Debate and Chess- Nettlesomeness

I play some games other than debate and am going to write a few posts over the summer about things I learned from other areas and how they map on/might help people who are working to improve at debate.  To begin this post is about chess world champion Magnus Carlsen and why your number 1 priority as a debater should be to be like Magnus.

Image result for magnus carlsen


Here he is wearing what appears to be a wool topcoat (camel no less!) over a denim jacket over a shirt and tie- the guy breaks all the rules!


Now you might think he was able to make it to the top of the chess world based on just his awesome name, gangster wit, and pure handsomeness. While no doubt all three played a role, the true key to his strength is that he approaches the game in a fundamentally different way from many other players.


Basically, for thousands of years the guiding strategic principle of chess was the same: make the best possible move. Now, anyone who has read a K before can instantly see that “best possible” is not a value neutral category- what is “best” requires a definition and people can disagree about what that definition should be (position (where your pieces are), the exchange (are you up/down points)etc) but much like the concept of “rational actor” unites disparte neoclassical economic theorists like Friedman and Keynes, chess strategy was united around making things easier for yourself.


What I mean is that in order to formulate a strategy you need to reduce the field of variables. If there are 500 variables its hard to figure out what to do, by reducing the number of variables you make it easier to have a plan. A lot of traditional chess is about making moves that reduce complexity. For example “the exchange” basically tracks points based on what pieces you have managed to capture/your opponent has captured. If you take my rook and I take your pawn you are “up the exchange”. Traditional chess wisdom 101 says if you are up the exchange then the best strategy is to trade pieces and remove them from the board- you can better manage your advantage with a small number of pieces because it reduces complexity and thus the chance you will make a mistake.


A big difference between the way humans think about chess and computers (called engines in the chess world) is that engines don’t really care about simplifying things. Because of their computational power they can “brute force” enough calculations that they aren’t “scared” of complex positions. Frequently chess commentators will mention the difference between a “human” move and an “engine” move  and this is usually what they are talking about- the human move is one that reduces complexity/presses a small advantage, and the engine move is one that embraces complexity/appears riskier.


So no that you know how humans play, and how engines play, and you know that Magnus upended the chess world, can you figure out how?


I’ll let Scottish GM Jonathan Rowson explain


There is a lot to be said for being stung by a nettle. The experience may not be entirely pleasant, but it brings your attention back to your body, renews your respect for nature, and encourages you to be more vigilant for the greater dangers that lie ahead. Indeed, sometimes you need to ‘grasp the nettle’ to get anywhere at all.

Nonetheless, nettles are a pain, literally and figuratively, and ‘nettlesome’ aptly captures the quality of something bothersome that prevents us from feeling at ease.

Our new World Champion, Magnus Carlsen, is obviously the player of 2013, but we needed the word ‘nettlesomeness’ to capture the quintessence of his strength, which lies in his capacity to induce errors by relentlessly playing moves that are not only good, but bothersome.

American Computer Scientist Ken Regan coined the term after a close examination of patterns of mistakes in the games of elite players, including an instructive comparison with former world champion Vladimir Kramnik, who is apparently as accurate as Carlsen, but is not as good at subtly discombobulating his opponents.

To be clear, Carlsen’s nettlesomeness lies in the difference between playing consistently accurate moves, and playing consistently accurate moves that also maximise the chances of inaccuracies from the opponent. The former style beats all but the very best Grandmasters, while the latter tends to beat them too.

I haven’t checked the data, and I am sure a cross-examination would yield some nettlesome questions, but for me it’s not about the methodology. As somebody who has played Carlsen and watched his games for several years, the conclusion rings true. Being a great chess player is as much about sucking the greatness out of your opponents as it is about demonstrating greatness of your own.


As an example, here is Carlsen dismantling e4(the most common/”strongest” opening) through a series of piece sacrifices.

To sum up, humans want simplicity so Magnus makes moves that place his opponent in the “engine” position- where they have to make complex and unpracticed decisions. He does this over and over and over again and then he sits back and waits. Eventually, they crack. They make a mistake, and then usually from this dramatic turning point its all over. In fact, some chess nerds even disparage Magnus by saying its not that he’s good at chess its that he is better physical shape (my old job) than his opponents and he just waits for them to get tired and give up-playing positions others would have accepted as drawn hours ago.



