In April this year Anders Kierulf, Go player and author of SmartGo, surprised and excited the Go world with the launch of SmartGo Books – for iPad and iPhone. Anders has been busy recently, working on SmartGo Books and other exciting features for the SmartGo suite. Go Game Guru was lucky enough to get some time to interview Anders, shortly after the release of SmartGo Books.
Interview with Anders Kierulf
1. How did you first learn of Go?
In the early 80s at ETH Zurich, I was working on an Othello program, and my computer science professor (J. Nievergelt, a 1 kyu Go player) asked me whether I had heard of this game called “Go”. I had not, so he took me to the Go club in Zurich, and I was hooked.
2. What was it like in the early days of your Go career? Who did you play with and where?
I mostly played people at the Go club in Zurich. As a term project, I worked on a tactical analyzer for Go to compute ladders and loose ladders, and became much stronger at tactics than the average double-digit kyu player.
3. What is it about Go that makes you keep playing?
Seriously? If you know Go, you know there’s no way to stop playing. It’s just the best game.
I did continue to play Othello seriously for a while, and became the US Othello Champion in 1992, but since then I’ve focused on Go.
4. The SmartGo suite is by far the most mature and feature rich set of Go game apps available for iPhone, iPad and iPod touch. I guess I could go so far as to say that it’s the best I have seen. Could you please tell us a bit about what led to its development?
When Apple opened the iPhone to developers, I took the core code from the Windows version of SmartGo (written in C++), and designed a whole new user interface on top of it (in Objective-C). That took about half a year, plus a lot more time to improve it since then.
The day Apple announced the iPad, I dropped what I was working on (the Mac version of SmartGo), and started adapting the iPhone version to the iPad. I got it into the App Store the day the iPad was released. The whole development was done on the simulator, so the next months were spent filling in holes and making it work better after getting an actual iPad.
SmartGo Pro on the iPhone and iPod touch works well, but the bigger screen of the iPad is really perfect for Go study.
5. Can you give us any sneak previews of the next version of SmartGo? Is there anything exciting around the corner in 2011?
I just released SmartGo Books, which I think is the most exciting app that Go players are going to see in 2011. I had to cut a number of features to get this 1.0 version released, so expect incremental improvements over the next year, as well as more books, of course.
For SmartGo Kifu and SmartGo Pro, the next big feature planned is joseki matching. I’ve verified that my existing joseki matching code works on iOS, but it needs some performance tuning, and a lot of UI work to make it easy to use.
6. Many Android users, including me, would like to see a SmartGo app for Android. Given the rapid adoption of Android on phones and tablet devices, is there a chance that this might happen?
Yes, there’s a chance, but not immediately. Basically, I’m already fully booked with the planned iPhone and iPad work, plus finally getting the Mac version done. I would have to hire somebody to do the Android work, which would be a significant investment of time and money. Before I risk that, I need to see an Android tablet that can compete with the iPad, and some indication that Android users are willing to pay for apps.
SmartGo Pro and SmartGo Kifu have a lot of UI, and would be costly to port. SmartGo Books has less UI and would probably be the first candidate for porting to an Android tablet. If both Android tablets and SmartGo Books are a success, this might happen.
7. How do you think the explosion of tablet devices, e-readers and emerging technologies like Microsoft Surface will affect computer Go?
In my mind, the iPad is Apple’s answer to the question: What can we build for Go players? An iPad is so much better for studying Go than any other device before it. With SmartGo Kifu and SmartGo Books, I’ve just scratched the surface of what’s possible.
SmartGo Books has reached the point where I would much rather read a Go book on the iPad than a printed book. This will only get more pronounced as both devices and software improve.
8. As a programmer, what do you think about the recent advances in computer Go and artificial intelligence using Monte Carlo methods? Have you ever written your own AI for any games?
I wrote my own traditional AI for the Windows version of SmartGo, and I also wrote my own AI based on Monte Carlo methods for the iPhone and iPad version. It’s not as strong as some of the other computer Go programs out there, but that’s not my main focus either.
Like many others, I was surprised by the success of the Monte Carlo method, definitely not something I would have predicted.
9. Some of our readers may not realise that you also invented the SGF file format (a format used to save Go game records). Is there a story behind that?
My thesis was called “Smart Game Board: a Workbench for Game-Playing Programs, with Go and Othello as Case Studies”. Clearly, I needed a way to save games. A proposal I made in 1987 in Computer Go (http://www.daogo.org/download/computer_go_02.pdf) was not well received (luckily), so in my thesis, I just described the file format that people would need to use to work with Smart Go Board, and didn’t try to push it as a standard. The Ishi Press format was gaining popularity around that time, and Martin Müller and I tried to get them to improve that format, but they didn’t listen.
Surprisingly, SGF won out over time. My biggest mistake in the format was using a different coordinate system. SmartGo can read standard coordinates in SGF, and in the Windows version there’s a switch to write standard coordinates, but it’s too late to change that now.
10. I’ve noticed on your website and also from following you on twitter (Anders tweets as @smartgo) that you’re a big fan of joggling? Could you please explain for our readers what joggling is? How does one get started? As a keen jogger and occasional juggler I’m intrigued, but isn’t it easy to run into trees or street signs?
Joggling = juggling while jogging. The rhythm of juggling three balls fits perfectly with the arm motion of running, and it makes running a lot more fun. And it’s better exercise. No worries about curbs or trees, you look through the juggling pattern and just use your peripheral vision to keep track of the balls. The best way to practice before you go out on the streets is to juggle while watching TV, or better yet while watching a Go game on auto-replay.
11. What are your top tips for people who want to learn Go or improve at Go?
Sorry, I’ve been stuck at 3 dan for the last 15 years, so I’m the wrong person to ask.
12. Thanks for taking the time to talk with us today. Is there anything else you’d like to say?
There will be books in SmartGo Books that will make you regret it if you don’t have an iPad. Don’t tell me I didn’t warn you.
To find out more about Anders or SmartGo, visit his website at www.smartgo.com.
Have your say
Did we miss anything that you’d like to ask Anders? Have you tried SmartGo Books? What do you think about it? Would you like to see SmartGo on Android?