Category: Games

Brexit update (POTMR)

Boris Johnson is planning to force a new Brexit deal through parliament in just 10 days — including holding late-night and weekend sittings — in a further sign of Downing Street’s determination to negotiate an orderly exit from the EU. According to Number 10 officials, Mr Johnson’s team has drawn up detailed plans under which the prime minister would secure a deal with the EU at a Brussels summit on October 17-18, before pushing the new withdrawal deal through parliament at breakneck speed.

The pound rose 1.1 per cent against the US dollar to $1.247 on Friday amid growing optimism that Mr Johnson has now decisively shifted away from the prospect of a no-deal exit and is focused on a compromise largely based on Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement.

That is new from the FT, here is part of my Brexit post from August 29:

I would sooner think that Boris Johnson wishes to see through a relabeled version of the Teresa May deal, perhaps with an extra concession from the EU tacked on.  His dramatic precommitment raises the costs to the Tories of not supporting such a deal, and it also may induce slight additional EU concessions.  The narrower time window forces the recalcitrants who would not sign the May deal to get their act together and fall into line, more or less now.

Uncertainty is high, but the smart money says the Parliamentary suspension is more of a stage play, and a move toward an actual deal, than a leap to authoritarian government.

This remains very much an open question, but if you “solve for the equilibrium,” that is indeed what you get.

Boris Johnson’s suspension of Parliament

The betting markets have stayed in the 48-55 range for Brexit by year’s end, even after the suspension announcement.  That to me does not sound like “hard Brexit hell or high water.”

I would sooner think that Boris Johnson wishes to see through a relabeled version of the Teresa May deal, perhaps with an extra concession from the EU tacked on.  His dramatic precommitment raises the costs to the Tories of not supporting such a deal, and it also may induce slight additional EU concessions.  The narrower time window forces the recalcitrants who would not sign the May deal to get their act together and fall into line, more or less now.

Uncertainty is high, but the smart money says the Parliamentary suspension is more of a stage play, and a move toward an actual deal, than a leap to authoritarian government.

That said, I still do not like either Brexit or the suspension.

The new and improved Magnus Carlsen

After a few years of only so-so (but still world #1) results, Magnus has I believe won five tournaments in a row this year and he is leading in the sixth, currently running in Croatia.

He recently stated that he has learned some new chess ideas from AlphaZero, but more importantly he has shown up better prepared in the openings than his opponents, probably for the first time in his career.  Yet his preparation has taken an extraordinary spin.  Other grandmasters prepare the opening in the hope of achieving an early advantage over their opponents.  Magnus’s preparation, in contrast, is directed at achieving an early disadvantage in the game, perhaps willing to tolerate as much as -0.5 or -0.6 by the standards of the computer (a significant but not decisive disadvantage, with -2 signifying a lost position).  Nonetheless these are positions “out of book” where Magnus nonetheless feels he can outplay his opponent, and this is mostly opponents from the world top ten or fifteen.

So far it is working.  One commentator wrote: “Magnus is turning into a crushing monster just like Garry. He isn’t the strangler anymore”

And it is hard to counter someone looking for a disadvantage!

Claims about Iran (model this)

“Iran has probably arrived at the conclusion that it has less to lose from acting this way than from doing nothing,” Aniseh Tabrizi, a research fellow and Iran expert at London’s Royal United Services Institute, told CNBC via phone Tuesday.

“There is a gamble behind it that wasn’t there before, which is: ‘If other countries retaliate, we are willing to take the risk because we have really nothing to lose at this point’,” Tabrizi described. “And that is a dangerous way to feel.”

Iran’s economy is expected to shrink by 6% this year, after having contracted 3.9% last year, the International Monetary Fund says. By contrast, it clocked 3.8% growth in 2017, before the Trump administration re-imposed economic sanctions after withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal that offered the Islamic Republic relief from prior sanctions.


“It’s all about careful calibration and plausible deniability,” Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told CNBC.

Iran’s tactics, experts say, are designed to disrupt but not provoke a military response. So far, attacks have specifically avoided civilian deaths and environmental damage like an oil spill.

Instead, the Revolutionary Guard or its naval equivalent may be sending the message that it’s capable of undermining U.S. and Arab Gulf states’ interests in the region. And if they feel they can get away with it, it’s because they’re banking on President Donald Trump not wanting to actually start a war.

“Ultimately, Iran’s intention is to call President Trump’s bluff,” says Ibish.

I don’t have a clear view on this matter, but find it an interesting and of course important question.  Here is more from Natasha Turak.

Don’t relax about nuclear war

That is the theme of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one bit:

Each generation has its own form of recency bias, as it is called in behavioral economics. Just after Sept. 11, for example, there was great concern about follow-up attacks. (Thankfully, nothing comparable followed.) Now we worry a lot — maybe too much — about insolvent banks, insufficiently high inflation, and the Chinese shock to U.S. manufacturing.

So what about nuclear war? Looking forward, the reality is that the risks of such a war are quite small in any particular year. But let the clock run and enough years pass, and a nuclear exchange of some kind becomes pretty likely.