So after that lead in we have arrived at a useful definition: nettlesomeness is making decisions that make the game as hard as possible for your opponent to make the correct decision or that encourages them to make a mistake.


Now, in chess there are clearly defined goals- you need to protect your king, develop your pieces, formulate a plan of attack etc. Debate isn’t quite as clear cut because far less things are fixed. So let’s look at a few examples of debate nettlesomeness.


  1. Referendum + Politics- this is imo the classic example of debate strategy. The referendum CP puts the plan to a popular democratic vote -if 51% say yes than the plan happens. The politics disad is premised off the plan being controversial/unpopular, and so many affirmatives read link turn evidence about how the plan is popular. The problem here is that if you say the plan is popular you are reading solvency evidence for the CP- because its popular the referendum will pass. So the correct “move” for the affirmative in this instance is to impact turn politics rather than link turn, even though link turns are far more common
  2. The conditionality squeeze- it kind of saddens me that “kids today” don’t really understand/appreciate conditionality for the amazing tool that it is. In an era where you can run 5 cps and the 2A doesn’t even say “conditionality bad” the neg should win 100% of the time. Why don’t they? Well generally it’s because those 5 cps were just thrown together nonsense with no logical thought put into them. If you want to truly wield conditionality like a champ you need to use the squeeze. A squeeze is basically what every aff complains about re: conditionality- you force them to either avoid their best arguments or to make contradictory claims. So on last years education topic a “squeeze” would be a free market cp like vouchers, and a market bad K/da like the cap K. Now, because the CP is conditional they can’t concede out of this obvious double turn. So if they impact urn either by saying market good/bad then you concede it and go for the other one. This is a pretty straightforward squeeze and yet some affs won’t make a theory arg/perf con regardless. The squeeze can get more sophisticated and subtle depending on the topic- one classic on any IR topic is to box the aff in on how tough/soft their stance is. Most fopo topics deal with “rogue” states- ones we don’t get along with- because obvi we generally have pretty good fopo with the others. So most affs will either say “we are too harsh, we should be nice” or vice versa. So you can box them in by playing both sides of the fence. Example- aff: we should be a bit nicer to North Korea. Neg- appeasement DA, CP to go nicer + politics. Now your answers to appeasement will support the cp.
  3. Using T definitions to generate links or CP competition. The classic example of this is using a word like “substantially” to force the affirmative to say the plan is large/has a big effect. Refuting these kind of strategies generally takes: some dorky word research people don’t want to do, lots of line by line minutia, a good background in debate theory. Lots of people don’t have one of those parts or just don’t have the “physical strength” and so they just surrender


While those are big picture strategy ideas, you can also be nettlesome in all kinds of other ways

-if your opponent is less technical/doesn’t flow well make a bunch of short perms in the 2AC!

-giving tons of reasons to prefer your evidence (or even reading cards on such)

-drawing distinctions (not my x)


The potential list is endless but the central idea is what you want to take away: your speeches should be designed to push your opponent into a corner where they only have bad choices. Sometimes that takes a lot of different little pushes, sometimes it means making one bold strategic choice.






3 responses to “Debate and Chess- Nettlesomeness

  1. I get the general point you are making, but your conclusion/suggestion that there are more clearly defined goals in chess than in debate is, well, debatable. Much of what has changed in chess over the past 20 years has been a shift in how to define goals – with brute force calculation becoming far more important than the previously cited defined strategic objectives and methods (like protect your king, develop your pieces, etc.). In this respect, chess and debate are quite similar – the way contestants seek to win has changed a lot over time.

    Or is it just old wine in new bottles? It’s interesting that Magnus’ style is often compared to an earlier world champion Anatoly Karpov (who first won the title by default when American Robert Fischer declined to defend his title in 1975). Eventually, Karpov was defeated by a more ‘dynamic’ player, Garry Kasparov.

  2. To be fair, that was a blitz chess game (5 minutes for the entire game for each player), which is not considered ‘serious’ tournament chess.

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