Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Willpower, Decision Fatigue and Practical Chess

In my last post, I reviewed a game where I played at quite a high level through the first time control, then made a string of weak moves before being offered a rather generous draw. This scenario, pretty strong play through 20-30 moves, an excellent or winning position followed by "blowing" a win or draw, is more common in my career than I would like. These kinds of games have always been much more painful to me than just getting a bad position from the opening and being steadily ground down to defeat. The swing from hope to tragedy is worse than just losing a game.

Of course this situation is not mine alone--everyone from Alekhine to Zug has had games go this way. But it's remarkable how often you see a game where a "stronger" (higher-rated) player gets in some trouble in the early part of a game and then defends tenaciously until the opponent finally cracks, and in the end the higher-rated puts a "1" on the wall chart.

Happily, I have gotten some new insight in to this phenomenon from science journalist John Tierney and psychologist Roy Baumeister.

Tierney's article "Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue?"  is an excerpt from Tierney and Baumeister's new book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. While I am excited about many of the implications and prescriptions for improvement at home, work and school that might come out of this book (which I haven't read yet), today I want to stick to chess.

The article may require a sign-up (it's worth it), so I'll quote a few applicable snippets:

The judges’ erratic judgment was due to the occupational hazard of being, as George W. Bush once put it, “the decider.” The mental work of ruling on case after case, whatever the individual merits, wore them down. This sort of decision fatigue can make quarterbacks prone to dubious choices late in the game and C.F.O.’s prone to disastrous dalliances late in the evening. It routinely warps the judgment of everyone, executive and nonexecutive, rich and poor — in fact, it can take a special toll on the poor. Yet few people are even aware of it, and researchers are only beginning to understand why it happens and how to counteract it.


Decision fatigue is the newest discovery involving a phenomenon called ego depletion, a term coined by the social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister


Willpower turned out to be more than a folk concept or a metaphor. It really was a form of mental energy that could be exhausted. The experiments confirmed the 19th-century notion of willpower being like a muscle that was fatigued with use, a force that could be conserved by avoiding temptation.


Once you’re mentally depleted, you become reluctant to make trade-offs, which involve a particularly advanced and taxing form of decision making. In the rest of the animal kingdom, there aren’t a lot of protracted negotiations between predators and prey. To compromise is a complex human ability and therefore one of the first to decline when willpower is depleted. You become what researchers call a cognitive miser, hoarding your energy. If you’re shopping, you’re liable to look at only one dimension, like price: just give me the cheapest. 


The brain, like the rest of the body, derived energy from glucose, the simple sugar manufactured from all kinds of foods. To establish cause and effect, researchers at Baumeister’s lab tried refueling the brain in a series of experiments involving lemonade mixed either with sugar or with a diet sweetener. The sugary lemonade provided a burst of glucose, the effects of which could be observed right away in the lab; the sugarless variety tasted quite similar without providing the same burst of glucose. Again and again, the sugar restored willpower, but the artificial sweetener had no effect. The glucose would at least mitigate the ego depletion and sometimes completely reverse it. 


Apparently ego depletion causes activity to rise in some parts of the brain and to decline in others. Your brain does not stop working when glucose is low. It stops doing some things and starts doing others. It responds more strongly to immediate rewards and pays less attention to long-term prospects. 


Big decisions, small decisions, they all add up. Choosing what to have for breakfast, where to go on vacation, whom to hire, how much to spend — these all deplete willpower, and there’s no telltale symptom of when that willpower is low. It’s not like getting winded or hitting the wall during a marathon. Ego depletion manifests itself not as one feeling but rather as a propensity to experience everything more intensely. When the brain’s regulatory powers weaken, frustrations seem more irritating than usual. 


His studies show that people with the best self-control are the ones who structure their lives so as to conserve willpower. They don’t schedule endless back-to-back meetings. They avoid temptations like all-you-can-eat buffets, and they establish habits that eliminate the mental effort of making choices. Instead of deciding every morning whether or not to force themselves to exercise, they set up regular appointments to work out with a friend. Instead of counting on willpower to remain robust all day, they conserve it so that it’s available for emergencies and important decisions.

To sum up, making decisions draws on a finite supply of "energy," however defined, and causes measurable changes in the activity of parts of the brain. Supplying the brain with glucose helps recovery from "decision fatigue."

I expect that you, Gentle Reader, have already made the connection with chess, for what is a game of chess but a series of decisions, move after move after move?!

