Franny the Pruner 5 courtesy of Kathleen Tyler Conklin through CC BY 2.0 via Flickr - edited 2    Pruning the Decision Tree

What makes a person a good chessplayer?

Simple intelligence doesn’t seem to have all that much to do with it. I’ve known many smart people who simply don’t “get” the game. Conversely, I’ve known several excellent chess players who, away from the board, were…thick. This actually makes sense when you consider that chess requires a specific set of skills, many of which are only loosely related to intelligence.

Many people who don’t play the game believe that a large part of a good player’s skill is the ability to see many moves ahead. If you play much at all, you know that this simply isn’t true.

After the first few moves, there are so many possible moves available that to even calculate two turns ahead involves the consideration of thousands of possibilities. Our human brains simply don’t do this, and don’t need to.

Let’s say your queen is attacked. You’re not going to bother to examine all the scenarios that start with your moving your rook from a1 to b1 because that move doesn’t deal with the immediate threat; you would only consider queen moves, checks, capturing or blocking the threatening piece, or counter-threats.

This skill is metaphorically called “pruning the decision tree,” a term relating to the early days of computers. Chess computers, like human brains, didn’t have the power necessary to do a brute force calculation for every possible move. They had to simply not bother to look at moves like Ra1-b1. The need to not waste computing power and the need not to waste brainpower were essentially the same.

So who succeeds most often in life? I think it is the person who learns to prune his decision tree. Time spent NOT thinking about inconsequential alternatives is time that can be used to examine legitimate options.

You can see how the skill of decision pruning in chess might very well carry over to real life. We are constantly faced with choices: college or get a job? Have a child or not? Pepperoni or sausage? Buy life insurance or a motorcycle? Examining every single consequence of each action simply isn’t possible. Pruning the tree is both efficient and necessary.

If we can eliminate the improbable or that which isn’t worth considering, then we can work out what actually might happen much more efficiently rather than following blind alleys.

image: Franny the Pruner 5 courtesy of Kathleen Tyler Conklin through CC BY 2.0 via Flickr – edited 2


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