# The theory of infinite games, including infinite chess, Talk Math With Your Friends, June 2020

This will be accessible online talk about infinite chess and other infinite games for the Talk Math With Your Friends seminar, June 18, 2020 4 pm EST (9 pm UK).  Zoom access information.  Please come talk math with me!

Abstract. I will give an introduction to the theory of infinite games, with examples drawn from infinite chess in order to illustrate various concepts, such as the transfinite game value of a position.

See more of my posts on infinite chess.

# Games with the computable-play paradox Let me tell you about a fascinating paradox arising in certain infinitary two-player games of perfect information. The paradox, namely, is that there are games for which our judgement of who has a winning strategy or not depends on whether we insist that the players play according to a deterministic computable procedure. In the the space of computable play for these games, one player has a winning strategy, but in the full space of all legal play, the other player can ensure a win.

The fundamental theorem of finite games, proved in 1913 by Zermelo, is the assertion that in every finite two-player game of perfect information — finite in the sense that every play of the game ends in finitely many moves — one of the players has a winning strategy. This is generalized to the case of open games, games where every win for one of the players occurs at a finite stage, by the Gale-Stewart theorem 1953, which asserts that in every open game, one of the players has a winning strategy. Both of these theorems are easily adapted to the case of games with draws, where the conclusion is that one of the players has a winning strategy or both players have draw-or-better strategies.

Let us consider games with a computable game tree, so that we can compute whether or not a move is legal. Let us say that such a game is computably paradoxical, if our judgement of who has a winning strategy depends on whether we restrict to computable play or not. So for example, perhaps one player has a winning strategy in the space of all legal play, but the other player has a computable strategy defeating all computable strategies of the opponent. Or perhaps one player has a draw-or-better strategy in the space of all play, but the other player has a computable strategy defeating computable play.

Examples of paradoxical games occur in infinite chess. We described such a paradoxical position in my paper Transfinite games values in infinite chess by giving a computable infinite chess position with the property that both players had drawing strategies in the space of all possible legal play, but in the space of computable play, then white had a computable strategy defeating any particular computable strategy for black.

For a related non-chess example, let $T$ be a computable subtree of $2^{<\omega}$ having no computable infinite branch, and consider the game in which black simply climbs in this tree as white watches, with black losing whenever he is trapped in a terminal node, but winning if he should climb infinitely. This game is open for white, since if white wins, this is known at a finite stage of play. In the space of all possible play, Black has a winning strategy, which is simply to climb the tree along an infinite branch, which exists by König’s lemma. But there is no computable strategy to find such a branch, by the assumption on the tree, and so when black plays computably, white will inevitably win.

For another example, suppose that we have a computable linear order $\lhd$ on the natural numbers $\newcommand\N{\mathbb{N}}\N$, which is not a well order, but which has no computable infinite descending sequence. It is a nice exercise in computable model theory to show that such an order exists. If we play the count-down game in this order, with white trying to build a descending sequence and black watching. In the space of all play, white can succeed and therefore has a winning strategy, but since there is no computable descending sequence, white can have no computable winning strategy, and so black will win every computable play.

There are several proofs of open determinacy (and see my MathOverflow post outlining four different proofs of the fundamental theorem of finite games), but one of my favorite proofs of open determinacy uses the concept of transfinite game values, assigning an ordinal to some of the positions in the game tree. Suppose we have an open game between Alice and Bob, where the game is open for Alice. The ordinal values we define for positions in the game tree will measure in a sense the distance Alice is away from winning. Namely, her already-won positions have value $0$, and if it is Alice’s turn to play from a position $p$, then the value of $p$ is $\alpha+1$, if $\alpha$ is minimal such that she can play to a position of value $\alpha$; if it is Bob’s turn to play from $p$, and all the positions to which he can play have value, then the value of $p$ is the supremum of these values. Some positions may be left without value, and we can think of those positions as having value $\infty$, larger than any ordinal. The thing to notice is that if a position has a value, then Alice can always make it go down, and Bob cannot make it go up. So the value-reducing strategy is a winning strategy for Alice, from any position with value, while the value-maintaining strategy is winning for Bob, from any position without a value (maintaining value $\infty$). So the game is determined, depending on whether the initial position has value or not.

