Improspectives

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Posts Tagged ‘chess

Reasons for Playing Chess

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Chess is a rewarding but maddening game. You can build up an overwhelming position for the first 40 moves and then make a simple tactical error that lets your opponent back into the game or, in extreme and highly embarrassing cases, even win on the next move.

Interviewer: So, tell me…does throwing away a win hurt?

Curt: Yes. Yes it does.

You see golfers going crazy over their rounds, alternating between self-loathing over the short putts they missed and self-praise for the 150-yard shot that ended up a foot from the hole. I played golf occasionally for a few years and can testify to that effect. Some of my friends play 18 holes just so they can feel the satisfaction of hitting one good shot.

Some days they have to play 36 holes.

A golfer having a bad day still gets in some physical exercise. What about chess players? As with many endeavors, it depends on why you’re playing in the first place. You always get to exercise your brain and look over the consequences of your moves, which keeps you sharp and might fight off the effects of aging, but what else?

If you’re playing with someone who’s about your own strength, you get the benefit of an equal competition and, very likely, enough wins to keep things interesting. Playing someone stronger than you helps you learn and winning every so often helps keep you going. Playing a weaker player lets you win more often and teach the game, even if only indirectly.

What’s often overlooked is that chess can be a social game. If you play blitz chess, where players have to make all of their moves within three or five minutes, you can get in a lot of games and try many different types of positions. Playing a longer game lets you think more deeply, and playing without a clock lets you approach the game more casually.

You can also take time to analyze your game with your opponent. Serious players often try to identify the move where the winner got an advantage and what the loser missed. When done with a spirit of exploration and sharing, post-game analysis can be fun and helpful.

Chess as metaphor

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Games have long played a part in literature, representing a competition between humans or supernatural beings. Chess features prominently in many stories. The game’s intellectual nature lends itself to such depictions, with the idea being that if you can beat someone else at chess, you are the better man.

Other games, both real and invented, serve similar roles. For me, the best example is the game Azad from Iain M. Banks’ book The Player of Games. The game of Azad is a vast undertaking, with high-level matches often taking a month to play. There are several boards, a combination of team and individual play, and so many pieces as to nearly defy description.

In the story, the game was developed as a metaphor for the structure and values of the Empire of Azad. It was part pastime and part civil service exam. The Azadian home world held a tournament every so often, with the winner crowned emperor. The better you did in the tournament, the higher your position in the government.

The premise of the story is that another civilization, the Culture, sends its best game player to compete in the tournament. Banks was known for a political bent to his stories; The Player of Games is no exception. On its surface a simple diplomatic exchange, our player’s participation and continued success brings the conflict between the two civilizations and their values into sharper relief.

It’s telling that the Culture’s hero only starts to play at a high level when he takes on aspects of the Empire’s philosophy in his own play. Banks manages that conflict magnificently.

Chess is an abstract game with arbitrary but well-balanced rules that allow for a wide range of successful strategies and tactics. Though it doesn’t approach the (admittedly fictional) resolution of a game like Azad, it has long played a role as a metaphor for accomplishment and brilliance. As such, it provides a terrific instructional base.

Chess as a game (among many)

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Chess is often called “the queen of games”, at least in Western culture. The game’s austere appearance, when combined with its tactical and strategic depth, provides an air of challenge and mystery.

In many ways, chess is the prototypical Western game. Strategies and tactics are direct, with little progress to be made unless you directly confront your opponent. Chess is also a perfect information game, meaning there is no element of chance. You might not know your opponent’s next move, but there’s nothing hiding it from you. If you didn’t see what was coming, you can only blame yourself.

Although chess has increased in popularity in Asia, the traditional strategy game of Japan, China, and South Korea is go. Unlike chess, where the goal is to create a position where your opponent’s king is under attack and cannot move to a safe square, go players place their stones in an attempt to surround territory on the board. Chess boards are 8 x 8, with 64 squares, and the pieces stand on the squares. In go, the board has 19 x 19 lines, with 361 intersections, and players may place a stone on any unoccupied intersection (with a few exceptions).

The complexity of go far outstrips that of chess, at least in terms of the computation required to analyze and evaluate a position. Computers have conquered humans at chess…their calculating speed and positional evaluation let them beat even the strongest carbon-based players regularly. The most advanced go programs can only beat top professionals if they are given a substantial head start. That said, the gap is closing.

