The Checker Maven

Checker Cruncher

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Checker Cruncher is a new website under development by Brooks Thomas, and it's the first online checker tactics trainer to make an appearance.

While there's still some work to do, the site is eminently usable right now, and we found it rather impressive. We've made many repeat visits. A subscription model is contemplated for the future, but at the moment the site is completely free.

We asked Mr. Thomas to answer a few questions for us, and he graciously took the time to provide detailed responses.

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1. So what's Checker Cruncher (CC) and what can we expect to find there?

Checker Cruncher is a web application designed to help people improve all aspects of their game and have fun doing it. The heart of the site is a large number of automatically generated tactics puzzles. Both players and puzzles get Elo ratings so beginners will be given easier problems while experts will be given more severe challenges. Other learning tools are also available such as a searchable database of expert games and an opening explorer to look at win rates and best moves. The puzzles are better for tactics and end games while the database is more for openings and strategy. Lastly, there is a forum for giving feedback and asking questions. More is coming as it's built.

All the puzzles come from real games where one player had the opportunity to win. Maybe that player found it and maybe they didn't but the engine claims the opportunity was there. Your task is to exploit said opportunity to the fullest. Some puzzles are as simple as promoting a king or choosing the better capture. Others are 20+ moves deep with zero margin for error. Each is a bite sized piece of practice for both the speed and accuracy of your calculation which is critical to avoid blunders and pounce on your opponent's mistakes. After each attempt you can check out the game the puzzle came from or look to the computer analysis for the answer. As of September, 2016, the puzzles are selected randomly because the ratings have not yet stabilized. As the player and puzzle count grows and the puzzles get sorted by difficulty I'll implement the smarter problem selection.

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2. What gave you the idea for CC?

I got the idea for Checker Cruncher from a friend at the coworking space where I work. I was playing a game of checkers over lunch and lamenting the lack of a checkers version of ChessTempo when he asked, "Why don't you build it?" At the time I was making a mobile app about billiards that I didn't have much faith in. Over the next few days it become obvious to me that Checker Cruncher was going to be both more fun to build and more likely to succeed. I knew I was on to something when I started getting distracted from building the site by practicing checkers on the site. Since then I've had more ideas then time to implement them.

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3. How long have you been working on it?

I started work almost exactly two years ago. I had never built a website before so HTML, CSS, and Javascript were almost entirely new to me. I actually started by doing Michael Hartl's tutorial for Ruby on Rails. Like many projects; if I knew then what I know now it would be long done. I've come a long way since then, both in programing and checkers abilities.

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4. How do you see the site developing in the future?

I've got a huge list of features I want to add, I don't think I'll ever run out of ideas. I'd like to see a smarter problem generator, a larger game database, puzzle comments, tags, and share buttons, leaders boards, achievements, end game tutorials, live play, etc. I'm only one person so none of these are coming soon but if the site gets traction and enough users to pay for the hosting costs I'll keep adding features. Who knows where it might go?

In the near term I'm working on improving the site experience on mobile devices. It's not quite ready for phones but it's close. The smarter problem generator is also a big priority. I'd like the next batch of puzzles to be more consistent with where they start and end. It should also create fewer puzzles that have many winning moves. In the mean time, if you bump into a puzzle you don't like point it out on the forums. I can disable it and add it in my test cases.

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Checker Cruncher creator Brooks Thomas

5. Tell us a little about yourself (age, background, education, interest in checkers, location, profession, whatever you wish).

I'm 31 years old, living in Philadelphia. I got my degree in Computer Science at the University of Rochester in NY and have been a professional programmer since. Most of my experience is in windows desktop applications. Outside of work I've always had an interest in games and game theory. A little before I started Checker Cruncher I started playing chess more seriously and I'm now a 1700 rated player which I'm quite proud of. When I get the chance I also enjoy hiking and mountain climbing with my lovely wife Amanda.

I had no idea checkers was even an interesting game until reading about Chinook in One Jump Ahead. That was probably five years ago. I downloaded Martin Fierz's CheckerBoard and of course the engine Cake stomped on me so badly I didn't understand why. But I loved the simplicity of the rules vs the monstrous difficulty of the play. So I bought some pieces and started playing with whoever was willing. Now I play primarily with my friends and against my phone. I've thought about playing online but haven't really broken into it yet.

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6. Do you think CC will become a major resource for checker training? Is that your long-term goal or hope?

Yes I hope so. I know it already works great for beginners. A few friends and I have been testing it and we've improved dramatically. Even very strong chess players have to practice tactics regularly, I think checkers must be similar. If it gets a healthy user base and good feedback I think Checker Cruncher could be a tremendous tool.

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7. What do you see as the future of English checkers? Is it bright or not so bright? Do you think checkers might some day see a revival?

