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Avoid blundering: 80% of a winning strategy (asmartbear.com)
489 points by duck 9 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 218 comments





> the player who committed more blunders lost 86% of the time

In some sense this is almost tautological. While finding an exact definition for a chess blunder isn't straightforward, here is one example from the Lichess UI:

https://github.com/lichess-org/lila/blob/b527746b179cdde6438...

Basically, if you make a move which decreases your winning probability more than 14% over the best move, that's a blunder. But winning probability is a nonlinear function of stockfish centipawns. A drop in 100 centipawns when you're up 15 points isn't a blunder. When the game was equal, it is.

Point is, by the time you know it's a blunder you already know something about the outcome of that move, that it swung the winning probability by more than 14%. So the analysis is kind of just measuring some function of winning probability and saying that it is highly correlated with winning probability.


It's not tautological, though. Your position can gradually deteriorate until it is not salvageable anymore. In that situation we say that the opponent outplayed you.

The fact that the switches in probability occur suddenly is highly relevant. One reason for this could be, that you are able to avoid this type of mistake 90% of the time. So during 9 out of ten moves, nothing changes. Then it does. So in this model, avoiding blunders means honing your skills to be able to apply all aspects of your mistake knowledge all the time. In another game, that is less blunder driven, it might be better to focus on getting more things right most of the time, rather than getting fewer things right all of the time.

At this level, chess is a tactics game. Not a strategy game.


It’s an issue of how the games are evaluated. At most skill levels a human being slowly outplayed is trading blunders from a computer’s perspective.

For a 1400 a game where an 800 crushed a 500 is most likely a comedy of errors. For a GM that 1400 crushing a 1100 will similarly be filled with missed opportunities. And for a top chess engine on significant depth, most games are practically a slapstick comedy because the best of the best represent such a small fraction of overall players.


I would go with the definition of a blunder as a move that you instantly recognize as wrong once you see the response. So the definition is relative to your own skill level.

It's at least partly a property of the game itself. If the game is tossing a coin, first to 100 heads wins, then the win probability will not take major swings. If you have a game where the person in a worse position has many opportunities to recover, win probability does not swing so much.


I don't think that's true. Speaking as someone sub-1000 rated who plays lots of other people in the same region, the computer evals don't typically show a series of blunders. 1 or 2 blunders per game is common, but blunder-less games are also not uncommon. Just lots and lots of suboptimal but not terrible moves.

If you’re rated 800 online and making 1-2 blunders per game playing blitz, that seems low and it still adds up to 2-4 in a given game.

If you mean longer time controls then that’s definitely helping, but most games are 5 minutes or less simply because players are going to be able to fit far more such games per day. Similarly the average rating is quite low simply because everyone starts terrible and most people quit relatively quickly.


I'm talking about daily/correspondence games.

Ok, 1-2 blunders are more believable in that context, and uhh ouch. Anyway, it’s still an extreme edge case which says nothing about most games.

My point was that it's not an extreme edge case, it's quite common, even at the 700-1000 chess.com ELO level.

Someone dying in a car accident is frequent/common as in happening several times a day, but it’s still an extreme edge case in terms of the average trip.

If we’re talking about the average game you simply need to look at all time controls to get an accurate understanding not pick an uncommon example and arbitrarily suggest it’s representative of the general case.


Do you have better data, or are you just being an asshole?

> Do you have better data, or are you just being an asshole?

Last I checked, 55% of games on chess.com are 5 minutes or less if that’s what you’re asking. But at this point I’m just done with this conversation.

Also, average account ELO was ~800 not sure if that’s active or just not banned.


I meant number of blunders per game at low ELOs. I stand by my estimation that even at 800, even a 5 minute game would have a median blunder count of 1 or 2. Which is hardly a constant stream of blunders, which is what I was trying to point out.

I looked at a sampling and it was more like 5-6 per game it’s high variance some where much better or worse. But I didn’t find any summary statistics.

They may be referring to sub-1000 online rated. An 800 FIDE rated player is going to wipe the floor with an 800 chess.com rated player.

Minimum FIDE rating is 1400, so you really cannot be 800 FIDE. Also the gap between online and FIDE ratings is closer than people think.

That’s not correct, as of 2022:

They only publish numbers above 1000, but they still come up with a number before deciding to not publish it. https://www.fide.com/docs/regulations/FIDE%20Rating%20Regula...

