Skill, luck and starting again
Backgammon is one of the oldest board games in existence. It’s known by different names around the world and there are several different variants. I first learned it as ‘shesh besh’, as they call it in Israel and much of the Arab world. I still can’t open a board and start laying tiles without craving hot mint tea and smelling air thick with shisha smoke. It has a distinctive sound and as with cards, there’s a learned dexterity in experienced hands, visible in the throwing of dice and movement of tiles. You can see who has put in hours no longer possible to count. Shesh besh is wonderfully easy to learn and because luck is important, it’s easy to win.
It takes some time to appreciate the subtle advantages of experience; the dynamic strategies, adjusted for the opponent and position of the tiles on the board; the instinctive assessments of risk and reward… The depth of the game is slowly revealed and delightfully nuanced. It’s possible to make slow and continual improvements over a lifetime. You never play just once. It’s not uncommon to play a dozen games or more in the course of an hour or two, resetting the board after each game, carrying no physical advantage into the next but tallying the results to determine a winner. Over time, usually, luck gives way to skill and experience. The results of one game are far less important than the ability to perform consistently over time.
At this point, you’re possibly starting to think about analogies, I certainly have been. Playing shesh besh recently for the first time in a long time, I found myself thinking about confidence and performance. Confidence has always followed on from success for me. On a base level, I feel OK about myself; how I’m valued by others plays a role, but a good portion of my self-esteem rises and falls on the back of my performance. I was reflecting with a mate the other day that a few years ago I had no trouble backing myself. I’d grown a business quickly and was confident I could do it again without much trouble, or I could find a great job somewhere exciting and they’d be lucky to have me. But after more than a year of difficult challenges, that confidence has grown more elusive. Success, like challenges, can quickly be forgotten and taken for granted.
I’ve been teaching shesh besh to someone who hasn’t played before and teaching the rules has been easy but the strategy is harder. Because it’s easy to win, it can be hard to appreciate the game’s complexity — how much there is still to learn. It’s difficult to perceive the interplay of luck and skill without having had the opportunity to iterate over hundreds or thousands of games against different players. A statistically sound decision or calculated risk is so often wrong in the short term so it becomes easy to learn bad habits on the back of unlikely successes or failures. You can easily abandon a reliable strategy after some recent bad luck, and you can miss subtle differences that change the risk profile of a strategy.
The challenge never really changes, that I’ll only ever know as much as I know and that will always have to be enough. Though there will be continued, gradual improvement, I need to perform every day with whatever skill I possess for whatever luck has in store. That’s true for all of us but elusive forces like confidence and appetite for risk aren’t static. I know after 7 years of significant growth at work, I never imagined the 8th could be devastating, or how much influence I drew from my peers, or how I might feel about risk with a child on the way… The infinite games in life don’t have fixed and agreed-upon rules or an ending like shesh besh, it’s hard to be disaffected when we’re so deeply invested and we don’t get a dozen do-overs in an hour.
But we do get do-overs; very occasional opportunities for reinvention and redirection. I wanted to write about this for the chance to spend some time connecting with the challenges and my waning confidence. I guess I wanted to remind myself of the role of luck or circumstance in my current challenges, and my past successes, and to tell myself I am still improving even if it’s not presently reflected on the scoreboard. It might not be true and it’s certainly hard to see the improvement sometimes, but I’m sure it’s helpful to believe it so don’t burst my bubble.
Luck can run against you in shesh besh, or anything really, with persistent disregard for probability, but the games are quick and you can never fall too far behind or pull too far ahead in a single game. Most commonly and the more games you play, skill becomes the deciding factor. Monopoly is not without its fans but no one plays best of 12 because it’s long and infuriating. Players compound advantage and disadvantage for 3 hours until someone wins or flips the board in rage, depending on the household. The longer a game goes for, the harder it is to remember it’s a game. The longer luck compounds without a reset, the less important skill becomes.
Originally published at https://danielplatt.substack.com on September 13, 2021.