Saturday, May 31, 2014


As a scientifically minded person, I sometimes struggle against magical thinking that my mind clings to in its obsessive paths. I admit to some superstition to bring me good luck. My routine included:

  1. Wearing my light gray fleece sweater if I'm due to play white
  2. Wearing my dark gray fleece sweater if I'm due to play black
  3. Wearing my black Merrell loafers
  4. Writing on top of my lucky book
  5. Drinking water from my lucky blue Wild Island cup
  6. Using my lucky pen

Facing an important game last Thursday, I procrastinated doing my preparation until the last day. On the way to the game and with the ersatz devil-may-care attitude of a man who thinks he's over his head, I scrapped all but the last two superstitions and showed up. Instead of a fleece sweater, I wore a ketchup stained T-shirt. Instead of loafers, I wore Teva sandals. To my surprise, I had incredible luck. My opponent not only walked into my favorite chess trap, but at the crucial moment, he overlooked the one move that makes my trap work and zigged when he should have zagged.

Popular news reported the results of a 2004 research paper by Cowley and Byrne proposing to expose the reason how a strong chess player does what he does. The key word was falsification. Like scientists, chess players form hypotheses about where to search for the best move and what that move will look like. Chess calculation is the testing of that hypothesis and the falsification occurs when the player figures out "Wait, that won't work. Better try another line/hypothesis." Rejection of an erroneous hypothesis in chess is synonymous with avoiding weak moves and blunders. And luck in chess happens when your best line sits inside your opponent's blind spot.

I'm not completely free of my magical thinking and superstition, but I think I have partially falsified the hypothesis that my chess accoutrements have anything to do with my chess results. It's a pity that my game contains enough of my "secret sauce" such that I'm reluctant to share it. I believe that if someone found my blog and linked it to my identity, future opponents could study my repertoire and figure out its weaknesses. Perhaps that is another hypothesis that needs to be falsified.

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