Not all clubs follow those rules exactly, but you still need to track sub 1000 to know when people cross it.


It is since new rating regulations, which are in effect as of 2024: https://handbook.fide.com/chapter/B022024

See 7.1.2. Ratings aren't tracked by clubs even when players are under this cutoff - all games for rating are submitted to FIDE.


Which only came into effect on March 1 2024, so people still have sub 1400 FIDE rankings from 2024.

They don't - ratings of everyone under 2000 got increased, according to formula: player rating + 0.4 * (2000 - player rating).

So everyone now has rating above 1400, except if their rating fell under in meantime, in which case they will be removed from next rating list.


If anything that reinforces my point that low-rated players aren't losing in a series of constant blunders.

If you’re 800 FIDE rated over the board you’re not going to be 800 online. You’ll be way above that. I haven’t played in years but I was beating 1200 rated players online as a total beginner. The ratings are not comparable.

A sub-1000 online rated player is frankly a very poor, total beginner at chess, not an enthusiastic club player.


No argument there, but that has nothing to do with my point that novices at chess aren't just playing constant blunders when playing each other.

That’s position-dependent. In one case you might be in a totally closed position where there’s no obvious way forward and your position gradually deteriorates. In another case you might be in an ultra-sharp, open position where you miss some crazy sacrifice combination that leads to mate-in-10.

The first example is clearly a strategic defeat and the second a tactical defeat. But calling it a “blunder” to miss the sacrifice in such a sharp position feels unfair. You might have been walking a tightrope for a long time to reach that point and then made one little slip any grandmaster could be expected to make.


However isn't it essentially saying 'You can do everything right and lose, but it's pretty rare compared to making lots of mistakes and winning.'?

I once watched a volleyball game between my high school’s vaunted multi-time state champion team and a small private school. It was a perfect example of no blunders vs. gradual deterioration. Our team played an aggressive style that would test the opponent’s physical ability and mental toughness. The small private school played no-mistakes, all defense, and no offense. They would dig up everything in bounds and return the ball. They only scored when our team hit the ball out of bounds. That game took four hours, and the only reason the small team lost was depth: they only had one substitute. Eventually, they wore out and just couldn't physically perform.

These evaluation-centric definitions of blunder are a bit awkward though.

Traditionally blunders were defined in more player-centric way: player blundered, when he made a mistake obvious enough, that a player of his strength is very unlikely to make. So what is a blunder for a strong player may merely be a mistake for a weaker player.

Problem with evaluation-centric definition is that not all moves that worsen position by 14% are equally obvious - if you hang a queen in one that is certainly a blunder, if you miss a non-trivial sacrificial combination on the other hand...


Chess.com is also definitely using an evaluation-centric definition to label moves as blunders. The issue is that this definition is also some function of the change in winning probability.

> So what is a blunder for a strong player may merely be a mistake for a weaker player.

Statistically this intuition appears to be correct. Your winning probability is still more than 25% when down a queen against an 800 rated player, but under 10% if playing a 2200: https://web.chessdigits.com/articles/when-should-you-resign#...

So it would make sense for the definition to take into account the opponent's Elo rating.


I agree - all attempts at automatic classification of blunder have same problem. This is why analysing games without engine still matters and is going to matter for foreseable future.

Don't forget also impact of time control - shorter games lead to more mutual mistakes. While in 90+30 first big blunder should decide the game, in blitz it's just the beginning.

Amusing example is Chessbrah speedruning to 2000, while hanging queen in every game: https://www.twitch.tv/videos/593176969


Maybe a better analogy would be card counting in Blackjack.

To be profitable (if it can be), card counting works with extremely tight margins, like a fraction of a percent per hand. It only turns a profit averaged out over many hands.

But if you make a basic strategy blunder, you can lose the statistical benefits of maybe hundreds of perfectly played hands. That's why it may be better to play a simple strategy perfectly, than a more advanced but error prone strategy.

That's also the reason why casinos love wannabe card counters. Their strategy may work in theory, but because of mistakes, the end result is worse for the player than playing basic strategy.

Note about basic strategy: it is the optimal way of playing blackjack assuming each card draw is independent (so, no card counting), it is simple, and widely available and accepted in casinos. The player is at a loss (of course), but reasonably so. If you can play basic strategy consistently, you are better off than the vast majority of players.


