Saturday, May 24, 2008

error in chess and life

For me, competitive chess is sometimes the best way for becoming self aware of my own potential to make idiotic decisions.

That is good for me. Although, that particular way may not work for you, I would argue in general that it's important for everyone to become aware of their potential for idiocy. Unless of course you are one of those people who don't make idiotic mistakes.

In chess you win, lose or draw and so there is objective measure of performance. (cf. "real life" where stupid decisions can continue to be disputed for years, sometimes even centuries.)

Over the board competitive chess is public - other players watch your games and observe your brilliance or stupidity, as the case may be. Chess has a touch move rule so mistakes cannot be withdrawn even if you see them after you move and before your opponent has replied. Your mistakes are irreversible, your guts lay on the floor and everyone can see them. In chess you can make a whole series of good moves and then wreck it all with a single bad move, perhaps when tired and under time pressure from the clock.

Although this is not "real life", there are enough similarities for the learning process to transfer into real life. Many chess players do assert this. As in real life there are different types of errors, such as: incorrect evaluation of the whole position (you think it is better for you but it is really better for your opponent); tactical calculation errors (you miss your opponents killer move after a 3 move deep sequence); atrocious blindness when tired or in time pressure ("how on earth could I have been so stupid as to miss that?").

Unlike the colour of the pieces this process is far from black and white. In many chess positions there are a handful of "good" moves (not just one good move) surrounded by many poor moves. This means that chess players can have style as well, eg. "positional", "aggressive", "closed", "open", "Nimzovitchian, etc."

Competitive chess players develop acute sensibilities with respect to error and the potential for error. This develops in a significant way for serious players who go through their games afterwards to identify at least some of their errors. This can take the form of an immediate postmortem. In my experience nearly all serious players accept the invitation to go through the game immediately after it is finished (time permitting). For players into improving their game further this is followed up by an analysis at home with annotations and running positions through a computer program such as Fritz, for further enlightenment.

It's best to look hardest at your losses, which can be (is) a painful experience. I know of many chess players who confess to sleepless nights after a painful loss. At the highest level this has even become life threatening in exteme cases. Karpov lost 10 kg and was hospitalised several times in his famous 1984 match against Kasparov (reference). This is the way that good players improve - by intimate dissection of their own stupid errors in an attempt to reduce errors in the future.

This chess process seems to me to be quite similar to the development of scientific knowledge - the public process of hypothesising, experimenting, making knowledge claims publicly and then arguing about those claims. This process of casting away illusions about ones own competence and becoming involved in a sometimes painful process of internal struggle with ones ignorance is central to both individual development and our development as a society.

Elaborations from other fields:

1) Marvin Minsky coins the phrase "negative expertise" in part as a critique of the behaviourist approach ("who trained themselves to think only about the physical actions that people do, while ignoring questions about what people do not do") but also because "negative expertise ... is a very large part of every person's precious collection of common sense knowledge ... much of what we come to know is based on learning from our mistakes" (The Emotion Machine, section 3.5, p. 81)

2) John Lienhard in his historical review of how books changed the world:
.... what principles should the adults, who currently control things, follow, in shaping a future we cannot predict? Lienhard recommends:
  1. Seek out our own ignorance, that wisdom is having some awareness of our ignorance
3) Alan Kay's views on system design, summarised by John Maxwell:
The problem with both a user centred approach to design and a designer centred approach is that both assume that we know in advance what the system will be like. So, the starting point for designing a children's machine ought to acknowledge ignorance, that we don't know the endpoint.

How do we build a system that can grow into something yet unforseen by either its users or designers?

It ought to be more like paper or clay than a finished device like a car or a TV.

One metaphor here is cell biology. One kind of building block which can differentiate into all the needed building blocks. You need an evolutionary approach.

Late binding (Etoys, References) allows a fluid approach to change, the opposite of hard wired instrumentalism.
- alan kay's educational vision
4) the domains of ignorance
Known unknowns: All the things you know you don't know
Unknown unknowns: All the things you don't know you don't know
Errors: All the things you think you know but don't
Unknown knowns: All the things you don't know you know
Taboos: Dangerous, polluting or forbidden knowledge
Denials: All the things too painful to know, so you don't
- from The Domains of Ignorance
5) five orders of ignorance

from Philip Armour's "Of Jet Planes and Zeppelins"

  • 0th Order Ignorance: Lack of Ignorance
    • I (probably) know something
  • 1th Order Ignorance: Lack of Knowledge
    • I do not know something
  • 2nd Order Ignorance: Lack of Awareness
    • I do not know that I do not know something
  • 3rd Order Ignorance: Lack of Process
    • I do not know a (suitably effective) way to find out that I don't know something
  • 4th Order Ignorance: Meta-Ignorance
Philip goes onto explain that you can only have a process for something you already know how to do.

And the corollary: you can't have a process for something you've never done.

1 comment:

Daniel Livingstone said...

"Competitive chess players develop acute sensibilities with respect to error and the potential for error."

This part is a key element - even for beginners I would say, and is an element that can apply to a wide range of experiences. To review what went wrong (or right) and to try to understand why something failed (or succeeded) is really vital.

And might explain why I'm not very good at chess...