Alex Bernstein

Personally, I rather look forward to a computer program winning the World Chess Championship. Humanity needs a lesson in humility.
Richard Dawkings

Quite a few engineers and computer pioneers worked on devices and programs, able to play chess (or to resolve simple chess problems), let’s mention only Leonardo Torres, Alan Turing, Claude Shannon, and Dietrich Prinz. By the middle 1950s computers became powerful enough, so it was a matter of time to appear a program able to play a complete chess game. The first one was written in 1956-57 by the chess player and programmer at IBM Alex Bernstein, with the help of several colleagues.

Alex Bernstein playing his chess program at the console of the 704 mainframe, 1958
Alex Bernstein playing his chess program at the console of the 704 mainframe

Alex Bernstein (1930-1999) was an Italian-born American, who started playing chess seriously during his high school time at City College of New York. After graduating from Columbia University, he served in the US Army, where he became acquainted with computers. In 1956, as a full-time employee at IBM, he got interested in writing a chess program, went to one of the managers of IBM, and got approval to spend half of his time working on the program, and access to an IBM 704 mainframe, IBM’s first mass-produced computer (it used vacuum tube logic, could do 42000 instructions per second and had a memory of 70K). Starting the work, Bernstein drew upon not only his own experience with chess, but began to study Modern Chess Openings book, and spent six months going through some 500 chess openings. He assigned scores to various positions, scores that depended not only on the pieces retained but also on area control of the board and mobility. He also developed a fourth measure, what he called a “greens area” around the king, meaning that the more squares outward from the king controlled by his own side the better. But after six months of this, he gave it up. He couldn’t make any sense of it.

At some point, Bernstein became aware of Turing’s work and read at least one of Shannon’s papers. When he finally began to see how he might codify some of the principles he felt were essential, he telephoned Claude Shannon. “I went up to MIT and spent a day or two with him, telling him what I was planning to do, and he said he thought it was intelligent, and a good way of proceeding. Essentially I felt I’d received his blessings, which was pleasant.”

Bernstein’s program turned out to be a perceptive combination of his own chess intuitions, what he had learned from Nimzowitsch’s book My System, and happily, some of the things he had learned from his first six months with Modern Chess Openings. One of the program’s major features was that it eliminated a large portion of the legal possible moves from consideration, and concentrated upon those legal moves that were likely to prove fruitful. The program contained a large database, which allowed it to examine any particular piece or square at any time. In descending order of importance, the program asked such questions as: Is the king in check? If he is in check, there is nothing else to do. Is the king in double check? If he is, merely capturing one piece that threatens the king will be insufficient; the king must be moved. The next question had to do with material: is there any to be gained, or any in danger of capture? And clearly, it is more important to rescue or capture a rook than to rescue or capture a pawn, and this was factored into the program. Bernstein told the computer what move to make by flipping the switches on the front panel of the console (see the upper photo). The program was advanced enough to evaluate four half-moves ahead and took about eight minutes to calculate each move.

Alex Bernstein demonstrating his program to Dr. Edward Lasker
Alex Bernstein demonstrating his program to Dr. Edward Lasker, New York, 1958

There came a time to try out the chess machine. Bernstein had the sense to try it out first without an audience. “There was a bug. The very first move the machine ever made was to resign!” It had taken two years of work to get the chess-playing machine going, and for several years thereafter, bugs were still being discovered, not only by Bernstein and his group, but by outsiders who had requested copies of the program, and who uncovered more surprises. “It played, I think, a sort of respectable beginner’s game,” Bernstein says, “and every once in a while it made a move which was remarkably good.”

The chess program garnered some unexpected global interest, but this success had some unexpected results. To be sure, Bernstein received all the publicity he could have hoped for—besides the usual scientific meetings he was invited to address, he found himself written up in the New York Times, and in June 1958 an article in Scientific American reached a wide international audience (see the article Computer vs. Chess-Player). In July 1958 Bernstein wrote a similar article for Chess Review journal (see the article A Chess Playing Program for the IBM 704). Despite this success of IBM technologies, T. J. Watson, the president of the company, was not amused, as stockholders had challenged him, wanting an explanation for the money being wasted on playing games 🙂

Biography of Alex Bernstein

Alex Bernstein (1930-1999) in 1958
Alex Bernstein (1930-1999) in 1958

Alex Bernstein was born Aleksei Bernstein on 14 December 1930, in Milan, Italy. He was the son of the prominent mathematician Vladimiro Bernstein. Vladimiro was born on 13 July 1900 as Владимир Бернштейн in Sankt Peterburg, Russia, to a famous family of Russian Jews, and entered the local university when he was 17 to specialize in mathematics. In 1919 he decided to escape from the turmoils in Russia and fled to Finland. Unfortunately, he was seriously wounded crossing the border, and lost one of his lungs (this was the primary reason for his early death on 23 Jan 1936 in Milan). From Finland, Vladimir moved to England, then to Paris, where he graduated in Mathematical Sciences at the Sorbonne University. He then taught at the University of Geneva, and in 1930 he moved to Italy and taught at the Universities of Milan and Pavia.

In 1940, Vladimir’s mother Elizabeth, and her second husband fled from Fascist Italy, bringing Alex and his sister Vera to New York. Bernstein studied at the Bronx Science High School, where he was captain of the chess team. Then he entered City College of New York and graduated from Columbia University before to went into the army (Signal Corps). From the summer of 1953 to the summer of 1955, Bernstein worked at the Bureau of Standards, working part-time for IBM. In 1956 IBM offered him a full-time job and he accepted.

Alex Bernstein died on 11 March 1999 in Larchmont, New York.