Lots of work needs to be done of course but I think the future of checkers is very promising. One of the major reasons I play chess and checkers instead of Counter Strike and League of Legends is accessibility. Checkers has been around for centuries, it's one of only a handful of games you can play with both your grandparents and your grand kids. It's not going anywhere. Moreover I think more people are playing checkers now than ever before. The checkers phone apps have millions of downloads. People may be playing casually, primarily against their phones, or even without forced capture. But they play and if more serious players and organizations can reach and educate them I see no reason why checkers can't be a large and thriving community.

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8. Any advice for the aspiring checkerist and/or user of your site?

For the aspiring checkerist:

Play! Play with whoever is interested, kids, parents, coworkers. Checkers is the perfect game over a lunch break. But do warn your opponents about forced capture; at least where I am very few people know about that rule.

If you're playing against your phone or another computer turn the difficulty up to where you win or draw a little more than half the time. You should win often enough that you don't get frustrated but lose often enough to learn to be careful. As you improve, turn the difficulty up again.

For the tactics problems:

Like when you're playing over the board don't try to guess the answer. Take your time, spend five minutes thinking and try to see the whole solution before you make the first move.

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9. Anything else you wish to say or add?

Please participate in the forums, feedback of all kinds is deeply appreciated! This is especially true for intermediate and advanced players, I'm working from my chess experience about what works, but checkers is a different game. For instance I'd love help building a list of favorite puzzles. My favorite so far is number 127.

Checker Cruncher Problem No. 127
BLACK
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WHITE
White to Play and Win

W:W31,30,9,K6:B22,16,K15,12,5.

This is definitely an entertaining problem, and it isn't all that hard if you find the correct first move. Give it a try, and then either go to the Checker Cruncher website to see this problem and thousands more, or click on Read More to verify your solution.20050904-symbol.gif

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10/29/16 - Printer friendly version
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See It And Believe It

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Some things, like this monster wave at famed Waimea Bay on the North Shore of O`ahu, have to be seen to be believed.

In fact, we often hear phrases like, "You have to see it to believe it," to refer to something far out of the ordinary; "I'll believe it when I see it," to express skepticism; the metaphysical version, "I'll see it when I believe it"; and of course, the ever-popular "I want to believe."

You've definitely got to file today's Checker School entry under "you have to see it to believe it." We won't spoil the fun by explaining quite yet; we'll just say that this one is--- well, truly something else. Let's take a look at the position.

G. BUCHANAN-J. DEMPSTER
BLACK
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WHITE
White to Play and Draw

W:W5,16,18,20,26,30:B1,3,7,11,21,K25.

Black has a slight superiority in force (a king vs. a man), but White has more mobility, and that's a huge hint to the problem's solution. We consider this one pretty tough and a real test of visualization skill. It's definitely worth spending some time on, even if you don't get it. After you do, we're sure you'll find it quite believable that clicking on Read More will show you the annotated solution and half a dozen sample games.20050904-symbol.gif

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10/22/16 - Printer friendly version
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Marvin Visits Waikiki

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Marvin J. Mavin, famed team captain of the Detroit Doublejumpers in the National Checker League, was on a vacation. The World Series of Checkers had just concluded, with the Doublejumpers taking the championship for the third straight year.

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Marvin had eight weeks off before the next season got underway at the first of the new year, and he decided to spend a few weeks in Hawai`i. His girlfriend, business executive Priscilla Snelson, could only spend a week with him due to a busy schedule doing mergers and acquisitions.

It was about halfway through Marvin's stay. Priscilla had gone off to Japan, searching for companies to buy out. Marvin was staying at the Hilman Hawaiian Village in Waikiki, and he loved to walk on Kalakaua Avenue along the beach. He'd wear beach slippers and a hat to try to remain incognito. Not that he didn't care about his many fans; he just needed a little time off between seasons.

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Marvin had just finished eating a Hawaiian plate lunch, with macaroni salad, rice, and garlic shrimp. He loved the local food and could be heard to say, "I ain't paying thirty bucks for a tofu burger at the hotel." Feeling good, and enjoying the beautiful Hawaiian weather, he strolled on down Kalakaua with the goal of going all the way to the Aquarium and back.

At Kealohilani Avenue, he stopped for a moment at the beach tables, where visitors and locals would play checkers all through the day and evening. Each time he passed by, Marvin resisted the urge to sit down and play, and possibly reveal his identity. But today one of the tables looked especially interesting.

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A succession of tourists were playing a rather rough looking local, and Marvin guessed he was probably homeless. But he was playing very well, defeating one challenger after another, and collecting five dollars every time. Marvin suspected that playing for money wasn't quite legal, but no one seemed to mind.

