From the Dan’s Archives: Me Versus My Atari Robot

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As Father’s Day approaches, enjoy this story from the May 4, 1978 issue of The East Hampton Summer Sun in which a fun game of Pong between Dan and daughter Maya, 6 at the time, descends into a maddening challenge that keeps Dan up till all hours facing off against a supercomputer.

The other day a game called Atari arrived at the house. I opened up the box and inside found a small electronic device with instructions for hooking it up to the television set. There was an electrical hookup, a main unit, and then two control sticks for each of two players to enjoy the game.

I tried the Atari game first with my daughter Maya, who is six. She held one control stick. I held the other, and we turned the TV set and the Atari game on to see what would happen. After awhile the set warmed up and we saw two paddles and a ball very clearly on the screen.

“Move the paddle, Daddy,” my daughter said.

Sure enough, by moving the control stick around one way and another, I could make the paddle on the TV set move back and forth to hit the ball. It would make a pinging sound as it hit the ball, and it would send it off to the opposite side of the screen, where Maya would move her paddle and hit the ball back. Through the magic of electronics, the two of us were playing paddle tennis right there on the screen of the TV. I lunged for the ball, pushed the paddle too far, and missed. A big number one appeared on Maya’s side of the screen.

“I got it!” she shouted.

And then the ball appeared again. I hunkered down now in front of the set and tried to settle into a more determined frame of mind. One to nothing, huh. We’ll see about that.

Maya, it turned out, was quite good. She had played TV games before, although she hadn’t played this particular model. And she raced her paddle back and forth across the screen, easily returning my shots. On the other hand, she was only six. It would seem that with a determined effort, considering my superior intellect, age. coordination and experience, that I ought to be able to beat the little rat. At this point it was already four to three.

The game, it turns out, goes just up to twenty-one. The first person to reach this number wins the game, and at that point, the game stops and the little ball no longer appears. You have to press a reset button to play again, and, when you do, the final score disappears, the ball comes back, and everything starts over.

Maya and I played about six games together. I quickly got the knack of it. and although she was quite good, I found that I could pretty consistently beat her, by scores of twenty-one to twelve, twenty-one to fifteen.

“Why don’t you LET me win,” Maya asked with great six-year-old logic.

“Okay.” I said.

And so we did that for awhile. Pretty soon she had won just about as many as I had won before.

*I’m going upstairs to play with my dolls,” she finally announced. And so she did, leaving me with just one paddle of a two paddle game, and a great addiction to continue.

I recruited Ann to play a few games with me, and I even tried my son Adam, who is four. But eventually, everyone got tired of playing and went to bed, leaving just me. the TV, and the Atari, I thought that surely I would now have to go to bed too.

But no.

It turned out that if you pressed a certain button on the side of the game, you could summon up a robot to play the left hand paddle. Recluses could play. People who wanted to play all night could play. For the robot was willing, and it could go on indefinitely, never complaining and never wanting to go to bed.

I pressed the button.

Let me tell you, this robot plays a mighty good game of paddle tennis. You hit it to the left and he scoots over and hits it back. You hit it to the right and he scoots the other way. You can try carom shots off the side walls if you wish, and the robot returns it with a smash right down the middle. You can try a smash yourself and the robot is there, returning it with a vicious topspin.

In fact, I found that the robot played a virtually perfect game of paddle tennis. There was only one shot that he was programmed to miss, and it was this shot, very difficult, that I found myself constantly trying to make. An across-the-board angle shot is what it was. You had to get the robot out of position, either on one side of the screen or the other, and then you had to hit the ball on the very corner of your paddle. If you got it, the ball would scoot sideways, and the computer was not fast enough to get across to chase it. He’d come close, barely miss, and the ball would bounce on by.

One point for me.

As we played, the robot and I, I found that I could only make this shot a very small percentage of the time. Usually, I’d hit the ball back straight, and then the game would continue until the opportunity came up again. Of course, waiting for just this opportunity, with the robot out of position on one side of the court. I’d get very nervous. And sometimes, the robot would simply put a very easy shot right past me.

I lost the first game to the robot by a score of twenty-one to nine. And I lost the second game twenty-one to eight. The third game, however. I steeled myself into a major effort and played with all the skill and cunning that I could muster. Briefly, I got ahead of the robot, but then panicked and made a few mistakes. I got ahead again, and for a while it appeared that I might actually win. It was fourteen to ten my favor, then fifteen.

And then I fell apart.

The robot ran off eight straight points in a row, ruthlessly, and suddenly I was down by nineteen to fifteen. It took only a few more minutes to polish me off at twenty-one to sixteen.

I was sweating now. Had the ability of the robot improved during the last five points of that garnet or had it been my imagination? I had made cross shot after cross shot, but either the robot had not been fully out of position, or else it had been programmed to move faster as the game progressed.

I tried a fourth game and lost, twenty-one to five. I was totally disoriented.

But then I braced myself for one final game. I would catch the robot early, when it was slow and fat, and I would get such a lend that the robot could never catch up, no matter how good it got.

Sure enough, in the early part of this last game, I made one cross-court shot after the other, The robot—and 1 had a good vision of him now in my mind, trudged breathlessly across the court — unable to move his bulk with the necessary speed, and he would miss.

One point for me.

I reeled off point after point and pretty soon had it up to eight to nothing before I finally lost a point. Then I lost another, and I began to wonder. Was I getting shaken? Was I getting a little arm weary? I got a point and the robot got one. The robot got another one. It was nine to three.

And then, once again, I just fell apart. Damn this robot. I thought. Damn electronic things that just never get tired, that never get headaches or blurred vision. Damn them. It was ten to five, then eleven to eight. The robot was catching up.

I played desperately. I tried sneaky spin shots and double angle shots. But it was to no avail. The robot was bigger, stronger, and it would go on forever. I, on the other hand, was mortal. In the end, I would be reduced to nothing.

At three o’clock in the morning, in the darkest part of the night, I woke up. The sweats were gone. The shaking over my final defeat was gone. I heard Ann breathing heavily beside me and I heard the sounds of the crickets in the woods outside.

Without any hesitation, I got out of bed. I did not put on a robe. I did not put on any slippers. I simply padded downstairs, turned on the Atari game in the living room, and methodically beat the living daylights out of the robot.

The score was twenty-one to six.

Then I turned the thing back off and walked back upstairs.

Funny. I felt no emotions about my victory. But for the rest of the night I slept like a rock.

Read more Throwback Thursday. 

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