Online Chess and Working from Home

by Stefan Löffler
12/4/2020 – Can the performance of world class players at online tournaments be used as an indicator for the quality of work done from home? Three economists, among them German IM Dr. Christian Seel, do think so. A report by Stefan Löffler highlights their sobering conclusions. | Image: Christian Seel (private)

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Bad marks for work from home

When the pandemic struck in spring, Christian Seel began playing online more frequently. He soon got the impression that he was making more mistakes while playing on a screen than he did on a real board, and wondered whether other players felt the same. When the Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour began in April, Seel followed the games of the world's best players – and knew he was onto something.

Among chess players Seel is best known from the Bundesliga, where he plays on board one for the SK Aachen. However, Seel is also a professor of microeconomics at Maastricht University. He is not the only chess enthusiast in his faculty. There is also employment market researcher Stefan Künn, who just recently proved that a higher concentration of particulate matter in the air increases the probability of errors during games of chess.

In call centers or banks, it is expensive or even impossible to reliably assess the quality of services. Chess games, on the other hand, can be analysed very efficiently with engines.

Dainis Zegners of the Rotterdam School of Management, a colleague and fellow chess enthusiast of Seel and Künn, was involved in their research. At the time, Zegners was  working on  a different study, which also used chess data. Said study relates to the notion that work is becoming increasingly more challenging from a cognitive standpoint. How does our cognitive performance develop over the course of our lives, and how do different generations compare in this regard? Error quotas in chess games are easy to evaluate, which is why Zegner used them to answer this question.

The three researchers did the same for the games played at the Magnus Carlsen Invitational. As a benchmark, they used games played by the same players at the Rapid World Championships 2015 and 2019, as all these tournaments were played with the same time limit: 15 minutes for the whole and with an additional 10 seconds for each move.

Another important factor from an economic point of view were the incentives offered to the players in the form of prize money, which were at least on a comparable level. This meant that there were a grand total of 27,000 moves to be analysed. This was done with Stockfish, at a search depth of 25 plies.

Seel's personal observation was confirmed. Online, the top players blundered more often than in live games. This held true for every single player for whom data had been available: Magnus Carlsen, Ding Liren, Anish Giri, Alireza Firouzja, Hikaru Nakamura, Ian Nepomniachtchi and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave.

At least Carlsen seems to be sharing this sentiment. Although he has won amost every single online tournament up to this point, he has also repeatedly criticised the quality of his own performance. For one particular tournament, his second Peter Heine Nielsen even rented a holiday lodge to get Carlsen out of "home office mode" and into "tournament-mode".

According to Seel, it is of course plausible to assume that players first need to get used to the new situation. The three authors are considering a follow-up study on whether performance is going to improve over time, and if so, to what extent. However, Künn, Seel and Zegners first wrote a paper on cognitive performance during work from home. Considering the increased popularity of this approach during the pandemic, their work understandably managed to strike a chord. Their findings were picked up numerous times by the Dutch press.

By the way: Next Sunday, December 6, Christian Seel and Dainis Zegners will be discussing their chess research at the online conference ChessTech 2020. Their session will be preceded by a joint introductory lecture by Fernand Gobet and Andrea Brancaccio, titled "Using chess databases to answer psychological questions: A survey".


Translation from German: Hugo B. Janz

Stefan Löffler writes the Friday chess column in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and succeeds Arno Nickel as editor of the Chess Calendar. For ChessBase the International Master reports from his adopted country Portugal.


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