Chess and the Pareto Principle - part 1 of 2

Jan 10, 2012, 1:51 AM |

In my last article, I hypothesized there might be a useful connection between strategic business analysis and Chess; part of my plan to set meaningful Chess objectives in 2012.  In short, the hypothesis relates to adapting tried-and-tested frameworks – for increasing Business trading performance - to help increase our own Chess performance. To get the ball rolling, let’s explore something familiar to many of us, at least in general terms.

The Pareto Principle, often referred to as the 80-20 rule, and/or the law of the vital few, simply states - for many events, around 80% of the effects are generated by 20% of the causes. The rule’s origin is credited to Vilfredo Pareto, an Italian gentleman, after whom it is named. In 1906, he first observed 80% of land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population; and, second, found 80% of the peas harvested from his garden were from 20% of the pods.

Since then, the same 80-20 pattern has been found time-and-again in economics, business and in everyday life. For example, we often see Pareto patterns, including: 80% of profits coming from 20% of customers; 80% of costs being generated by 20% of purchases; and, 80% of complaints coming from 20% of customers. In simple terms: 20% of the causes generate 80% of the effects, or, looking at it from a studying perspective, 20% of the effort leads to 80% of the results.

So, what are the Pareto Principle implications, for Chess? To begin, let’s consider the 20 possible opening moves, for White (4 x Knights; 16 x Pawns), of which 4 (Na3, Nh3, h4, a4) are almost non-existent at Master level (i.e. leaving 20 plausible moves).  If the Pareto Principle applies, then 3 or 4 opening moves should account for 80% of games. If you look at any master game database, it’s easy enough to see that 1.e4 / d4 / nf3 (sometimes, plus c4) do indeed account for 80%+ of openings.

A vaguely interesting observation, perhaps, but - so what? For a more practical example, let’s consider the average Grand Master. There is no doubt, that to achieve – and maintain - their 2,500+ rating, has taken 50 hours of work / study, week in week out, for many, many years. For 98% of us Chess enthusiasts, that kind of life-long commitment just isn’t feasible, is it? But, let’s consider if we were to apply the 80-20 rule to Chess, then [a] 20% of 50 hours = 10 hours a week; and [b] 80% of a 2,500 rated GM is a 2,000 rated Expert.

Does this mean an Expert level rating is within our grasp?! Of note, this kind of ties into the popular urban myth, seen in many forum postings, that there’s a Chess expert inside all of us. If you’re serious about Chess improvement, then 10 hours a week feels achievable – at any age - even with school, college, work, and/or family commitments, etc. – and, in principle, we could all reach 2,000 Expert level! 

This sounds promising, but - 10 hours of studying what, though? After all, there are openings, middle-games, endgames, tactics, traps, problems, and master games to learn. In the next article, I’ll share a practical overview of the Pareto Principle in terms of designing a personal study regime.


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