I feel ignorant, I thought with card counting you were still pretty much playing the simple strategy but altering bet sizes as your expectations of winning increased?

Your understanding is correct, more or less[0], but there are two parts to strategy: an inexpert counter is likely to be distracted, and to make errors from perfect play. They’re also likely to lose the count, and make errors in bet sizing. The net of those is worse than a non-counter playing perfectly, whose edge is slightly negative but who still stands a decent chance of making money on a given day.

But note that’s a reason for casinos not to overtly discourage counting; they’ll still happily ban a player who is apparently counting well rather than roll the dice on whether they’re counting “well enough”.

[0] Sibling points out that counters will make specific deviations from “naive” perfect play depending on the count, but that’s to push earnings up a bit on an already positive edge. There’s also the element of camouflage, where a really strong counter might deviate in ways that don’t hurt their earnings but make their play look less “counter-y”.


Ya but simple mistakes can turn +ev to -ev, and if you miscalculate and scale up on -ev, then that can wipe out your +ev for hours

It can also involve deviations in strategy based on the count, particularly with borderline hands.

Chess.com is more sophisticated than this in the treatment of blunders. They are divided into “misses” and “blunders”.

In my experience, it appears that the difference between the two is that a “miss” is something the computer evaluates as unreasonable or difficult for a human to find. If you had found it, it would have been deemed a “brilliant” move, which is another analysis move type that chess.com has doesn’t have. Either that or a miss is failing to capitalize on an opponent’s blunder.

It makes sense to chess players, since we consider missing an opportunity to capitalize on an opponent’s mistake to be distinct from unilaterally making one’s own position worse, even though to lichess those are going to both look like drops in the evaluation score.


Chess.com isn't really more sophisticated than lichess - it's only trying to appear so.

It's definition of blunder etc is still based only on engine evaluation. For example it marks as briliant all sound sacrifices, even the most routine ones. This is good marketing, but I doubt it's good analysis.


It's just marketing to make players feel better about themselves. For example when i tried chess.com out they marked a simple queen sacrifice to deliver back rank-checkmate as brilliant even though it's an obvious move for any intermediate player with half a year of experience. Lichess does nothing of that marketing bs.

The "don't blunder" advice applies to sports as well, where you hear it phrased in non-tautological ways frequently, typically something like "you need strong foundations."

Even at the peak of college level, I remember winning and losing games because someone did something that you mostly stopped doing soon after learning the sport, like pass to a teammate who wasn't looking, or fumble the ball in a preventable way, or things like that. Some teams focused on fancy plays and corner cases while their fundamentals still failed frequently, leading to more losses due to bad fundamentals than than wins due to good advanced plays.

That's how I read the "blunders" stuff. There's some small set of a priori known foundations you need which are fairly simple to keep from going wrong, which nonetheless lead to a large portion of failures/points given up/whatever.


It might be tautological, but it also happens to be correct! The Pareto rule applies: A beginner progressing to intermediate might quickly iron out the biggest blunders and by the time they're advanced get 80% there, but mastering that last 20% requires decades of practice.

> In some sense this is almost tautological.

Yes. The interesting property would be the reverse proposition: what percentage of victories are granted by not blundering?

In amateur level chess, that number is very high. That's the point the author was trying to make.


Also, getting better changes what a blunder is. When I began, hanging my queen was a blunder. Then allowing a discovered check was a blunder. Then allowing the threat of a future discovered check affect my move is a blunder etc.

The point is that you are in control of whether you blunder or not. It’s more important to avoid obvious mistakes than to have a good strategy.

I think this is very true, I've found the same thing in e.g:

- Simracing: getting faster doesn't make you win races. Getting more consistent does.

- Squash: getting stronger and faster doesn't make you win games, getting less exhausted does, because you make less mistakes.

These are surely not true when you're at a high level, but for most people it's the right focus.

The corresponding insight for building software is this: "Brilliant" ideas for your engineering are probably not the right place to invest energy. Instead you are likely to create more success by ensuring you have excellent testing, qualification, user feedback, monitoring, rollouts, stuff like that.

This also just comes back to investment+return again. If _you_ think you gave great ideas then that's fine. But if you can keep your race/game/project/startup alive and stable then you start to unlock extra "passive income" from your teammates having good ideas (and the latitude to execute them) and your competitors fumbling their opportunities.

