Admitting mistakes

by admin on January 9, 2008

Last weekend I watched the latest debate between the Democratic presidential candidates — Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Bill Richardson. I deliberately avoided paying attention to politics during 2007, but now 2008 is here, the year of the presidential election in the U.S., so I felt as if I ought to start paying attention.

This isn’t a political blog, but there was one moment near the end of the debate that I found very interesting and which relates to chess in a vague way. The moderator asked the candidates if they had said anything in their previous 900 debates (he was joking) that they wished they could take back. I thought that this was a clever question, because it took the candidates away from their prepared answers and forced them to be a little bit introspective. But also, it’s important. One of the flaws of our current president is that he never, ever, ever admits a mistake. The words, “I was wrong,” are not in his vocabulary.

So, which of the Democratic candidates would pass the test? Unfortunately, the two front-runners, Obama and Clinton, ducked the question. They didn’t admit any mistakes. But the other two did. Edwards gave kind of a joking answer — one time he had made a negative comment about the way Hillary Clinton was dressed. He apologized and said, “You look great tonight.” The best answer, by far, was Richardson’s. He remembered that he was asked one time, “Who was your favorite Supreme Court justice?” He wasn’t prepared for that, and he answered Byron (“Whizzer”) White, because White was nominated by John F. Kennedy and Richardson is a fan of Kennedy. It turned out that White was a bad choice, because he opposed the Civil Rights Act in 1964. So Richardson admitted that was a mistake.

Based on those answers, Bill Richardson went way up in my opinion. However, he is considered a longshot candidate, and the voters of New Hampshire did not pay much attention to him. (He got 5% of the vote yesterday, to 39% for Clinton and 37% for Obama.) So perhaps, in politics, it continues to be a mistake to admit mistakes. If so, I think it’s very unfortunate. A leader does not have to be infallible; a leader should be able to listen to new advice or new information and be flexible enough to change. Nevertheless, voters apparently want their leaders to be infallible.

What is the relevance to chess? Well, in chess you have to be able to admit mistakes. I’ve given a couple of ChessLectures that are directly relevant to this. First, check out my lecture on “How to Save Lost Games (Sometimes),” where the first step in “coming back” from a lost position was to admit that I had misplaced one of my pieces (a knight on the rim). So I just un-did a move that I had played a couple moves earlier. Second, watch my joint video with Josh Friedel, “Dueling Masters: Crouching Ruy, Hidden Bird.” At one point during our game, Josh made a mistake that gave me some unexpected threats. However, he had such good control over the position that he could have simply taken back his move, un-making it on the next turn, and he would have retained an advantage. Instead, he was too proud to admit his mistake, and as a result I got a position that I should have drawn. (Later I made some mistakes myself, and he eventually won anyway.)

It’s very hard in chess, as in life, to say “I was wrong,” and play a move that announces right out loud that you’re giving up on your previous idea. We always want to look, both to our opponents and to ourselves, as if we know what we’re doing. There are many mistakes in chess that are not take-back-able. But every now and then, the ability to say “I was wrong” may in fact enable you to draw a game that you might have lost, or to keep an advantage that you would have given away if you had continued down the wrong path.

Carina wrote recently about how you can get away with delusions in real life but you can’t in chess. Politicians may be able to delude themselves into thinking they are never wrong. But we chessplayers cannot afford to! 

Update January 10: The newspapers reported today that Bill Richardson has withdrawn from the race. Too bad. I would have seriously considered voting for him in the California primary next month. But politics is a strange, strange business, where perceptions turn into realities almost instantly. Once you’re perceived as an “also-ran,” you have almost no chance.

