Why chess and snooker require similar skills

May 8, 2018
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
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
Worth reading about it. 
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

Muhammad Ali: the charismatics’ charismatic

June 7, 2016



At times, there is little to add to what has already been said and written about Muhammad Ali. This is one such time. In the twenty-four hours after his death, the story dominated the headlines around the world.

I would like to add one personal observation

I should have written more

Leaders We Deserve has posted examples of many charismatic leaders.  I should have written more about Ali. If he had no talent beyond his sheer physical appearance he would have been discovered (and possibly been exploited) into super-celebrity status.

Against exploitation

His life, in complete contrast to one that could have been a passive acceptance of fate, was an articulate gesture against exploitation. Against treatment of black people in America. Indirectly against exploitation of all those American soldiers fighting in Vietnam.  Against what he called his “slave name” CassiusClay.

And within these broader beliefs, he fought against his own exploitation, and found his personal resolution in adapting the Muslim faith.

He put to use his great talents. A dazzling speed of thought and movement which propelled him to the world championship in boxing, and an astonishing display of verbal dexterity and self-promotional skills in his very public appearances.

His career was illuminated and at times seriously disrupted as he was seen as an uppity and dangerous enemy to the American establishment.

Towards a post-charismatic world?

There is little dispute about the uniqueness of his talents. Historians will have to reach conclusions about his impact on the twentieth century and beyond.

To say there will never be another Muhammad Ali, is another way of saying that we are moving into a post-Charismatic World, and trying to figure out the implications of that process.

Federer versus Murray, and why I might become a behaviorist

August 16, 2014

Andy Murray loses to Roger Federer in the quarter finals of Cincinnati. Your LWD correspondent considers becoming a behavioural psychologist

Just another tennis match, [16th August, 2014] and no big deal. Except Roger Federer has just had praise heaped on him on the event of his thirty-third birthday with the implication he is nearing the end of his illustrious career. He has drifted down to World number six. Andy Murray after surgery has slumped to World number ten, and is slightly under-cooked for the US Open in a week’s time.

At the start of the match, one TV pundit favoured Murray slightly to win it. Another expert favoured Federer slightly. What happened was dramatic and unexpected.

Early exchanges

Early exchanges show Federer to be the more confident player, and he breaks to lead 3-2 and serve. Then he wins another break to take the first set. One of the worse sets Murray has played against Federer.

Second set

Federer’s play dips and Murray breaks at 2-1. Then again to 4-1. Murray strategy to Federer’s backhand side is winning. Federer’s play weaker than in the first set.

Murray drops serve and droops

Murray drops serve with weak play to 4-2. Then drops another serve with even weaker play. If I believed in momentum I would say Federer had gained it.

Murray’s play continues in increasingly predictable weak fashion, and he loses miserably.

‘Between Andy’s ears’

Peter Fleming, one of the better tennis commentators, observed for B Sky B that ‘something was going on between Andy’s ears’ , a euphemism I took to mean that Andy’s mental state was wrong. But on the previous day Andy had shown enormous concentration in defeating big serving Isner. There was no mental fragility on show.

Why I might become a behaviourist

I did not disagree with Fleming’s remark. Except it left me feeling I might give up searching for explanations of human behaviour that involved unobservable processes such as mental fragility. That is the central precept of behavioral psychology,

Fight may still be OK

If I took up with behaviourism, then I could stop worrying about mental events or processes such motivation, commitment, maybe even fright, but fight might just about be OK because like flight it is just about observable.

And, as a behaviorist I would have to abandon worry as an epiphenomenon.

Goodbye to creativity

So it’s goodbye creativity, hello to the world of stimulus and response.

My observations on this brave new world may be reported in a future blog post.


August 22nd:  The Murray conundrum continues in the first round of the US open. Against a veteran opponent Robin Hasse, Murray is tentative from start and gets worse.  The serve is tentative. The play a mix of cautious and over aggressive.  Still struggles on, but wins tie break to go two sets up.

Murray then increasingly physically distressed, cramps mightily, appears to be about to default.  Hasse wins 

set, then also flags. Murray limps home after a wildly swinging fourth set.

I depart from neo-behaviorism and reach speculative view that AM is in same dire form as some English and Indian cricketers I have watched recently.  Cramp is part of a more complex set of actors.  So is first round nerves.

Verdasco beats Murray: How grooving can fragment

January 26, 2009
Fernando Verdasco

Fernando Verdasco

The Murray Verdasco match in the Australian Open illustrates the way in which sportsmen can lose performance standards. An explanation based on the nature of learned routines is offered

Before the match ended it was clear that Murray had lost much of his high performance standard maintained over a period of six months. Commentators were shocked at what was described as a loss of concentration.

He was in two minds

He was in two minds, a commentator observed after another poorly played point during the match. That reminded me of a whole slew of conventional wisdom of how sportsmen play in a trained mode or groove, and then how from time to time they lose it, drop out of the groove. One popular idea is ‘self one and self two’. Self one is in the groove, self two where attention is too diverted on keeping bad play at bay. The self one/ self two explanation describes what was happening as Murray’s self two crept in.

The Murray Verdasco match up had particularly clear swings of performance standards, and is worth careful study. (Swings of momentum, as the commentators called it).

The locker room phenomenon

A different explanation of form comes from the locker-room phenomenon. A player acquires a reputation that sets the beliefs before a match. There is an edge to the player assumed to be in form.

The track records

A version of the locker room phenomenon is track record. Murray’s great record against left-handers is good. Against Verdasco it is a whopping 5:0. Doubts can creep in at vital stages of the match.

Visualising for better or worse

Other folk-lore is the importance of mental rehearsal. The benefits of visualising for winning can be lost. Murray was musing on the possibility of having to win a match when he was not playing at his best. Federer himself had had to do that the previous day, coming back from two sets down. I wondered if Murray had noted that, and internalised a bit of it.

Standard operating procedures

I want to suggest an explanation from organization theory. In particular, the work on performance in high performance teams which suggests that ‘dream teams’ transcend ordinary or standard performance, by learning to develop routines or standard operating procedures beyond expectations. That work can be traced to an earlier idea that routines in individuals and teams can be changed (and improved) by a special kind of experiential learning known as creative analysis.

It is a bit of a jump to say that what applies to in business team also applies to a tennis player. But I believe it does. I also believe it applies to golfers, who seem to be grooved to improve natural talent, and for whom that grooving also breaks down and requires regular regrooving.

The fifth set

After four sets of wildly swinging moods, the score is two sets apiece. Would more mood swings decide the match?

Murray’s routines unravel

Murray’s routines unravelled. Elements of more cautious routines appeared at vital and close points. Verdasco grabbed a service break and avoided the dips in play shown in sets one and three to serve out. Murray declined in a way he seemed to have overcome.

Much more to learn

There is much more to learn about standard operating procedures but I suggest that attention to the nature of routines and their weakening would be worth while considering as ways of studying high performance and its decline under pressure

To go more deeply

I will add more technical details to this post or in a future post