So take your ego out of the equation and do the humble stuff first. Don't reward your "rockstar programmers", reward the person who set up the dashboards and the e2e tests and threw up together that spreadsheet of 'most common user complaints'.


A good example would be Elizabeth Swaney[0] who somehow found her way into the 2018 Winter Olympics simply by showing up at qualifying.

In order to qualify for the Olympics, athletes needed to place in the top 30 at either a FIS Freestyle Ski World Cup event or FIS Freestyle World Ski Championships, and score a minimum of 50.00 FIS points.[9] Swaney achieved this by attending competitions with fewer than thirty participants,[6] with one event in China having fifteen (in which she placed thirteenth). Thirteen of her top 30 finishes were a result of her showing up, not falling, and recording a score

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Swaney


This has been my analysis of high level competition as a whole. It isn't about who is the best, as in peak performance. It is about consistently making the least amount of mistakes.

You can break records, or you can out de-mistake the competition.


There's a more unfortunate interpretation, which is that whoever can afford the travel and time to not be at work is more likely to qualify. I know a fencer who was in his mid 20s consistently placing top 3 in every tournament he went to and was Olympics material (based on who he was competing with and which of them did go to the Olympics). However, he didn't make the cut because the points system rewarded presence at more tournaments higher than placement and he had a job to keep showing up at.

I disagree categorically with this.

In baseball, the team that commits the most unforced errors tends to lose the game, but the team that scores the most runs always wins.

Usain Bolt doesn't have 8 gold medals and 3 world records because he has perfect form (I just learned that he has scoliosis, leading to "imperfect" form, whether that made him faster or slower than he would otherwise be is apparently a subject of some debate), but because he's fast. It is frequently the case that the best at something defines "perfect" form. And anyway, Bolt doesn't run marathons, because he cannot sustain that kind of performance for 2 hours.

I hear what you're saying, I can't count the number of times I've seen truly bonkers tricks in freestyle skiing and snowboard competitions, from people who screwed up their 2nd or 3rd run, or couldn't stitch together a coherent run around that one trick, and so came in near the middle of the rankings. But the winners were not significantly less impressive, just blunder-free. A lot of time, the winners were the peak performers moment-to-moment but sustained that performance for much longer.


In other words... being Iceman is better than being Maverick.

"These are surely not true when you're at a high level"

I don't know what you mean by high level, but I suspect that avoiding mistakes continues to be very important regardless of level in most things.

I play Marvel Snap in the top 1000 and at that level most of the games comes down to whoever makes a mistake first loses.


I'd go even farther than that and suspect that in many areas avoiding blunders gets more important climbing to higher levels.

Just the other day I explained this to my daughter:

In our school system a 1 is the best grade a 6 the worst.

Maintaining a 2.0 average is kind of easy. When you blunder and get a 3, all you have to so is getting a 1 eventually to compensate.

Maintaining a 1.0 average is much, much harder, because you have to write 1s consistently without any exception and no way to fix a blunder(*).

In many systems there is a hard ceiling of what you can achieve. When your performance is measured as an average, this makes the system more unforgiving for blunders the closer you are to the ceiling.

(*) Technically, in our school system this is not entirely correct, because I think you could theoretically get 0.7s. The overall point still stands, because there is a hard and positive limit.


>This observation applies only to amateur tennis. In professional tennis it’s just the opposite: 80% of the rallies are won rather than lost, as unforced errors are infrequent. This is true in chess as well, as high-level players don’t blunder, and thus it really is that litany of other skills that results in high standings.

I think this means at a high level, you're already not blundering. So you need to actually do something MORE in order to win. You need to force your oponent to lose, and not just play "OK" and wait for them to make a mistake.


Although pros do still make clear errors and even misses that may not be classed as an error (but are at the professional level) might outweigh the brilliant shots when it comes to the win. I suspect this is why some games are 'best of'. The real aficionados sense a low error rate and then it's more purely about the big, brilliant plays - and that's not a common event.

French Open tennis. Seems like the winners, (eg Rafa Nadal who has one of the greatest sporting records in any sport, anywhere there), consistently hit ground strokes from the baseline, back over the net and deep enough in play. From that point the opponent self-destructs.