I have found that people with a background in financial market trading are best equipped to understand the risks of nuclear war. An analogy might be helpful: Say you write a deeply out-of-the-money put, without an offsetting hedge. This is in fact a very risky action, though almost all of the time you will get away with it. When you don’t, however — when market prices move against you — you can lose all of your wealth quite suddenly.

In other words: Sooner or later the unexpected will come to pass.


Meanwhile, a generation of hypersonic delivery systems, being developed by China, Russia and the U.S., will shorten the response time available to political and military leaders to minutes. That raises the risk of a false signal turning into a decision to retaliate, or it may induce a nation to think that a successful first strike is possible. Remember, it’s not enough for the principle of mutual assured destruction to be generally true; it has to be always true.

Do read the whole thing, which includes a discussion of Steven Pinker as well.

Which countries are best for creating and encouraging women chess players?

Via David Smerdon, here is the picture:

To oversimplify only a wee bit, it is the countries with less gender equality which have more female chess players, relative to male chess players.  Here is some description:

Denmark is the worst country in our list of participation, with only one female player to roughly 50 males, while the rest of Scandinavia as well as most of western Europe also languish at the bottom.

On the other hand, some of the best countries show evidence of the effect of female role models, and would be no surprise to players familiar with women’s chess history. Georgia (ranked 5th) and China (ranked 4th) both featured multiple women’s World Champions. There are also some high rates from a few unexpected sources: Vietnam (1st), the United Arab Emirates (2nd), Indonesia (8th), and even Kenya (12th) really buck the trend. Interestingly, a lot of the best countries for female chess players are in Asia. Besides Vietnam, there are five other countries in the best ten, and if I am a little more lenient with the chess population cut-offs, Mongolia and Tajikistan would also be in there.

Here is one cited hypothesis:

Could it be that, deep down, women just don’t like chess as much as men?

I consider that to be possible, but unconfirmed.  In any case, the lesson is that gender imbalance in a particular field can be correlated with greater equality of opportunity overall.

Solve for the equilibrium

This one concerns China:

A person familiar with the negotiations said Myanmar’s government reached out to the U.S. to request help reviewing the contract [with China] to ensure it didn’t include any hidden traps. This person said other Western countries, including the U.K. and Australia, provided similar assistance.

The negotiations “were very much Burmese-led but armed with the advice of the Americans and others as well. We were able to go to the Chinese [and say], ‘This part is OK, this part is problematic in terms of debt,’” the person said, referring to the country by its previous name.

The Myanmar port deal is part of an economic and diplomatic influence campaign known as the Belt and Road Initiative, a signature effort by Chinese President Xi Jinping to dot the globe with Chinese-funded infrastructure projects.

Here is the full WSJ story by Ben Kesling and Jon Emont.

CEOs play games cooperatively, and well

We study whether CEOs of private firms differ from other people with regard to their strategic decisions and beliefs about others’ strategy choices. Such differences are interesting since CEOs make decisions that are economically more relevant, because they affect not only their own utility or the well-being of household members, but the utility of many stakeholders inside and outside of the organization. They also play a central role in shaping values and norms in society. We expect differences between both groups, because CEOs are more experienced with strategic decision making than comparable people in other professional roles. Yet, due to the difficulties in recruiting this high-profile group for academic research, few studies have explored how CEOs make incentivized decisions in strategic games under strict controls and how their choices in such games differ from those made by others. Our study combines a stratified random sample of 200 CEOs of medium-sized firms with a carefully selected control group of 200 comparable people. All subjects participated in three incentivized games—Prisoner’s Dilemma, Chicken, Battle-of-the-Sexes. Beliefs were elicited for each game. We report substantial and robust differences in both behavior and beliefs between the CEOs and the control group. The most striking results are that CEOs do not best respond to beliefs; they cooperate more, play less hawkish and thereby earn much more than the control group.

Here is the paper, by Håkan J. Holm, Victor Nee, and Sonja Opper, via the excellent Rolf Degen.

Who again has the power to end the government shutdown?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

The real power here is held by government employees, especially those in critical jobs. Let’s say that more TSA screeners decided to walk off the job. It’s already the case that the TSA absentee rate has gone up to 7.6 percent, from 3.2 percent a year ago. It is possible to imagine screeners staying home in much greater numbers, thus crippling the entire nation. That could either force President Donald Trump’s hand or lead to a congressional override of a potential presidential veto.


As a rationale for showing up to work, “I’m helping both the TSA and my colleagues” can work for a while, because of both cooperative norms and peer pressure. But I don’t think it can hold things together for more than a few months. They may not have the right to strike, but federal employees can still gum up the works with high absenteeism and poor performance.

I really don’t expect anything good to come of this entire episode.

Athletes Don’t Own Their Tattoos

NYTimes: Any creative illustration “fixed in a tangible medium” is eligible for copyright, and, according to the United States Copyright Office, that includes the ink displayed on someone’s skin. What many people don’t realize, legal experts said, is that the copyright is inherently owned by the tattoo artist, not the person with the tattoos.

