Category: Games

Solve for the Eastern equilibrium

Russia’s sabre-rattling in Ukraine has reignited the debate in Finland as to whether the Nordic country should join Nato, defying demands from Moscow that seek to limit expansion of the military alliance in Europe.

Both president Sauli Niinisto and prime minister Sanna Marin used their new year addresses to underscore that Finland retained the option of seeking Nato membership at any time.

“Let it be stated once again: Finland’s room to manoeuvre and freedom of choice also include the possibility of military alignment and of applying for Nato membership, should we ourselves so decide,” Niinisto said.

Here is more from Richard Milne at the FT.

Some simple game theory of Omicron

Let’s say that everyone is totally reckless, and they go to Christmas Eve “Omicron parties.”  A week or two from now the virus has cleared their systems and I, who stay at home and blog, can then go out and frolic.  Even if they stay sick, or if they die, they are removed as sources of potential infections for others (see below for new variants, possibly from the immunocompromised).

If I know that is happening, I find it easy to stay at home for a week.  I look forward to my pending freedom.  In other words, right now my behavior becomes safer.  I engage in intertemporal substitution.

Alternately, let’s say that quite a few people decide to behave more safely.  They stay at home and avoid the Omicron parties, and furthermore they go about with a mask in Whole Foods and don’t go to bars at all.  The Omicron pandemic, instead of being over in two weeks, can run on for months, depending on the exact numbers of course.  There is a ready stock of “not yet infected with Omicron” potential victims to keep the virus circulating.  And that means ongoing risk for me.

Returning to my decision calculus, I can wait a week but I cannot stay at home for a month or two.  So I know I am going to go out, and I expect I am going to get Omicron.  So I might as well go out now.  My behavior becomes riskier.

Get the picture?  If one set of people behave more safely, another set takes more risks.  And vice versa.

This is one reason why moral exhortation, or for that matter policy interventions, may be less than effective in our current moment.

It is also a reason why telling people “don’t worry about it!” doesn’t fully translate at the collective level either.

Of course you can modify these scenarios with reinfection risk, new variants, and other factors.

And now it is over…

With both the Beatles and chess peaking this year in terms of media coverage, at times I have felt like I am thirteen years old again.  But now the WCC match is over, and Magnus Carlsen has solidified his claim to GOAT.  Carlsen has now won five such matches, and he has always won when he has needed to.  Since he broke through the 2800 rating point, he has never fallen below it, not once.  As a study in “management,” he is most of all a study in consistency.  Nepo played even with him for five games, but then fell apart.  Carlsen does not fall apart.  Karjakin and Caruana played even with him for a whole match, but when the pressure was on in the rapid tiebreaks guess who was reaching new peaks?

I suspect this last match means the death of the slow classical format for the world championship.  The last three matches have been deadly dull.  You can cite particular reasons for the lack of excitement, but the fundamental problem is that the players are too good and a very well played chess game is a clear draw.  It is hard to see how that gets reversed.  On top of that the match format encourages risk-aversion and openings such as the Petroff for Black.  There is too much advance openings preparation.

A Carlsen-Firouzja rapid match is what I wish to see, and somehow I expect the market will oblige.  To have a repeat of what we just witnessed — even if the challenger shows up as the inspired player — just isn’t going to cut it.  The cost is that we may not have a well-defined world champion by the time the next cycle moves toward its climax.

So, as of today, I predict that chess fundamentally has changed and won’t go back.  No more Capablanca vs. Alekhine or Fischer vs. Spassky at slow speed.  That’s just going to mean too many drawish opening choices.

Addendum: Please put aside your barbaric talk about Fischer Random 960.  It obliterates the ability of the viewer to make sense of the board, so why bother?  The rapid matches sponsored by Carlsen and others already have shown there are simpler, more viewer-friendly, and more intuitive ways to restore excitement to the games.