What is the computable analogue of the ordinal-game-value analysis in the computably paradoxical games? If a game is open for Alice and she has a computable strategy defeating all computable opposing strategies for Bob, but Bob has a non-computable winning strategy, then it cannot be that we can somehow assign computable ordinals to the positions for Alice and have her play the value-reducing strategy, since if those values were actual ordinals, then this would be a full honest winning strategy, even against non-computable play.

Nevertheless, I claim that the ordinal-game-value analysis does admit a computable analogue, in the following theorem. This came out of a discussion I had recently with Noah Schweber during his recent visit to the CUNY Graduate Center and Russell Miller. Let us define that a computable open game is an open game whose game tree is computable, so that we can tell whether a given move is legal from a given position (this is a bit weaker than being able to compute the entire set of possible moves from a position, even when this is finite). And let us define that an effective ordinal is a computable relation $\lhd$ on $\N$, for which there is no computable infinite descending sequence. Every computable ordinal is also an effective ordinal, but as we mentioned earlier, there are non-well-ordered effective ordinals. Let us call them computable pseudo-ordinals.

Theorem. The following are equivalent for any computable game, open for White.

1. White has a computable strategy defeating any computable play by Black.
2. There is an effective game-value assignment for white into an effective ordinal $\lhd$, giving the initial position a value. That is, there is a computable assignment of some positions of the game, including the first position, to values in the field of $\lhd$, such that from any valued position with White to play, she can play so as to reduce value, and with Black to play, he cannot increase the value.

Proof. ($2\to 1$) Given the computable values into an effective ordinal, then the value-reducing strategy for White is a computable strategy. If Black plays computably, then together they compute a descending sequence in the $\lhd$ order. Since there is no computable infinite descending sequence, it must be that the values hit zero and the game ends with a win for White. So White has a computable strategy defeating any computable play by Black.

($1\to 2$) Conversely, suppose that White has a computable strategy $\sigma$ defeating any computable play by Black. Let $\tau$ be the subtree of the game tree arising by insisting that White follow the strategy $\sigma$, and view this as a tree on $\N$, a subtree of $\N^{<\omega}$. Imagine the tree growing downwards, and let $\lhd$ be the Kleene-Brouwer order on this tree, which is the lexical order on incompatible positions, and otherwise longer positions are lower. This is a computable linear order on the tree. Since $\sigma$ is computably winning for White, the open player, it follows that every computable descending sequence in $\tau$ eventually reaches a terminal node. From this, it follows that there is no computable infinite descending sequence with respect to $\lhd$, and so this is an effective ordinal. We may now map every node in $\tau$, which includes the initial node, to itself in the $\lhd$ order. This is a game-value assignment, since on White’s turn, the value goes down, and it doesn’t go up on Black’s turn. QED

Corollary. A computable open game is computably paradoxical if and only if it admits an effective game value assignment for the open player, but only with computable pseudo-ordinals and not with computable ordinals.

Proof. If there is an effective game value assignment for the open player, then the value-reducing strategy arising from that assignment is a computable strategy defeating any computable strategy for the opponent. Conversely, if the game is paradoxical, there can be no such ordinal-assignment where the values are actually well-ordered, or else that strategy would work against all play by the opponent. QED

Theorem. In any open game, if the closed player has a strategy defeating all computable opposing strategies, then in fact this is a winning strategy also against non-computable play.

