August 12, 2010 15:35

Black Monday for the Ruy Lopez

Wall Street: Money Never SleepsOne of the nice things about chess is that it's a game played between humans. Despite an understandable tendency to approach chess as a rational game, I think there are a lot of irrational - human - things going on behind the scenes.

One of the things that fascinate me most in chess is people's choice of openings. Last year, I compared chess openings with baby names and suggested that apart from being subject to fashion, the popularity of chess openings, like the popularity of baby names, may have something to do with the speed with which they rise to prominence. But after reading John Cassidy's How Markets Fail, his book on the economic crisis, I think herd behaviour plays a role that's at least as important. Cassidy introduces herd behaviour by quoting the second most famous economist of all time, John Maynard Keynes, who said "it's better to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally." And indeed, following a study from 1990 by economists Scharfstein and Stein in The American Review, evidence was found that under many circumstances, the best strategy for investors is to copy behaviour of others instead of trusting their own judgement:

When a manager of an investment fund follows the crowd and things turn out badly, he shares the embarrassment with everyone else; if he follows a completely different strategy, he is exclusively responsible for his own mistakes.

When I read this quote (which I translated back into English from the Dutch translation!), I was immediately reminded of Newton's famous metaphor, often echoed in chess-improvement books: the one about "standing on the shoulders of giants". Specifically, for chess openings this implies that it's better for amateurs to play the Sicilian because giants like Carlsen, Anand, Kasparov and Fischer play it - than Owen's Defence (1.e4 b6), because, well, nobody plays it. I have often witnessed such behaviour in chess players, myself included. Though a healthy advice in itself, it can often turn out disastrous. Who hasn't had the experience of faithfully copying a great player's game or analysis, only to realize that despite all good intentions, real understanding of the position is lacking? Or worse, that even though you understand the position, your opponent understands it better or has found an improvement over your hero's evaluation? (Yes, even the greatest chess players are sometimes proven wrong in mere amateur games!) But that's not what struck me in Cassidy's quote. What I found more interesting was the psychological "embarrassment" argument: the idea that it's somehow less shameful to fail in a way that everyone else fails. Suddenly, I understood this is also true for chess openings, though I think it is a much less-often discussed subject. As on Wall Street, in chess, too, there is such a thing as 'group pressure'. Funnily enough, I had even experienced it the very night before, during a blitz session with some friends. Time and again, my friend was having a rough time as White trying to refute a particular offbeat line I had been playing for some months now. He explained over the board that this time, he thought up some move at home but during play itself, he'd forgotten its exact point and lost anyway. After the game, the kibitzers jokingly asked him why he simply didn't play the main line against this obscure variation. And sure enough, in the next game, instead of trying to find the idea behind his home preparation - which, it turned out later, was 100% correct! - he switched to the book 'refutation' and, not knowing anything about it, I'm sad to report he lost again. This is a typical case of herd behaviour - going with the voice of the majority, even if you should really know better - but at least my friend had the excuse that he didn't actually know at the time what he should have done. This is, of course, contrary to what happened at Wall Street in 1987 and even more spectacularly during the Internet bubble of the late 1990s, where, according to Cassidy, "skilled and experienced investors consciously helped blowing up the bubble".

William Beard - The Bulls and the Bears (1879)

William Beard - The Bulls and the Bears (1879)

