Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Making The Right Decisions

I was walking past a newsagent the other day and spotted an interesting cover title in the latest issue of New Scientist magazine. It read: "Making Up Your Mind: Ten Steps to Better Decisions". I just had to stop and buy that one. The magazine poses a straightforward question: can science help us in making the right decisions?

It's an interesting article and while not about chess, there is definitely, to me at least, some relevance to woodpushers. Here are the 10 tips below with our take on how these can apply to our game.

1. Don't fear the consequences
"A major factor leading us to make bad predictions", the magazine says, "is 'loss aversion' - the belief that a loss will hurt more than a corresponding gain." OK, this bit in the article is more about life choices in general but there is a chess lesson here I think.

I'm sure most of us have found ourselves in a position wherein things are not so clear. Should I sac or should I not? Push the pawn or retreat a piece? It's often difficult and confusing. But in such situations there is probably some instinctive move that you already have in mind. You know it might be risky, yet on the other hand, in that particular situation (like a time trouble, say), taking a little risk could unsettle the opposition and bring home the point. As the NS mag concludes this section, don't always play it safe!

2. Go with your gut instincts
An Indonesian friend of mine told me a long time ago, don't think too much; thinking's not good for you, he said. Well, he was joking of course and offered the remark, and still does these days to unsettle his opponent, during a blitz game.

NS: "It stands to reason that extra information can help you make well informed, rational decisions. Yet paradoxically, sometimes the more information you have the better off you may be going with your instincts. Information overload can be a problem in all sorts of situations, from choosing a school for your child to picking a holiday destination. At times like these, you may be better off avoiding conscious deliberation and instead leave the decision to your unconscious brain".

3. Consider your emotions
What the...? I told you this is about life - not about chess. Honestly, it's important. The lesson here is clear: emotions might be a key component in "the neurobiology of choice, but whether they always allow us to make the right decisions is another matter". Look, I'm sure I saw it in some kung-fu movie some time back: the master says, don't fight when you're angry for you'll only beat yourself. How true is that? I'm sure there are players out there that you just, well, dislike. I don't have too many of them, thank God, but it could be just a player who gives you grief - you know, someone who beats you more than you beat them. Just sit down, relax, it's another game. So boys, check your emotions at the door.

4. Play the Devil's advocate
In other words, consider alternatives. Yeah as if we really need reminding. If you've read anyone of the many self-help chess books, from Kotov to Rowson, then you know something about the idea. Still it's worth reminding ourselves and combatting what the writers call (actually it's a long-established concept), the confirmation bias.

5. Keep your eye on the ball
Don't be sidetracked by irrelevancies is what they're saying. At times, when only little information is at hand, irrelevant data can come to the fore and easily sway our decision making.

6. Don't cry over spilt milk
Cut your losses while you still can is the message. Avoid the "sunk cost fallacy", the magazine says. Falling for this fallacy occurs when we continue to commit to a project or course of action on account of the investment we've already made even though such persistence is a bad one. New Scientist cites the Concorde project as their example.

Is there a lesson in chess? I reckon so. Ever continued a failing attack just because you've already invested a pawn or two? Once you sense that the attack is failing, bail out. If you happened to sack a piece, then only God can help you. Find another plan if you still can. And the lesson need not be about material. How about when you insisted on a specific line only because you already spent so much time thinking about it? Again, a big no-no. Best to take a deep breath, relax and reconsider.

7. Look at it another way
It goes without saying. Make the effort to examine your moves from another angle. I suppose that can mean actually viewing the board, physically, from a different point of view. Ever wonder why we always seem to find good moves when spectating? I notice that some players actually stand behind their opponents, though I find it annoying when done to me. So long as the opposition doesn't mind, why not?

8. Beware social pressure
Chessers are very prone to this problem. You only have to consider the openings that go in and out of fashion. But just because everyone plays that line, why should you play it? Do you even understand it? Another lesson is to question so-called authority. The gents over at the Streatham & Brixton blog have a good example for us all in this post last month.

9. Limit your options
I'll never forget what my friend Nick observed many years ago. He said that the more he learned about chess - opening systems, plans, tactics and so on - it seems that the harder it was to select the best move! Anyone else find that? I know I do! It seems like the more I read about the QGD, say, I just get stuck! I can't move. It's as if I'm having to worry about so many variables.

And forget about plans or ideas within a system. How about having to learn all these openings?! Well, OK not all, but a lot. This is why, nearly as soon as I began tournament play in '96, I decided to specialise only in 1.d4. It made my life easier and not to mention cheaper. If I began playing 1.e4 now very frequently (as I do occasionally reel it out) I'd have to worry about a whole multitude of replies. That's just too hard.

NS: "[T]he idea that while we think more choice is best, often less is more. The problem is that greater choice usually comes at a price. It makes greater demands on your information-processing skills, and the process can be confusing, time-consuming and at worst can lead to paralysis: you spend so much time weighing up the alternatives that you end up doing nothing."

10. Have someone else choose
People typically like to make their own choices as it makes them feel happy, say Simona Botti of Cornell University as cited by NS. In reality, however, the process of making a decision "can leave us feeling dissatisfied. Then it may be better to relinquish control". This is a hard one. But I guess that's why we have cheats in our game! I'm talking about those guys who rely on chip power to make their moves for them.

Looked at another way, I suppose the study of theory, endgame positions, etc., fits in well with this rule. Imagine if we all had to invent our moves every time we sit down to play. How hard would that be?

OK, that's all for now. That took ages to write. Time for an update on the never-gonna-happen Australian Championships.

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