The importance of queen side counterplay

Back in 1994 when I was still playing competitive chess (I practically retired in a year’s time after a series of blunders under pressure), I had played in this one special tournament that was played to “prepare Karnataka youngsters for national events”. Though I wasn’t travelling to any of these events, being a “promising youngster” I had received an invitation to play.

It was a weird kind of tournament, for apart from us “youngsters”, there were these senior players from the state who participated in the tournament on and off. Their scores weren’t tallied – all they did was to make sure each “youngster” played an equal number of games against a “senior player” and only youngsters’ scores counted.

In the first round of the tournament, I faced off against a senior named Nagesh (if I remember correctly). Nagesh played white and played a King’s Indian Attack against my Sicilian Defence (part of this special tournament was to expose us to non-standard openings and plays). It was a hard fought middle and end game where experience ultimately prevailed, and I lost.

In the analysis after the game, Nagesh pointed out that while he had an established centre and strong kind side attack, I had managed to build up a fairly expansive position on the queen side, and that I should have “pushed harder on the queenside for counterplay” rather than simply defending. While I took his point, I didn’t see the point of expanding on the queen side to grab a couple of pawns and (with a remote chance) threaten to queen one of my pawns there when my king was under heavy attack.

This bewilderment continued through the next year, as I studied openings for which the stated strategy was to “get counterplay on the queenside”. Not being a particularly great endgame player (though I did show some promise in that in my brief career), the advantage that could be gained by the gain of a pawn was lost to me, and I would prefer to go for a more tactical game (which usually didn’t go too well).

As an adult, while I don’t play competitively any more, I continue to follow chess and watch videos from time to time for entertainment. I’ve developed more nuance on strategy, and in playing a positional game. I’ve seen how small advantages (like space, or even a pawn) can be turned into decisive victories, and given myself shit for not learning to play endgames better back during my playing career. It’s a more holistic view of chess than the one I had formed as a schoolboy having mugged up all the moves of Morphy’s 17-move win against the Duke of Brunswick and Count Isouard (I still remember that game by heart).

Though it doesn’t take much convincing now for me to appreciate the joys of positional play, and going for queen side counterplay when your king is under attack, I found the game played by Viswanathan Anand against Veselin Topalov in the first round of the ongoing Candidates tournament rather interesting.

The two players go for different strategies – while Topalov builds up for an attack against Anand’s king, Anand goes for queen side counterplay (the bit I didn’t get back when I was a young player) and goes pawn grabbing. It was a rather complex game and both players played rather inaccurately under time pressure, but it is an excellent example of how queen side counterplay can help defuse an attack.

Anand’s queen nearly gets trapped (in the press conference after the game, he said he was reconciled to giving it up if attacked). There is a massive piledriver of pieces Topalov stacks up on the king side to attack Anand’s king. There is absolutely no threat of danger on Topalov’s king.

Yet, from time to time, Anand’s pawn grabbing strategy means Topalov has to move back some pieces to the queen side for its defence, blunting the attack. Then, Topalov needs to recover lost material, and moves his rooks to the queen side for that purpose. There is a mad scramble around the time control (both players got into time trouble) when the position gets liquidated with a lot of pieces exchanged.

After the dust settles, we find that Topalov’s remaining pieces are horribly misplaced on the queenside (on a pawn recovery campaign), while Anand’s are now trained towards an attack on Topalov’s king. As Topalov scrambles to defuse this attack, he loses material, and ultimately resigns.

It was a fascinating game to get a potentially fascinating tournament underway. I hope to follow it as best as I can, though that might not be so trivial given the holiday I’m taking later this month. Watching GM Daniel King’s analysis of Anand’s game (linked above) started making me wonder if I’d have played differently had I had access to such high quality commentary when I was still a competitive player two decades ago.

As for that tournament, I ended up beating the other senior player I played against. He blundered his queen in a typical tactical Sicilian Dragon Yugoslav Attack position (I was white). I placed second among all the “youngsters” there, and got my only prize money from chess after that game – a princely Rs. 80 (which wasn’t that bad for a schoolboy in 1994)!

Evolution of strategy in sports

Yesterday ended with a bedtime argument about the merits of basketball player Stephen Curry. It was a bit of a weird discussion, because the wife hadn’t heard of Curry before the discussion started, and neither of us watches the NBA (I get put off by the random ad-breaks, also known as time outs).

I happened to be reading this piece by David Henderson, and asked the wife (who had represented her college in basketball) if she knew about Curry. When she replied in the negative, I showed her this montage of his 3-pointers and how that has made him controversial in the basketball community.

The wife, having greater domain knowledge (having played the game competitively) defended Curry’s critics, saying that his tactic of shooting threes had “killed the game” and made it more boring. “Basketball is a team game, and it is about penetration through passing. Three pointers is a last-ditch measure”, she said, “and Curry, by directly shooting threes, is killing the game”.

