Archive for November 22nd, 2011

I’m always on the look out for terminology that has found its way from philosophy into chess, and was very pleased to see the word ‘falsification’ appear in a chess book I recently browsed. Admittedly, I cannot -at the time of writing- locate the source, however, this is inconsequential. I read broadly in chess and always return to the books I have in my growing personal collection. Once found, I will cite the source, however, in the meantime I shall begin with a brief historical account of the term, which will serve the dual purpose of a brief trip down memory lane to heady, undergraduate days too.

Firstly, what is falsification in the context of philosophy? The phrase itself was first coined by Karl Popper, who once upon a time objected to the rise of what he called pseudo-science (we now call this social science). His point was that in order for a theory to gain credibility by being called ‘scientific’, it must be possible to falsify it. For example, his compatriot Freud argued for psychoanalysis, making such claims that a person’s behaviour can be influenced by experiences lying within their subconscious. Popper argued that such theories cannot be scientific because they cannot be verified/falsified -by falsify, he means show that something is wrong/incorrect. How, for example, can the content of a person’s subconscious be examined physically and objectively and thus attributed as the cause of something? It’s simply not possible. At best Freud’s assertions were interpretations of behaviour, though if you read his Lectures on Psychoanalysis you’ll find that many of his patients actually told him what they thought was the cause of their behaviour, and not vice-versa. If Popper were still alive today, he would almost certainly be aghast at the commercially motivated, blurred boundaries between the social -pseudo- sciences and the more traditional sciences that pervade our modern age. TV commercials would probably drive him up the wall!

As a thinking tool, falsification has great potential in chess. Rather than verify or confirm to ourselves why we should play a certain move, instead we should prove to ourselves why it shouldn’t be played. This doesn’t just mean, thinking along the lines of ‘I can play my knight to c4 but not d5 because he can pin it with his rook if I do that’, this this is clearly a rudimentary case of establishing which tactical threats are apparent in a position, but falsification serves a better purpose if applied to the selection of candidate moves.

Black to play, QGD Tartakower line

c5 or c6 or Qd6?

In this position, which can be reached in the QGD, Kramnik is famous for playing c6 whereas Kasparov is known to have played c5 in his second match against Karpov. It is possible that after some home analysis both players rejected Qd6 as a serious candidate move because they thought that d6 is not the correct square for the queen. After white plays Qb3, black would have to spend time guarding against both the possibility of a knight arriving at b5 and/or the longer term plan of castles short, Nd2-Nb3-f3-e4. In such a position, a club player might approach the same position thinking along the lines of Qd6 being strong because it 1) attacks a pawn, 2) develops the queen, 3) clears the back rank, thus preparing the connection of the rooks. The problem with such a thought process is that it only confirms why a move should be played rather than falsified, and thus disregarded. Whether Qd6 is sound or not cannot be established by a process which only confirms our initial reasons for playing a move, therefore, the true value in falsification lies in its ability to improve our decision making process and thus enable us to select better moves. If we interpret chess as a struggle against error, then falsifying the value we attach to candidate moves is a powerful tool indeed.

One last thing, what do we do if a move cannot be falsified? (By this I mean we cannot fault it). Then we must play it! In the position above, I would play c6,with a5 and Nd7 to come.


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