Positional risk

April 28, 2021

Do you increase your chances of winning and losing, or do you improve your position even if it takes you nowhere?

This is the dilemma that Fabiano Caruana - the US chess champion - faced yesterday in a chess tournament that decides who plays for the chance to take the World Chess Champion.

Being half-point behind in one of the last matches, he needed to win the match to have a chance. And this particular tournament has an interesting set of rules: everybody plays everybody, and the one with the most points wins. There are no draws, no finals, nor one match that is more important than another. Every match, every player needs to win to have a chance at the title

And in this context, he reached a critical position in a match and needed to decide one of two moves: One risky sacrifice or one solid move forward. The first move sacrificed one of his pieces but allowed him to attack and maybe checkmate his opponent. It increased his chance of winning this match, but also the risk of losing. The second move was more solid, reducing his weaknesses and allowing the game to go longer. Maybe there was less risk of losing this match, but there was also more risk to lose the tournament.

It's one of the clearest examples of local positional risk in strategy — how to adjust strategy given the variance outcomes. Here are some of the aspects that Caruana – and anyone working with strategy – had to consider when deciding on his next move:

  • Addressing equivalence in outcomes at play: in that match, tying is the same as losing, even if in the game itself, they are discrete.
  • Choosing a strategy is a strategy profile given the context: Articulating how different strategies lead to outcomes over time and deciding an optimal strategy.
  • Understanding the co-variance of outcomes: The decision to move one piece or another changes not only the chances of winning a specific game but the tournament overall. Understanding the degree to which they are related is critical to drafting a good strategy.

Caruana ended up tying the game in and losing the match in the most frustrating possible way. Sometimes not taking the risk is the biggest threat to your strategy.