Elwyn Berlekamp R.I.P.

Elwyn Berlekamp, a UC Berkeley mathematician and game theorist whose error-correcting codes allowed spacecraft from Voyager to the Hubble Space Telescope to send accurate, detailed and beautiful images back to Earth, died April 9 at his home in Piedmont, California, from complications of pulmonary fibrosis.

A professor emeritus of mathematics and of electrical engineering and computer sciences, Berlekamp was 78.

Berlekamp was a “genius” in many areas, according to colleague Richard Karp, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus of electrical engineering and computer sciences and holder of computer science’s premier honor, the Turing Award.

“He was a brilliant person, caring father, accomplished juggler and he had a great sense of humor. He’ll not be forgotten,” said David Patterson, a professor emeritus of electrical engineering and computer sciences at Berkeley who is now a distinguished engineer at Google and a Turing Award winner.

Berlekamp and his wife, Jennifer, supported various charitable causes and in 2013 founded the Elwyn and Jennifer Berlekamp Foundation, a small private operating foundation based in Oakland to support math and science outreach and education, in general, and combinatorial game theory, in particular.

Berlekamp was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Engineering and a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the American Mathematical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He received various honors, including the Centennial Medal, the Koji Kobayashi Computers and Communications Award and the R. W. Hamming Medal, all from IEEE, and was selected as Eta Kappa Nu’s “Outstanding Young Electrical Engineer” in 1971 and as a Putnam Fellow in 1961. He held more than a dozen patents, all of them now in the public domain.

His investments allowed him to reduce his teaching appointment to half time in 1982, and for the rest of his life, he concentrated on the theory of combinatorial games, the most simple example of which, Dots and Boxes, had fascinated him since first grade. He developed theories of the game that allowed him, or anyone, to always win.

Berlekamp playing games with Richard Nowakowski in 2015 following a symposium on combinatorial games, his life-long passion. (Photo courtesy of David Eisenbud)

His four-volume series, Winning Ways for Your Mathematical Plays,

written with John Conway and Richard Guy, delved into the math of Dots and Boxes and other popular games, including Amazons, a game played on a chess board with queens only.

Berlekamp playing the game Amazons with Georg Menz in 2015. Menz was that year’s Berlekamp Postdoctoral Fellow at MSRI. (Photo courtesy of David Eisenbud)

“In these books, he manages to describe deep mathematics in a way that is really enjoyable to the reader,” Karp said. “He presents it more as a narrative and explains it with real precision, but in a way that is actually charming. He was a wonderful author as well.”

One of his passions was the Asian game of Go, which he analyzed in the book Mathematical Go — one of the rare books on Go to be translated from English into Japanese, rather than vice versa. He focused on Go’s endgame, said mathematician and colleague David Eisenbud, and once challenged a top Japanese Go master to a series of endgames selected by Berlekamp. He beat the Go master in seven straight games, playing both sides of the board — white and black.

“It was mathematics against intuition, and mathematics won,” said Eisenbud, director of the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI). “It was an impressive demonstration of which he was very proud.”

While the mathematical analysis of games is still very popular, computers have taken the field in a different direction: they employ brute force or machine learning to beat Go and chess masters.

He is survived by his wife, Jennifer; daughters Persis Berlekamp, an art historian at the University of Chicago, and Bronwen Berlekamp O’Wril of Portland, Maine; and son David of Oakland.

Excerpts from the article Elwyn Berlekamp, game theorist and coding pioneer, dies at 78 By Robert Sanders, Media relations| April 18, 2019 in the Berkeley News. https://news.berkeley.edu/2019/04/18/elwyn-berlekamp-game-theorist-and-coding-pioneer-dies-at-78/?fbclid=IwAR2NUfFLgv7IAT-BNffgEKc3Lv8w8_XmJ2pQLPYW1vRmKPGhdpGydWAVPGQ

In a previous post I mentioned Elwyn Berlekamp (https://xpertchesslessons.wordpress.com/?s=Elwyn+Berlekamp).

These books left a lasting impression:

A nice blog post from: Computational Complexity and other fun stuff in math and computer science from Lance Fortnow and Bill Gasarch

A New Method for Discovering The Strongest Move

This is a tale of two new chess books I found on the Gorilla (it is good for something). The first is: Best Play: A New Method For Discovering The Strongest Move by Alexander Shashin. This is what it says about the book:
Publication Date: July 16, 2013
“Have you ever wished for a “formula” to help you decide what move to make in any given chess position? In this ambitious and groundbreaking work, physicist and chess master Alexander Shashin presents the fruit of three decades of research into the elements of the game. He breaks down the position into mathematical ratios that compare the fundamental factors of material, mobility, safety, and space for each side, leading you to the proper plan and the mental attitude to adopt in light of what’s happening on the board.

Relying on the games of three world champions with distinctive playing styles – Tal, Capablanca, and Petrosian – and backed up by personal and computer-aided analysis, Best Play explains how Shashin’s approach works in practice to guide your decisions in all kinds of situations, including those too wild and murky to provide clear-cut conclusions. Some 125 high-level examples are followed by 125 exercises with solutions to help you learn the method.

Not just a textbook for the chess scientist to ponder in the lab, Best Play offers a fully formed philosophy of the game to prepare the chess warrior for any kind of battle.”

Although I may have seen other chess books with a “formula” I cannot recall one, and I do not believe I have ever heard of a book breaking down the position into mathematical ratios. I did, though, read a book, and listen to a lecture via DVD, by Berkeley professor Elwyn Berlekamp, breaking down a Go board into four quadrants and using math to play better Go. I believe his theories are now being used with computer Go programs. Check it out at, Mathematical Go: http://www.math.berkeley.edu/~berlek

The Gorilla informs that this book and another book are “Frequently Bought Together.” The other book is, “Master the grand art of Chess Calculation: Improve your chess now by Accurate visualization & analysis by Mr William Friend.”
I kid you not…Having never heard of the fellow I did a search on http://www.startpage.com. I was unable to learn about the author, so I surfed on over to the USCF website but found no William Friend. During the course of my life I have developed rules to live by, such as Rule #1; No Married Women! Rule # 222 is, Never Purchase a Chess Book by an unknown writer. The Gorilla does inform me that, “The author holds concurrent Bsc-degrees in both Mathematics and Geology and chess is his passion.” Make of it what you will, but I must tell you that the book is written for, I cannot make this up, “…beginners as well as players right up to grandmaster level.” Guess one could say it is a book for EVERYBODY!
Here is the Book Description:

Publication Date: April 30, 2013

The 3 golden pillars of winning chess are undoubtedly TACTICAL sharpness, STRATEGICAL insight, and CALCULATION accuracy. This book dedicates 320 pages exclusively to developing the students ability to calculate accurately. Visualising future positions accurately is fundamental to playing winning chess. STEP by STEP methodology is combined with playing through 94 marvelous games starting with Morphy-> Capablanca-> Fischer-> Kasparov-> working up towards modern day grandmaster games. (from 1 move ahead[two 1/2 moves] to 10 moves ahead [twenty 1/2 moves] ). Thus the book is written for beginners as well as players right up to grandmaster level. If the student is serious about developing his/her calculation accuracy, then this book is a MUST HAVE. VERY HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. In this extraordinary book, the author also recognises the importance of ethics BEYOND the chess board {chapter 8}.

Wonder who is recommending the book so highly? Don’t know about you, but I do not feel like I must have it.