Thank goodness chess is different. You may have a rating 500 points below your opponent, but you still start every game with a chance to win.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Carina January 9, 2008 at 9:36 am

This is also true in art, although artists are even more likely to ignore their mistakes than politicians and chess players: a lot of people simply wipe it off with “it’s my style” instead of correcting their anatomical prejudicies and assumptions. I’m also guilty of ignoring mistakes without even seeing that I’m ignoring them, although I’ve never gone so far as to accepting them. Usually they just lead to dissatisfaction with the piece, because it doesn’t represent what was intended. Strangely, the fact that I’m playing chess again seems to influence how well I’m able to spot my own mistakes in, say, drawing a portrait. With the Kasparov one, I went over the eyes and nose a hundred times because I kept seeing things that were off, and it’s harder for me now to leave a mistake uncorrected when I’ve spotted it now. Just looking for my mistakes is something I’m doing much more because of the analysis I’ve done with my chess games. It really hurts to realize mistakes in chess because they’re also psychological, so fixing something so it looks like reality is child’s play in comparison. Over the board, you don’t have access to ultimate truths when you’re in doubt, whereas in art you can just use your eyes to see. It surprices me now that it’s so difficult to see if we tell ourselves that it’s not necessary to do so. With the Fischer portrait I’m doing now, I’ve just given up on my ego and say “alright, I’m just going to draw what I see” because it’s much less trouble. But somehow it’s frightening to be dictated by a picture about how something should look (I catch myself changing little details all the time if I’m not careful, and it’s in the changing of these details that the whole essense of the person is lost), just like I might be inclined to rebel against meeting the needs of the position on the board, or admitting that I’ve messed up and now have to work on saving it. I think that it’s good that both chess and art is helping me to shrink my ego, because it really obscures reality.

My Fischer drawing is going to be even better than the Kasparov one, though it was my best portrait to date. 😎


Carina January 9, 2008 at 10:04 am

It’s by the way also funny to note how people often post a drawing and then say “I know there are a thousand mistakes, the hands, the eyes, the mouth is all wrong..” – where did the sudden enlightenment come from? Why didn’t they see this when they drew it, and fixed it? It’s like when chess players move a piece and realize it’s a blunder the moment they let go of it. I wonder what this strange phenomena is caused by. 😀 Could it be that we’re so fond of our notions that anything that might pick them apart is shunned until its too late to do anything about it? This brings two benefits: one, we were able to indulge ourselves in following infantile ideas without being pulled off track (reinforcing ego), two we can then later wallow in the emotional pain that seperation from truth causes. It’s like a universal human error to strive after any feeling at all, even if it’s negative, just to feel something, as though being harmouniously content with feeling nothing (and only being present) is too boring!


Ernest Hong January 9, 2008 at 2:47 pm

You’ve got my admiration for your very thoughtful writing. In some ways, yours might be considered a dream job. I recently read in Arthur C. Clarke’s “Hammer of God” that he was invited to all kinds of cool things to do with NASA. Unexpected gigs, sort of like the way you got into ChessLectures.

I guess to keep this comment topical, chessloser of Hardcore Pawnography fame (not a terribly good website for elementary school children) mentioned that he is going to train with the skepticism of Socrates. I pointed out that Socrates’ reputed humility is a virtue not to be forgotten.

My father described his education in the Taiwanese educational system as being inspired by Japanese models of education. They are very good at pounding rote into elementary school kids, but the cultivation of an inquiring mind is not an ideal that the system aspires to and the failing becomes starkly apparent when eastern universities are compared to western universities, even in our broken American education system.

I read your Tenure Chase Papers with rapt attention since it seemed inconceivable that someone with what appeared to me the perfect demeanor to succeed in being a mathematics professor could fail. Even though my closest relation to academia is that two of my friends are in it (one tenured), it was all very interesting to me. I apologize for presuming to know the good in your life, but perhaps the story might not have been such a good instructive story had you secured tenure.

And your summary of the Poincare’ Conjecture was also very interesting. My father had been following this and perhaps had read your article. However, some of the hard feelings in the bittersweet ending are hard to grasp. I got the impression from your article that Perelman had declined the Fields Medal because he felt mathematics was tainted by limelight-grabbing hacks and plagiarizers. I had thought that Perelman gave no real reason for declining the Fields Medal, leaving the public to conclude that here was someone to whom fame and fortune meant nothing. I was eager to hear more salacious things about why everybody was fighting, but perhaps such rot belongs in the gossip papers.