I remember the occasion very well. I was still a promising junior player with a slightly unconventional opening repertoire. It was an important team match and I felt my game could play a key role in it, if only because I knew my opponent well and so could prepare very concretely. A few minutes before the game, I overheard two of my stronger teammates saying to each other that they hoped I wouldn't play that 'reckless pet-line' of mine in such an important game. When my clock was started, I was utterly confused. Should I play it or should I not? Should I follow my own way - at the risk of being punished when things went wrong - or should I stick to the "safe" mainlines even though I knew much less about them? Well, you can probably guess how it ended. I chose to safely stand of the shoulders of giants - and lost without a fight. Of course, when I asked my opponent what he would have played against the line had had prepared, he told me he wanted to go for a line I had analyzed almost to mate! I never did dare to tell my team members. In fact, they praised my opening play after the game and sympathized with me for having failed, but at least tried in a decent way. I failed conventionally, and for them this was much better than the prospect of succeeding unconventionally. I vowed never to be such a coward again. (Although for me personally, it's still not easy being stubborn when interests are shared with 9 other team members!) In amateur chess, this type of thing - rational herd behaviour in economical terms - probably happens all the time. But I've often thought about the possibility that not only amateurs display rational herd behaviour, but that top grandmasters often do exactly the same thing. To be sure, some elite players are more unconventional than others, but some trends in chess openings are simply beyond comprehension - even according to the opening experts themselves. Magnus Carlsen recently showed that even the notorious King's Gambit can be employed successfully at lop level - yet so far, nobody in the world's top 50 has dared to follow the world's number one. (Though maybe Arkadij Naiditsch being crushed with Black by 2200-player Schwekendiek in Mainz might mobilize a new herd!) Could it simply be a matter of being afraid to become the laughing stock of the chess Olympus after a loss? In his book (in which he explains this and other phenomena in great detail), John Cassidy points out that there's considerable scientific evidence (for instance, research performed by neuroscientist S. Berns of Emory University) that the urge to follow the herd has a neurological basis. Of course, he assures us, not all market investors are lemmings which collectively plunge themselves to their doom, but generally speaking, the judgement of others really is incorporated into our own. At the very least, one influences the other to a considerable degree. And this is true for investors as well as chess players. So, is there a chess equivalent of the real estate bubble? What was the Dot-Com crash of chess openings? Will there some day be a Black Monday for the Ruy Lopez? When was the last time grandmasters collectively went for a variation that was subsequently refuted by a single simple, elegant little idea? Perhaps it's too early to write off Owen's Defense yet.


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Arne Moll's picture
Author: Arne Moll


Oak's picture

Great article, very interesting. It subscribes my point of view that on 2000-level you can play virtually any opening as long as you know what you are doing.

iLane's picture

That was the most interesting article I have read for long. Maybe some openings are not bad by themselves but only considered bad because no top player develop (play) them?!

S's picture

It looks to me as if the author is confusing trends with herd behaviour, or at least uses the words interchangeably ( trends as a form of herd behavior).
The presence of trends in chess openings is known for a very long time.

As for the psychological factor/ embarassment, I think there is more reason to be proud winning with an off beat opening and your own discoveries than to win with a mainstream book line. If you lose playing something new, you can always blame the opening and quote Korchnoi who said that opening research will be accompanied by frequent failures.

In my opinion most people follow well throdden paths because of availability of book info, fashion, and efficiency (preparation time).
And of course, because those lines are known to be objectively best at the time.
In team matches it may be wise to play sound lines, instead of fishy schemes that speculate on your opponents lack of knowledge. That has nothing to do with fear or herd behavior.

As for the example of herd behavior with your friend playing main stream instead of going his own way, it sounded more like an example of peer pressure to me, and not herd behavior.

Vooruitgang's picture

Excellent article! Thank you for that. Long live the King's Gambit!

jo's picture

A few years back the French seemed to be out of fashion...and I remember seeing on a number of sites people asking why...

though a few people thought it was just fashion - by far the majority seemed to of the view was that it was busted ( of course nobody knew why-but the presumption was all the super GMS did.)

Either way I still dislike playing against it (particularly in speed chess)

bayde's picture

This reminds me of one of Winter's articles showing how, in its day a hundred years ago, the Scotch was as deeply book-analyzed as Sicilians and Spanishes are today. Or was it that Kasparov's "new discoveries" in it were actually old boring news from a hundred years ago that had simply fallen out of fashion. I think it was the latter.

Of course openings follow fashion. What we choose to analyze twenty moves deep depends on what we feel like analyzing twenty moves deep. Two hundred years ago it was KGs and Italians; now it's not.

Tom's picture

English players tend to steadfastly ignore mainline openings. Here the Open Sicilian is considered wacky and off-beat compared to, say, the Wing Gambit. Are we anti-herd? Or just a herd following different bulls?

