22 Sep 2016
Won the battle! - Lost the war!
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Recap of the 2016 20th World Computer Bridge Championship

This year the World Computer Bridge Championship was part of The 15th World Bridge Games in Wroclaw Poland. Shark’s team arrived from Denmark (John Norris, the brain behind the robot) and Canada (Plamen and Milen behind the Shark App). The competition consisted of seven round robin team matches of 32 boards. Six of the participants had a shot at the title; the other two were clearly weaker bots, with Robo Bridge proving to have the ability to play spoiler in the late rounds. Shark, WBridge5, Micro Bridge, Q-Plus, Bridge Baron and the newcomer, XinRui, the Chinese entry that proved to be a worth opponent, were all primed for the competition.

Shark Bridge started the first day with two nice wins against Q-Plus and Bridge Baron, Shark had come to compete. In the first day XinRui showed that even though they were new, they were true competitors, after two narrow losses, one to WBridge5 (slightly favored to win it all) and one to Bridge Baron.

Day two was scheduled to start late in the afternoon with only one round of matches, due to a Marathon event in Wroclaw. This was when Shark’s trouble began.  We played Micro Bridge, a program Shark played and won against for gold in 2014. In this rematch, revenge was in the air, and although Shark managed to stay within striking distance for some of the match, it lost by a significant 38-78 IMPs (16.46-3.54 VPs). This disappointing outcome was not what we had expected, or what any previous matches were indicating would be the conclusion. Round 3 produced another upset, Bridge Baron beating WBridge5 14.24-5.76 VPs.

A bit disappointed we headed out to search for dinner late on Sunday night, not an easy task. After some wandering around, we ended up at Wroclaw City Square to get some pizza and a beer with many of the players from the Open, Women’s, Senior’s and Mixed pairs.  The day had produced the largest upsets 1/16 KO phase of the Open pairs competition; Spain had knocked out the USA, New Zealand outstayed France from the Open and  Canada’s open pair team eliminating Italy in a close 96-board contest.

Day three brought rounds 4 & 5 for the robots and the start of the quarterfinals for the national team pairs.  After a missed opportunity to take the lead and almost surely guarantee itself a spot in the semi-finals, Shark took on WBridge5.  After 16 boards Shark had a lead of 20-something IMPs, after bidding and making the first grand slam in the competition, an encouraging lead. In the second set of 16 boards, in which there were several slam to near slam deals, Shark managed to make all of the wrong choices.  The result was a loss by 27 IMPs, securing a valuable, proved to be crucial, 5.18 VPs. In the other matches there weren’t any surprises, except perhaps XinRui winning against Q-Plus.

We went to round 5 later in the day where Shark had a meeting with MeadowArk bridge to go ahead and take it’s 20VPs. MeadowArc was a former champion from 2000 and the robot was basically the same one that won at that time.  This time around they managed to win only a handful of IMPs and 0.89VPs in 7 rounds, showing how much progress has been made in Computer Bridge in the last 16 years. 

The Shark team was a bit down, but we still had a place in the semi-final round under our own control (we will not need any help to get in). It’s late afternoon, we head out to the VuGraph room to check on the real bridge competition, Canada, Bulgaria and Denmark are playing, all teams that we were rooting for.  After the upset over Italy, Canada’s open pair with four members hailing from Montreal was having a hard time against the strong team from Monaco and eventually tapped out after 5 sessions. The Bulgarian mixed pair was battling Germany in a close match and Denmark’s seniors were in a dead heat with Turkey. All in all the favorites were leading after 3 sessions, with the exception of Poland and Sweden being tied at 70 IMPs each.

Day four: Bright and early we are headed to the final day of round robins (rounds 6&7).  We felt pretty good about our chances of playing the next day in the semi-finals, we were to play the weak RoboBridge and the dark horse, XinRui from China. Our current standings showed that a good win against Robo and not too bad of a loss to XinRui would get us through. WBridge5, Micro Bridge and Bridge Baron had secured their spots, baring some disastrous match for any of them.  As it happened no disasters occurred and they were all guaranteed their places in the finals

This left one place available in the semi-finals with Shark, XinRui and Q-Plus anxious to fill the slot. Shark and XinRui had the best chance (In round #7 the decision was to be made when they played against each other.). Q-Plus needed a very solid win against Bridge Baron in Round #6 to retain any hope.

Shark Bridge started confidently against Robo in round #6 and led after the first 16 boards by some 20 IMPs. Something like a 40 IMPs win was needed to stay out of trouble.  Tragically, the biggest upset in recent computer bridge matches then occurred. Shark played arguably it’s worst 16 boards ever, losing the match 67-86 and took just 6.8 VPs. We had anticipated snatching at least 15 VPs. 

Now all the predictions from earlier in the day were up in smoke, and Al Levy started to write his article for the Daily Bulletin.  XinRui was now the clear favorite to go thru to the semi. Shark and Q-Plus needed a ton of help in round #7, namely a big win by Shark against XinRui. Q-Plus as expected had taken a 15-5 VPs win against Bridge Baron in round #6 and remained alive.

So round #7 started with Shark vs. XinRui (two very fast programs) and Q-Plus vs. Robo (a match that was expected to take a lot longer due to the programs design).