Your blog program perhaps suffers from the same defects as mine in that comments on old posts don’t trigger an email alert, but I posed a question on “What was your best tournament?” from November.


admin January 10, 2008 at 9:41 am

Hi Ernest! Welcome to my blog!

I’m sorry that I was a little slow in approving your posts, because yesterday I was driving all day. I was at a math conference from Sunday to Wednesday and barely had time even to write the above post.

Re your first post, I’m surprised that anyone besides me remembers how I did at the Far West Open in 2005! Who cares about the expert section, right? But yes, that was an incredible tournament for me. It was almost weird how I kept winning shorter and shorter games, against players who would normally put up a tough fight. Here were the lengths of the games, round by round: 42 moves (win), 28 (win), 17 (win), 37 (win), 38 (draw), and 13 (win). The last-round game was over so fast that most of the other players assumed at first that I had agreed to a quick draw. Actually what happened was that my opponent blundered a piece.

So why did I decide the 2006 Western States Open was better? It was a tough call, because in that tournament I only had two great games, the one against David Pruess and a nice win against Renard Anderson the previous round. (Otherwise I never would have gotten to play Pruess!). I’d say that two excellent wins against masters is about equal to five wins against experts… it’s about like two touchdowns against five field goals (if you follow American football). But what put the 2006 tournament over the top was the fact that the game against Pruess wasn’t just any old good game, but one for the anthologies.

Thanks for asking!

I appreciate your other comments. It’s funny, I have gotten more mail (almost all appreciative) about the Tenure Chase Papers than anything else I’ve ever written. I guess it’s partly because I wrote them from the heart, rather than for money, and also because it’s a darned good story with lots of surprises. If I had gotten tenure, or if I had been denied and just laid down and accepted it, the story would not have been nearly as interesting (and instructive).

By the way, I have no lasting regrets or bitterness or anything over that tenure battle. For me personally, it was a good thing to be booted out of my academic rut and forced to take a chance on a writing career. If the tenure decision had gone the other way, I never would have written about Perelman for Science magazine (or anything else for Science magazine), never would have written my moon book, never would have appeared on national TV. (If you didn’t catch this on my website, I was on the History Channel program “The Universe” this summer. If you missed it, you can buy it on iTunes — the episode I appeared in was called “The Moon.”)

So, everything worked out well in the end.


admin January 10, 2008 at 10:11 am


Because I was busy at the math meetings I didn’t get a chance to look at your Kasparov picture until now. It’s fantastic! This makes me even more certain that if I write a chess book, I want you to do the art.

I hope that your chess and your art will continue to nurture each other. Applying the lessons you learn from chess could be a great advantage to you in art. Most people never submit themselves to the strict discipline and scrutiny of their own thought processes that you need to succeed in chess.

Good luck with your Fischer picture!


Carina January 11, 2008 at 2:32 am

My Fischer portrait is going to be close to a personal favourite when I’m done. I started it the day I finished the Kasparov pic (sunday), and he (Kasparov) only took me 3 days. The Fischer picture will be done in 2-4 more days, which makes it more timeconsuming than anything I’ve done on the computer before. 😀 It’s funny, because in arts, the better you get the longer a picture usually takes (It’s a misunderstanding to say it’s the other way around.. that the better you get, the quicker your work is done. People just beginning to learn how to draw often ruin their motivation when they realize the time demands, because they think a picture is supposed to come out like a miracle/happy accident, which only happens once in blue moons, but when it does it seems to stick so well in people’s memory that labour becomes hideous). A few professionals who’s work is worth drooling over spend like 40-70-100 hours on a single (digital, often) piece. Fischer will probably have around 30 hours. My avarage working time is about 8-20 hours, so that’s good, but it can get better! 😛 Only problem is I’m studying almost no chess/reading no books at home when I have a drawing to finish, but that’s not all bad because then I won’t get so tired from doing only one thing all the time.


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