Giving It a Go

November/December 2002

Reading time min

“Uh-oh. It looks like something bad happened.”

Mathematics professor Daniel Bump keeps glancing at his computer screen, tracking every move of the Go game that’s taking place somewhere in etherland. A player, probably European, is taking on GNU Go, the open-source software program that Bump and two dozen others worldwide have been rewriting and improving since 1998.

“This is a very turbulent game,” he says, pointing to two phalanxes of stones collecting at opposite ends of the simulated board. “All these stones look to me as if they’re going to die.”

Bump, who specializes in number theory, discovered the ancient Asian game of territory in a Portland, Ore., Go club when he was 16. These days, he usually gets up at 5 or 6 a.m. to feed his cats and check on any programming suggestions that came in overnight. Two other programmers—one in Sweden and one in Germany—also moderate the traffic. There are a number of computerized Go games on the market, but GNU Go is the only one that has its source code published on the Internet.

The action on the screen is heating up, and Bump’s colleague in Germany, who is watching the game at 11:30 p.m. his time, posts a comment: “Missing G5 is a typical GNU mistake.” Bump scans the stones, then punches out a reply: “Do you mean move 73?” A few seconds later comes the flickering response: “Yes.”

GNU Go is not a particularly speedy competitor—not yet as strong as an average Go player. With 361 different intersections on the board and 180 stones per player, Go has even more potential variations than chess, plus tens of thousands of standard opening moves to consider. At the moment, however, Bump is focusing on a posse of renegade white stones that is trying to avoid being captured by the black team, i.e., GNU Go.

“E8 bad,” he types.

“And surprising,” the German mathematician replies.

“Can we kill the upper left?”

“I would not think so.”

But white soon makes a fatal mistake, and the game, which has lasted about an hour, begins to wind down. Bump—who is working on a book titled The Mathematics of the Rubik’s Cube between games—says he expects to be refining GNU Go for years to come. “Very interesting things happen on the board,” he adds. “It’s full of surprises.”

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