Applying principles from other games in chess (and vice versa)

Apr 10, 2008, 12:21 PM |

In the excellent book "the art of learning" by Joshua Waitzkin Joshua explains how he used ideas that he originally learned in chess and applied them to the art of Tai Chi push hand competitions. 

I have also done this in the various games I play, including subspace, poker, wing chun kung fu, street fighter III (and various 1-on-1 fighting games), and the board game go.  

For starters, in chess and go both have the concept of 'sente', 'initiative' 'having the move' and so on.  In both games, you learn the concept that if you make a move that has almost no meaning, your opponent gets a move of full value 'for free'.  Once you learn that concept in either chess or go, you can see it being applied in either game.  

 In kung fu, there is the idea that one hand can trap 2 hands.  If your arms in front of you, and imagine someone holding them both down from on top with a single hand/arm, you can see this happening.  Of course, he then gets the free use of his other hand which is unopposed now. 

In chess, this applies as well.  I have often thought that a bishop from g4 pinning a knight on f3 in certain situations is a good example.  Neither the queen on d1 or the knight on f3 can move without serious consequences.  This means that because white's pieces are tied down, 'trapped' as it were by a single piece, black has 'free' pieces able to roam about and do whatever which are unopposed. 

Then I started playing poker and reading poker books and theory from websites.  I came across the idea of pot odds, implied odds, expected value, etc.  While I am not an expert on poker or these terms, here is what I thought about how they could apply to chess:

Some people tend to say that chess is 100% skill and 0% luck.  I do not hold on to this view.  In my opinion, chess is like the universe.  It is huge and vast.  Computers that can search through trees of millions of moves per second are as lost as we are in this jungle.  I read once that if every atom in the universe had gone to work on calculating and trying to solve chess, it wouldn't be anywhere close to solving it today, throughout the entire span of the universe.  There's just so many possibilities.   If you don't understand that, try multiplying the number 14 by itself 10 to 20 times in a row.  If we assume that the average number of good moves is 14 in any given position, you end up with a HUGE number at the end.  Well, there may be more or less good moves, but regardless there is an exponential growth in the number of moves you have to have seen for you to 'solve' any given chess position.  

So what does this mean to humans?  In my opinion, it means that while there is certainly a skill factor, often we are not controllers of a chess game but instead are merely witnesses of it.  We enter in variations more complicated than any human could understand in his entire lifetime.  We try to glide through the complications, make some calculations, get a hunch about the position, and then we plow through, but in the end, I think there is a lot of luck involved when you determine who is going to win.   Of course in chess huge upsets happen all the time, all the more so when the position becomes so complex that nobody could pretend to be able to be an authority on it.  


So where does poker come into it?   Let's consider a simple example from poker and see how it could apply.  In holdem poker, let's say you are 1 card away from making a flush.  This means that you need one more of your suit to come in and you will have a strong hand.  For our purposes we will assume that you will have the absolute best possible hand. 

You are on the 'turn' or there is one more card to come.  (disclaimer: I'm too lazy to go check up on the following odds but they are going to be fairly close).  Let's say you have a 32% chance of hitting your card (because you have 9 cards you can hit that may still be in the deck). 

Here is where you can use pure mathematics to determine whether or not you should call, based on the size of the money already in the pot.  If there is 1000$ in the pot, and you need to put in $100 more to call, you have 10/1 'pot odds' on your money.  We already said that your chances of winning are roughly 32% , so you have somewhere around 3/1 odds of winning the hand.  Becuase your pot odds are larger than your odds of winning, this is a winning bet over time, and as long as you're not playing some kind of weird russian roulette poker, you should take this bet over and over again and in the end you will have won lots of money. 

So you might have guessed how I think this could apply to chess.  Let's say you are playing a chess game, against a higher rated opponent.  The position seems roughly equal.  There is something happening in the position, you have the chance to sacrifice 2 pieces and you don't know yet what the result of that would be. 

So in reality if you want to take a pure odds approach on whether you should consider the sacrifice or not, it would get pretty complicated.  I haven't spent much time thinking about it, but I'll just throw out a feeler on the considerations here.  

Let's say you have 20 minutes remaining on your clock.  You feel that the sacrifice involves at least 15 minutes of calculation to make a determination if it is worthwhile or not.  Right away you decide that there is a 70% chance that the sacrifice would lead to a win.  Yet if it does not lead to a win, you will be left with 5 minutes remaining on your clock, and therefore you will be almost guaranteed to lose.  If you ignore the sacrifice, you feel you will have a 60% chance of losing the game because the position is still dynamic and he is a stronger player than you. 

I have to confess  at this time I don't know the math to calculate whether you should risk this or not, but I think all the factor would come into consideration, such as:  How many rating points do I stand to gain?  What is the risk/reward ratio of sacrificing here?  What is my estimation that the sacrifice will work?  etc.  

If you take into consideration all this risk/reward discussion, you might be able to see why so many top players play almost 'boring' chess and get alot of draws.  Just like in poker there are super-aggressive players and conservative players, yet each style works for certain people, in chess you might do better with a conservative style over a wildly aggressive one.  Or perhaps you do the calculations above and factor in the risk/reward ratio at all times, thus getting a higher rating based on that alone.   

 There are also many other areas where I have noticed similarities in games.  For instance, in subspace, wing chun, and chess, the "center" of the playing area gains vast significance, for different reasons.  But once you realize that the 'center' of the playing field of any game is important, you can start looking for it in any game.  

 Another interesting thing I have noticed is that when I come from playing one game for a while to a different game, I carry over a 'feeling' of the other game into the new one.  For instance, if I am playing street fighter, which is a game that requires real-time adjusting and responding with reflexes, I might carry that reflexive approach into chess and think faster.  If I play chess for a while, and then start playing street fighter, I might actually find myself calculating what will happen in the street fighter game (it helps if I'd been playing blitz or lightning for those super-fast calculations). 

 If I come from Go and start playing chess, I might be more strategical and be more willing to sacrifice pawns for something elsewhere on the board.  In a go game sacrifices are very common and have very little meaning compared to chess.  So when you are forced to do it constantly, you might start playing like that in other games as well.  

 Perhaps some other people can offer their experiences on games overlapping in this regard.