The Surgeon

You should read this piece by Atul Gawande, a surgeon who somehow finds time to write for The New Yorker, yet if I didn’t have tags on my shirts I promise they’d be worn backwards. Gawande’s seminal commencement address, delivered last month, pertains to the assessment of risk; his delineation between risky behavior and gambling is much more than linguistic hair-splitting; it has applications ranging far and wide, least of all for our favorite game.

Surgeons that use loose-fitting contingency plans lose fewer patients due to post-surgical complications than do their flatfooted peers. The less-successful surgeons are caught by surprise more often; they don’t seem to have as acute a perception of what defines risk. Their risks are actually gambles, defined by Guwande as a situation without recourse after failure. It is a “want all, lose all” approach that baldly ignores the real consequences of a bad outcome, perhaps because because human beings are famously terrible at estimation.

In the chess game below you’ll see a not-so-nifty knight sacrifice. If your opponent isn’t even aware that your most drastic move was a possibility, then the try is likely foolhardy.

The actual discussion that took place afterwards took no account of the sacrifice’s objective merits. You’d think I just finished reading Equus the way I mistreated that poor animal. I let him fly for two pawns and a prayer. My opponent and I focused on the decision making process and what led me to opt for the liquidation. There were still quite a few pieces on the board and material was virtually even. My king was safe. Still, I evaluated the position as losing. Is this enough?

That’s not coming today however. Much like I did when I allowed a ruthless passed pawn to my seventh rank, I’m going to drag this out a little longer than strictly necessary. You’ll hear my conclusions about how to think about losing, but I want you to think through the process of how a chess game goes from bad to worse until then. What are drawing chances and how do you prevent a game from reaching resignation territory? Should evaluation be framed in terms of a dynamic win/lose percentage, to better understand our own thoughts at the board?

1. e4 e5 2. f4 Bc5 3. Nf3 d6 4. c3 Nc6 5. d4 exd4 6. cxd4 Bb4+ 7. Bd2 Bxd2+ 8.
Nbxd2 Bg4 9. Bb5 Qf6 10. Qc2 Nge7 11. d5 a6 12. dxc6 axb5 13. cxb7 Rb8 14. Qxc7
O-O 15. f5 Qxb2 16. Rb1 Qf6 17. O-O Nxf5 18. exf5 Bxf5 19. Rb3 Rfe8 20. Re1 Be6
21. Rxb5 Qd8 22. Qxd8 Rexd8 23. a4 Rd7 24. Reb1 Rc7 25. a5 Bd7 26. a6 Bxb5 27.
Rxb5 Rc1+ 28. Kf2 Ra1 29. Rb6 Kf8 30. Rxd6 Ke7 31. Rc6 Kd7 32. Ne5+ Ke7 33. Rc8
Rxb7 34. axb7 Ra2 35. Ke3 Ra3+ 36. Ke2 Ke6 1-0


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