November 3, 2013
Blind to the Bishop
Over the years I've become increasingly fascinated with the discrepancy between Reality and my perception of it. If you've never contemplated this divide, discovering it is like finding a bottomless rabbit hole—unsettling, to say the least. If you're dead certain that the heater is gray, for example, or if you like to leave yourself notes, watch out.
Once you realize how easy it is to hack our brains, you start looking at everything sideways. Case in point: Chess. I used to play, a lot, when I was a kid. And then, after high school, I stopped. In fact I completely forgot about the game in my adult life, until a teacher got my six year old son interested in it. Suddenly he was eager to play me, which got me playing again—and revisiting the game with older eyes.
There are many ways in which Chess is a fascinating game, but for me one of the most striking (and frustrating!) is how difficult it is to avoid obvious mistakes. By obvious I do not mean, after years of intense and dedicated study, that you ought to be able to see, seven moves into the future, that pawn to K4 leads to mate in two moves. No, I mean when playing Chess, no matter how experienced you get, you'll discover—repeatedly—you can't see the metaphorical equivalent of someone running at you with a knife, making stabbing gestures.
I call this being 'Blind to the Bishop.'
For me and my brain, it is the Bishop that seems particularly likely to be involved. The Bishop attacks along diagonals, and something about this not-quite-sideways motion seems to make it sneakier. Still, there is nothing hidden or ambiguous about a Bishop's attack. One need only look at the board and follow a straight line to see all the squares a Bishop is threatening at any given moment.
And yet, over and over again, Bishops (and other attacks) will seem to materialize from nowhere, inevitably capturing a piece I can't afford to lose, and so spoiling, in one brief moment of tragic oversight, a long and hard-fought game.
There is a famous experiment that exactly illustrates this same phenomenon, and you've probably already heard of it. Researchers asked participants to count the number of basketball passes between players on a basketball court. During the test, a man in a gorilla costume walks across the court. Occupied with the task of counting passes, about half the test subjects failed to notice the gorilla.
Why does this happen? The theory is, when we focus our attention on one task, we become selectively blind to everything else. This, incidentally, is how magicians and pick-pockets make their livings. But the truly astonishing thing is, even if you know about our tendency to have selective blindness, even if you know it's coming, even if you guard against it, it still happens.
I know about the gorilla. I know I'm vulnerable to those sneaky sideways Bishops. But when I play chess, it's as if the researchers are warning me in advance: OK Andy, we're going to run an experiment now and we want you to count basketball passes...but we're also going to send out a man in a gorilla costume; make sure you don't miss him! And I, trying my very best to watch those damned diagonals, nonetheless get blindsided by the Bishop, over and over again...