I said that chess is the prototypical Western game, but it’s mostly thought of as a European (and even more specifically, Russian) game. In America, the game of choice is poker. Poker is a gambling game, with a significant element of chance involved. You can do everything right but still lose if your opponent decides to fight the odds and draws the cards they need. Ironically, the better you play, the more of these “bad beat” stories you’ll have to tell. If you’re always in the lead, the luck of the draw means you will get chased down on occasion.

I hope I don’t sound bitter. But I am.

Do the Russians play chess, the Chinese play go, and the Americans play poker? If you look at our cultures and practices, you’ll see there’s a fair amount of truth to that statement. How well that metaphor translates to actionable intelligence is debatable, but it’s an interesting way to start a conversation.

Chess and Motivation

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To paraphrase the Great Oz, “I’m a good man, but a very bad chess player.” I can beat almost any non-serious player in a casual game, but I’m in the lower half of  those of us who pay to play on the Internet Chess Server.

And yet, even though I lose a lot more than I’d like to, I enjoy the game immensely. In some sense, I like the idea of being a chess player…there’s a certain nerdy caché to the game that fits my personality. I also enjoy my occasional successes (I wouldn’t call them brilliancies) where I’ve seen just a bit farther or evaluated a position more accurately than my opponent.

My rating, the number that indicates my relative strength as compared to my fellow competitors, swings up and down within a range that runs from kind of impressive to “maybe I should go back to Candyland.” Sometimes I feel strong, like I’m concentrating well and see the outcomes of move sequences, while at other times I make the first move I see and hope I get lucky. I’m not sure why my concentration varies so much, but it’s an interesting phenomenon.

So why, if I’m not a very good serious (or even semi-serious) player, do I keep playing? What are the psychic benefits I get from banging my head against 32 pieces and 64 squares? Sure, the game’s fun in and of itself, but what specifically keeps me coming back?

I’ll address these questions in more detail in my forthcoming series of posts, but I’ll start out with a note on what my motivation is not. A friend once said, when I was furious at myself for a series of embarrassing losses, “It would be a shame for you to give up the game after you’ve put so much into it.”

She was right in a way, but her statement is an example of the sunk cost fallacy. The sunk cost fallacy says that the investment (of money, or time, or whatever) you’ve made in an endeavor should affect future decisions. In fact, if you have no way of reclaiming the money or time you’ve invested in something, those “expenses” should in no way affect your future decisions. All you should care about is whether future investments are worth the cost.

I keep playing, so I obviously must think it’s worth my effort to continue. Chess is a rich game, after all, one that rewards its players for their efforts beyond rating points or games won. I look forward to examining it more closely.

When You’re “Due” — The Gambler’s Fallacy

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I travel to Las Vegas once or twice a year, both to play poker (where I convince myself I have an advantage) and to dabble in other games (where I definitely don’t). Since 1993, when I started playing while on the East Coast, I’ve seen thousands of players succumb to the insidious gambler’s fallacy.

Let’s say you’re playing roulette and notice, as posted on the so very helpful display by the wheel, that five red numbers have come up in a row. Is black due? What about green (0/00)? The answer is neither. Roulette wheels are well-balanced and the little obstacles spread around the wheel, called canoes in casino parlance,  make outcomes random enough to be considered independent trials. If red numbers come up five times in a row, the next number will be red 18/38 of the time, black 18/38 of the time, and green 2/38 of the time. Ironically, it’s our human urge to discover patterns that makes the gambler’s fallacy work. The wheel has no memory, but we do.

The bottom line is that when you play roulette, the proportion of red, black, and green numbers will tend toward the target ratios over millions of spins and the weighted payoffs will ensure the house earns its profit over the long run. But what about games like poker? Poker is a skill game with a healthy dose of luck thrown in, so trials aren’t truly independent. Inferior players beat better players over the short term, but only because of luck. But what happens when equal players face off?

It’s hard to find players of the same skill level at a poker table, but I tested the theory by replicating an experiment described by poker author Lou Krieger. Like Lou, I set up ten identical players in Wilson Software’s Turbo Texas Hold’em simulation mode and let them play hundreds of millions of hands against each other. Six of the ten players were just above or below breaking even, but there were two big winners and two big losers. Remember that each player followed an identical strategy — the only factor controlling their fate was the luck of the draw.

As human beings trying to extract a living from an indifferent universe, we must realize that the odds are not always in our favor and that we will go through bad streaks we can’t seem to reverse. At these times it pays to strengthen your base by learning new skills or practicing old ones, reinforcing friendships, reaching out to others for help, and offering assistance where you can. Doing these things doesn’t constitute “good karma” or “putting things out into the universe”, both dubious concepts. What you are doing is improving the chances you’ll be ready to take advantage of opportunities that you and your contacts discover.

