Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Black and white

The current issue of the London Review of Books does me the honour of printing a letter, written to correct, very mildly, a passage on a piece about poker written by Paul Myerscough. Writing of a court case in which a club owner was prosecuted for hosting games of poker, Mr Myerscough said:
Poker, he [the club owner - ejh] argued, was not a game of chance, but a game of skill, and shouldn't therefore be covered by the Gaming Act. The case was hopeless, and not just because the only people who knew anything about the game were either in the gallery or in the dock (at one point on the third and final day of evidence, the judge interrupted to ask for clarification of one of the most basic rules of the game). Under the 1968 act – and even less ambiguously under the Gambling Act of 2005 – games of chance are defined as also including those which combine skill and chance. Given that even a game like chess, which most people regard as a game of pure skill, involves an element of chance – the players draw for the white pieces, an enormous advantage between two players of similar ability – it isn't clear that the law's definition of a game of chance defines anything at all.
The discussion of chess didn't seem to me to be right (although the point about poker not being a game of chance manifestly is) so I wrote in to correct it, observing that players don't actually draw in the sense that Mr Myerscough appeared to mean, and that the term enormous may be something of an overestimation.

It was perhaps a little too long, and was edited a little. Regrettably, the editing has made me seem to say something that is not only incorrect, but which I didn't actually say in the original email. Apparently, I say:
There is often a draw at the start of a tournament to determine who will have white in the opening game (and black in the second and so on) but since the players are expected to play an equal number of games, any advantage is negated.
But of course, that isn't right: that's not how the draw in a tournament works, and nor would the players expect to play an even number of games with Black and White. Very much the opposite.

What I originally wrote was this:
there often is a draw at the start of a match of tournament. In the case of a match, it will determine who has White in the opening game (and Black in the second and so on) but we would expect an equal number of games to be played, thus negating any advantage. In the case of a tournament (where each player has a number and the first round will be 1v12, 2v11 and so on) players draw for their number and because there are usually an even number of players, half of them will have an "extra" White and half an extra Black
I guess you can see why they edited it. But they confused, as I did not, a match with a tournament, or rather they elided them. But if we're discussing the relative advantage of an extra White or Black, the difference is an important one.

That's not the only oddity in the letter. I went on:
...according to Jonathan Rowson in Chess for Zebras, white scores about 56 per cent at all levels of competitive chess, from world-class down to the lowest level of club player. Is that an 'enormous' advantage? Certainly black wins plenty of games and some players – I'm one of them – have a preference for black.
Well, so I say. As it happens, so far this year I've played three games with the white pieces, all of which I've won. I've played four with the black pieces and I am yet to score as much as half a point.

1 comment:

an ordinary chessplayer said...

Poker is not a game of pure chance, nor is chess a game of pure skill. Not news. I can straightforwardly show that scratch tickets from the lottery commission also have an element of skill. But to argue that a statute is meaningless because it doesn't precisely define what percentage of chance is required in order to fall under the jurisdiction ... ?! Sounds like the fallacy of the beard.

Judges should use their judgment and render same.