A Beautiful Game

24 12 2011

Elsewhere in these pages I relate how people assume I know about all things footballish simply because I have an English accent (actually it’s a Yorkshire accent, but let’s not split hairs). The Beautiful Game it’s called. Definite article. This reminded me of a film I once watched. A Beautiful Mind with Russell Crowe in the role of real person John Nash, mathematician and traveller into the world of madness. Thankfully he’d bought a return ticket, and made it back. It has this amazing scene where the director (Ron Howard of Happy Days infamy) manages to represent visually the creative mind’s ability to locate patterns in apparent chaos. It is one of the most captivating movie scenes I know (up there with Cary Grant in a corn field in North by Northwest).

As an ex-programmer I have built a career on looking at piles of numbers, representing various forms of data (ironically, as we’ll see, usually in hexadecimal format… aka “hex”). Anyway, when one has such a job, it’s not unusual to stare at pages of these hex numbers until, slowly, through no repeatable process I know, they gradually form into patterns, predictable sequences, and then suddenly, voila! There’s your solution.

Made in 2001, A Beautiful Mind manages to visually represent exactly that process, as Crowe’s rendition of John Nash identifies a pattern in a wall of binary 1s and 0s. I was floored when I first watched the film. Howard had perfectly represented the mental process I had often experienced. It was sobering to realise it was done in the context of what turned out to be an unbalanced mind. Anyway, I was later to come across the original book from which the film was made, written by Sylvia Nasar. This is definitely more of an investment of time and effort from the reader, but reveals a much richer history of John Nash and his achievements in mathematics, economics and the like. Revealed as a far from perfect person, Nash is nevertheless portrayed as very human, and certainly worthy of academic respect.

Something of a regular at the college “Go” tournaments, Nash invented his own related game variously known as Nash or Hex. This was felt superior as it is mathematically proven to be impossible to draw. There has to be a winner and therefore a loser. No stalemates, no argument. The best defensive strategy is also the best attacking strategy. It was A Beautiful Game. Indefinite Article.

Being mathematically exact, the game lends itself particularly elegantly to being automated by computer. Personally, I recommend the online variant “Arthur’s Hex Game” by Arthur Vause. You’ll need Java to run it. Be warned… it can be addictive!

It will let you select various board-sizes (same game… just takes you longer to lose. Er – I mean win. Not draw, anyway), and I find it goading when it smugly declares it thinks it will win!

Arthur Vause's online Hex game

Arthur Vause's online Hex game

If you do get addicted, you can buy your own drug paraphernalia here: HexBoard.com but it’s in Euros. Shipping costs are €13,10 within EU and €24,10 to the USA

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