Proof. If the closed player has a strategy $\sigma$ defeating all computable strategies of the opponent, then in fact it defeats all strategies of the opponent, since any winning play by the open player against $\sigma$ wins in finitely many moves, and therefore there is a computable strategy giving rise to the same play. QED

Corollary. If an open game is computably paradoxical, it must be the open player who wins in the space of computable play and the closed player who wins in the space of all play.

Proof. The theorem shows that if the closed player wins in the space of computable play, then that player in fact wins in the space of all play. QED

Corollary. There are no computably paradoxical clopen games.

Proof. If the game is clopen, then both players are closed, but we just argued that any computable strategy for a closed player winning against all computable play is also winning against all play. QED

# Buckets of fish!

Let me tell you about the game Buckets of fish This is a two-player game played with finitely many buckets in a line on the beach, each containing a finite number of fish. There is also a large supply of additional fish available nearby, fresh off the boats.

Taking turns, each player selects a bucket and removes exactly one fish from it and then, if desired, adds any finite number of fish from the nearby supply to the buckets to the left.

For example, if we label the buckets from the left as 1, 2, 3 and so on, then a legal move would be to take one fish from bucket 4 and then add ten fish to bucket 1, no fish to bucket 2, and ninety-four fish to bucket 3. The winner is whoever takes the very last fish from the buckets, leaving them empty.

Since huge numbers of fish can often be added to the buckets during play, thereby prolonging the length of play, a skeptical reader may wonder whether the game will necessarily come to an end. Perhaps the players can prolong the game indefinitely? Or must it always come to an end?

Question. Does every play of the game Buckets of fish necessarily come to an end?

The answer is yes, every game must eventually come to a completion. I shall give several arguments.

Theorem. Every play of the game Buckets of fish ends in finitely many moves. All the fish in the buckets, including all the new fish that may have been added during play, will eventually run out by some finite stage during play.

That is, no matter how the players add fish to the buckets during play, even with an endless supply of fish from the boats, they will eventually run out of fish in the buckets and one of the players will take the last fish.

First proof. We prove the claim by (nested) induction on the number of buckets. If there is only one bucket, then there are no buckets to the left of it, and so there is no possibility in this case to add fish to the game. If the one bucket contains $k$ fish, then the game clearly ends in $k$ moves. Assume by induction that all plays using $n$ buckets end in finitely many moves, and suppose that we have a game situation with $n+1$ buckets, with $k$ fish in bucket $n+1$. We now prove by induction on $k$ that all such games terminate. This argument is therefore an instance of nested induction, since we are currently inside our proof by induction on $n$, in the induction step of that proof, and in order to complete it, we are undertaking a separate full induction on $k$. If $k=0$, then there are no fish in bucket $n+1$, and so the game amounts really to a game with only $n$ buckets, which terminates in finitely many steps by our induction hypothesis on $n$. So, let us assume that all plays with $k$ fish in bucket $n+1$ terminate in finitely many moves. Consider a situation where there are $k+1$ many fish in that bucket. I claim that eventually, one of those fish must be taken, since otherwise all the moves will be only on the first $n$ buckets, and all plays on only $n$ buckets terminate in finitely many moves. So at some point, one of the players will take a fish from bucket $n+1$, possibly adding additional fish to the earlier buckets. But this produces a situation with only $k$ fish in bucket $n+1$, which by our induction assumption on $k$ we know will terminate in finitely many steps. So we have proved that no matter how many fish are in bucket $n+1$, the game will end in finitely many moves, and so the original claim is true for $n+1$ buckets. Thus, the theorem is true for any finite number of buckets. QED

