Some Thoughts on Thinking, Part II

Posted on Dec 6 2015 by pomomojo in Board Games, Chess, Poker

Previously I discussed the role of memorization in board games. In some games you are explicitly rewarded for being able to memorize pieces of information, whereas in other games memorization is something serious players do in preparation for playing the game in order to gain an advantage. A mental skill that is a bit more common to games, though, could be categorized as Evaluation.

By evaluation I mean the ability to assess the current state of the game and whether you are winning or losing and why. Some games might use a timer, such as a Chess clock, to force you to make such an evaluation quickly, but even in games where you can legally take as long as you like to decide your next move there is often an etiquette that requires you to play in a reasonable amount of time, so often evaluation involves both accuracy and speed.

Being good at evaluation means being able to take in all the open information in the game and then to compare the values of different elements to determine a final assessment of your position and best move. For example, Scrabble keeps track of points as you play so it requires no skill at all to look at the scoreboard and determine who has the most points. However, the player with the most points at any particular moment is not necessarily in the best position. A good player also needs to be able to look at his tiles and determine how likely he is to score big points in the future. An ability to assess the current board setup is also helpful, since the more triple word spaces used the fewer points left for the players to grab.  A good player has to take all three of these values into consideration in order to determine where to place next.

Chess, too, has a sort of point system though it isn’t directly related to victory. Each piece has a value so a player can quickly look at how many pieces have been captured for each side and use that information to determine a value. However, as the concept of a gambit makes clear, sometimes a player will sacrifice a piece and accept a “point” disadvantage in exchange for another type of advantage such as control of the middle of the board or placing the opposing king in check. The best players are the ones who know when letting the queen get captured is actually a positive move rather than a devastating one.

The importance of evaluation can be seen most clearly in Blackjack, where the various systems for counting cards are basically shorthand methods for evaluating the chances of winning. Once you memorize a card counting system you basically just adjust your current evaluation of the game up or down based on each card that gets revealed. Depending where your count currently is you will immediately know whether to hit or stay. Although other games might not have such strict evaluation procedures, ultimately the same sort of mental process is going on whether playing Monopoly or Chess. Hidden information such as your opponent’s hand in Poker can make evaluation more difficult, but even in games with luck or limited public information there is room for a good player to improve at the skill of evaluation.

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