Experiencing Decision Fatigue?
I’ve had some pretty remarkable results in faster time controls in USCF OTB tournaments recently; and I’ve actually peaked significantly in every rating in the past month, e.g., tactics. Until the USCF gave me an artificial rating boost in blitz, I’ve consistently been 400-ish points weaker in blitz and rapid than in the standard control. While I realize ratings have to do with placement in statistical populations, the relative differences in placements within those populations indicate some kind of a difference in playing ability between the time controls. (I have metrical analysis that further supports this thesis.) In troubleshooting over what may have allowed me to perform so much better in faster controls, but not allowing me to improve my standard USCF OTB rating peak above 1819. At first, my coaches felt that it might just be that my lack of opening knowledge has caught up to me. As GM Dejan Bojkov said to me, ‘If you don’t know what to do after 2. … Nc6 in the Sicilian, you need to begin addressing openings.’ With the particularly theoretical nature of the openings I attempt to play, it was very reasonable to propose that my openings were making the difference between shorter and longer games. With some further assessments of specific games, including a game in which I was way worse out of the opening versus a FIDE rated 2010 player (and ‘strategically lost,’ as GM Bokjov put it), I was finding that I outplayed much stronger players from much worse positions. I’ll include the critical position from that game below, but what it and some other games suggest is that I’m having an unusually hard time working through decisions. After lengthy discussions with a number of experts in cognitive science and related fields, and people who have dealt with similar circumstances, I’m confident that what I’m experiencing is known in scholarship as “decision fatigue.” Unfortunately, there seems to be no way to be sure, except to get a break from work, in which case I’ll have to wait until I take a vacation, which will probably be in February.
My brother is a professional poker player, and said in passing that it really sounds like I was/am experiencing decision fatigue. I had come across the term in passing, when reading something related to a paper written in psycho-socio-economics by Kahneman, but I didn’t really look into it any more that. The condition just what the term suggests: it is when one’s cognitive resources for decision-making have been reduced or seriously depleted. My brother is very knowledgeable about the topic, because poker pros often grind cash games for 24-48 hours session, or do things like grinding cash for 6 hours in between 10-hour tournament sessions; and all of this without days of rest. After running down my situation, outlined above, he felt it was a very likely candidate explanation for what I’m experiencing. I’m still not exactly sure what the resources are that become depleted through constant decision-making, but it clear that I’m having a difficult time making certain basic choices in games, such as the one I’ll share further on in this post. The piece of life that’s been added to this mix in the recent months is that I’m no longer merely an academic wandering the halls of a university, pretty much scheduling what I want and when I want, with little commitments. I still do that in the evenings three days a week, but I took on a “real job” during the day, which requires that I attend meetings, hold a regimented schedule, and I’m required to make a million little decisions that come with a demanding position –e.g., deciding what to delegate, who to delegate it to, which order to choose to do practical tasks X, Y, and Z, and so on. It’s really not a wonder to me that marketing research in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s showed that increasing options resulted in improved sales (and in product lines in which options were not added), because people really begin to make some pretty poor decisions after long stretches of effortful decision-making.
There are two types of decision fatigue, acute and chronic, or so my brother has told me. I don’t know what the neurochemical difference is between the two, or whether one is simply a more extreme form of the other. The acute form is virtually cured from a longer-than-usual sleep and a few extra carbs. The chronic version requires nothing short of a vacation from decision-making tasks. The problem for me is that it is hard to tell whether I'm experiencing this for sure. My brother uses a higher-order differential functions for determining when his variance is more “swingy” (sort of like “jerk,” if you are familiar with physics) than usual and something sort of like a volatility index, if you are familiar with finance. So it’s easier to determine when he’s experiencing decision fatigue. I would need a similar number of data points to use his methods, which isn't possible.
I would say that one of the truly strange things about my recent USCF play has been that I’ve been doing well in my worst controls, namely, anything in the rapid, dual, and blitz controls, while showing no marked quantitative improvement in the standard control. Before you jump to conclusions, assuming I’ve been practicing in those controls or something, that’s definitely not so. I’ve actually dropped all play in the shorter controls, again, because of said employment. Anyways, the jump up from 1589 to 1675 would be even more pronounced if I hadn’t goofed in each one of the last three blitz tournaments. The rating jump would be closer to 200 points. As it is, my initial FIDE blitz rating will be over 1800. In standard games, despite having two won games at the Back Bay Open, I could only muster three draws. In those games, where I know the position is critical, I am overcome with a fogginess that makes me feel like being a bit more impulsive, and in some other cases I feel as though I acted without the appropriate level of care. I’m sure I’m not conscious of this all the time, because I find better moves without the help of an engine shortly after and without moving the pieces. Consider this position, taken from a game where I played black versus a FIDE 2010, who had just played 18. Kg2.
I played the correct move, 18. … Bh3+ and white erred by taking, 19. Kxh3. The game continued 19. … Rxf2 20. Nf3 Qh5+ 21. Nh4. When I played Bh3+, my heart was racing, because I knew, absolutely knew there was a win in the position. I spent more than 20 minutes on this position, and felt like my brain suddenly became a stick in the mud. The next morning, I found the winning continuation almost instantly and without even setting the position up on a board. Whether I worked out the solution in my dreams or found it easily with a fresh mind, the solution to the position resulting position was easy. 18. … Bh3+ was probably the hardest part. I offered a draw after Rh2+ because I was down to under 10 minutes plus an increment with almost 20 moves to make in that remaining time, and all I could find was the perpetual.
This sort of thing has been happening to me pretty much in every game. In the first round of the Empire City Open, I had a sizable advantage versus the eventual winner of the 2016 Empire City Open, Ethan Gu. I both failed to push it in for a win and hold a draw. My opponent was way worse on the board, and he was down to pretty much only his delay, as far as the clock was concerned. As I began to use some of my remaining storehouse of time, a whole ten minutes that was effectively a ten-minute advantage on the clock, finding moves seemed labored. I probably could have blitz that game into a draw (or win), but effortful choice seemed to make the task so much harder.
According to all of my metrics, which have been accurate predictors of USCF rating until now, my standard USCF rating should be in the neighborhood of 1860 and 1930. It will be interesting to see if I have a huge rating jump when I get my extended vacation in the summer. One thing is certain: having won two tournaments recently, my rating has jumped up toward 1800 faster than my initial approach, which is probably the best indicator I have that I’m playing much stronger chess than I was three months ago, when I first broke 1800. There are two other factors that I think are holding back my performance right now, but I won’t go into them here.