Ok differs from wimbeldon where guys play Hamlet while playing in the final (Kyrios, Becker, McEnroe, etc. etc.) and can win doing it with outrageous aggression and magic winners, but the French Open is certainly "High Level" Rafa at the French? How many matches was his longest winning streak? 36 matches, 5 titles in 6 years? Unfathomable sustained excellence.


I don't follow tennis closely enough to understand the difference. What makes the eventual winners at Wimbledon play more aggressively than at the French Open? Is it due to the environment (clay or grass perhaps) or some sort of cultural thing?

Grass is faster, meaning for any given shot over the net you have less time to respond. This encourages attacking behaviour.

Clay is slower, meaning even off fast, angled, difficult-to-reach shots the ball bounces higher and slower, meaning you have time to get to it, thus prolonging rallies and points.

But beyond that, it's not just that players choose to play more aggressive on grass - a given shot is more aggressive on grass.

This is why the serve is more powerful on grass - you open the point with a powerful shot, and on grass that's harder to return.

See rally length differences here: https://twitter.com/i/web/status/1246341537753006082


Fascinating! Thanks for the explanation.

Note Rafa has also won wimbeldon on grass, against Federer at his unbelievable peak (in the midst of winning it 8 times), in 5 sets, in the final, finishing in the dark. And won again 2 years later to put those trophies with his 14 French Open titles.

Watch any top tennis game and unforced errors and %age first serves often tells the story of the match

> Simracing: getting faster doesn't make you win races. Getting more consistent does.

I think this is absolutely true at the lower levels, but once you hit a baseline of consistency, the faster drivers do win races by simply being faster. It can be maddening them trying to recreate their line but still being an entire second per lap slower. But when racing closer to the beginner level, simply being able to complete every lap at a consistent pace does indeed put you at a massive advantage over others.


In the context of startups, everyone's at beginner level.

For auto racing (whether sim or real), the #1 rule has always been "To finish first, first you must finish", which, as I see it, is a direct "make no blunders before worrying about a podium finish".


> In the context of startups, everyone's at beginner level.

Why would this be true? There are plenty of startup veterans that have been doing it for years.


You're quite correct, it was an oversight on my part. It's too late to edit my post now, but at least this thread will be a record of me disagreeing with my original point :-)

A similar dynamic bears out in a lot of games. For example, in most RTS games, you win at lower levels by simply out-macroing your opponent. Only when you are on equal footing later do tactics and strategy become important, despite those ostensibly being the core focus of the genre.

Yeah but getting consistent is the bar you need to get to first before you can even be considered decent.

Being 1s faster than everyone best lap but having ~2s lap-to-lap inconsistency will make you lose every time.


> These are surely not true when you're at a high level, but for most people it's the right focus.

It is trivially true at all levels - anything that leads you to lose a game can be construed as a mistake, so if you make no mistakes and you lose then the game has been solved (which Chess has not been) or was unwinnable. The mistakes just get smaller and fewer and fewer people can recognise them.


In golf, reducing bogies helps more than increasing birdies, so same idea there

People always tell me they wish they were good at cooking.

The biggest thing is don't mess up.

Don't burn anything, don't undercook it, don't overseason, don't underseason. Even if it's just "okay", if you can avoid ruining food, consistently, people will start to refer to you as a 'good cook'.

Or in another way, just don't be a bad cook and you'll be a good one.


I feel this way for photography, about filtering. If you take 1000 photos, only show people your 20-50 best. Now you are a good photographer.

A lot of this is recipe selection too! If you are a beginner, and have people coming over, don't pick a new recipe or a complicated old recipe. Do something easy, especially if you're doubling to feed more mouths.

corollary: Thanksgiving is a day for cooking standards, not innovating (unless you've practiced)


also: A lot of recipes are absolutely terrible. That included internet recipes but also recipes by renowned chefs and whatnot. There seems to be some sort of evolutionary pressure for over complicating recipes out the wazoo.

E.g. when trying to find a recipe for a vegetable lasagna, and skipping all the incomplete recipes, you end up with a recipe that involves 10 ingredients, involves a pan, a couple of bowls, an oven dish, quite some prep-work, and an oven.

The lasagna recipe I prefer has 6 ingredients, uses an oven dish, an oven, and no prep work. If you don't count the time it spends in the oven it's maybe 10 minutes of work. It's tasty to the point where the first time I made it I overate to the point of having a stomach ache for hours afterwards.