Lessons for remote work, from professional chess

During the COVID-19 pandemic, traditional (offline) chess tournaments were prohibited and instead held online. We exploit this unique setting to assess the impact of remote–work policies on the cognitive performance of individuals. Using the artificial intelligence embodied in a powerful chess engine to assess the quality of chess moves and associated errors, we find a statistically and economically significant decrease in performance when an individual competes remotely versus offline in a face-to-face setting. The effect size decreases over time, suggesting an adaptation to the new remote setting.

Here is the Economic Journal paper by Steffen Künn, Christian Seel, and Dainis Zegners.  Via tekl.

Simple advice for watching and understanding on-line chess

Yes, the computer evaluations are extremely useful.  But they are measuring the quality of the position when two computers are playing.  Yet most of the games you care about tend to be two humans playing each other.  And those humans do not play like computers.  The computer might say the game is even, and maybe it is with perfect play, but one side can be much harder (easier) to play than the other.  So I suggest this trick.  Go to, which covers top games (only).  Scan down the vertical list of all possible moves and consider the distribution of outcomes.  If the top move is great for White, but all the others are not, robustness is low, especially if the top move for White is not super-obvious (such as recapturing a Queen, etc.).  If all the sequences look very good for White (Black), you will know that for humans the position probably is somewhat better for White than the single computer evaluation number will indicate.  Robustness against human error will be present.

For the Carlsen match, here is a good Twitch stream, currently with Caruana as commentator.

Carlsen vs. Nepo

Here is my Bloomberg column on that topic:

He [Carlsen] recently opined that he is lucky to be facing Nepo rather than two other potential challengers, Fabio Caruana or Ding Liren. That’s the kind of trash talk most sports competitors frown upon for fear of motivating opponents.

Carlsen also has been engaging in online marathons of “bullet chess,” exactly the kind of attention-disrupting, energy-draining stunt contenders are supposed to avoid. In a bullet game, each player has only one minute for all the moves. The pace is so rapid the games are hard to watch, much less play. Carlsen also made a recent appearance in Dortmund, Germany, in part to pose for a photo with a Norwegian soccer player. Nepo, in contrast, claims to have done an “insane amount of work” for the event.

Will the fast thinking of bullet chess help Carlsen see more moves during the much slower time controls of the match with Nepo? (A championship game can easily last four hours or more.) Or maybe the bullet success will intimidate Nepo?

Carlsen also is making it clear that for him, chess is a business proposition. His parents set up a company in his name when he was 16, and the commercial empire since has expanded. Carlsen has worked as a fashion model, endorsed an online sports betting site, and worked with a Norwegian water company. He sponsors a leading chess app and has organized his own series of online chess tournaments, played with more rapid time controls, during the pandemic. Those events arguably have attracted more attention than any of the mainstream tournaments.

Carlsen is probably at the point where even a loss in the match would barely affect his income stream, and that is a dangerous motivational place to be…

Nepo is considered a super-talented but inconsistent player, one who does not bounce back well from adversity. But if he stays focused he could pose a formidable challenge. He was never expected to be a challenger in the first place, so he may feel he has little to lose and, in accord with his naturally aggressive style, he can take all the chances he wants. Carlsen is considered the superior player, perhaps the greatest ever, and remains a heavy favorite with the sports betting sites.

I am picking Carlsen to win.  And on the future of chess:

Carlsen has argued that the mainstream matches of classical chess are too slow and yield too many draws. He would prefer a time limit of around 25 minutes per game per player to become the default. Why shouldn’t the world of chess switch over to a system that spectators seem to prefer?

If Carlsen retains his title, he may well lead such a switch, and it would be hard for the chess establishment to resist. If Nepo wins the match, Carlsen might secede from the current system, causing the chess world to splinter.

What we are seeing in the lead-up to this match is this: A healthy chess world is going to be a more diversely organized chess world, with a lot of disagreement over which forms of chess are most important. Twitch streaming and YouTube already have joined the mix. Chess is likely to retain its recent popularity, but in doing so it will fully realize its destiny as the esport it has already become. The good news is that if you don’t like the outcome of the upcoming chess drama, you can find another one to watch the next day.


