Category: Games

What are the odds that the best chess player in the world has never played chess?

The more general issues are how well the modern world allocates talent and how much exposure you need to something you eventually will be very good at. 

My view is that people who are born into a reasonably good educational infrastructure get exposed repeatedly — albeit briefly — to lots of the activities which might intrigue them.  If the activity is going to click with them, it has the chance.  To borrow the initial example, most high schools and junior high schools have chess clubs and not just in the wealthiest countries.  Virtually everyone is put in touch with math, music, kite-flying, poetry, and so on at relatively young ages. 

The idea of taking an economics class in college, or picking up some economics literature, strikes most educated people at some point, even if they squash the notion like a bug.  If there is some other Paul Samuelson-quality-would-have-been who didn't become an economist, perhaps he preferred some other avocation even more.

Billions of people are not exposed to quality economics, math, music, etc., but those people also don't have the nutrition, the education, the infrastructure, or whatever, to excel at world class levels.  The infrastructure and the exposure come together and in that sense we keep on mining the pool of potential talent.  (Their only modal scenario to #1 for these individuals is an entirely different life altogether; mere additional exposure won't do it.) 

Ernest Bazanye is blogging from Uganda.

Some people get stuck in local genres, such as a brilliant Nigerian learning funk or rap, in his teen years, but not modern jazz and besides he can't find a Nigerian market for the latter in any case.  These "specialization corners" are less of a problem for math or economics, although the unification of those areas is fraying with time. 

Magnus Carlsen's father suggested that if he hadn't had an older sister, he might not have taken up the game at all.  Magnus was uninterested at ages four and five, but grew intrigued at age eight when he watched his father play chess with his older sister.  I read this anecdote as suggesting he would have been exposed again to the game, one way or another, probably in school.

Two scenarios militate against my thesis.  First, mistreated savants may not receive the necessary exposure to the activity.   I am very much a believer in the potential productivity of mistreated savants.  Still, I believe they often do best when not trying to be pure #1 in some commonly contested, measurable area but rather by filling unusual and hard to specify niches in a broader production process and benefiting from the division of labor to an especially high degree.

Second, a large number of children are placed on medication at early ages.  This may not eliminate their exposure to an activity in the literal sense, but it may stop them from responding to potential interests.

In sum, I believe that the odds that "the best (modal) chess player in the world" has never played chess is well under fifty percent but probably above ten percent. 

Christmas Game Theory

The lovely wife says the jewelry I bought her for Christmas has to be returned because "it's just too expensive!"  Excellent.  I get the credit without the credit bill!

What I will never reveal is how far I looked down the game tree before purchase.

Addendum: Do not try this at home.  Without extensive knowledge of game theory and your spouse this strategy can be very dangerous to your finances, c.f. Thomas Schelling, brinksmanship.  

Bad Scrabble strategy, from Alaska

I try not to blog Sarah Palin, but this passage, reproduced on Andrew Sullivan's blog, caught my interest for non-Palin reasons:

"Everybody in the family played Scrabble and took great pride in hoarding Ks and Qs and slapping them down in long, fancy words on triple-letter scores." — Going Rogue, p. 12.

Sullivan's reader objects that there is only one K and one Q but I think permissible to use the plural in this context, referring to general acts of hoarding over time.

My point is that this is bad Scrabble strategy.  The way to do very well is to put down seven-letter words on bonus squares, thereby getting the fifty-point bonus for using all your letters and doubled or tripled at that.  Such a strategy means maximizing one's holdings of S, R, E, T, O, A, and N, essentially, and dumping awkward letters which stand in the way.  "ING" is a powerful combination.  In addition, high frequency letters help you link up with other words running crossways, boosting your score further.

The astute MR reader will recognize here that we are dealing with portfolio theory, albeit where many assets are complements rather than near-perfect substitutes.

K doesn't mesh well with most other letters and so you should try to dump it quickly.  Q is paralyzing unless you have a U to go with it.  If you are happy because you could lay down "quit" on a double word score, for 26 points, I would say you are not a very ambitious Scrabble player, all the more if you hoarded letters and waited turns to do that.  (You have some chance of "aliquot" or "quaeres" or "quinoas," but do you really expect to score "obloquy," "quassia," or "qigongs"?, keeping in mind that if you build upon an already-laid tile you need an eight-letter word with q to score the bonus.)

If this is her game of Scrabble, you can only imagine what her foreign policy would be like.

Correction: If you search inside the book, you will see that she is referring to the Scrabble strategies of her grandparents, not her own Scrabble strategies.  They are the ones who cannot be trusted with U.S. foreign policy and it can also be said that she misses this chance to condemn their weak gaming strategies.

I thank Seth H. for the pointer.

How to flip a coin

Chris Blattman reports:

Using a high-speed camera that photographed people flipping coins,
the three researchers determined that a coin is more likely to land
facing the same side on which it started. If tails is facing up when
the coin is perched on your thumb, it is more likely to land tails up.

How much more likely? At least 51 percent of the time, the
researchers claim, and possibly as much as 55 percent to 60 percent –
depending on the flipping motion of the individual.

The original research is here.

