As its title indicates, “Seven Games: A Human History” is about seven games: Checkers, Chess, Go, Backgammon, Poker, Scrabble, and Bridge. It has a chapter devoted to each, plus an introduction and epilogue. The author is a journalist, author, and games player who has been, at least until recently, a senior writer at FiveThirtyEight. He is the editor of an earlier book titled “The Riddler: Fantastic Puzzles from FiveThirtyEight.”
The book’s subtitle is somewhat misleading. There is some discussion of the history of each of these games, in some cases going back to their roots in ancient China, India, or Egypt. Most of the discussion, however, is on very recent “history” — especially on the development of artificial intelligence (AI) to play and in most cases master these games. Roeder does describe the outstanding playing skills of several humans, including Marion Tinsley, “the greatest human checkers player who ever lived,” (p. 20), Garry Kasparov and Magnus Carlsen (chess), Honinbo Shusai and Lee Sedol (Go), Kenji Matsumoto (Scrabble) and others. He gives at least equal coverage to the mathematicians, programmers and AI specialists who developed Chinook (checkers), AlphaZero (chess), AlphaGo (Go), eXtreme Gammon (backgammon) and other super game-playing programs.
“The seven games in this book,” Roeder tells us (p. 14), “belong to a rough hierarchy: each game on the list adds a strategic feature and, therefore, more closely hews to some aspect of the ‘real world.’” The first three are games of pure skill. Backgammon adds chance. Poker adds hidden information and deception. Scrabble adds the complexities of language. Bridge adds interpersonal communication and even coded means of communication (conventions). As of the writing of this book, at least, bridge remains the only one of these games in which the best human players are still better than the best computer programs.
Roeder also introduces his readers to the commercialization and professionalization of these games. He recounts his own participation in the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas and the North American Scrabble Championship in Reno. He shares illustrations, strategies, descriptions of other players, his own feelings of exhilaration at winning and disappointment in losing.
Whether other readers like this book will depend, I believe, on how much they enjoy games, especially these games, and how interested they are in AI. I think of myself as a player of most of these games, but not at the levels described by Roeder. I remember being first enchanted by checkers in childhood, chess in junior high, bridge in college, go in graduate school, and scrabble in early adulthood. I was never really into backgammon or poker, though I know friends who have been. The chapter on backgammon in this book enhanced my understanding of, and increased my interest in, that game.
The introduction and epilogue raise interesting issues that transcend the seven specific games. Why do we play games? What roles do they play in our lives? How should we feel about the “intrusion” of computers and AI into “our” world of games? What affect has the coronavirus pandemic had on games and game-playing? “At the height of the pandemic,” Roeder notes (p. 279), more games were being played than at perhaps any time in human history.”
The book contains a useful 11-page listing of sources for further reading, on each of these games and on games in general. It includes Johan Huizinga’s classic “Homo Ludens” (1949) and several contemporary works that look very intriguing. However, there were three books I was surprised to find missing from the list. “Finite and Infinite Games” (2011), by James P. Carse, distinguishes finite games, like those considered here, from infinite games like politics. The former take place within a specified time and place and follow established rules. The latter play with (rather than within) the rules and may be unending and unbounded. “The Immortal Game: A History of Chess” (2007), by David Schenk, weaves a captivating history of chess around a famous match that took place in London in 1851. “The Protracted Game: A Wei-Ch’i Interpretation of Maoist Revolutionary Strategy” (1971), by Scott Boorman, shows how dependent Chinese military and international strategies are upon Go (Wei-Ch’i or Weiqi in Chinese) concepts and strategies. Policy makers attempting to make sense of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, activities in the South China Sea and the Himalayas, or Taiwan policies would benefit, I believe, from reading Boorman.
I encourage readers who enjoy Seven Games to seek out and read these earlier works as well. Seven Games is available in the Manhattan Public Library. Unfortunately, the other three are not but they can be purchased online.
William L. Richter is professor emeritus of political science and former associate provost for international programs at Kansas State University.