CAL|Daniel's picture

"Of course, when I asked my opponent what he would have played against the line had had prepared, he told me he wanted to go for a line I had analyzed almost to mate! I never did dare to tell my team members."
The English here is so bad I can't even figure out what you are trying to say.

As to the article itself, I think you miss a key point that humans main strength is our ability to work together. Openings have largely developed from this concept not any trend or herd behavior but centuries of working together and building on past games. People are afraid to play off beat lines because the amount of research available is minimal but on the same they are afraid of mainlines because the research is too much.

As someone else already pointed out, you are confusing trends and heard behavior.

A final point, I think you have to separate chess into categories those that play it for enjoyment and those that play it professionally. Professionals are not going to play too many unsound off beat lines because money, rating points and their reputation is at stake. While, those that play simply for enjoyment have no concern for either money, rating points or reputation. Every game they lose in their offbeat line is off set by the wins in the same line. I play enough off beat lines to comment in this way (mind you I play alot of main lines as well).

Arne Moll's picture

@CalDaniel: I hope it wasn't a case of bad English (though I admit my English is far from good) but of a simple typo.
The sentence you quote should read like this: "Of course, when I asked my opponent what he would have played against the line *I* had prepared, he told me he wanted to go for a line I had analyzed almost to mate!"

By the way, one of the points of my article was that trends and herd behaviour (and peer pressure) may in fact overlap on many occasions. Perhaps it's a wrong hypothesis but it's definitely not a confusion on my part.

CAL|Daniel's picture

Ah typo it is then :)

In any event, the article was a good read with a different point of view.

test's picture

Lemmings hurling themselves to their deaths is actually a myth. I wonder why it has survived for so long. ;)

Wim Nijenhuis's picture

It was all analyzed long ago by Raymond Douglas Davies in his song "a dedicated follower of fashion." 1966

They seek him here
they seek him there
his clothes are loud but never square.
It will make or break him
so he's got to buy the best
'cos he's a dedicated follower of fashion.
And when he does his little rounds
round the boutiques of London Town
eagerly pursuing
all the latest fads and trends
'cos he's a dedicated follower of fashion.
Oh yes he is (oh yes he is)
Oh yes he is (oh yes he is)
He thinks he is a flower to be looked at
and when he pulls his frilly nylon
panties right up tight
he feels a dedicated follower of fashion.
Oh yes he is (oh yes he is)
Oh yes he is (oh yes he is)
There's one thing that he loves
and that is flattery
one week he's in polka dots
the next week he'sin stripes
'cos he's a dedicated follower of fashion.
They seek him here
they seek him there
in Regent Street and Leicester Square.
Ev'rywhere the carnabytion army marches on
each one a dedicated follower of fashion.
His world is built 'round discotheques and parties
this pleasure seeking individual always looks his best
'cos he's a dedicated follower of fashion.
He flits from shop to shop just like a butterfly
in matters of the cloth he is as fickle as can be
'cos he's a dedicated follower of fashion.
He's a dedicated follower of fashion.
Check out YouTube:

S's picture

I think it's fairly logical to assume that trends are a form of herd behavior but peer pressure is definitely something different since it is a factor influencing decisions-not even behavior itself. However that may be, because of the broad concept of herd behavior I feel the word trend or fashion is more accurate in this context. And though I totally believe the psychological part, there are just too many differences to make the comparison with stock markets work.

p.s. I remember some super GM has once made a comment on the KG , saying that it was a perfectly sound opening but one that didn't give a chance on a full point if black was prepared.
It may have been Kasparov, or Short, does it ring a bell to anyone?
If so, the reason for the sporadic appearance of such openings is that they are only "good" as surprise weapons ( -probably very obvious-)
If the KG was played on a regular base it might well become the new Petroff for white. It are the fashionable lines, on the other hand, that often offer scope for interesting novelties and plans.

LuxAeterna's picture

Perhaps some kind of chess "black monday" was that slaughtery in a Najdorf at Goteburg 1955. All argentina GMs played same variant... all lost the same. I'm not shure if it counts as a herd behaviour (and I do not know if was played on a monday) :)
Spassky-Pilnik, Geller-Panno y Keres-Najdorf.