*The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History with Jigsaws*

Many writers (including W.H. Auden, Georges Perec, Julian Mitchell, Julian Barnes, Ronald Harwood and Jonathan Raban) have been addicted to crossword puzzles, but I have never taken to them either.  The hours of freedom from words are a relief to me, though of course I acknowledge that, paradoxically, I then seem to feel the need of words to try to analyse the nature of this freedom.

That's because writing is an illness. A chronic, incurable illness.  I caught it by default when I was twenty-one, and I often wish I hadn't.  It seemed to start off as therapy, but it became the illness that it set out to cure.

That is from the new Margaret Drabble book, which indeed is about her obsession with jigsaw puzzles.  While I do not myself have an interest in jigsaw puzzles, or crosswords, I am nonetheless finding the book very interesting.  It will baffle many of her traditional fans but that's probably for the better.

The economics of Legoland and the revelation principle

At Legoland, admission is discounted for two-year-olds. But a child must be at least three for most of the fun attractions.

At the ticket window the parents are asked how old the child is. But
at the ride entrance the attendants ask the children directly.

The parents lie. The children tell the truth.

That is again Jeff Ely, from

Via you-know-who

There is strategy involved in giving and interpreting compliments. 
Let’s say you hear someone play a difficult –but not too difficult–
piece on the piano, and she plays it well.  Is it a compliment if you
tell her she played it beautifully?

That depends.  You would not be impressed by the not-so-difficult
piece if you knew that she was an outstanding pianist.  So if you tell
her you are impressed, then you are telling her that you don’t think
she is an outstanding pianist.  And if she is, or aspires to be, an
outstanding pianist, then your attempted compliment is in fact an

This means that, in most cases, the best way to compliment the
highly accomplished is not to offer any compliment at all.  This
conveys that all of her fine accomplishments are exactly what you
expected of her.  But, do wait for when she really outdoes herself and
then tell her so.  You don’t want her to think that you are someone who
just never gives compliments.  Once that is taken care of, she will
know how to properly interpret your usual silence.

In the world of blogs, when you comment on an article on another
blog, it is usually a nice compliment to provide a link to the original
post.  This is a compliment because it tells your readers that the
other blog is worth visiting and reading.  But you may have noticed
that discussions of the really well-known blogs don’t come with links. 
For example, when I comment on an article posted at a blog like
Marginal Revolution, I usually write merely “via MR, …” with no link.

That’s the best way to compliment a blog that is, or aspires to be,
really well-known. It proves that you know that your readers already
know the blog in question, know how to get there, and indeed have
probably already read and pondered the article being discussed.

Pretty excellent, no?

Addendum: An explanation, from the one you would expect.

The mass sterilization of half of humanity

Bill, a loyal MR reader, asks:

A freak solar event "sterilizes" the half of the planet (people, animals, etc) facing the sun. What happens?

Putting aside, the "which half" question, I would predict the collapse of many fiat currencies and the immediate insolvency of most financial institutions.  Who could meet all those margin calls?  Unemployment would exceed 20 percent and martial law would be declared, food rationing and guys with rifles on street corners.  The affected countries would take in larger numbers of immigrants, especially young immigrants from poorer countries, to keep their societies going and to use and maintain the still-standing capital stock.  Many of those immigrants might be better off in the longer run, especially if they could internalize the norms of the host country by the time the original inhabitants perished.  If you let me "cheat," I'll postulate that genetic engineering is used to perpetuate the genes of the original inhabitants.

If a poor country were hit by this blast the eventual result probably would be mass starvation.  There is a chance that social order would collapse across the entire globe, due mostly to contagion effects, multiple equilibria, and bad expectations.

To some of you these mental exercises may seem silly.  Indeed they are silly.  But what's wrong with silly?  Such questions get at the stability of social order, the sources of that stability, and the general importance of demography and intergenerational relations.  Those are all topics we don't think enough about.  Because we're not silly enough.

Markets in everything

has a convivial party atmosphere and is far more female friendly than a normal
boxing crowd, with 40% of tickets purchased by ladies.

Here is more, with the subheader Swedish Chessboxing Sensation in London.  About a year ago, five or so people sent me links about chessboxing for "Markets in Everything."  I didn't think it was weird enough to merit inclusion in the series.  But now, with the addition of "Swedish" and "ladies" to the mix (or is it the "convivial party atmosphere"?), I think it is weird enough.  Here is Wikipedia on chessboxing.

When No Means Yes

… Having voted against the administration's climate change bill on the record means that at least some of these House Democrats will be able to vote for what emerges from a House-Senate conference later in the year. Therefore, the chances of a climate bill being enacted this year is now much greater than it was 24 hours ago.

That's the ever-perceptive Stan Collender on the politics of the climate change bill.

My (short) life as a gamer

For years I've been promising Bryan Caplan and Robin Hanson that I would play an afternoon game with them, if only once.  And for years I've held out.  Since I used to play chess, Scrabble, and other games I cannot claim an intrinsic dislike of gaming.  Yesterday I tried to play Kremlin with them but I had to give up after thirty minutes.  My head hurt and I was not motivated to impose interesting structure on the game as a life activity.  I'm still looking for a simple model of my failure.  One hypothesis is that anyone who deals with university administration, as I sometimes do, will have no marginal taste for playing Kremlin.