A heroic snooker battle shows why chess and snooker require similar sets of skills
In May 2018, Two former world champions John Higgins and Mark Williams meet in the final of the most prestigious snooker tournament of all. They did not disappoint the crowd packed into the tight little Crucible arena in Sheffield. There is added interest, because each player is a veteran, now rated as well past his best. Both had given serious thought to retiring, and at the start of the tournament admitted they had no serious confidence in winning the world championship again. The unfolding story grabbed my attention.
Evidence of great motor skills and calculation
“He’s thinking six moves ahead for that shot”. The comment from a professional commentator could have been made by a chess analyst. The difference: in some (but not all positions) chess masters would have been expected to deal with the uncertainties. Computers now show how remarkably quickly and deep the mental work usually is. “Thinking about” happens in all positions. In contrast, calculation of lengthy numbers of moves takes place more rarely, usually in so-called ‘forced’ sequences of moves such as re-captures, or direct king threats.
Chess as a metaphor for other sports
Chess is often used as a metaphor for other sports requiring more motor skills. I noted it first in an analysis of tennis matches. Later, in a work of fiction, I suggested chess could also be compared with boxing and snooker.
Pressures to succeed
In Tennis Tensions, I looked at the buildup of pressure at vital moments in tennis, when routines broke down. Higgins and Williams in this match resisted such pressures the vast majority of people are prone to.
There were errors. Infrequent and unexpected. In chess they are called blunders. moves far weaker players would not have made (unless of course subjected to the same sorts of pressure!). These seemed to be to be from a lack of concentration, a slight increase in speed of play. Is it too much of a stretch to see similarities with the hassled state of mind in chess players under time pressure?
Age shall not weary them?
Ageing commentators agreed that the standard throughout was as high as the great clashes of the past. Much was made of the 43 year Williams and the 42 year old Higgins. There were those infrequent lapses of concentration. At a low level, my own chess experience is that the frequency of my blunders increases with age.
The drama unfolded over three days, (first to 18 frames). It’s a mix of slow and fast play. Williams (seeking his third championship) surged ahead. A few uncertainties resolved in his favour. Then Higgins fought back when all seemed lost. Then Williams fought back again, sneaking it at 18/16
To go more deeply
I turned some of of my ideas about sporting excellence into fiction in Seconds Out, which has snooker, chess, and boxing themes, together with the obligatory super-villain, and a village bat-woman with sci-fi features. Other sporting publications can be found on my website