Cajunmaster's picture

One way of explaining the herd tendency would be the need one has to show to others, ostensibly, that we "understand what we are doing" (although we don't!)... Chess being based on logic and knowledge, the urge is especially strong. All the more so in a team competition!

Bartleby's picture

Interesting, thought-provoking article. From a zoological point of view, humans are in between lone individualists like bears and real herd animals like cattle. We primates are social enough to follow what the others are doing, while curious enough to try something new. It strikes me that you think a lot about what the others may be thinking during a game chess. Or at least did so when you were young and unformed. In my experience this is a sure way to waste a game, no matter which kind of opening you choose. Mainline or off-beat, if you don't focus on what's going on on the board you won't get anywhere.
The other thing that strikes me as odd, though you are not alone in that, is that you miss a lot, when you only look at the extreme ends. Single ideas that reverse the fashion do happen, but are rare. When I choose an opening I look at how they turn out in real games. What ideas are involved, what kind of positions may evolve. That's not reverted by a single line. A lot of other chess players choose their openings on similar methods. And when there's a wealth of promising ideas in real games, that's how an opening becomes "fashionable". In the next step methods are found how to counter those ideas, they are tried, it is found out which ones work and which won't, and by and by it becomes a matter of definitive knowledge, known lines, instead of fresh ideas. The opening goes out of fashion then. Until new ideas shoot up in the next spring.

Arne Moll's picture

@LuxAeterna: That's a great example. Another one I can think of is that funny little move 8...d5 in the Sicilian Taimanov that Kasparov introduced in the 1985 match against Karpov and which was briefly very popular - until it was effectively refuted in a single game and nobody ever played it again.

@test: About the Lemmings myth: Cassidy mentions it too. However, it´s such a strong and vivid analogy that I think it´s well worth keeping!

S's picture

Of course new variations will be played until they are refuted. I don't think that needs such an article.

Seriously, I thought of the Argentinian tragedy but how is that anything else then just a case of flawed opening preparation.
(just 3) People of 1 team tried a new line in the Najdorf after joint analysis, and got slaughtered.
They played this because they had made a rational but flawed analysis of the variation. They played it because they thought they had more knowledge than their opponents, and thus a great advantage in this line, not because they felt they had to play it because of some psychological illogical reason.
It's also not like this variation was used intensively before or after or was hyped or thrown away in panic. Imo, this has clearly nothing to do with herd behavior, nor are there any similarities with "Black Monday " what so ever.

The only thing comparable is that something went very wrong.

You can't make a sensible comparison with stock markets just because lines are refuted and subsequently discarded and thus have ups and downs. As an economist, I have to say this shows a fundamental lack of knowledge of stock market drivers, or a wish to "philosophize" chess to a point that makes no sense.
You might as well talk about the dot com crash of the afro haircut or the black monday of Pokemon gadgets. I am really surprised that I seem to be the only one on this.

Arne Moll's picture

@S: The refutations have nothing to do with it. The article is about herd behaviour in preferring certain opening variations over others even without clear evidence of their superiority or even with (some) evidence of their inferiority (like in my own examples). I believe this is comparable to how bubbles in the market work. The Black Monday question is really just an afterthought, and I really like how readers pick up on this thought. But I agree you have to have a bit of creative imagination for this, as an analogy is by definition never exactly fitting.

CAL|Daniel's picture

"p.s. I remember some super GM has once made a comment on the KG , saying that it was a perfectly sound opening but one that didn’t give a chance on a full point if black was prepared.
It may have been Kasparov, or Short, does it ring a bell to anyone?"

Quite the opposite is true in fact, Kasparov stated after playing a KG thematic that he thought the opening was a forced loss for white. Of course when he annotated those games in his books, he put it more mild with something to the effect of "with the KG white is a groveling for a draw."

octoberowl's picture

Very good article arne. Nice to see not just the usual review of a chess book but an interesting analysis of a a very related theme from a completely different type of tome.

You might just be the most interesting and original writer in chess journalism.

well done. I look forward to more!

patzer's picture

certainly not writing off Owen's defence , I play it ! :) , so i guess I'm an anti herd :)

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