Guess which recipe is better for someone new-ish to cooking?


I agree that most recipes are terrible. And a lot of them aren't even sensible. As in, if you'd follow them, you'd not really get a usable product out of it. Maybe an overcooked mush, a runny sauce, or just slightly flavored water instead of a broth.

But other than that, I think recipes, especially online, tend to be way too simplistic. The biggest crime is that they use way too few spices. Not the amount, but the diversity. Especially for sauces and marinades. I get that creators have to appeal to a broad audience without specialized ingredients available, but please at least mention them if they would optionally enhance the flavor.

And recipes tend to not mention optional cooking techniques that would make the finished product better if employed. Things like deglazing a pan, blanching vegetables in preparation, specific ways to cut vegetables into appropriate chunks, etc. Recipes aren't really meant to teach you those techniques of course, but sometimes it really makes sense to employ them at the right time. It would be nice if the recipe would at least mention what you can do to improve the quality.


Can you share your recipe? I would be interested in in one that doesn't require any prep. I assume you have to cut _something_ though?

The prep consists of mixing the ingredients, and layering it with the lasagna sheets.

Basically you mix 50/50 of pre-cut spinnach from a jar, I use the small jars, and premade spaghetti sauce, add about the same amount of cheese as you've added spinnach. I use shredded gouda but I'm sure whatever mildish cheese you can get locally would work. Mix in cream cheese with herbs and two or three heaping teaspoons of pesto. Then you layer this sauce alternating with the lasagna sheets. No need to pre-soak the lasagna sheets, but make very sure they are covered all around with sauce or you end up with hard bits. Bang in the oven at 190c for 40ish minutes.

You'll have to adapt the recipe to what you can find locally, but as most of it's is pre-made stuff from jars there's very little prep. If you want to get fancier about it you can of course substitute jars for hand-cut ingredients instead. In my experience the most crucial ingredient is the pesto. Too much and it's overpowering, too little and the lasagna turns out bland. The rest of the ingredients are quite unspecific in how much exactly you use. I don't measure anything really when making this.


Gotcha. That makes sense. All of the jars sounds like NL where I live, also the Gouda.

I guess when I was picturing a vegetable lasagna, pesto and spinach were not high on my list as I don’t particular care for either of those ingredients.

I have an idea for how to do something similar though with different ingredients! Thanks for writing it all out.


Ha what a coincidence, I live in NL too :P

re: spinnach: I'm sure you could substitute it with just about anything really. You barely even taste it in the finished product. It mostly provides bulk and texture.


Yea, for me it's largely the texture that I find so abhorrent! Since I have your attention, are there any products that you find are better in a jar as compared to fresh or in a can? I come from the US and while I would say we also have a wide variety of items in jars, daily staples I would say less so, but we use a lot more cans.

I've been here 1.5 years but I must confess I have little desire to experiment with jars because getting rid of them is a pain in butt given where I live. If the product is superior though, I can make the effort to dispose of the glass appropriately.


I've never seen anyone more stressed in the kitchen than my partner trying to debone and roll a turkey for Thanksgiving as opposed to doing it the standard way in the oven.

They went to culinary school, but this was a production for family and was uniquely stressful for them. It turned out fantastic but they were wrecked for the rest of that long weekend.


Prep first and follow the recipe. It’s not as hard as it seems if you get all your ingredients ready and then start cooking. It is literally a list of instructions. It tells you what to do. No imagination needed.

It becomes a lot easier to fuck it up if you try to prep on the fly because you’ll never get the timing right, which means you won’t be following the instructions any more.


This neatly encapsulates why (and how) Pabst Blue Ribbon beer plausibly (but never confirmed) won that blue ribbon in 1893: at a time when beer was especially hard to get just right, tasting the same every time is a huge technical win.

It is the same with military history. Many wars are lost because of blunders, often your military can do more damage to itself than an enemy can do.

Eric Sink from Source Gear made a similar point in a 2005 (I'm so old) essay explaining competition and business topics to developers via sports/game metaphors:

https://ericsink.com/articles/Game_Afoot.html

"The thing I find most interesting about Ping Pong is that you can often win without doing anything fancy or aggressive. A lot of players think the way to win is to slam the ball really hard. The problem with this strategy is that a slam is a high-risk/high-reward shot. If you do it right, you almost certainly score a point when your opponent fails to return the ball. If you do it wrong, you give your opponent a point.