I disagreed, arguing from a game theory perspective. Every team will try to gain the maximum advantage based on the current set of rules, I argued, and that it was up to the opposition to find a response to this new way of play. While the Golden State Warriors’ three-point based play might be boring, I argued, it was effective, and being a new strategy it made the game more interesting.

She made arguments about the spirit of the game and how football would become boring and be ruined if, say, someone could shoot with high accuracy from his own goal area to the opposite goal. I responded that opponents would adapt to this, soon rendering this strategy irrelevant, and wondered why no one had figured a way yet to stop the Warriors.

I took the example of the Age of Empires, where each civilisation has a special force, and you need to adapt your strategy to that while playing against this civilisation. I pointed out about how when Stoke City came to the Premier League in 2008, they flummoxed opponents by use of their special force of “longthrowman” (also known as Rory Delap), but soon opponents adapted their strategy sufficiently to neutralise his throws.

This got me wondering whether strategy in basketball has evolved too homogeneously over time (again I must mention I hardly watch the game) – the five point zonal defence and attack, ball handling at the top, rebounds, dunks and so on – that when faced with a new strategy of using quick three-pointers, teams have struggled to react.

I was reminded of this Malcolm Gladwell piece on current Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive leading his daughter’s basketball team to success based on the “full court press” strategy which was then hardly used.

It got me thinking about football, with its diversity of playing styles (admittedly, it’s played in a larger number of countries, on a bigger court and with more players, giving more room for diverse strategies), where a team might be able to achieve short-term results with an innovative strategy or formation, but opponents soon learn to neutralise them.

Is it that basketball, dominated by a handful of teams (note that the NBA has a small number of teams and no concept of promotion and relegation unlike European leagues), hasn’t evolved diversely enough to react quickly enough to new strategies? And this is not the first time that basketball has reacted in a hostile fashion to a new strategy that is well within the rules – as this podcast on the evolution of basketball strategy explains, the NCAA (and also the NBA) actually outlawed the dunk after its effective use by Karim Abdul Jabbar.

The Yin and Yang of Basketball

The way I see it, Stephen Curry’s critics describing his and the Warriors’ tactics as unfair are no different from English footballers who described Scotland’s passing game as unfair (England was used to a dribbling-only no-passing style of football till then) after the first meeting of the two nations in 1872.

Sleeping with the enemy

No, this has nothing to do with the 1990s movie based on which some 3 or 4 Hindi movies (Fareb, Agnisakshi, etc.) were made. This is more of the philosophical concept of how you deal with people you don’t like.

The standard reaction with someone you don’t like is to avoid them. This is perhaps how we have evolved – the first response to “danger” or something you don’t like is to “run”. Consequently, if you know that something or someone unpleasant lurks somewhere, you avoid the place and the person.

Yet this is not the optimal strategy in all cases. Let me illustrate with an example from Neal Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle, a story set in the late 1600s in Western Europe. One of the chief characters is Eliza “de la Zeur”. The polite but mostly dumb Etienne de Arcachon would have made several attempts to woo her, and marry her, but she harbours a deep dislike for him and his family.

Yet, at an opportune moment, when all seems doomed for her, she decides to marry him. This comes across as a massive surprise (sorry for the spoiler there) for the lay reader who likes to steer clear of his enemies, but a little analysis reveals that this was her best strategy at the moment. Rather than steer clear of her enemies, she actually commits to sleeping with one of them. And as the book reveals (no more spoilers), it indeed turns out to be a masterful strategy.

Sleeping with the enemy is also an important strategy when it comes to international relations. If there is a country that you feel threatened by, and which you think might invade you, you should seek to increase (rather than decrease) trade with that country. While this may not be intuitive, the increased trade increased the cost of attack for the potential aggressor, since the invasion will ruin its own economy. One of the reasons for the prolonged tension for the Cold War was that back in those days, the US and the Soviet Union didn’t trade much with each other. Analysts talk about impending “US-China tensions”, but this will never come to bear, since these two superpowers trade considerably with each other.

The strategy has important implications in business also. Sometimes it is easy to be driven by emotions in your business – there might be a person or firm that you don’t like due to historic reasons, for which the intuitive reaction is to “have nothing to do with them”. That, however, can lead to suboptimal outcomes since by doing so, you are denying yourself the opportunity of profiting from them. Unpleasant as the company or firm may be, if there is a way in which you can profit from them, it is irrational to not take it! And it doesn’t matter to you whether such an action can help or hurt this unpleasant counterparty.

My school diary used to come with a “saying” at the bottom of every page. These sayings didn’t change over the years (for the people who had said such sayings had long been dead by the time I went to school), and they would get recycled all year round in “thoughts for the day” on the blackboards. One of them said “to smile at an enemy is to disarm him“.

I invite you to suitably modify this saying in the context of this piece.

The Ramayana and the Mahabharata principles

An army of monkeys can’t win you a complex war like the Mahabharata. For that you need a clever charioteer.

A business development meeting didn’t go well. The potential client indicated his preference for a different kind of organisation to solve his problem. I was about to say “why would you go for an army of monkeys to solve this problem when you can.. ” but I couldn’t think of a clever end to the sentence. So I ended up not saying it.

