This afternoon, I started teaching Sam about board games, starting with noughts and crosses. What was particularly interesting was the problem of how to play as badly as possible so that Junior would get a taste for winning. I worked out that I should aim for the squares a2, b1, b3 and c2 on the 3×3 matrix, and above all avoid the center square (b2). And these thoughts led me towards what is probably the optimal strategy if one is trying to win, i.e. going for b2 immediately. OK, the game will be a draw, but this maximizes the number of losing possibilities for the opponent. And the same strategy is the best way to play chess, and I'm sure checkers too.

Anyway, this line of reasoning got me wondering whether the best strategies in other games (e.g. chess, checkers and markets) might be worked out by first considering the worst things to do. My top losing strategies for chess and markets are the following:


a) Getting into areas one doesn't understand

b) Violating the laws of Steinitz (e.g. trying to 'win' from inferior positions or playing on the wrong side of the board)

c) Burning bridges


a) Making commitments based on hearsay

b) Shorting markets with drift

c) Applying too much leverage

Besides the clear analogy between the a's, b's and c's in both lists, what really struck me about this was that weak players violate all of them whereas the best players will only transgress b and c, and this will be to pursue exceptional returns in markets or finishing in the top five or so in a 200 player tournament.

My conclusion from these ruminations is that it's not that hard to play a sound game, but the demands required to play an exceptional game probably increase exponentially the higher one raises the bar. It reminded me of a piece that Rashid Ziatdinov, an interesting and original chess thinker, sent me some years back.

Agzamov's style was to win by making no mistakes; he was determined to make no errors. This puts titanic pressure on opponents. He played similarly to how a computer plays now: no "great plans," but no tactical mistakes. This strategy was successful against many of Agzamov's powerful opponents.

Tal-Agzamov is one of George's best games. Look how the great Tal missed d4! (but not George!). Black won the exchange but not the game. The next step was to force Tal to make another mistake, to make him tired; this sounds dishonorable, but its not, its an honorable stratagem. George repeated the position many times and finally, when the real battle began, Tal made another mistake (Bd5) induced not from time-trouble, but from fatigue.

Alan Millhone adds: 

I knew Marion Tinsley well 30 years ago. He played chess when he began college and switched over to checkers. He will be known as the greatest checker player who ever lived. He played the best move that he knew (always) and was patient to wait until an opportunity arose. When playing 3-Move, he disliked the easy openings and would ask for a draw, hoping to draw a more difficult opening from the ballot of cards. When two equal opponents play checkers, they are supposed to end in a draw. Ron 'Suki' King will play out about any seeking to win. He has a high record for won games because of his pursuit of wins.

I have the book on Chinook and the annotated games Marion played against Chinook. I doubt if he would stand a chance today with the new expanded opening book and end game databases on checker programs. The computer computes too quickly and never gets tired!

I know little of the stock market (will learn a lot from being on the spec list, but I know a lot about losing in checkers. I found out years ago that to play better, you have to play better opponents. I left the game in 1970 and did not return until 1999. In 2000, I entered my fist nationals and played in the majors. From then on, I moved myself into the Masters and continued to play there. I don't have the time necessary to master the openings, so I drift into trouble early at times with those more learned than I am. Now to chess:

a) I readily get into areas I don't know due to my lack of knowledge. Lack of knowledge (research), I am sure, will hurt you in the market as well.

b) Tommie Wiswell admonished to "keep the draw in sight." This, I am sure, applies to the market on knowing when to 'fold' on a particular stock and move on to the next 'trade' (game).

c) To me, burning bridges in a board game is getting too developed (exposed) and then having no 'back up' or way out. In the market, you buy and buy a stock when it is time to unload.

Does your thoughts on Agzamov have anything to do with game theory ? Our World Champion, Alexander Moiseyev, has his own set of 'golden rules' for the game of checkers. His fine book, Sixth, pays homage to how he plays and to his own theories on the game of checkers.

Tinsley played 'safe' until an opportunity presented itself. Those before him like Long, Hellman, and Case also were all safe players until they could secure an 'edge' due to their opponent overplaying their position or simply making a blunder.

Nigel Davies comments:

Thanks for the interesting thoughts. Despite not playing checkers, I can see there are a lot of parallels. I wonder if anyone has attempted a generalized theory of game playing. My debate with the Israeli professor betrayed the fact that I don't think 'game theory' has any relevance to a practical struggle, and those more academically inclined than myself were able to add flesh to the bones of my argument by pointing out the oversimplified assumptions. Lasker wrote an encyclopedia of card games that was very interesting, as is Lasker's Manual of Chess. But I have only seen a copy of the former in Copenhagen's Library - I don't believe it was ever reprinted.

Ziyatdinov is a mathematician as well as a Grand Master strength in chess, and his thoughts will reflect this to a large extent. But as far as I know, they bear no relation to anything devised by game theorists. They are his own and are quite original. He maintains for example that a player should learn some 300 positions perfectly as explained in his book, GM Ram. As a player, he is also highly original, playing old fashioned openings without any particular theoretical knowledge, but showing great practical strength in the later stages. He marches to a different beat.

The area of 'knowledge' and 'understanding' is much more complex than I portrayed with my one-liner. For example, I think that many players, even professionals, find themselves playing without a perfect understanding of what they are doing. There is just so much to every field when you start to get deeply into these things. I have been struggling myself to juggle too many obligations (actually I think my chess has been getting weaker ever since my peak around 1993-97) and have concluded that trying to master more than one field is already way too much for ordinary mortals. So the problem players in unprofitable areas face is how to find the time. Many only get to devote themselves when their minds aren't quite as mentally sharp (not to mention reduced stamina). One of the good things about Communism was that they allowed their game players to maintain amateur status by giving them jobs, but all they had to do was collect their paychecks!





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