It was just too much. Marvin felt himself weakening, and after watching half a dozen games and just as many five dollar bills go to the local guy, Marvin spoke up.

"I'd like to try," he said, addressing the local guy, who had just pocketed some more money.

"I Charlie," the guy said. "Dey call me 'Cheap Charlie' 'cause noboddy nevah get five bucks offa me. You wanna play? You no get nothin' neithah. Show me da five bucks and den I give you lickens."

"Well, uh ..." Marvin hesitated. Would this really be fair?

"Scared? Den step aside, brah, oddah playahs stay waitin'."

No one accused Marvin of being scared. Grim faced, he pulled out ten dollars and set it next to the board.

"Ten dollah! Hoo, you one crazy haole! You like give me money, I like take it." Charlie placed two fives on top of Marvin's ten.

Marvin sat down. "Play," he said, his lips narrowed.

"Whatevahs," Charlie said, and the game began.

A small crowd had gathered, and amazingly, Marvin's disguise was working; no one recognized him.

The Trade Winds were brisk this afternoon and Marvin put a couple of captured checkers on top of the five and ten dollar bills.

"Dat money ain't going noweah," Charlie said, "'cept fo' my pocket!"

That got a laugh from a few of the bystanders. But the fact was, Charlie had made a few small errors, and Marvin knew that a win was on his doorstep. A couple of the more astute onlookers suspected the same thing, but they kept a discreet silence.

WHITE
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BLACK
Black to Play and Win

B:W30,28,26,22,K10:BK31,21,19,14,13,5.

Marvin spent a couple of minutes in thought, and then, sure of himself, he reached out to make his move.

He took his hand off the piece and looked up. To his surprise, the crowd of spectators had completely disappeared.

"What's going on ..." he began, and then felt a heavy hand on his shoulder.

"You two bums gambling? You know that's illegal." The speaker had a little wallet flipped open to show his Honolulu Police Department badge.

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"Aw, c'mon officah, we just havin' fun," Charlie said.

"Gambling?" Marvin said. "But checkers is a game of skill and ..."

"Shut up, you," the plainclothes policeman said. "I don't care what you say, it's not legal, and both of you know it. But I'm feeling generous today so you got a choice."

Marvin was fidgeting but Charlie, who had clearly been through this routine before, sat quietly.

"All right, officer," Charlie said. He pulled out a plastic bag and began to pack the checkers.

"Hey, our game!" Marvin objected.

"Okay, buddy," the officer said, looking at Marvin. "The homeless shelter or a trip downtown to headquarters?"

"The homeless shelter? But I'm ..."

"Good choice, boy. Saves me doing the paperwork it'd take to lock you up. Now come on, you two, there's a cruiser over there that'll drop you off at the Mission. And we better not see you leave until morning."

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"But ... but I'm ..."

"One more word outta you and you wait in jail to see the judge."

Marvin noticed the officer slipping the game money into his pocket, but he didn't think it would be a good idea to say anything.

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Can you find a winning sequence in the diagram above? It's a much easier problem than you might expect! See if you can solve it without getting nabbed, then click on Read More to go, not to jail, but to see the solution.20050904-symbol.gif

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10/15/16 - Printer friendly version
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Mr. Darcy Plays Draughts

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Our new book is out and available on CreateSpace and Amazon! This column is something of an advertisement, we hope forgivably, for Mr. Darcy Plays Draughts and Other Stories: The Checker Fiction of Bob Newell. Net proceeds, if any, will help defray the ever-increasing costs of Checker Maven web hosting.

The book is a collection of some of the best stories appearing in this column over the past years, plus one brand new one, the title story, Mr. Darcy Plays Draughts. Why is Elizabeth suspicious when Mr. Darcy takes up a seemingly innocent interest in the game of draughts?

Read the book and find out. But we'll give you a hint right here by presenting a checker problem closely related to those that appear in the story (and no, we're not going to give any more than that away).

BLACK
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WHITE
White to Move and Win

W:W32,22,K15,10:B23,21,13,2.

As always, solve the problem, and then click on Read More to verify the solution and learn more book ordering details!20050904-symbol.gif

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10/08/16 - Printer friendly version
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The Leaves Fall Quickly

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In the autumn, the leaves can fall quickly. In the photo above, Junior is having a great time with the autumn leaves. Dad may have somewhat less fun when it comes time to bundle them up and dispose of them.

Quickly falling leaves inspire one of the easiest speed problems we've published in a while. Of course, you know the catch; you'd better be quick because we're only giving you five seconds.

Click on the link below to display the position and start the clock. Then, quick as can be, come back and rake your mouse on Read More to check your solution.

October Speed Problem (very easy, 5 seconds)

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10/01/16 - Printer friendly version
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