Seven Games

A Human History

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Pub Date 25 Jan 2022 | Archive Date 31 Dec 2021

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A group biography of seven enduring and beloved games, and the story of why—and how—we play them.

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 behavioral design that make 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. 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.

About the Author: Oliver Roeder has been a senior writer at FiveThirtyEight and editor of The Riddler, a collection of the site's math puzzles. He studied artificial intelligence as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University and holds a PhD in economics focused on game theory.

A group biography of seven enduring and beloved games, and the story of why—and how—we play them.

Checkers, Backgammon, Chess, and Go. Poker, Scrabble, and Bridge. These seven games, ancient and...

Advance Praise

"Oliver Roeder masterfully reveals the way games teach us about play, risk, intelligence, technology and our inner selves—and introduces us to some unforgettable characters along the way. Like the very best games, this book is deep, enthralling, and tremendous fun." - Tim Harford, author of The Data Detective

"Seven Games is a beautifully written exploration of what games can tell us about philosophy, art, and human nature. Oliver Roeder is a commanding thinker and storyteller. His enthralling narrative delves into subjects ranging from art appreciation to artificial intelligence, cognitive science, world history, archeology and, of course, game theory. Through personal experiences he explores the culture of world-class competitors, and what they give up reaching such heights. Seven Games inspired me to pull out a deck of cards and open my Scrabble board with a new understanding of the meaning of play. Everyone should read this fabulous book!" - Christie Aschwanden, author of Good to Go: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn from the Strange Science of Recovery

"The games that have preoccupied and fascinated us over millennia tell a story not just about human history but, crucially, about the nature of the human mind. Oliver Roeder’s Seven Games offers a sweeping and provocative tour of the labyrinths into which we so eagerly lose—and so revealingly find—ourselves." - Brian Christian, author of Most Human Human and The Alignment Problem

"A beguiling, mesmerizing, and utterly charming history of the world’s most beloved games and the centuries-long quest to ‘solve’ them. In prose as elegant as the classics he profiles, Oliver Roeder shows that, contrary to what you might have heard, the battle between human and machine was a battle between human and human after all." - Stefan Fatsis, author of Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players

"Seven Games took me to far corners of the world and into the center of mysterious modern technology to reveal how games have not only played a surprisingly important role in our history but are currently shaping our bold and uncertain future. For each of these simple, elegant games, Oliver Roeder reveals the stark depths beneath the rules. Every person that Roeder meets has found themselves lost in those depths, sometimes without much to show for their lifetime of mastery. Roeder’s book gives meaning to their obsession, making connections between their accomplishments and the long continuum of human and technological evolution. In Roeder’s hands, games have real consequence—not only as art but as tools for technological advancement —yet the story remains fun, even amid deceit, heartbreak, tragedy, and mystery. Seven Games is an adventure, adeptly written, thoroughly original and profound—a literary example of what in chess we call a brilliancy." - David Hill, author of The Vapors: A Southern Family, the New York Mob, and the Rise and Fall of Hot Springs, America's Forgotten Capital of Vice

"Oliver Roeder masterfully reveals the way games teach us about play, risk, intelligence, technology and our inner selves—and introduces us to some unforgettable characters along the way. Like the...

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Featured Reviews

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.

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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!

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A wonderful delve into the history of seven popular games, why we play them and their relationship with AI. I hadn’t heard of ‘go’ before so was keen to learn more about it. Being a fan of word games, I was particularly interested to read about Scrabble. A fascinating read and really well researched. Thank you to Oliver Roeder, Net Galley and WWNorton & Co for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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What is a game? Seems like a simple question, right? But when you really sit down and think about it – what’s the answer? Is there a universal definition? Or is it more a case of knowing it when you see it? And furthermore, there’s an even more fundamental query – why is a game? It’s that last inquiry that seems to be at the center of Oliver Roeder’s new book “Seven Games: A Human History.” It’s an exploration of, well, seven games – checkers, backgammon, chess, Go, poker, Scrabble and bridge – and our connection to them. With each entry, Roeder offers us a look at the game’s origins – its place of birth, its precursors, its evolution – as well as introducing us to a formidable practitioner. And perhaps most fascinating, he also takes us into the realm of artificial intelligence as we meet the people who have devoted their lives to teaching machines to play these games. It’s a fascinating treatise on the importance of games and how they influence the people who play them, as well as a wonderful glimpse at some of the eccentric and idiosyncratic folks who have devoted their lives to achieving a kind of granular greatness. To Roeder and the people to whom he speaks, games are far more than mere entertainment – they are an opportunity to better understand the world, both around us and within us. Part of what makes “Seven Games” such an engaging read is the presence of fascinating figures, some of whom you may have heard of and many others of whom you almost certainly haven’t. Take Marion Tinsley, a math professor and lay preacher who is quite probably the greatest checkers player who ever lived. He won several world championships in the ‘50s, then left the game for two decades, only to come back and win more titles. By some accounts, he lost fewer than 10 matches of the thousands he played from 1950 on (and a couple of those were to the Chinook computer program, the first-ever program to win any game’s world championship against humans). Did you know that backgammon is one of the world’s oldest gambling games? Boards have been uncovered that date back to ancient Egypt, dice and all. It’s such a complex game that the AIs created to solve it wound up working for NASA. Or that Go was considered by many to be impossible for a computer to solve … right up until a group called AlphaGo did just that a few years ago? Or that chess engines and poker programs have fundamentally changed the way that the top-tier players approach their games? So many stories, both about the human champions and the men and women building the AIs intended to surpass them. The idea of a person devoting themselves fully to mastery of a game. The idea of someone seeking to literally solve a game through algorithmic and self-learning means. And both are in search of excellence, albeit via very different paths. Roeder has more than done his due diligence here, penning compelling portraits of the various people and programs at play here. And here’s the thing – we’re all familiar with these games, even if we don’t play them at the elite levels reached by those in discussion here. We have that familiarity, that frame of reference; the context that we as game players have rendered the stories being related here all the more interesting. Add to that the historical aspect of things – the games’ origins, for instance, or the titans who stood head and shoulder above their competitors within their admittedly niche sphere of influence – and you’re left with one heck of a read. It doesn’t hurt that Roeder has gifts of his own, both as a writer – he’s got an ear for narrative and a prose style that suits his subject beautifully – and as a player. Oh, did I not mention that? Roeder also devotes time to sharing his efforts to compete with the elites – he plays in the World Series of Poker and enters the National Scrabble Championship and so on – adding a level of Plimptonian participation into the mix. As someone with a general affinity for games, there was little doubt that I would find “Seven Games” to be of interest. What I didn’t anticipate was just how fun a book this was going to be, a clever and thoughtful mélange of histories and personalities and ambitions, all rolled into an extremely readable work of nonfiction. Drawing tiles or drawing cards, kinging or checkmating or simply rolling the dice – these “Seven Games” are worth playing.

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