June 25, 2013 14:32

How many options do you like?

Two weeks ago I played my first chess tournament in years. It was a rapid tournament in the Dutch city of Apeldoorn and because every round was played in a different café, it was called the ‘Apeldoorn Bar Hopping’ tournament . I didn’t do badly at all, which was probably because, unlike many other participants, I couldn’t drink any alcohol as I had to drive back home later that evening.

During the ride back, a friend of mine, Frenk van Harreveld, with whom I had teamed up for the occasion (the tourney was for ‘pairs’) told me that research he had done for the University of Amsterdam, where he is an associate professor of psychology, was recently mentioned in the online magazine Slate.

The experiments described in the article are all about ambivalence: that well-known feeling of holding two conflicting thoughts at the same time. The students participating in the experiment who felt ambivalent about a certain topic, felt “deeply uncomfortable about settling on a view, and (…) this discomfort only increased once they had committed. They literally sweated over their decision.”

Pondering this while I tried to avoid another traffic jam, I was reminded of similar situations in chess where having to choose between two equally attractive (or equally unattractive) moves can cause a player to ‘freeze up’ completely and lose precious minutes on the clock, to the point of running out of time completely, even though either decision is going to be equally right or wrong.

I suddenly realized that one of the reasons why I had played so well in the rapid tournament was because I hadn’t experienced that feeling of ambivalence at all during the first six rounds, where I scored 4,5 points against very strong opposition. It was only in the last round that I started to doubt my own thoughts and get distracted by various alternative ideas, ultimately losing track of the game. It occurred to me that having a choice isn’t always a luxury in chess, even though I’ve often heard grandmasters declare that they consider a particular position to be pleasant “because White has many options”. (Levon Aronian, especially, seems to favor positions with many options; just one online example can be found here.

But is it? As a junior, I had a chess friend who was particularly skilled in putting psychological pressure on his opponents. (Sadly, he withdrew from chess many years ago.) I remember one occasion when he was playing a well-known ‘time trouble junkie’ and in a position where he was about to lose a pawn for nothing, he managed to ‘save’ the game by simply hanging another, thus increasing the number of options and confusing his opponent over which one to take. He flagged him mercilessly.

Option, schmoption.

It can be a rather unpleasant experience indeed. Van Harreveld’s research showed that the students "literally sweated over their decision." This spooky feeling should be immediately recognizable to chess players: as if the board is tilted and not tilted at the same time. 

Drawing by M.C. Escher

I’ve often experienced a similar phenomenon of "freezing up" over equally attractive choices in work-related situations as well. This is called the "analysis paralysis" syndrome, which Wikipedia defines as “the state of over-analyzing (or over-thinking) a situation so that a decision or action is never taken, in effect paralyzing the outcome". It’s a recognizable setting, particularly when you’re working in IT: you’re in a meeting with a couple of "experts", often programmers or architects who really know what they’re talking about, yet they all have different opinions, all of which seem to make at least some sort of sense. I know from experience it’s not easy finding one’s way out of such situations, and it often requires some kind of "gut feeling" decision by senior management to resolve the status quo. (Not surprisingly, the opposite of "analysis paralysis" is often called "extinct by instinct", i.e. making a fateful call based on superficial judgment).

As my travel companion reminded me while we discussed the relationship between chess and ambivalence on the way back from the tournament, these are actually examples of the "paradox of choice", after the best-seller by the American psychologist Barry Schwartz (The Paradox of Choice – How More is Less, 2004) about how consumer choices are made. Schwartz describes in great detail how "good choices" involve processes like goal setting, goal evaluation, and goal modification among others. (Similar processes are also described in Daniel Kahnemann’s fantastic book Thinking, Fast and Slow, which I wrote about previously on ChessVibes).

While some chess players seem more vulnerable than others to the paradox of choice, or ambivalence towards certain options, there is also a circumstantial element that I think shouldn’t be ignored. As said, during the first six rounds of the tournament, I didn’t feel a single moment of doubt over which move to choose, even while I played a particularly nasty IM who has always been some kind of "angstgegner" for me in the past. I just felt very relaxed and wasn’t bothered by any kind of doubt. But in the last round, I felt completely differently, even though there was no obvious reason why this should have been so (even if I’d have won, we wouldn’t be eligible for a prize.)