Some tattoo artists have sold their rights to firms which are now suing video game producers who depict the tattoos on the players likenesses:

The company Solid Oak Sketches obtained the copyrights for five tattoos on three basketball players — including the portrait and area code on Mr. James — before suing in 2016 because they were used in the NBA 2K series.

…Before filing its lawsuit, Solid Oak sought $819,500 for past infringement and proposed a $1.14 million deal for future use of the tattoos.

To avoid this shakedown, players are now being told to get licenses from artists before getting tattooed.

Is the age of man-machine cooperation over in chess?

Given further data on the stunning performances of AlphaZero, Charles Murray asked me that on Twitter.  And for now the answer surely seems to be yes: just let AlphaZero rip, and keep the human at bay.  It’s a bit like the joke about the factory: “The dog is there to keep the man away from the machines, and the man is there to guard the dog.”  (Or is it the other way around?)

But here’s the thing: right now there is only one AlphaZero, and AlphaZero does not play like God (I think).  At some point there will be more projects of this kind, and they will not always agree as to what is the best chess move.  Re-enter the human!  Imagine a human turning on AlphaZero and five other such programs, seeing where they disagree, and then querying the programs further to find a better answer.  It is at least possible (though not necessary) that a human will be better at doing this than will a machine.

Keep in mind, the original role in the human in Advanced [man-machine] Chess was not to substitute human chess judgment for machine chess judgment in any kind of discretionary fashion.  It was to adjudicate disagreements across programs: “Rybka has a slightly better opening book.  Fritz is better in closed endgames.  Houdini is tops at defense.”  And so on.  The human then sided with one engine over the others, or simply spent more engine time investigating some options rather than others.

It could possibly run the same way for neural net methods, once we have a general sense of the strengths and weaknesses of different projects.  So yes, man-machine cooperation in chess is a loser right now, but it may well come back.  And there is a broader economic lesson in that, namely that automation may eliminate jobs, but it does not necessarily eliminate them permanently.

How to save the future of chess

Matt asks:

I saw your post about whether the 12th game draw was wise or not, but I haven’t seen this bit so far – I’m curious what you think the 12 draws mean for the future of classical chess? Have we hit the point where the very best in classical will just resign themselves to draws? Should we look to blitz or Chess960 to determine the very best?

It is now 24 world championship games in a row, spread out over two contests, with only two decisive results.  Games between top grandmasters don’t end in draws nearly so often, so something is wrong with the incentives!  The most common claim you hear is that in a 12-game match it is “too hard to come back from a loss,” so the players don’t take enough chances.  That to me seems under-argued from a “maximize expected value backwards induction” point of view (a given move either boosts your expected value from the game or it doesn’t), but in any case there does seem to be a problem.  (Too much advance preparation of openings?)  On top of that, people are upset that two “classical time control” world championships in a row have been decided by the Rapid tiebreaker.

My first suggestion is to extend the matches to 24 games, but in the event of a tie at the end leave the reigning world champion with the title.  That avoids the arbitrariness of any tie-breaking method, places what is to me a justified burden on the challenger, and seems to be enough games to prevent the reigning champion from simply stonewalling with a long series of draws.  And there is plenty of precedent in chess history for matches that long, was it not nice when the Soviets paid for everything?

That said, I fear that venue costs are too high, the length of the match too variable (try booking a top hall under such conditions), and the drawing out of play would make the match harder to market to corporate and other sponsors, who are more interested in concentrated media attention (“In the future, every contender will be famous for fifteen chess games.”)

Chess960 games I find ugly, counterintuitive, and hard to follow.

So how about this?  Have the openings in each game — say the first eight to ten moves — be chosen randomly, but out of a set of high quality but somewhat riskier than average alternatives (no Petroff!).  This would limit the ability of players to choose intrinsically drawish lines with Black.  It also would steer the games away from paths where both players know the main lines thirty moves deep or more, which of course is boring and also conducive to lots of draws.

I would note that many computer vs. computer matches already are played with such a method, and it does seem to make those games more dynamic.

I don’t doubt this method might cause top players to invest all the more time in preparing openings, to avoid being caught entirely off guard (everyone would end up knowing at least something about the Poisoned Pawn Sicilian).  Still, there are limits to total prep, and the games would end up as more exciting, and probably more decisive, whether the players like it or not.

Let’s do it, and limit the impact of this insane arms race in opening preparation.

The game 12 draw

From an email I just sent:

My view was this: if you play out the main computer lines for 8-10 moves, Black’s position does not really improve, nor are White’s holding moves hard to find (he just has to shuffle back and forth).

Black does not have the structural advantage to enable a later transposition into a favorable endgame.

So it actually is a draw!  (sort of)

Does the agreement[to draw]  have to be non-Bayesian?  There is a “vague range,” and by Magnus Carlsen offering the draw maybe he, as Kasparov suggested, lowered his own chances for the rapid tiebreak (shows some loss of nerve), until they were in the same “vague range” as the game 12 final setting.

So Magnus is saying “I don’t have a way of pressing that is better than my chances in the rapid tiebreak,” and Caruana is agreeing and knows that Magnus knows this.

Maybe not “strictly” Bayesian, but it doesn’t seem crazy to me either.

I thank S. for a relevant conversation on these points.