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Thursday, February 18, 2016


     Boris was an early dedicated chess computer that appeared on the market in February 1978. It was designed and manufactured by Applied Concepts.  The name was likely chosen to honor Boris Spassky who had lost the World Championship in 1972 to Bobby Fischer.
     Boris (the computer, not the man) ran on a Fairchild F8 8-bit microprocessor with only 2.5 KiB ROM and 256 byte RAM. The programmer's name was David Lindsay. 
     If you remember, in 1968, after hearing artificial intelligence researchers John McCarthy and Donald Michie predict that a computer would defeat the world champion within ten years, IM David Levy made a famous bet with four AI experts for about £1,250 that no computer program would win a chess match against him within ten years. He wrote, “Clearly, I shall win my ... bet in 1978, and I would still win if the period were to be extended for another ten years. Prompted by the lack of conceptual progress over more than two decades, I am tempted to speculate that a computer program will not gain the title of International Master before the turn of the century and that the idea of an electronic world champion belongs only in the pages of a science fiction book.” 
     Levy won the bet ten years later when he won a match against Chess 4.7 in Toronto, 1978 and he won a second bet in 1984 against Cray Blitz.  After that he offered a prize for the first computer chess team that could beat him. He got crashed 0-4 by Deep Thought in 1989. 
     If I remember correctly, back in 1978 a British pound was about 1.92 US dollars, so the bet was for about $7-8,000 in today's currency. Do I have that right?! Anyway, it kind of reminded me about the time I bought a box of old Popular Science and Popular Mechanics magazines from the 1920s at the flea market. There was a letter to the editor from a university physics professor explaining why space travel simply was not, and never would be, possible. 
     I discovered Boris on sale in a bookstore in a local mall and the price, as I remember, was pretty hefty...around $200. That's around $700 today and so it's no wonder that when I told the sales clerk I'd take one that she was a little surprised. I remember her asking me if I was sure. In those days I was not married and had a lot of money to spend on foolishness, so the cost didn't matter. What was important was the contraption was a beauty and it played chess! 
     It came in a walnut box with a little folding board and pieces and you entered the moves on a keypad. It had an 8 character LED screen that displayed the move and random messages after you made a move: Would you like a draw?, Good move, I expected that, I missed that, etc. It could be set to think for any length of time. 
     It wasn't very strong and beating it presented little challenge. I'm guessing it was rated about 1000 or so. I do remember showing it to a local master who, like Levy, commented the thing was a piece of crap and it proved computers would never be any good at chess. No matter...it was a chess partner and living in a small butt crack town like I did, Boris was the only chess partner available. After Boris came Boris Master but it didn't play any better. 
     My next chess computer was the Radio Shack Chess Champion 2150, but I don't remember much about it except that it did NOT play at 2150. I also remember one of my correspondence opponents also had one. I know because against the Sicilian it always played 3.Bb5 and if you attacked the B with ...a6 it valued Bs more than Ns so always retreated the B back to e2. When he played Be2 I got suspicious, checked his moves out and was able to predict every one of them.  The guy was a "user" and his rating was only around 1600, so that's another reason why I know the 2150 part was inflated. I eventually sold it to a guy at the chess club for $20. 
     Boris is long gone, but I still have the box.   It was so nice that I ripped the guts out and kept the box. It sits on my dresser and holds keys and change and stuff.  Boris is King has all the details on the machine.

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