December 13, 2016
It was a common thing at the club when I was young - to pit a chess master on one side of the board against many on the other. The many often included at least a couple of chess experts as well as A and B rated players. The intuition of most people is that it should be an even match, or that the many would have the advantage, but the master always won. With lots of eyes on the board the many would catch all the tactical shots often even better than the master. But the long run strategy was consistently inconsistent. First one of the many and then another would persuade the rest on following one course of strategy and then on a different course of strategy. So they lost. Too many chess players spoil the strategy.
It has become for me a broad metaphor that I see in many different forms. There are the political implications of course such as in international relations and in trying to explain why the US Presidency has over time become increasingly about foreign policy -- you need a consistent strategy for winning The Great Game.
Today I saw an article about an interview with Marc Andreessen in the Financial Times. He talks of how investing has become more risk-averse, comparing the declining returns over time to stocks in new tech companies. He talks of how there are many who can individually say no to going ahead with a technology investment idea. So naturally I think, 'too many chess players!' Each of those who can say no has a range of acceptable risk they are willing to allow. In order to put together enough funding to ensure an acceptable probability of success the innovator has to satisfy the most risk-averse of those who can say no. The end result is to end up funding only according to the most risk-averse of the many.
And what about the 'wisdom of the crowds'? There is a lot that has been written about that now, but I'm only making a minor comment in that direction. At it's simplest level and as originally conceived the wisdom of the crowds is about taking the average of the individual estimates of something like the weight of a steer at a farm festival contest. I think what happens in chess strategizing and in what Andreessen is describing is that what is being sampled is the most risk-averse of the crowd.
All metaphors are not exactly the thing they are being a metaphor for, so of course all metaphors break down, which is for me when they become even more interesting. Then it becomes about the skillful use of the metaphor as a tool best suited for particular tasks and the search for new metaphors can more effectively begin. If those who can say no in the tech-investing case were to be restricted in their communications with each other, and in effect only allowed to do a silent bidding auction of whether to invest or not, it would probably make the most risk-averse less likely to discuss and move more toward the center. But in the case of chess, .. well here it's probably best to imagine postal chess - an pre-internet form of extremely slow chess still occasionally practiced where people living in remote areas find suitable competition by engaging in play-by-mail one move per one postcard. If the many were to first send a separate round of postcards to each other on the overall strategy they thought best for the next three moves or so (control the center versus immediate flank attack for example) and then vote, that might actually improve the strategy.
The Great Game at Wikipedia (Central Asia) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Great_Game ..
Andreessen interview discussion nub, https://www.isegoria.net/2016/12/the-financial-times-has-lunch-with-marc-andreessen ..
Those who say no (The Knights who say Ni! Monty Python) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KHqy_AyKIUI ..