The power of adapting

| 0 | Chess Event Coverage

After becoming a bit depressed this week by reading such chess headlines as Billboard hero Magnus Carlsen blundering and former Soviet hero Mikhail Gorbachev having a friendly meeting with Gadaffi supporter Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, I decided to turn my attention to more interesting news about chess and science. After all, the fact that male behaviour can be influenced by the presence of females, is very surprising indeed!

All joking aside, the article/interview that appeared recently on ChessBase, titled 'Beauty Queens and Battling Knights', does have interesting points. Patrick Graensmark of the Stockholm University has conducted research ( to explore the role of attractiveness in chess  by linking it to risk taking. His conclusion?

Our results suggest that male chess players choose significantly riskier strategies the more attractive the female opponent they are playing against.  Women, however, do not react to the attractiveness of their opponents. Moreover, riskier play against an attractive female opponent has no positive impact on performance, which implies that economic rationality is unlikely to be the reason for the increased risk taking against attractive female opponents.

Quite a bold statement, I’d say, but looking at Graensmark’s research method and results more closely, it does seem he might be on to something: although the effects he measures are very small indeed, they are still significant, if at very high sample sizes. His research can be a valuable contribution to the study the role of attractiveness on decision making and economic transactions.

I was a bit puzzled by the article’s emphasis on linking the concept of a ‘risky strategy’ to chess openings. The authors define risk as a measure by the choice of opening strategy: thus, the Advance French is classified as ‘aggressive’ whereas the Exchange French is rated as ‘solid’. The actual scoring took place on the basis of ‘Informant’ or ECO codes, and they had these evaluated by eight players rated 2000 to 2600, who all had to agree to a certain degree on the particular nature of every ECO code. An ingenious method indeed, which nevertheless raises some questions.

Of course, nobody would deny that some openings are less risky than others, but I found it difficult to accept the idea that a player – especially a strong one – could unconsciously change his choice of opening, depending on who was sitting in front of him.

Try to picture it in your mind: You’ve got the Rubinstein variation of the French Defence on your repertoire, you’ve confidently played it all your life as Black and you now have prepared the opening thoroughly before your tournament or the game at hand. You’re all worked up to spring your draw-securing surprise novelty upon your innocent opponent – and suddenly, without thinking about it consciously, you decide to change your tactics and play the risky Winawer instead. And all that because you’re facing a pretty chess chick!

It seems perfectly plausible that men do indeed change their strategy when facing an attractive female opponent (and it has been long known that men act more impulsively when first shown images of beautiful women) but I would think such an effect might be easier to measure (and its effect might be stronger) during the middle-game rather than during the opening phase, where preparations and a fixed repertoire seem to hinder such radical switched of strategy. Then again, I hardly ever face attractive women players in chess so perhaps I’m just the odd one out.

The idea that chess players can change their initial strategies when confronted with certain external factors during the game, reminded me of a very interesting book I recently read: Adapt, by the economist Tim Harford (published in 2011 by Little, Brown). The book, subtitled Why Success Always Starts With Failure, argues that, contrary to conventional wisdom emphasizing, in ‘guru’-like style, the importance of having a ‘grand vision’ or a ‘future-proof strategy’ for, say, corporate executives and politicians, it is probably more effective and beneficial to be able to quickly adapt to changing circumstances, rather than sticking to the original plan.

Harford gives great examples from the world of business and politics of the advantage of improvisation over planning and using a bottom-up approach instead of a top-down one. Particularly fascinating to me were his stories of how the US Military learned, painstakingly, to adapt to local habits and rituals in Iraq and Afghanistan, after Bush and Cheney’s strategy of trying to work everything out from the Pentagon had failed utterly.

In chess, too, one often reads about the ‘importance of having a plan’, and when I was a kid I was even told by a strong teacher that in chess, ‘it’s better to have a bad plan than to have no plan at all’. Well, I’ve always wondered about that statement, but after reading Adapt, I’m convinced that’s just not how things work in chess. Indeed, it seems to me that the need for having a plan – any plan – is extremely overrated, and is probably the main reason why computers surprise us constantly with their weird and often ‘inconsistent’ moves. Yes, computers have no plan and therefore their moves often look very silly, but that doesn’t mean they won’t work!

In my opinion, the most important quality of strong chess players is the ability to adapt to new circumstances, be it during the game or afterwards.  Changing one’s mind is something any chess player should always be prepared to do, even if it goes against ego or, indeed, known chess wisdom. Here’s an impressive example of adapting to new circumstances from my own practice.

Lars Ootes - Arne Moll
Apeldoorn 2006

I was rather pleased with my position, which arose from a Sicilian in which Black quickly gave up the pair of bishops for fast development. My young opponent (who is now a strong Dutch IM) had played his bishop to g5 two moves ago, and I didn’t think it was very well placed there. I figured he would soon be forced to take on f6 and then I would be able to try and exploit the weak square on e3. Black might even be better already! Then, my opponent played a move that almost made me laugh out loud:

17.Bc1!! During the game, I couldn’t take this move seriously and thought my opponent had simply gone mad. But afterwards I realized he simply adapted better to the new situation at the board and decided his bishop would be much better placed at b2, where it attacks d4. And that is completely correct.

17…Rfe8 18.Qd2! Underscoring his intention to take the bishop off the c1-h6 diagonal. I was still baffled and pursued my original intention of putting a knight on e3, but soon my position starts to deteriorate.

18…Nd5 19.b3 Ne3 20.Re1

20…Re5?! I can only explain this ‘power play’ move as an attempt to ‘punish’ White for playing so strangely. I had vague ideas of putting the rook on h5 but I didn’t really believe in it myself.

21.Be4! Another excellent, concrete move which underlines Black’s problem with defending the d4-pawn. White seems already better in this position, and although I managed to trick my opponent in the end, he showed impressive maturity and superior insight in this phase of the game.

Next time you hear someone say that in chess, having a plan is very important, just politely tell him you disagree. After all, you’ve got Tim Harford to back you up - unless, of course, it’s an attractive woman who tells you. In that case, just take your chances and propose to have dinner instead. You’ve got Patrick Graensmark to back you up.

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