Given the challenges that ordinary human beings encounter when mastering such games, a natural focus in Artificial Intelligence (AI) research is to build systems that can achieve the same level of game-playing performance as a Grand Master.
'Mental' games, such as Chess, Checkers and Go, are staples in every known culture in human history, from the ancient Egyptians to the Chinese. Mastery in such games requires formidable strategic skills that rely on a combination of intelligence, practice, intuition, and decision-making under uncertainty. Often, decisions ('moves' in game terminology) have to be made under constraints of time.
Building programs that could play complex games has a long history in AI research. Early, extremely influential examples, may be found in the work of such giants as Newell, Shaw and Simon, who first identified mastery in chess as an important indication of progress in building intelligent systems. Another game that witnessed breakthrough AI research, especially in the 1980s and 1990s, was Backgammon.
Fast-forwarding, in 1997, IBM's Deep Blue went down in history as the computer that narrowly beat then-reigning World Champion, Gary Kasparov, at Chess. In our own time, Google's AlphaGo has rocked the news for beating the reigning (human) World Champion, Lee Sedol, in the ancient game of Go in a best-of-five series of publicly broadcast matches. Even more recently, an AI called Libratus out-bluffed masterful human beings at Poker. Going beyond games of skill, a few years ago, IBM's Watson made the news for beating human players at the trivia game Jeopardy!, demonstrating that AI programs are becoming more proficient at understanding natural languages like English. In the years since then, AI-based conversational systems like Siri, Alexa and Cortana have become stapes in phones and computers. Some form of AI is even integrated into Barbie dolls and many cars currently on the street. The day may not be far when driverless cars are the norm.
Given the brief unfolding history above on AI and games, it is not unreasonable to say (albeit at the risk of some simplification) that many milestones in AI research are marked by the achievement of super-human performance in a particular game, such as Chess, that has withstood the twin tests of time and space.
Importantly, the same techniques used to build game-playing AIs are also being used to revolutionize entire fields, such as space exploration and medical research, traditionally considered separate from core Computer Science. Wouldn't it be cool to build an AI system that can beat a Grand Master in your favorite fame and that helps humankind find a cure for cancer (and explore Saturn) at the same time?