I no longer wonder why the quality of my play declines so often after 20-40 good moves and a few hours of intense concentration! I vividly remember a number of times when during the the critical portion of a tournament game I felt "out of it," "punch drunk," or some other vivid metaphorical state of weakness. Why, I think I'll go back and find a few right now...Garingo-Pearson 11.08.07 (a great chance to defeat an Expert):

"I had just missed that despite my current huge material edge, my queen would have to go. And most important, from now until the end Black played as if dazed, making seemingly forced moves and going down the path of least resistance. I still had 13 min. for 7 moves, but I needed to shake it off and play better than ever. Instead.." 

A game from May 2008:

After the game I was remembering yesterday's post and its consideration of falsifying our own moves and plans, and it struck me how I'd done a pretty good job of this through most of the game, but as I got more tired and a little rushed there was a breakdown. Not like that hasn't happened before, but having just posted about it it occurred to me that not only do I need to train in calculation, vision, etc., I need to train these things to stay at a high level during the more stressful and/or later parts of the game when I'm excited, fatigued and under stress.

Pearson-Harrington 03.13.08 0-1:
(by the way, I need to republish some of these games with ChessFlash!)

"I must improve my physical and mental stamina if I'm going to play my way up into Class A again. Games against the higher-rated players often last a good long time at our 30/90, G/60 time control, and if I drop off like I did in this game I'll just score frequent, frustrating losses."

Enough, already! There are other examples in my career, and now I'm done with the explication. Time to move on to the presciption!

Training for more Willpower and less Decision Fatigue is going to get its own, future post. For now, what can the above material tell us? Something that strikes me is that physical fatigue is not decision fatigue. You can work construction all day and be mentally fresher than the person who has sat in an office running a business! A few things about how to conduct the game quickly come to mind:

1) Put off making decisions in the opening as long as possible. It will conserve the decision making capacity for later in the game. This ties in with something I've written about a number of times, including recently in a post on Soltis's Studying Chess Made Easy: the fascinating old book Secrets of a Grandpatzer, "Dr. G" (Dr. Kenneth Colby) made a great point in that playing a lot of book moves (he was talking around 6-10) quickly gets you to a position you know is good, with your mind still fresh and plenty of time on the clock." In other words, memorized openings can help delay the decision fatigue.

2) Don't double- and triple-check your calculations. Find a move, play it, and forget about it. I suspect that calculating a tactic, then spending several more minutes going over it again and again is like making a decision multiple times! And thinking about anything that happened earlier is the same. Not that I do the latter so much, but some people do, I know. And I remember that in the example games above, and others, I had spent quite a bit more time and mental energy than my opponents in reaching those great, "winning" positions that I eventually lost.

3) Before the game, recharge the ego from the depletions of the day. Obvious, and not always possible, especially at a two-games-per-day tournament or when rushing straight from work to a game. But do the best you can.

4) Keep the brain supplied with glucose. Another well-known piece of advice, but vital. It needs a steady supply, so don't eat a couple of doughnuts at the beginning and then, nothing. Probably fruits, nuts, sandwiches, even sips of energy drink, if taken a little at a time and evenly throughout the game will do.

This is a fascinating and important topic, and I'm sure you can think of other aspects. Next time, I'll talk about training and building up the will in the context of chess.

In the meantime, here's an interview of John Tierney on the subject, and the book,  by Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit fame. And here's a review of the book by psychologist Steven Pinker.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Memorable Game 12: An Eventful Draw, R. Pearson-E. Simanis, Reno CC Ch. Qualifier 05.08.2008

My opponent in this game, Edwin Simanis, was a consistent USCF Class A player for many years, and reached the golden 2000 rating for awhile in 1999 when he made the semi-finals of the Northern Nevada Championship. He was always a threat to anyone in Reno on a given night. This was one of my last games in Nevada before I left for Alaska.

In this game one of the flaws in my play is starkly revealed. I play the first 32 moves of a complex struggle at a pretty high level, and when he blunders on move 26 I reach a clearly winning position. But when I could get the kill shot in with 33. Qg5! I get confused and play a string of second- and third- best moves one after the other, until there are no winning chances. Finally, with an advantage in the ending (bishop and knight v. rook) he offered a draw!

Winning a "won game" and playing well after hours of intense concentration are both skills that I need to improve, but then I suppose that's true of almost all players, even some pretty highly rated ones. I have some interesting information and thoughts in that regard, but that's my next post. Until then, I hope you enjoy the eventful Memorable Game 12:

Monday, September 05, 2011

September Chess Improvement Blogging Carnival is UP

The September Blogging Carnival is now up at the Hebden Bridge Chess Club site. Great posts including some from, which were aggregated by our Carnival man himself, Blue Devil Knight. I think I need to put that site to better use!

Also, the Hebden Bridge Guy writes about his experience at the British Championship, which is chess at a higher level than we usually see in our corner of the chess blogosphere.

Go check it out--nothing new to see here, though I am near to completing another annotated Memorable Game. Coming soon to the Theatre of the Mind...