Similarly, I’ve seen a fantastic player such as Ivanchuk childishly lose on time in a completely winning position in one round (apparently doubting whether to capture a rook or bishop) while executing ten brilliant moves in three seconds to reach forty moves just in time in the next . What had changed between those two rounds?

To my knowledge, there hasn’t been much scientific research into the subject of chess and ambivalence. It would be fascinating to see response times from grandmasters and amateurs on positions where two equally good, but very different, alternatives are possible. Which one do the strong players choose and can any patterns to be discerned?

"Having many options" is all very well when you’re preparing or analyzing a game - but while playing it, the feeling that is described in the Slate article as being in a quantum state where "we feel ourselves in two positions at once" is often a heavy burden. Next time you hear some super GM explain how they like their position so much because they can choose between so many different moves, think again. They can only play one at the time. 

Arne Moll's picture
Author: Arne Moll


brabo's picture

When a player is confronted with 2 equally attractive moves then a very normal reaction is that people believe when digging deeper in the position, will find out that eventually one of the 2 moves will be superior to the other one. So the selection of this right move could have an important influence of the game.
Now a lot of teachers are still propagandizing the concept of critical moments, see http://www.qualitychess.co.uk/blog/?p=1669. The concept of critical moments tells us that the player has to spend (a lot of ) extra time on the complex (few) moves which will be critical for the result of the game.
Players freezing when having to select between 2 equally attractive moves are in fact applying the concept of the critical moment.
The mismatch happens because nobody can guarantee in advance which moves will be critical for the result of the game as e.g. we can't know for sure in advance how strong the opponent will play.
Personally it is one of the mainreasons why I propose not to train (young) players about the concept of the critical moments as it is the seed for wrong timemanagement.

Arne Øland's picture

Invisible asses (asinus) are part of the game. Already Aristotle mentioned the problem, known as Buridan's Ass.

Wim's picture

Interesting article

de Vries's picture

I don't know what to think about this good article. I'm kinda confused now.

Anthony Migchels's picture

nice article. And great Escher illustration too.

Anonymous's picture

who is Escher?

Anonymous's picture

" How many options do you like " is not english.

How many options would you like.

Septimus's picture

The author is probably not a native English speaker. Also, a question ends with "?". Stop nitpicking and cut the guy some slack.

Creemer's picture

It is nitpicking a bit, but as it is the title of the article, maybe the author and editor would like to know if they made a small error.

In this case, though, it seems they disagree, since the title hasn't changed.

Creemer's picture

Oh, and since we are nitpicking: "how many options do you like" is also correct, but it has a different meaning. It implies options that are already present and asks to know how many of those are to the other person's liking.

In this case, however, it seems to be meant as a rethorical question by which the preference for multiple options is placed under scrutiny.

I love nitpicking!

FP's picture

But which nit to pick?? That's the tricky question.

Bert de Bruut's picture

I feel the cold already settling in...

AAR's picture

Go easy on the grammar.
Focus on the content.

Anon's picture

Its all the fault of chess parasites.

Mattovsky's picture

Returning to the content: Thanks for bringing up this very important topic. Actually it's something I've been pondering on for quite a while myself.

Just one of many thoughts on this: the term "ambivalence" (ambo = both) seems slightly misleading, especially if you interpret it as the "feeling of holding two conflicting thoughts at the same time". I can assert from my own experience that it's possible to hold many more than "only" two conflicting thoughts at the same time! Check the definition on Wikipedia instead, I think they got it right.

A quick illustration: when there seem to be only two options, A and B, one might in fact want four things at once: A, B, AB (both) and 0 (none). Funnily enough this corresponds to the human blood types...

Bas1191's picture

Nice article, Arne. And since Walt and I lost to you and Freek in the 1st round, I feel very flattered by your evaluation of the strength of your opponents in the first six rounds :-)

Rick Massimo's picture

I get this way when I'm in bad form (of course to most of you even my good form would look like bad form) or when I haven't played in a while. I'll push a Kingside pawn with 30 seconds thought, but something like "Rad1 or Rfd1?" will paralyze me for 10 minutes.

Ludo Tolhuizen's picture

Nice article. Clear example: the hedgehog where white is given sooo many options.

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