Thursday, April 05, 2007

The News in Reviews / Old Puzzler Answer / New Fortnightly Puzzler

Further Down the Road of Classic Games (or Luck in Chess)

I've been playing chess since I was around six. That means I've put in 20+ years into one game, and sadly, I'm still playing it like a rookie.

I'm rated around 1600 which puts me at an intermediate level, but to me, that doesn't mean I know anything. Only occasionally do I play a game I feel good about, a game during which I have felt a large measure of control over my plans and calculations. If I make a mistake during a game, I feel completely unworthy of such a ranking. There is simply so much to know and comprehend. The ranking doesn't mean much to me because I know if I'm playing my best or close to my best.

For a long time now, I've wondered about the role of luck in chess. I don't think chess is inherently lucky, but I do believe that human players bring a measure of luck to the game. How else do you explain two players going back and forth on winning and losing? If two players were perfectly equal, then a draw would be the probable result. If they were unequal, then one player should win every time while the other should lose. But this often isn't that case.

I recently asked a local chess master rated around 2100 if he thought chess had any luck. He said yes. His simple answer was the following paraphrased statement:

"[Yes, there is some luck. If I know a particular opening better or worse than my opponent, our performances will differ because of it. There's too much chess theory out there these days. You can't know it all. Who you play and what they know will affect the game, and both of those are luck factors.]"

He never said the game was lucky. But pre-game knowledge (not experience) can be an automatic advantage or disadvantage depending on who you play.

From my vantage point, I think the amount of luck depends on the level of the players. The lower the level, the more luck. Because of a player's limited ability to accurately predict the future of a sequence, there will always be luck.

If you can only see one move ahead, it's extremely difficult to tell the good moves from the bad ones with the exception of moving your pieces in danger. When you can see four moves ahead, you're a better sifter, but that doesn't mean you're out of the luck zone yet. Out of all the "good" four move sequences that a person finds, some could ultimately lead to bad board situations. If you can see twelve moves ahead, you're effectively eliminating unknowns, but some unknowns are still there.

For my level, choosing one path over another amounts to luck. If they all look the same, where's the skill in choosing? Undoubtedly, if I studied and played more, new aspects of a given position would be become clear to me. But again and again, I will be met with a series of choices that appear more or less the same for my particular level. The truth is those choices are likely not equal. If the players have comparable skill, the contest becomes 'who will choose the bad-option-that-looks-good first?'

I'll continue playing chess, of course. I still gain a measure of satisfaction from playing as well as I can, given my background. Perhaps in another twenty years, I'll think differently about the luck issue, but until then, may the luckier player get an edge (and possibly win).


Old Puzzler Q & A

Q: I'm thinking of two syllables. Let's call them Syllable A and Syllable B. If you said A-B-B, you'd get a classic insult. If you said, A-A-B, you'd get a modern musician.

A: A=YO, B=MA (Yo, mama! and Yo-yo Ma)


New Fortnightly Puzzler*

Which of the following does not belong?

Balloon Cup, Coloretto, Scrabble, Shadows over Camelot

*Thank you for not posting the answer. If you'd like to take a guess, write


Coldfoot said...

The local chess master. Would that be Greg "The Octopus" Somethingorother.

I have a story about him that I dredge up from time to time.

The story usually starts with someone bragging about their chess prowess. I respond by saying that I once knew a guy who would routinely play 50 opponents at once for charity, and if you could beat him you would win some nice prize.

The story ends by me saying, I only played him once, but I managed to beat him.

I may or may not happen to mention that we were playing pool at the Union Club, not chess. But it doesn't matter. No one believes me anyway.

smatt said...

You're right, Coldfoot. The chess master is Greg Nowak, also known as "The Octopus." In fact, many people don't know his real name at all. He is known for playing many, many people at once. One of the better players in the Northwest (at least around here), he is losing "the knack" as he ages. Generally speaking, his vast experience is usually enough to draw or beat anyone, but he has been known to blunder badly (losing a queen for nothing, for example).

Thanks for the story.