Where to put your nuclear arsenal

I’ve been thinking about the article on MAD you linked to: Haller & Fry’s “The Math is Bad”.  Their point — that you have to run the game theory for the case where a surprise first launch has already occurred — is interesting.

I agree MAD looks bad in that scenario.  But I think the authors misunderstand why.  And therefore their proposed solution — harden & build more capability — won’t work.

From a MAD point of view it’s incredibly stupid to put all your Minuteman missiles in a vast empty area no one cares about.  Obviously the better placement would be to intermix the missiles with major urban centers.

There’s a reason the Minutemen aren’t scattered about New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston, et all, and it’s not because our 1950’s leaders were stupid.  It’s because we’re the good guys (or at least we were), and the good guys are inherently at a disadvantage when it comes to fighting.

It is at least possible to imagine a US president, facing either confirmed missiles in the air or the immediate aftermath of a successful first strike on the minutemen, might ask themself, at least for a moment, “what would be best for (my grandchildren) humanity?” rather than resignedly push the red button whilst saying “even though this won’t help anything, MAD requires I now launch more missiles.”

From that perspective, it really doesn’t matter how formidable our second-strike capacity is.  Our enemies will *always* question our willingness to launch a return strike (on no doubt much messier targets).  Indeed, during the cold war, even the allegedly inhuman Soviets worried about the human element, creating and possibly even implementing the famous Doomsday machine referenced in Dr. Strangelove in an attempt to prevent some wishy-washy comrade from choosing, in the heat of the moment, to avoid exterminating all life on the planet.

That doesn’t mean MAD is invalid, however.

There is another important component to the deterrent that Haller and Fry don’t consider: it may be that use of nuclear weapons even with no return strike is still not a survivable event.  Even if fallout/nuclear winter effects prove mild, a first strike on even the smallest scale would upend the world.  There is no leadership in any nation (save possibly North Korea) that could reasonably expect to survive the consequent metaphorical fallout.

This was put a little more pithily in the 1995 film “Crimson Tide,” when Denzel Washington says to Gene Hackman, “In the nuclear world, the true enemy is war itself.”

That is from Andy Lewicky.

How the game of *Life* evolved

The game underwent numerous updates over the years. The early emphasis on money to determine the winner had been “indicative of what sold in that era,” George Burtch, the former vice president of marketing for Hasbro, which acquired Milton Bradley in 1984, said in a phone interview.

As times changed, so did the game, with players encountering midlife crises and being rewarded for good deeds, like recycling the trash and helping homeless people.

“Reuben was very receptive to the changes — in fact he was often the impetus for them — because he was a businessman,” Mr. Burtch said.

“He understood that the Game of Life was not just the game that he invented; it was a brand,” he added. “And for a brand to remain viable, it has to evolve. It has to reflect the market conditions of the time.”

But as Jill Lepore wrote in The New Yorker in 2007, the redesign teams always had a hard time addressing the fundamental criticism of the game — that the only way to reward a player for virtuous acts was with money: “Save an Endangered Species: Collect $200,000. Solution to Pollution: $250,000. Open Health-Food Chain: $100,000.”

And so the company’s 2007 overhaul, the Game of Life: Twists & Turns, was almost existential. Instead of putting players on a fixed path, it provided multiple ways to start out in life — but nowhere to finish. “This is actually the game’s selling point; it has no goal,” Ms. Lepore wrote. “Life is … aimless.”

That is from an excellent NYT obituary of Reuben Klamer, who invented the game of Life, in addition to numerous other achievements.

Gaming is coming to get us

That is the theme of my latest Bloomberg column, the first part concerns culture, but here is the section on government regulation:

The self-contained nature of games also means they will be breaking down government regulation. Plenty of trading already takes place in games — involving currencies, markets, prices and contracts. Game creators and players set and enforce the rules, and it is harder for government regulators to play a central role.