Later on I was thinking of the line and good ways to end it. The mind went back to Hindu mythology. The Ramayana war was won with an army of monkeys, of course. The Mahabharata war was won with the support of a clever and skilled consultant (Krishna didn’t actually fight the war, did he?). “Why would you go for an army of monkeys to solve this problem when you can hire a studmax charioteer”, I phrased. Still doesn’t have that ring. But it’s a useful concept anyway.

Extending the analogy, the Ramayana was was different from the Mahabharata war. In the former, the enemy was a ten-headed demon who had abducted the hero’s wife. Despite what alternate retellings say, it was all mostly black and white. A simple war made complex with the special prowess of the enemy (ten heads, special weaponry, etc.). The army of monkeys proved decisive, and the war was won.

The Mahabharata war was, on the other hand, much more complex. Even mainstream retellings talk about the “shades of grey” in the war, and both sides had their share of pluses and minuses. The enemy here was a bunch of cousins, who had snatched away the protagonists’ kingdom. Special weaponry existed on both sides. Sheer brute force, however, wouldn’t do. The Mahabharata war couldn’t be won with an army of monkeys. Its complexity meant it needed was skilled strategic guidance, and a bit of cunning, which is what Krishna provided when he was hired by Arjuna ostensibly as a charioteer. Krishna’s entire army (highly trained and skilled, but footsoldiers mostly) fought on opposite side, but couldn’t influence the outcome.

So when the problem at hand is simple, and the only complexity is in size or volume or complexity of the enemy, you will do well to hire an army of monkeys. They’ll work best for you there. But when faced with a complex situation and complexity that goes well beyond the enemy’s prowess, you need a charioteer. So make the choice based on the kind of problem you are facing.


Missed opportunities in cross-selling

Talk to any analytics or “business intelligence” provider – be it a large commoditized outsourcing firm or a rather niche consultant – and one thing they all claim to advise their clients on is strategies for “cross sell”. However, my personal experience suggests that implementation of cross-sell strategies among retailers I encounter is extremely poor. I will illustrate two such examples in this post here.

Jet Airways and American Express together have come up with this “Jet Airways American Express Platinum Credit Card”. Like any other co-branded credit card, it offers you additional benefits on Jet Airways flights booked with this card (in terms of higher points) as well as some other benefits such as lounge access for economy travel. Given that I’m a consultant and travel frequently, this is something I think is good to have, and have attempted to purchase it a few times. And got discouraged by the purchase process each time and backed out.

Now, I’m a customer of both Jet Airways and American Express. I hold an American Express Gold Card (perhaps one of the few people to have an individual AmEx card), and have a Jet Privilege account. Yet, neither Jet or Amex seems remotely interested in selling to me. I once remember applying for this card through the Amex call centre. The person at the other end of the line wanted me to fill up the entire form once again – despite me being already a cardholder. This I would ascribe to messed up incentive structures where the salesperson at the other end gets higher benefits for acquiring a new customer rather than upgrading an existing one. I’ve mentioned I want this card to the Amex call centre several times, yet no one has called me back.

However, these are not the missed cross-sell opportunities I’m talking about in this post. Three times in the last three months (maybe more, but I cannot recollect) I’ve booked an air ticket to fly on Jet airways from the Jet Airways website having logged into my Jet Privilege account and paying with my American Express card. Each time I’ve waited hopefully that some system at either the Jet or the Amex end will make the connection and offer me this Platinum card, but so far there has been response. It is perhaps the case that for some reason they do not want to upgrade existing customers to this card (in which case the entire discussion is moot) but not offering me a card here is simply a case of a blatant missed opportunity – in cricketing terms you can think of this as an easy dropped catch.

The other case has to do with banking. I’m in the process of purchasing a house, and over the last few months have been transferring large amounts of money to the seller in order to make my down payments (which I’m meeting through my savings). Now, I’ve had my account with Citibank for over seven years and have never withdrew such large amounts – except maybe to make some fixed deposits. One time, I got a call from the bank’s call centre, confirming if it was indeed I who had made the transfer. Why did the bank not think of finding out (in a discreet manner) why all of a sudden so much money had moved out of my account, and if I was up to purchasing something and if the bank could help? Of course, later, during a visit to the Citibank local branch recently I found I wouldn’t have got a loan from them anyway since they don’t finance apartments built by no-name builders that are still under construction (which fits the bill of the property I’m purchasing). Nevertheless – the large money transferred out of my account could have been for buying a property that the bank could have financed. Missed opportunity there?

My understanding of the situation is that in several “analytics” offerings there is a disconnect between the tech and the business sides. Somewhere along the chain of implementation there is one hand-off where one party knows only the business aspects and the other knows only technology, and thus the two are unable to converse, leading to suboptimal decisions. One kind of value I offer (hint! hint!!) is that I understand both tech and business, and I can ensure a much smoother hand-off between the technical and business aspects, thus leading to superior solution design.