... the young Norwegian is likely to become chess world champion himself, when he has his first shot at the title in November. In one of the most anticipated clashes since Fischer-Spassky in the 1970s
and Karpov-Kasparov in the 80s and 90s, Carlsen will be taking on the 43-year-old five-time world champion Viswanathan Anand in India. Vishy, as he is known, has been in intense training for the match for three months. Carlsen has a much more relaxed approach. It is part of his genius.
"The Mozart of Chess"
There's some really interesting stuff in this brief documentary (13 minutes), even if you're not very interested in chess:
He's shown playing ten players simultaneously - without looking at the boards ! (apparently the record is currently 45). But he also plays football whenever he can in a busy chess schedule (he travels to matches and tournaments 200 days a year); fitness is important even in chess (10 mins into the programme, see also the Fischer interview below). He's also shown playing, when only 13 years old, Kasparov - and getting up from the game when he got a bit bored ! He got a draw - but thinks he had a potentially winning position - but was intimidated by Kasparov's reputation (8 mins).
He says he enjoys seeing his opponent "suffering" (4.20).
Carlsen said that for him, great chess playing is less the "scientific search for the best approaches" than "psychological warfare with some little tricks." In the 2011 Wijk aan Zee tournament in Holland, ... he lost his confidence. He told the writer, "Suddenly, I started to get these doubts. All of a sudden, my fighting spirit was almost gone."
"Breaking his ego"
Here's an interview with Booby Fischer from 1971, after he'd gained a reputation for being difficult, but when he seemed to have gained more self-control and an ability to cope with journalists. He's asked about the greatest pleasure and he says it is breaking the opponent's ego (3.20 minutes). Cavett has some fun with the idea that one needs to be fit to play chess and Fischer tries to convey just how physically tiring that level of concentration for around five hours can be - motivated by that pleasure of winning:
But generally Fischer comes over as relaxed and smart, and points out that despite his reputation for being difficult, he only walked out of two matches - out of 60.
Carlsen says he is a bit worried about the possibility of becoming like the older Fischer, who became rather eccentric and paranoid (11 mins into the "Mozart" prog).
My brief chess career
I was a bit involved in chess in my 20s. Once I played in a chess cafe, afterwards a guy gave me a lift and on the way asked me to go over my game. I said that I didn't think I could remember it. He said "Just try" and, to my surprise, I was able to go through the game on a pocket set. We have more abilities than we know - it was an unknown known (Rumsfeld) :-)
Later I joined the local chess club and they invited me to enter for a tournament. I said I wasn't that good a player, but they said everybody entered, it wasn't a big deal, so I signed up. When it came to my first game, my opponent put a clock by the board (the first time I'd played using a clock) and informed me that this was in fact the tournament trophy and he was the current Hertfordshire county champion ! However, despite this intimidating introduction, after a while he offered me a draw and, surprised but grateful, I accepted it.
Psychology - confidence
I think this illustrates the role that psychology plays in the game. He didn't know my level and, as champion, didn't want, I suppose, to risk losing in the first round, while I had nothing to lose. We played again and this time, with nothing to lose, he beat me fairly easily.
However the club members were apparently impressed by my first game and invited me to join the club team. I said it was a fluke and I really didn't think I was club team level. After that I became more interested in film and began evening classes in film study and then later, philosophy, which can be very competitive and where there are also established attacks and defenses of various main arguments.
Again psychology can be important; in a philosophy seminar one of my lecturers read the latest chapter of his book. I thought there was a mistake in his argument, but hesitated to challenge him, wondering if it was really a mistake if he hadn't realised it himself. But then another philosophy lecturer made exactly my point and I could have kicked myself for being intimidated (even though I quite often argued with lecturers).
It helps if one has self-confidence, as displayed in the domain of chess by Fischer and Carlsen - and Bogolyubov:
"When I am White I win because I am White. When I am Black I win because I am Bogolyubov."
Perhaps it helped that "Bogolyubov" means "beloved of God" in Russian.
...in tournaments my assumption is that I am the best player there. That is why I seek positions where computer analysis can't play that much of a role, or where I can analyse it better than a computer." Not short of self-belief then.
However, while self-confidence can help, it's no guarantee of success:
To booze or not to booze
But even when he [Bogolyubov] was at his best, he was never as good as Alekhine. His tragedy is that he never accepted that fact. In the 1934 match he thought he had solved the puzzle: Alekhine was hypnotizing him! So he armed himself with dark eyeglasses. The glasses helped only for a game or two, but then they became annoying - to Bogolyubov.
Next he decided that Alekhine's drinking was what accounted for the difference. So during the next three games, which were played in Mannheim, Bogolyubov stopped giving Alekhine odds of hard liquor. Alekhine's practice at that time was to have a few quick drinks at the bar during each game, and in Mannheim Bogolyubov matched him drink for drink. Amazingly, it worked, but again only for a game or two. Bogolyubov lost this match, as he had lost the first one in 1929, without ever figuring out why.
Carlsen has a very different attitude about alcohol (but then he's from Norway):
But I find it more difficult to play opponents who I feel, for whatever reason, aren't approaching the games with a sufficient level of seriousness. For instance, once at a big tournament I saw a player I was due to play the next day have a couple of drinks. Knowing that just ruined my concentration, because I thought how can I play seriously against someone who has drinks the day before?"
