Stop Comparing Life to Chess
Why life strategy works better with fifty two cards than a checked board.
Due to the success of The Queen’s Gambit, a Netflix original I highly recommend to anyone, the game of chess is cool and popular to talk about and play right now. This moment of success however, has fed into a mistake we already made when it was a game left for those who had the patience to look boring: Viewing life like a game of chess.
It’s a popular misconception, viewing life strategy like a large extended and protracted game of chess. You carefully moving your pieces on the board of life, planning each step to achieve resolution in the form of checkmate. It is mistakenly assumed, as was the motivation forcing many children to learn the game who didn’t care about it, that learning how to be good at chess somehow carried over into thinking more strategically about life. This is not only an incorrect viewpoint, but a damaging one.
The Difference in Domains
Chess is a game which operates within defined rules and constraints, unlike the life you and I get to enjoy when our coffee is too hot, too late, and tastes terrible anyway. In his book Range: Why Generalists Succeed in a Specialized World, David Epstein defines the differences between Kind learning domains and Wicked learning domains.
A Kind learning domain is one which is highly structured and repeatable, Epstein defines it as, “Patterns repeat over and over, and feedback is extremely accurate and usually very rapid. In golf or chess, a ball or pieces if moved according to rules and within defined boundaries, a consequence is quickly apparent and similar challenges occur repeatedly.” In Kind environments we can make a move on the board and all things being equal we can reasonably expect the same results as when we did the same move the first time.
Wicked domains, as you might have inferred from the name, are different in nature. “In wicked domains, the rules of the game are often unclear or incomplete, there may or may not be repetitive patterns and they may not be obvious, and feedback is often delayed, inaccurate, or both.” In a Wicked domain you have no guarantees that the action you took the first time with success will result in the same success if you take it again.
In playing chess you can anticipate the same reactions to the same actions in the same context, making it a Kind learning environment. It is why a chess prodigy can be incredible at chess, but suck at strategy games which have different rules of play. In essence, mastering chess is a matter of mastering a distinct set of patterns which can occur on the field of play and thinking through them faster than your opponent.
Life doesn’t have the same Kind environment. Life is messy and complicated without defined rules you can expect to repeat regardless of the skill with which you handled one conflict. The next time you encounter the same conflict, there’s no guarantee the solution which worked once will work again. In this way, life cannot and should not be compared to chess. A more apt comparison, if you want to compare it to any game, is Poker.
The Better Game Theory
In whatever variant you enjoy playing, stud, hold ’em, seven card, poker is a more realistic depiction of the kind of challenges you experience in day to day life if you try employing strategy to achieve your goals.
As studious as Chess is, it is a game which each player has complete information. The board literally sits in front of you with all the pieces clearly visible, and nothing hidden except the strategy of the players. Which is why, when you move your Queen into a spot where’s it’s easily taken and you’re surprised, it’s because you were the idiot who didn’t pay attention to all the data available in front of you. Unlike Chess, life doesn’t offer this kind of complete information, even if it did we probably wouldn’t pay enough attention anyway.
Poker is a game of incomplete information, you don’t get to look around the table and see what cards each person is holding or the next ones to be dealt out. In her book, Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts, Annie Duke highlights the difference between the two games, “In chess, outcomes correlate more tightly with decision quality. In poker, it is much easier to get lucky and win, or get unlucky and lose. If life were like chess, nearly every time you rand a red light you would get in an accident (or at least receive a ticket).”
We can make the smartest, most well informed choice based on the information available to us at the time and be completely wrong because of the hole card in someone else’s hand. For all the strategy we can try to employ, lady luck is the fat lady who sings the last song.
Do You Feel Lucky?
Because it is a Kind environment, and one with complete information available, luck plays a small role in any game of chess. The worst you may worry about is distraction causing you to miss something which you’ll find painfully obvious later.
As one of the children of the Wicked domains, poker is more random in nature. Luck can play a significant role hand to hand, forcing us to make choices and decisions with incomplete information. Forcing us to become the better guesser. This reflects the way we have to navigate life. Each choice we make is a bet on what future we will be happiest with or find the most fulfilling. Consciously or not, instead of moving a rook across a checkered table, more often our decisions and strategies mirror adding chips to the pot and hoping we have the better cards.
Any comparison of life to games will be reductionist. Like shrinking the file size of a photo, you lose some of the details in the process. Therefore, every time you make a comparison you should be trying to use the most accurate one possible. Chess, for a multitude of reasons, isn’t the best comparison to the life you and I live in. Instead of consistent rules, we face inconsistent ones, instead of having complete information, we face incomplete information, instead of having a game with skill being the determining factor, we face a life with luck as the arbiter.
Stop comparing life to a chess game. It’s a flawed view of the world which will only leave you puzzling over the details you didn’t expect. You’ll constantly find yourself in checkmate and wonder why the people carrying a deck of cards are playing life better than you.