Jesse Kraai in Fremont, Confidence in Chess

by admin on October 26, 2013

Are you 100% sure?

Last night I went with Gjon Feinstein to attend Jesse Kraai’s book reading and signing at the NorCal House of Chess in Fremont, California. It was great to see Jesse again after three years. He looked trimmer, has grown a beard and now looks more like a starving writer than a starving chess player. 😎 Also I enjoyed meeting Jesse’s girlfriend, Katherine, who to my surprise turned out to be a science writer like me! But this evening was about Jesse and his book, so I’ll have to leave the science writing conversation for another time.

Jesse read a passage from the book that was perfect for this audience. We had about 30 people in the room, about half of whom were kids and a quarter were their parents. Jesse read the part of the book where Lisa (the protagonist) arrives in Lubbock for the Susan Polgar Girls Tournament and gets to know her real peers — the other female scholastic champions — for the first time.

One of the parts that got the biggest reaction was this one:

“Hogwarts is a school,” Lisa said. “And school sucks. Chess is much deeper and more beautiful than school.”

Lisa felt she had said too much, and blushed. Now she was the outsider, sitting next to the strivers.

Saheli looked into Lisa’s eyes and quietly said, “School can be pretty dumb. Right? I mean it doesn’t really seem like the teachers are interested in what they’re teaching. It’s always about some test. Most of the other kids are hopeless. And the boys are always so dumb.”

Well, you can imagine what the audience — who were mostly boys — thought about that last remark! However, there were a couple of girls, too, and they nodded in appreciation.

What I thought was even more interesting was the reaction to Lisa’s comment that “school sucks.” I heard an audible gasp, which surprised me because I thought that most teenagers felt that way. But the kids and parents in this crowd were 100 percent Asian and Indian by ethnicity, and they (I believe) are taught to respect their schools and their teachers. What a concept! So saying aloud that school sucks was a little bit scandalous to them.

After the reading was over, Jesse invited the kids to see if they could solve a problem (which also happens to play a significant role in the book). Here is the position. Jesse gave no hints, because Lisa doesn’t have any hints either, in the book.

White to play and ???

You can see from the photograph above how enthusiastic the kids were — they were clamoring to be the first to solve the problem. It was very interesting how Jesse handled it. He asked one kid at a time to show his or her solution. He asked the first one, “How confident are you?” The boy replied, “100 percent!” “Whoa! 100 percent confident!” Jesse said. “Okay, let’s see it.”

Actually, the boy got the first move right but then went astray, as Jesse quickly showed. One after another the kids proposed solutions and fell short. The second one was 90 percent confident. By the time we got to the third or fourth kid, they said, “0 percent confident.”

I thought this was an interesting teachable moment. The lesson, first of all, is that it doesn’t pay to be overconfident in chess. No matter who you are, you should not automatically believe that your first instinct is correct. Learning to check yourself and challenge your first reaction is part of becoming a better chess player.

But it doesn’t pay to be underconfident either. If you’re 0 percent confident of your move, you’re playing the wrong game!

In fact, if anything I think it is better to be a little too confident than not confident enough. Confidence keeps you from being paralyzed. Even if your analysis isn’t completely correct, your confidence can transmit itself to your opponent and make him more worried. I have seen games between children where one kid was way ahead in material, but his opponent had confident body language and the kid who was ahead in material seemed to be scared to death. In that situation you can almost bet on the kid with the confident body language to win, no matter how far behind he is on the board.

Anyway, this was a cool teaching gambit by Jesse, and I think I will try the same thing sometime when I’m teaching at the Aptos Library chess club.

Maybe the only slight disappointment of the evening was that the excitement and shouting of the kids kind of got in the way of any serious questions or discussion of the book by the adults. But that was only a small disappointment. In fact, several of the adults adjourned to have some tasty Indian food at the Biryani Bowl, and there was plenty of time for conversation then.

Some of the conversation was gossipy and I had to promise not to blog about a couple things, so I’ll just answer the questions most of my readers are probably wondering:

Is Jesse going to come back to ChessLecture? That is still uncertain. For the rest of the year at least he will be devoting most of his time to promoting his book. I didn’t get the feeling that he was chomping at the bit to get back to ChessLecture, but neither was he against it.

Is he going to start playing in tournaments again? Yes, but it’s not clear how many. In fact, he played last weekend in Reno at the Western States Open, and he won the tournament! He finished 5-1 and defeated Melikset Khachiyan in a playoff. (Ironically, Khachiyan almost immediately got revenge, beating Jesse in a U.S. Chess League match on Wednesday.)

Is he going to write another novel? That is also still unknown. It was clear that he enjoyed writing this one, but on the other hand he was surprised and a little bit unprepared for how much effort it takes for an author to promote his book. (He shouldn’t feel bad. I suspect that about 90 percent of first-time authors, including me, are surprised by this.) All in all, he will probably write another novel only if he has a story he really wants to tell and he knows how it will go all the way to the end.

In the meantime, Jesse plans to be quite busy through the end of the year, and probably through the first few months of 2014, doing readings and book signings at tournaments and chess clubs. He is planning an East Coast trip in November, I think. If you think you’d like to have a grandmaster and a chess novelist visit your event, I’m sure he would be glad to receive invitations.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Ashish October 26, 2013 at 6:40 pm

No fair. You can’t tell us “we gossiped” and then not tell us what was said!

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admin October 26, 2013 at 8:34 pm

Hi Ashish, I promised not to tell! Besides, you were there!

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Ashish October 26, 2013 at 8:39 pm
weng siow October 26, 2013 at 9:09 pm

Dear Dana,

There is also another insight here to be mined, one which I think is a contribution from Behavioural Economics. It is important that there must be self-confidence in one’s solution and not to be swayed by what happens to the first two answers (a sort of peer pressure behaviour). I get this in my university classes and always telling my students to have more confidence in their answers.

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