencies." This line from the epilogue is the highlight of the book. It's the only piece that makes me feel like I understand games better. Yes, that's it, the _choice_ is the interesting part, the game exists to give that choice-y feeling, and that's what sets it apart from other segments of culture. Maybe I was better-versed than the target audience coming in, but I didn't find much insight in all the descriptions of AIs. And they fill th "Stories let us record narrative, and games let us record agencies." This line from the epilogue is the highlight of the book. It's the only piece that makes me feel like I understand games better. Yes, that's it, the _choice_ is the interesting part, the game exists to give that choice-y feeling, and that's what sets it apart from other segments of culture. Maybe I was better-versed than the target audience coming in, but I didn't find much insight in all the descriptions of AIs. And they fill the book; it should have been called Seven Games: A Machine History. The narrative is sometimes interesting, sometimes boring, often disjointed. Sentence structure is sometimes as poor as mine, suggesting subpar editing. I usually wanted more details about the game and less about the expert's clothes. There's interesting stuff in this space philosophically, but this book does not satisfy my curiosity.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Ty

    I started reading this book because I like games, and I wanted to learn more about their history. I was surprised that while the author does cover the origins, key evolutions and great players of the games: checkers, chess, go, poker, backgammon, scrabble and bridge, much of the text focuses on how these games have shaped and been shaped by high performance computing and artificial intelligence. Luckily, these topics are also of interest to me... :) Claude Shannon is mentioned more than almost a I started reading this book because I like games, and I wanted to learn more about their history. I was surprised that while the author does cover the origins, key evolutions and great players of the games: checkers, chess, go, poker, backgammon, scrabble and bridge, much of the text focuses on how these games have shaped and been shaped by high performance computing and artificial intelligence. Luckily, these topics are also of interest to me... :) Claude Shannon is mentioned more than almost any other person through the book. The anecdotes about the unusual people who came to dominate the various games were interesting, and the work that eventually led to each game, except bridge, to be "solved" by computing was also fun to read. High recommended for people who like games and/or AI.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Matt Ely

    It's about seven games, but it's mostly about how humans' relationships to those games have evolved. Where did they come from, but more important to the author, where are they going? Specifically, how do neural network AI change the way we understand games and change our motivations in playing them. The author uses the relatively small space of traditional games the same way AI developers do: to test a theory and predict the future. If this is how AI changes chess, what does it say about how AI It's about seven games, but it's mostly about how humans' relationships to those games have evolved. Where did they come from, but more important to the author, where are they going? Specifically, how do neural network AI change the way we understand games and change our motivations in playing them. The author uses the relatively small space of traditional games the same way AI developers do: to test a theory and predict the future. If this is how AI changes chess, what does it say about how AI will change bigger things? It's a quick and engaging read for anyone interested in the state of competition for those who take these games very seriously. It's also an interesting window into the future of how AI will become intertwined with so much of what we do. Humans won't be replaced, but the way we behave will be changed from the relationship.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Mateo Glassman

    Wanted to give it three, just because it's such a niche narrative of a niche topic, but Roeder can write, man. He seems to get better throughout the book; even with games I'm not super familiar with like Scrabble and Bridge. He is really smart and he works with really smart people, though it's less about the games and more about the language, norms, and emotions within the subculture of the games. He sort of performs seven unique ethnographies for lack of a better word. And the results are great Wanted to give it three, just because it's such a niche narrative of a niche topic, but Roeder can write, man. He seems to get better throughout the book; even with games I'm not super familiar with like Scrabble and Bridge. He is really smart and he works with really smart people, though it's less about the games and more about the language, norms, and emotions within the subculture of the games. He sort of performs seven unique ethnographies for lack of a better word. And the results are great. As a poker player, I found the lessons invaluable. It takes so much work to apply poker (and other games') lessons to life; and vice versa. Roeder captures that. The book reads quick, it's entertaining and enlightening. I really admire the man.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Stacy

    For the seven games in the title of the book (checkers, backgammon, chess, Go, poker, Scrabble, and bridge), Roeder covers the rules, history, and cultural impact of each game. I listened to the audiobook, and perhaps I would have enjoyed this book more in a physical copy, but I often found my mind wondering. I did learn some interesting tidbits about various games, such as the fact that bridge remains one game where human strategy still fare better than AI. It wasn’t a poorly written book, so if For the seven games in the title of the book (checkers, backgammon, chess, Go, poker, Scrabble, and bridge), Roeder covers the rules, history, and cultural impact of each game. I listened to the audiobook, and perhaps I would have enjoyed this book more in a physical copy, but I often found my mind wondering. I did learn some interesting tidbits about various games, such as the fact that bridge remains one game where human strategy still fare better than AI. It wasn’t a poorly written book, so if the description intrigues you, don’t let my review stop you from checking it out. Many thanks to NetGalley for providing me an audio ARC of this book.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Ward

    Probably my favorite nonfiction book in the last year. I really felt like the target audience for this book. Each section helped you understand the game at a basic level and conveyed the vibe of the game and it’s players. Whenever I finished a section I felt so eager to play the game. The introductory game theory and discussion of AI’s role in each of the games was an added bonus. It was thought provoking to hear the implications computer programs have had on each game. I really want to learn to Probably my favorite nonfiction book in the last year. I really felt like the target audience for this book. Each section helped you understand the game at a basic level and conveyed the vibe of the game and it’s players. Whenever I finished a section I felt so eager to play the game. The introductory game theory and discussion of AI’s role in each of the games was an added bonus. It was thought provoking to hear the implications computer programs have had on each game. I really want to learn to play bridge now.

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