Clustering and Streaks — Real or Imagined?

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The folk wisdom that “bad things come in threes” is still popular in the U.S. Whenever two celebrities die on the same day, for example, even the most hardened critical thinker feels the urge to look for the third.

Is clustering real? Do events happen in streaks, or are they just a product of our pattern-seeking brains?  George Carlin made fun of the “bad things happen in threes” adage by stating that bad things actually happen in 27’s, noting that “it just takes longer to see the pattern.” You can always find instances of “bad things” in the world to fill out your sets of three, but what does the research say? There have been a lot of studies on the subject, including Koehler and Conley’s “The “Hot Hand” Myth In Professional Basketball”, published in 2003 in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology. The authors examined the National Basketball Association’s long distance shooting contest and looked for statistical aberrations in the sequences of made and missed shots. As in all but a few other studies, they found no significant deviation from chance. When they took each player’s base shooting accuracy into account, the effect disappeared.

Sports are physical contests and even little variations in physical conditions can affect performance, but what about chess? Chess is a mental game played with perfect information. That is, you know everything there is to know about a position and there’s no hidden information, such as a player’s hole cards in poker. As of this writing, I have played 19,738 games of blitz chess (each player has 3 or 5 minutes to make all moves in a game) at the Internet Chess Club since June 27, 2001. As I watch my online chess rating fluctuate from embarrassing to “not bad for me”, I wonder how much the streaks of wins, losses, and draws reflect my abilities and how much is the “luck” of an opponent making some horrible mistake.

The three-year graph of my rating shows huge swings, but the average is right about where I perceive myself as a player. Perhaps my streaks are due to luck. After all, I don’t seriously study the game and play to take a break from other work. The big changes make a strong visual impression, but there are a lot of small shifts in there, too.

Improvisers can make a fun game out of looking for apparent patterns and justifying reasons for believing streaks exist. The lesson for analysts? Carefully examine whether a sequence of events is due to some underlying cause or is just a sequence of events that might be due to chance. That said, given the strength of our innate need to discover patterns, is there any way to dispel what appears to be the myth of the hot hand? In a 2006 review of the literature, Michael Bar-Elia, Simcha Avugosa, and Markus Raab summarized the situation in this way:

As Amos Tversky, who initiated the hot hand research, used to say (cited by Gilovich in an online chat, September, 2002), ‘‘I’ve been in a thousand arguments over this topic, won them all, but convinced no one’’.

When Goals Don’t Match Incentives

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Several months ago I wrote about how improv and business relationships can resemble some of the classic 2 x 2 games, such as Chicken or the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Improv and business have characteristics in common with other games, too.

My last post mentioned Mikhail Tal, one of the fiercest attackers in the history of chess. He specialized in knocking the position and his opponent off balance and winning in the resulting complications. Tal lost a lot of games in dramatic fashion, too, but his games were rarely boring.

You can’t make progress in an improv scene or business if you’re afraid to shake things up. Unlike in chess, where you face an opponent over the board by yourself, improvisers and business people have colleagues who are working with you toward a common goal. At least, that’s the ideal. You probably know what kind of disasters can happen when you and your colleagues aren’t all moving in the same direction. But why would team members work at cross purposes? One possible reason is that an individual’s incentives don’t align with the project goal.

As an example, suppose you’re a programmer tasked with shipping a product update one month from today. Further, assume your annual bonus and (possibly) continued employment hinge on releasing your code by the deadline. I can guarantee that you will do everything you can, including cutting every available corner if necessary, to get that software out the door 30 days from now. Doing so meets your objective of getting the software out the door, but does so at the expense of the company’s overarching goal of providing quality products to its customers.

Economists and game theorists call this practice suboptimization, where individuals focus on part of a process at the expense of the project as a whole. Chess players can suboptimize by trying to reach an endgame with very few pieces on the board, regardless of what the position calls for earlier in the game. Improvisers can suboptimize by “working on a character” or “finding a way to work a song into this scene” no matter what happens in a scene. And, as argued above, companies can make their employees suboptimize by setting incentives improperly.

I wish I had a good answer for the problem of suboptimization in organizations. It’s relatively easy for individuals to avoid it if they can identify the larger goals they’re working toward, but it’s hard for employees to consciously work in a manner that won’t be directly rewarded. If it’s a choice between getting paid and doing what’s best for the organization, I say take the money and work with your boss to restructure your incentives after you cash the check.