At only 13 Carlsen beat Karpov (former world champion), who said afterwards that Carlsen was surprisingly "productive" of ideas for such a young player. That may be partly to do with the way Carlsen started in chess:
Carlsen, aged 14
I started by just sitting by the chessboard exploring things. I didn't even have books at first, and I just played by myself. I learnt a lot from that, and I feel that it is a big reason why I now have a good intuitive understanding of chess.
... if I study a position for an hour then I am usually going in loops and I'm probably not going to come up with something useful. I usually know what I am going to do after 10 seconds; the rest is double checking." He calls this process verifying his intuition. "Often I cannot explain a certain move, only know that it feels right, and it seems that my intuition is right more often than not."
Complexity and the myth of the "rational agent"
This brings me to the link between chess and economics suggested by the title. Through another bit of serendipity, just after I thought of writing a diary about chess, I came across this, in "23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism", by Ha-Joon Chang (which I recommend):
When the Nobel prize-winners in financial economics, top bankers, high-flying fund managers, prestigious colleges and the smartest celebrities have shown that they do not understand what they are doing, how can we accept economic theories that work only because they assume that people are fully rational ? The upshot is that we are not smart enough to leave the market alone.
[Herbert] Simon's favourite example of how we need some rules in order to cope with our bounded rationality was chess. With only thirty-two pieces and sixty-four squares, chess may seem to be a relatively simple affair, but in fact it involves a huge amount of calculation. If you were one of those `hyper-rational' beings (as Simon calls them) that populate standard economics textbooks, you would of course, figure out all the possible moves and calculate their likelihoods before you make a move. But, Simon points out, there being 10 to 120 (yes, that is 120 zeroes) possibilities in an average game of chess, this `rational' approach requires mental capacity that no human being possesses. Indeed, studying chess masters, Simon realised that they used rules of thumb (heuristics) to focus on a small number of possible moves, in order to reduce the number of scenarios that need to be analysed, even though the excluded moves may have brought better results.
If chess is this complicated, you can imagine how complicated things are in our economy, which involves billions of people and millions of products.
It is not because the government knows better that we need regulations. It is in the humble recognition of our limited mental capability that we do.
I experienced intuitive flow once when I played a blitz game. Having to make all the moves in a few minutes, there was no time for analysis and I just went with my intuition and I think I sacrificed a couple of pieces, but it brought his king out and, to my surprise, I was able to get checkmate - it felt good ! I'm not sure I could have played that game if I'd had time to think about it.
I remember reading this by the great Russian player (who spent most of his life in Germany): Bogoljubov: "I know that I'm on form when my analysis matches my intuition."
Amazingly, there's old film from 1928 online of Bogoljubov playing Euwe - it's a blitz game so they're playing pretty intuitively:
However, Bogolyubov, like Carlsen still does the analysis; intuition can be mistaken and we need to be as rational as is reasonable, in chess by applying "heuristics" (see Chang above).
Victory for empirical analysis - and its relation to intuition
The 2012 presidential election brought the powers of the empirical into sharp focus. Statistician Nate Silver of The New York Times' FiveThirtyEight blog toppled pundits and their predictions based on theory, history and intuition by correctly predicting the outcome of the electoral vote, including in nine swing states. It was a turning point in making the case that statistical analysis holds a better chance at determining the outcome of an election than, say, Chris Matthews. Obama emerged victorious, and so did empiricists.
Kevin Lyons, svp of analytics at eXelate, notes that Silver's political calculus is essentially the same math used to figure out which consumers to target with an online ad. In marketing, however, the statistical and the intuitive are not at odds; rather, they have become complementary.
Eric Bosco of ChoiceStream notes that the traditional creative side of advertising sets the stage for fancy math to do its work. It narrows the field of possibilities, so algorithms can be more effective.
According to Leonard Barden the stage for the world championship is being set with some mind games.
Carlsen visited India prior to the match with Anand:
Carlsen got a warm welcome including one from 2000 screaming girl fans, but the Indians had also prepared a trap, one used by the Soviet Union in the 1930s and by England in the 1970s for top foreign grandmasters. The world No1 was asked to play a simultaneous match against 20 children, who all turned out to be national champions and world youth prizewinners. India is a top nation in junior chess, as were the USSR and England in the old days, and Carlsen won only 10 games, conceding six draws and four defeats.
Before the current Sinquefield Cup in St Louis Carlsen visited the local Webster University, which boasts the world's best college chess team. However, he spent his time there playing soccer and basketball, demonstrating his physical fitness and having it all recorded in photos which Anand would be sure to see on the internet. The subliminal message was that Carlsen, 21 years the younger, will be happy to grind on for 80, 100, even 150 moves when they meet at Chennai.
Carlsen with the ball
Anyway, the big match - far more interesting to some of us than lots of over-paid guys kicking a ball around - is coming up in November - will the young challenger beat the established champ ? But it is Anand who is the underdog, given Carlsen's recent performance and current rating. I hope that Carlsen's intuition will be working productively without the need for grinds of 150 moves and that he might broaden the audience for the great game.