Modesty aside, I consider myself a "pretty good" Ping Pong player. I can slam the ball when necessary, but I hardly ever do. I can beat most other players by simply returning every shot with a little backspin. Hitting the ball hard simply isn't necessary. All I need to do is wait for the other player to make 21 mistakes.

How software is similar

You can beat a lot of competitors by simply not beating yourself. Most companies go out of business because of their own stupid mistakes, not because of the brilliance or strength of their competitor. Stay conservative, and stay in business. Watch the years go by, and you'll be surprised how many of your competitors come and go."


Very good metaphor. I score similarly in Rainbow 6 Siege, an online FPS game. On the level I play, the game can be very fast paced. Often I score simply because I'm more patient, not because I click more accurately or faster.

This is what professional poker players do, and if the goal is winning it works. It also changes what was originally a pleasurable social activity into a grinding job, which I don't want for things that I currently find fun, like ping pong.

Exactly. This is the reason at one point I stopped being invited to casual poker games with friends of friends. I was amateur level compared to professionals, but just because I don't make blunders, any game session 4 hours long were enough for me to systematically get most if not all of everyone else's money and ruin their fun.

This kind of play is boring in a friendly setting because you’re folding so damn often. That bothers me more than how often someone’s winning (and is why my friend group doesn’t play anymore—the guy most-interested in organizing games plays “correctly”, and it’s boring, so nobody wants to do it)

Anecdotally of course, but that was not my case at all (and I imagine for a lot of people). Counter-intuitively I guess, but I could see a lot more flops just because I would have a) a lot of correct readings by turn and b) easily exploit obviously bad EV plays by others, regardless if I won at showdown.

Folding a lot makes you a boring player, but getting involved a lot and "somehow" getting a lot of chips eventually makes you _dangerous_ at these friendly gathering and that's what gets you unwelcome (at play - I'm still friend with these people I'm talking about).


You kinda broke the social contract of why that group was hanging out and playing. Not saying you were this guy, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HxgDaCOS-tE

Totally unrelated side note, but I was in car sales for almost a decade and was better than top 1% nationwide basically since the first year. Averaging 34 cars a month when national average is 11.

People always asked for advice and in general my advice was "don't shoot yourself in the foot".

Actual particular style or methods aren't that important because whatever style you have will work on some and not on others, so just keep yourself and your pipeline busy with people that are ok with that style.

But don't mess up in a way to loose people. You don't need the world's best opener. You need an opener that doesn't turn people off.

You don't need to be the best more charismatic person, just don't turn people off.

You don't need to be the world strongest closer, just don't turn people off making them get up and leave.

Stop making mistakes, and the rest is usually fine.


Turns out "get the hell out of the way" is very good baseline advice for a lot of situations.

Want to make a sale? Get a customer in the room with a good product, then get the hell out of the way.

Want your team of engineers to build incredible things? Hire good people, then get the hell out of the way.

Its not perfect, it hinges a lot on starting from a good place, but if you're in a situation where everybody in the room wants essentially the same thing (for the project to succeed, for the customer to drive away with a new car, etc), the best thing you can do is simply not interfere with the process that arises organically.


I hope you don't mind. I just took your idea, had chat GPT write an airport book about it, slapped "Get the H*ll out of the way!" on the title and sold it to Harper Collins for $1M.

i like this even better! so much workflows often get tainted by top down ego.

delegate and trust.


very sound advice not just in sales but dating too

dont be a turn off dont signal turn off behaviour


This effect is why I am like 10 times as effective working 1/10 as much as in my younger years in my career.

You can only afford to work fast when not in a hurry.

If I also take credit for work I've not done I am probably a 1000x dev. Multi year projects shut down in under a hour before they became any trouble.


Creating code is the lowest level of programming.

Deleting code is much more refined.

Preventing code is sublime.


This leads to analysis paralysis. Building things helps you think clearer.

I’ve learned at Amazon that writing about what you want to build, and why, and why not do something else - in a way that others can clearly comprehend, and before ever touching a line of code - helps you think even more clearly.

While I disagree with this approach in general - manually executing a task and following the data flow is the best way to understand a new system - I will say that with the rise of LLMs, writing documentation, stubs and comments first may be the fastest way to bootstrap a new project.