The lesson is clear: If you wish to create a new economic institution, put it inside a game. Or how about an app that gamifies share trading? Do you wish to experiment with a new kind of stock exchange or security outside the purview of traditional government regulation? Try the world of gaming, perhaps combined with crypto, and eventually your “game” just might influence events in the real world.

To date the regulators have tried to be strict. It is currently difficult to build fully realized new worlds without creating something that is legally defined as an unregistered security. Those regulations don’t receive a lot of attention from the mainstream media, but they are rapidly becoming some of the most significant and restrictive rules on the books.

At the same time, regulators are already falling behind. Just as gaming has outraced the world of culture, so will gaming outrace U.S. regulatory capabilities, for a variety of reasons: encryption, the use of cryptocurrency, the difficulties of policing virtual realities, varying rules in foreign jurisdictions and, not incidentally, a lack of expertise among U.S. regulators. (At least the Chinese government’s attempt to restrict youth gaming to three hours a week, while foolhardy, reflects a perceptive cultural conservatism.)

Both the culture-weakening and the regulation-weakening features of games follow from their one basic characteristic: They are self-contained worlds. Until now, human institutions and structures have depended on relatively open and overlapping networks of ideas. Gaming is carving up and privatizing those spaces. This shift is the big trend that hardly anyone — outside of gaming and crypto — is noticing.

If the much-heralded “metaverse” ever arrives, gaming will swallow many more institutions, or create countervailing versions of them. Whether or not you belong to the world of gaming, it is coming for your worlds. I hope you are ready.

And the piece has a good footnote on how gaming relates to postmodernism.

Two brutal tests — can you pass them?

We all give people “tests” when we meet them, whether we are consciously aware of it or not.  Here are two of mine:

1. The chess test.  When I played chess in my youth, I would commonly analyze games with other players.  You would then rapidly learn just how much and how quickly the other player could figure out the position and see imaginative variations.  Some players maybe had equal or even inferior results to mine (I had a good work ethic and took no drugs), but it was obvious they were greater talents at analysis.  Top chess players who worked with Bobby Fischer also attest that in this regard he was tops, not just “another great player.”  That was true even before he was good enough and steady enough to become world champion.

When talking ideas with people, the same issue surfaces — just how quickly and how imaginatively do they grasp what is going on?  You should put aside whatever they have or have not accomplished.  How much do they have this Bobby Fischer-like capacity to analyze?  No matter what their recent results have been (remember how Efim Geller used to kick Fischer’s butt in actual games?).

2. The art test.  Take a person’s favorite genres of art, music, whatever.  But something outside of their work lives.  Maybe it can even be sports.  How deeply do they understand the said subject matter?  At what kind of level can they talk about it or enjoy it or maybe even practice it?

Remember in Hamlet, how Hamlet puts on a play right before the King’s eyes, to see how the King reacts to “art”?

Here we are testing for sensibility more than any kind of rigorous analysis, though the analysis test may kick in as well.  Just how deep is the person’s deepest sensibility?

If you are investing in talent, you probably would prefer someone really good at one of these tests over someone who is “pretty good” at both of them.

3. All other tests.

Now, people can be very successful while failing both “the chess test” and “the art test.”  In fact, most successful people fail both of these tests.  Still, their kinds of success will be circumscribed.  They are more likely to be hard-working, super-sharp, and accomplished, perhaps charismatic as well, while lacking depth and imaginative faculty in their work.

Nonetheless they will be super-focused on being successful.

I call this the success test.

Now if someone can pass the chess test, the art test, and the success test with flying colors…there are such people!

And if the person doesn’t pass any of those tests, they still might be just fine, but there will be a definite upper cap on their performance.

Against family and entourage?