A second proof. Let me now give another proof, following an idea arising in a conversation with Miha Habič. We want to prove that there is no infinitely long play of the game Buckets of fish. Suppose toward contradiction that there is a way for the players to conspire to produce an infinite play, starting from some configuration of some finite number $n$ of buckets, each with finitely many fish in them. Fix the particular infinitely long play. Let $m$ be the right-most bucket from which a fish was taken infinitely often during that infinite course of play. It follows, for example, that $m<n$, since the top bucket can be used only finitely often, as it never gets replenished. Since bucket $m$ starts with only finitely many fish in it, and each time it is replenished, it is replenished with only finitely many fish, it follows that in order to have been used infinitely many times, it must also have been replenished infinitely often. But each time it was replenished, it was because there was some bucket further to the right that had been used. Since there are only finitely many buckets to the right of bucket $m$, it follows that one of them must have been used infinitely often. This contradicts the choice of $m$ as the right-most bucket that was used infinitely often. QED

A third proof. Let me now give a third proof, using ordinals. We shall associate with each Buckets-of-fish position a certain ordinal. With the position $$7\quad 2\quad 5\quad 24,$$ for example, we associate the ordinal $$\omega^3\cdot 24+\omega^2\cdot 5+\omega\cdot 2+7.$$ More generally, the number of fish in each bucket of a position becomes the coefficient of the corresponding power of $\omega$, using higher powers for the buckets further to the right. The key observation to make is that these associated ordinals strictly descend for every move of the game, since one is reducing a higher-power coefficient and increasing only lower-power coefficients. Since there is no infinite descending sequence of ordinals, it follows that there is no infinite play in the game Buckets of fish. This idea also shows that the ordinal game values of positions in this game are bounded above by $\omega^\omega$, and every ordinal less than $\omega^\omega$ is realized by some position. QED

OK, fine, so now we know that the game always ends. But how shall we play? What is the winning strategy? Say you are faced with buckets having fish in the amounts: $$4\quad 5\quad 2\quad 0\quad 7\quad 4$$ What is your winning move? Please give it some thought before reading further.

The winning strategy turns out to be simpler than you might have expected.

Theorem. The winning strategy in the game Buckets of fish is to play so as to ensure that every bucket has an even number of fish.

Proof. Notice first, as a warm-up, that in the case that there is only one bucket containing an even number of fish, then the second player will win, since the first player will necessarily make it odd, and then the second player will make it even again, and so on. So it will be the second player who will make it zero, winning the game. So with one bucket, the player who can make the bucket even will be the winner.

Next, notice that if you play so as to give your opponent an even number of fish in every bucket, then whatever move your opponent makes will result in an odd number of fish in the bucket from which he or she takes a fish (and possibly also an odd number of fish in some of the earlier buckets as well, if they happen to add an odd number of fish to some of them). So if you give your opponent an all-even position, then they cannot give you back an all-even position.

Finally, notice that if you are faced with a position that is not all-even, then you can simply take a fish from the right-most odd bucket, thereby making it even, and add fish if necessary to the earlier buckets so as to make them all even. In this way, you can turn any position that is not all-even into an all-even position in one move.

By following this strategy, a player will ensure that he or she will take the last fish, since the winning move is to make the all-zero position, which is an all-even position, and the opponent cannot produce an all-even position. QED

In the particular position of the game mentioned before the theorem, therefore, the winning move is to take a fish from the bucket with 7 fish and add an odd number of fish to the bucket with 5 fish, thereby producing an all-even position.

Finally, let’s consider a few variations of the game. It is clear that the all-even strategy works in the versions of the game where one is limited to add at most one fish to each of the earlier buckets, and this version of the game is actually playable, since the number of fish does not grow too much. A similar variation arises where one can either or add or remove any number of fish (or just at most one) from any of the earlier buckets, or where one can, say, add either 5 or 6 fish only to each of the earlier buckets. What is important in the argument is simply that one should be able to ensure the all-even nature of the buckets.

For a more interesting variation, consider what I call the Take 3 version of the game, where one can take either one, two or three fish from any bucket and then add any number of fish to the earlier buckets. The game must still eventually end, but what is the winning strategy?

Question. What is your strategy in the Take 3 variation of Buckets of fish?

