Roanoke Programmer Dies Days Before Efforts Win World Chess Championship

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Don Dailey

Don Dailey
Don Dailey

In an amazing victory, a Roanoke man who had passed away just nine days earlier won the worldwide Thoresen Chess Engine Competition. (TCEC). 

On Sunday, December 1, the Komodo Chess Engine, a downloadable computer chess game, won this unofficial  world championship against the number two program, Stockfish.

TCEC is the prestigious computer chess event of the year, a competition among 38 chess engines that culminates with a 48-game match between the top two programs, broadcast over the Internet from Skog, Sweden.

Komodo’s developer, Roanoke native Don Dailey, achieved his lifelong dream of creating the number one chess engine in the world, along with co-author Grandmaster Larry Kaufman, age 66. But Dailey, 57, passed away before Komodo clinched the title, and never got to see it win. Komodo is now the number one engine of serious chess, as opposed to the fast-paced “blitz chess.”

Remarkably, the two aging baby boomers accomplished this feat normally reserved for 20-somethings.  In this high-tech, youth-driven era, the two soon-to-be senior citizens created Komodo, named after the dragon.  The opposing engine Stockfish was the collaborative worldwide effort of  more than 20 programmers and many other testers. Yet the two men knocked out the competition.

Dailey, a computer programmer by training, worked with Kaufman tirelessly for three years to complete Komodo. They worked remotely, Dailey from Roanoke, and Kaufman in Potomac, Maryland. The two both had an MIT connection; Dailey was the head of systems administration for the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science in the 1990s, and Kaufman was a student in the 1960s. Amazingly, Dailey never graduated from high school or attended college,but instead opted for a GED before setting out on his own.

The pair worked twelve-hour days, tirelessly perfecting Komodo, getting their program ready for launch and for the competition. In the meantime, Dailey contracted leukemia, but instead of slowing down, their efforts intensified as they raced against the fatal illness. Kaufman said the dream kept them going.

Dailey and Kaufman continued to tweak the program even as it entered the championship, Don working from his hospice bed. Suddenly Kaufman also took ill, and was rushed to the hospital for emergency, life-saving intestinal surgery. As they had in the past, the two fought the battle to collaborate from their separate hospitals.

Nine days after the tournament started, Komodo emerged as the winner by a 25 to 23 score over rival Stockfish, thus laying claim to being the strongest chess-playing entity on earth. Human players have been unable to keep pace with the level of play at which computers are now able to perform. Observers reported that Dailey and Kaufman achieved their checkmate through amazing odds and that no one would have believed that these two boomers would clinch the championship.