Many individuals travel between countries as part of their professional routines. How do they perform during those short trips abroad? To begin to answer this question, I analyzed the outcomes of over 5 million chess games played around the world. Importantly, tournament chess provides a clean setting in which location-dependent factors are mostly irrelevant; the audiences are quiet and the referees make hardly any judgments. Controlling for differences in chess skills, I found enhanced performance among players who were competing outside of their home countries. This finding was robust to additional controls such as age, sex, and skill momentum or game practice, and to the inclusion of individual or country fixed effects. This advantage, an approximately 2% increase in game outcome, suggests that traveling has a positive effect on performance.

Here is the full paper by Uri Zak, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Who are the most rational people?

From John A. Doces and Amy Wolaver:

We examine the question of rationality, replicating two core experiments used to establish that people deviate from the rational actor model. Our analysis extends existing research to a developing country context. Based on our theoretical expectations, we test if respondents make decisions consistent with the rational actor framework. Experimental surveys were administered in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, two developing countries in West Africa, focusing on issues of risk aversion and framing. Findings indicate that respondents make decisions more consistent with the rational actor model than has been found in the developed world. Extending our analysis to test if the differences in responses are due to other demographic differences between the African samples and the United States, we replicated these experiments on a nationally representative analysis in the U.S., finding results primarily consistent with the seminal findings of irrationality. In the U.S. and Côte d’Ivoire, highly educated people make decisions that are less consistent with the rational model while low-income respondents make decisions more consistent with the rational model. The degree to which people are irrational thus is contextual, possibly western, and not nearly as universal as has been concluded.

Speculative, and not replicated, but the point remains of definite interest.  Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

A new chess variant

With Steven Brams, an American game theorist, Ismail devised a radical but easily implemented solution to the perceived white bias in chess. Their system, dubbed “balanced alternation”, allows black to make two moves after white’s opening move, with white then taking the next two moves before reverting to standard play.

By giving black a double riposte to white’s opening, Ismail argues that the imbalance would be sharply reduced and “render chess fairer than any other reform of which we are aware”.

…Other players questioned whether chess really needs to be fairer, given the number of draws at elite level. When AlphaZero played itself in last year’s experiment, 98 per cent of the games ended in draws. “More draws? What a bore!” said a leading chess writer.

Ismail acknowledged that the chess world “can be very conservative”. He added: “I do expect a backlash at a proposal like this, but I hope open-minded players will want to give it a try.”

Here is more from The Times of London (gated).  You will note that my pet proposal for reforming chess also introduces a kind of color equity, though it is not motivated by that goal.  To limit the import of opening preparation and to minimize the number of draws, we should randomize the initial opening moves, but within reason, with an average value clustered around 0.00, and with a focus on non-drawish lines.  So some games would start with 1.b4 d5, which is “playable” for White, though few players would move as such in a major tournament.  Most of the randomizations shoul be fairly sharp variations, and so the randomization would allow the Petroff and Berlin to surface only one out of every 768 games.

Chess grandmaster markets in everything

But for some players, securing a prestigious title meant more than just playing well. It is an open secret in chess that many players cut side deals with tournament organizers and other top competitors that help them achieve norms they might have struggled to get legitimately.

This culture touched the Momot club. Many of its members acquired their grandmaster credentials in Crimea, at tournaments in places like Sudak and Alushta that were known as “norm factories” — where, for as little as $1,000, organizers would make sure players accumulated enough points for a norm.

But there were other, more subtle, ways to succeed, too. Far from prying eyes, secret agreements and cash exchanges to arrange results were not uncommon, according to interviews with chess players and FIDE officials. In a sport so wholly obsessed with status, title and rank, even selling a game could be accomplished for the right price.

Mikhail Zaitsev, who achieved the rank of International Master and is now a chess coach, estimated that of the world’s roughly 1,900 living grandmasters, at least 10 percent have cheated one way or another to acquire the title. Shohreh Bayat, one of the leading arbiters in chess, describes such arrangements in the plainest terms. “Match fixing,” she said, “is cheating.” Some hopefuls didn’t even have to play a game of chess to get the points they needed: Some tournaments, she said, took place only on paper.

Here is more from Ivan Nechepurenko and at the NYT.