Please post your answers in the comments, and I’ll post an answer later. One can generalize this to the Take $n$ variation, where on each turn, the player is allowed to take between 1 and $n$ fish from any bucket, and add as many fish as desired to the earlier buckets.

Another puzzling variation is where each player can take any number of fish from a bucket, and then add any number of fish to earlier buckets. Can you find a strategy for this version of the game? Please post in the comments.

# Transfinite game values in infinite chess, including new progress, Bonn, January 2017

This will be a talk January 10, 2017 for the Basic Notions Seminar, aimed at students, post-docs, faculty and guests of the Mathematics Institute, University of Bonn.  Abstract. I shall give a general introduction to the theory of infinite games, using infinite chess — chess played on an infinite edgeless chessboard — as a central example. Since chess, when won, is won at a finite stage of play, infinite chess is an example of what is known technically as an open game, and such games admit the theory of transfinite ordinal game values. I shall exhibit several interesting positions in infinite chess with very high transfinite game values. The precise value of the omega one of chess is an open mathematical question.  This talk will include some of the latest progress, which includes a position with game value $\omega^4$.

It happens that I shall be in Bonn also for the dissertation defense of Regula Krapf, who will defend the same week, and who is one of the organizers of the seminar.

# The mate-in-n problem of infinite chess is decidable

• D. Brumleve, J. D. Hamkins, and P. Schlicht, “The Mate-in-$n$ Problem of Infinite Chess Is Decidable,” in How the World Computes, S. Cooper, A. Dawar, and B. Löwe, Eds., Springer, 2012, vol. 7318, pp. 78-88.
[Bibtex]
@incollection{BrumleveHamkinsSchlicht2012:TheMateInNProblemOfInfiniteChessIsDecidable,
year= {2012},
isbn= {978-3-642-30869-7},
booktitle= {{How the World Computes}},
volume= {7318},
series= {Lecture Notes in Computer Science},
editor= {Cooper, S.~Barry and Dawar, Anuj and Löwe, Benedikt},
doi= {10.1007/978-3-642-30870-3_9},
title= {The Mate-in-$n$ Problem of Infinite Chess Is Decidable},
url= {http://wp.me/p5M0LV-f8},
publisher= {Springer},
author= {Brumleve, Dan and Hamkins, Joel David and Schlicht, Philipp},
pages= {78-88},
eprint = {1201.5597},
archivePrefix = {arXiv},
primaryClass = {math.LO},
}

Infinite chess is chess played on an infinite edgeless chessboard. The familiar chess pieces move about according to their usual chess rules, and each player strives to place the opposing king into checkmate. The mate-in-$n$ problem of infinite chess is the problem of determining whether a designated player can force a win from a given finite position in at most $n$ moves. A naive formulation of this problem leads to assertions of high arithmetic complexity with $2n$ alternating quantifiers—*there is a move for white, such that for every black reply, there is a countermove for white*, and so on. In such a formulation, the problem does not appear to be decidable; and one cannot expect to search an infinitely branching game tree even to finite depth.

Nevertheless, the main theorem of this article, confirming a conjecture of the first author and C. D. A. Evans, establishes that the mate-in-$n$ problem of infinite chess is computably decidable, uniformly in the position and in $n$. Furthermore, there is a computable strategy for optimal play from such mate-in-$n$ positions. The proof proceeds by showing that the mate-in-$n$ problem is expressible in what we call the first-order structure of chess, which we prove (in the relevant fragment) is an automatic structure, whose theory is therefore decidable. Unfortunately, this resolution of the mate-in-$n$ problem does not appear to settle the decidability of the more general winning-position problem, the problem of determining whether a designated player has a winning strategy from a given position, since a position may admit a winning strategy without any bound on the number of moves required. This issue is connected with transfinite game values in infinite chess, and the exact value of the omega one of chess $\omega_1^{\frak{Ch}}$ is not known.

Richard Stanley’s question on mathoverflow: Decidability of chess on infinite board?