Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, February 25, 2023


I am a truly dreadful chess player.

I know how all the pieces move, and have no difficulty comprehending the basic gist of the game.  My problem is that I have zero ability at strategy.  My understanding is that excellent chess players have an above-average capacity for assessing control of the board holistically -- i.e., they're not simply looking forward and predicting their opponent's moves, they're evaluating the entire layout and planning their moves based on a judgment of what will improve their overall position.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Jyothis, Chess Large, CC BY-SA 3.0]

Wherever this capacity comes from, I don't have it.  My strategy when playing chess is "KILL KILL KILL."  I focus on attacking particular pieces, and therefore walk blindly into traps set by even mediocre players.

True story: I participated in a chess tournament when I was at the University of Louisiana.  It was a single-elimination tournament, but with a twist; the goal of the tournament was to find the worst chess player at the University.  So after a game, the winner was eliminated, and the loser went on to the next round.

I came in second.

The only game I won was the final game, against a player so catastrophically bad she exceeded even my level of strategic incompetence.  At one point, I had (accidentally, of course) put my queen in danger of being taken by her bishop.  I honestly hadn't seen it until I'd already made the move.  So I was sitting there, waiting for her to pounce.  And sure enough, she picked up the bishop, moved it...

... and set it down exactly one space before the queen.

This prompted one of the spectators, who were strictly enjoined against making commentary or helping the players, to burst out in helpless frustration, "What in the fuck are you doing?"

She looked up, gave him a perplexed smile, and said, "What do you mean?"

So.  Yeah.  Her I won against.  Missed getting the trophy by that much.

It's an odd thing, really.  I'm fairly confident that I have a decent brain, and am a reasonably analytical thinker.  But anything involving strategy is absolutely beyond me.  It's why I also suck at most card games.  Games like poker -- where you have to decide your own next move based on what you know about your opponents' cards, and there's a good chance at least some of them are bluffing -- are baffling to me.  I have a great poker face, though.  I'm really good at keeping my expression blank.  But it's not because I've got this great strategy and am keeping it secret.

My expression is blank because most of the time, I have no idea what the hell is going on.

The reason this comes up is a paper in the journal Genes that found a single gene locus -- KIBRA -- that correlates with chess-playing ability (and, the authors suggest, ability in science and technology).  The authors write:
The kidney and brain expressed protein (KIBRA) plays an important role in synaptic plasticity.  Carriers of the T allele of the KIBRA (WWC1) gene... C/T polymorphism have been reported to have enhanced spatial ability and to outperform individuals with the CC genotype in working memory tasks.  Since ability in chess and science is directly related to spatial ability and working memory, we hypothesized that the KIBRA T allele would be positively associated with chess player status and Ph.D. status in science.  We tested this hypothesis in a study involving 2479 individuals (194 chess players, 119 Ph.D. degree holders in STEM fields, and 2166 controls; 1417 males and 1062 females)...  We found that frequencies of the T allele were significantly higher in... chess players compared with ethnically matched controls.  In addition, none of the international chess grandmasters (ranked among the 80 best chess players in the world) were carriers of the CC genotype (0 vs. 46.3%; OR = 16.4, p = 0.005).  Furthermore... Ph.D. holders had a significantly higher frequency of CT/TT genotypes compared with controls.  Overall, this is the first study to provide comprehensive evidence that the rs17070145 C/T polymorphism of the KIBRA gene may be associated with ability in chess and science, with the T allele exerting a beneficial effect.

I find this fascinating from a couple of standpoints.  The first is that it's astonishing a single gene locus can have an effect on a complex set of behaviors such as spatial perception and strategy.  Second, it's interesting that there's also a correlation to attainment of a Ph.D., which is another thing that is beyond my grasp.  I spent some time in my early college days aiming toward a career in research science -- which would have pretty much necessitated my attaining a doctorate -- and after switching around from field to field, finally had the epiphany that the problem wasn't the specific field I was in, it was that I simply didn't have the capacity for narrow, laser focus required to do research.  Nor did I have the ability to synthesize techniques and concepts from disparate fields you see in truly original research -- something that has a lot in common with the holistic strategizing you see in the best chess players.

Put simply, my brain just doesn't work that way.  I'm a raging generalist; someone once described my knowledge, accurately if not particularly kindly, as "a light year across and an inch deep."  I'm positively in awe of people who do scientific research and are blessed with the ability to see dazzlingly brilliant solutions to questions about the universe...

... but I am not one of them.

It's okay, really.  I'm not unhappy with my CC genotype; being an inquisitive sort with a broad general knowledge background is part of what made me a successful teacher.  I have had my pangs of envy when I read about scientists doing amazing work, but deep down, I know I could never have made it as a researcher, any more than I could be a chess grand master.

And at least I can comfort myself in knowing there was one person I went to college with who was worse at that sort of thing than I am.


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