Shark and XinRui, as expected, quickly played 16 boards. For us it was like, “OK, it was a good experience but the next 16 will be our last.” We were down by some 13 IMPs, and we needed a blow out 55+ IMPs win to eliminate XinRui and then have a chance to slide in front of Q-Plus. A 68 IMPs win over 16 boards was a tall order, the Chinese had not allowed more than 77 IMPs in a 32-board match. I (Milen) had lost all hope and retired to check on email and catch up on the human’s competition, after all Denmark and Bulgaria were pretty much in it. Denmark had managed to get ahead vs. Turkey; Bulgaria had fallen seriously behind Germany with a handful of boards to play.  

Plamen showed up all of sudden and told me that Shark had a shot. Shark had stormed back and taken the lead; with some of the upcoming boards there was a chance for big gains. In these matches Shark plays 16 boards once, then the same boards are played again with the robots switching positions, much like team match, only the boards are not played at the same time. On the replay the robots know nothing about the already played hands, but their human handlers had a pretty good idea of what would follow.  John and Plamen knew that we had a shot at a blow out win.  Super nervous, I rejoined them.

Then it happened! Shark played 10 boards flawlessly getting to 43 IMPs, a difference of 12 IMPs from the 55 IMPs that we needed. Then came board #31. Shark missed an easy swing on a 3NT contract.  A contract that it had made in the open room, then with a killer lead Shark was in a great position to set it in the closed room (John noticed and later fixed a discarding bug), a big, "Huh, that was it? Here we go again," followed, but in the final #32 we got our 12 IMPS for a total of 55 IMPs, so XinRui was out, falling behind Shark by 1.62 VPs in the general standings.  Board #26 provided 18 IMPs to our count, and was featured in the Worlds Daily Bulletin link look for it here on page 11: http://www.worldbridge.org/repository/tourn/wroclaw.16/Microsite/bulletins/Bul_12.pdf

Tip: that board was given to some of the good, but not top expert players, to play. They could not solve it in double dummy, knowing all the cards. Shark Bridge was the only robot that found a single dummy solution.

Next we needed help from RoboBridge in their last round match with Q-Plus, which was underway at the same time, but going very slowly, Robo was very slow. RoboBridge can loose by no more than 37 IMPS. So now all eyes were on Robo vs. Q-Plus. As expected, Q-Plus was 24 IMPs ahead after 16 boards, not very far from the magic 37. All started to look bleak again for Shark. Robo played better in the second 16, but was still getting closer to a loss by 38 or more. At #30 Q-Plus was ahead 44 IMPS. As it happened Robo bid and made the 3NT contract at #31, then set it up in the closed room when Q-Plus bid it, the very same board that Shark missed in it's match. In the final board Robo played well getting a few more insurance IMPs and we were in.

Plamen and I, now drained, headed out to check on the Mixed pairs from Bulgaria and Danish Seniors in the VuGraph room, there the craziest of surprises was awaiting us, the Bulgarian Mixed pair had erased a 31 IMPs deficit in the final 6 boards in their quarterfinal match with the German team.  Denmark had knocked Turkey out.

It is interesting to know that the Bulgarian team thought for an hour after the match, that they had lost on an IMP penalty.  They had no idea that the final 188-187 was penalty included.  Earlier, the Bulgarians were denied a slam on a good but very poorly explained claim, unfortunately the declarer had very bad English, so arguments followed, and extra penalty IMPs were imposed.

This Bulgarian team had expressed an interest in our doings on the Robot side and we decided to look for them to congratulate them and see where the victory round of beer was going to be. We found them angry and confused. The Germans came to congratulate them as well and the Bulgarians thought it was a joke in very poor taste (not very German like really and proved not to be a joke at all). Finally one of the officials came out to explain that the final 188-187 was penalty included. It was time to go and get some food and beer.

Read more about the drama of the last board (16IMPs swing) of the match at the very beginning of the Sept 14th bulletin: http://www.worldbridge.org/repository/tourn/wroclaw.16/Microsite/bulletins/Bul_11.pdf

Both Shark and the Bulgarian mixed pair were heading to the semi-finals to meet and eventually lose to the future Champions. 

On Sept 14th, the stage for the semi-finals was set, Shark vs. WBridge5 and MicroBridge vs. Bridge Baron.  This was the battle Shark won 131-130 in a very solid 64 boards, but a 9.6 IMPs carry over by WBridge5 eliminated us, poor play in the mid sections of the round robin proved to be critical. The last board #64 provided fireworks, as WBridge5 had to guess a trump King, or lose it’s place in the final. In the other match Bridge Baron took a very good lead in the first 32, only to see it evaporate in the next 32, losing 144-138.  

Shark was out, but we had a good idea why and what needed to be changed to improve it. The robots' semifinal boards were from a few days earlier played in the Open and Mixed Pair’s competitions, so after future analysis we will know how far or how close Shark’s play is compared to the human’s play, an exciting comparison.

On the Final Day of competition it was down to Micro Bridge (second try at world title) and WBridge5 (no title since 2008, multiple times runner up). It was an up and down match for both robots, each winning 2 segments of 16 boards, but at the end WBridge5 prevailed by 6 IMPs.

Congratulations to WBridge5 on a well-played tournament. We are looking forward to a rematch next year in Lyon, France at the 2017 World Bridge Games

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