Maybe it does for some people but based on all of the functional specifications I've implemented over the years, they are by far the exception. Maybe designing and documenting first is OK if it's done by people who've already learned how systems work by building and maintaining a lot of them, though.

The documents used in Amazon at that lifecycle stage aren't functional specifications. The point is to justify launching a few project to management. You should be able to clearly explain why it's worth expending resources.

I am interested, is there some public material about this method?


It's basically just writing a design document; Google has a similar culture.

I suppose if you're not actually showing it to anybody it becomes rubber ducking via design document.


It really doesn't, unless you've already implemented a variation of the thing before.

There is a time for reflection and planning/thinking about a given software problem, but you're mostly wasting time doing so in-depth before you've done/looked through a rudimentary implementation.

Your planned architecture will be worse then the one from the person that interated several times while introspecting the resulting code, discovering misconceptions on the way.

Do note that this initial implementation is only there to learn the domain of the software, basically.

The phase can be skipped if you're not really changing anything and mostly just reimplement something you've done before. At that point, you're not doing something new however.


> initial implementation is only there to learn the domain

I've been trying to do a kind of documentation-driven development, where I write a fairly detailed README file before I write a single line of code. It hasn't gone as smoothly as I imagined, I think it takes practice to get more effective - similar to test-driven dev. And it made me realize my usual approach is "to think by coding", and to explore the problem space with a rough draft of a program.

It must be a common approach, as I've heard people say "Throw away the first draft." Not only in programming but about writing in general. Ah, there's even a term for it:

Throwaway prototyping - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Software_prototyping#Throwaway...


Designing does. Building and using it is for confirming or revoking any prior assumptions you had about the initial design to improve it.

Most of the thinking should be put into designing and then revising the design, the "building" should be the simplest part.


You don't have to save everything you build. Many times I've implemented a feature and felt unsatisfied with it, reverted, and built the same thing again.

You can build a ton of things and not put them in production (to then pay the price of what you built). Practice makes perfect then.

Not necessarily. You might end up just building things on top of things spiral which reduces the ability to think clearly.

Is this true?

I find creating, then deleting to be more grounding. Explore a couple paths and pick the good one, don’t just stay home.


Some ideas don’t have a good path - they are just going to suck time and energy until cancelled. Like, the last one I’m thinking of: way out of our core product, there are others out there that are pretty good already, it got proposed as a “quick win” which was absolutely delusional, and the winning argument for why we went ahead and built it was that version 2 would do all the extra work that did tie it back to our product and made it worth doing.

Sadly, I failed at preventing it, so the team spent more than twice as long as (they) predicted to build something half as functional and surprise, no v2 will happen.


Love this, I’m going to steal it

But I am paid by the hour. I make more money if we do the multi year project :-). That big fancy project needs someone to lead it, eh :-). Now I am up a level on the old CV.

Once he started talking about chess, I knew it was going to be a limited view on things.

There are 2 kinds of games: those that punish mistakes very badly, and those that reward exploited opportunities very richly.

I was never good at games like chess because of this exact same reason: I don't cover all my bases and lose from a stupid oversight. However, I'm pretty good at poker, because I know how to exploit an opportunity when it arrives.

So in the end, you have to know which game you are currently playing. Some things require "the devil is in the details", and other things you can just fix problems when they arrive (because those problems won't kill your overall progress)

I would argue that startups are more playing the 'exploit opportunities' game and not the 'cover all your bases' game.

For example, a startup shouldn't cover all legal aspects or risks. In the end, when you are generating enough revenue, you can deal with earlier legal mistakes. There are plenty of examples.

When your startup is not exploiting opportunities, no "cover all legal aspects" is going to save it.


As an intermediate Go player, you are given a handicap that your opponent spends the game chipping away. They are on the defensive from move 1, and they have to counterattack. Mostly this comes by making a move that defends against your last move, but puts you in retreat. The game shifts from them answering you to you answering them.

I really like this comment, chess sucks.

I don’t understand your distinction between types of games. In Chess, your stupid mistake creates an opportunity your opponent can exploit. The failure to exploit an opportunity is itself a mistake.

I guess in Poker there is an element of luck of the deal - is that the kind of opportunity you’re talking about?


In Poker it isn't so much about how many hands you win or lose, it's about creating big pots when you have good hands and small pots otherwise. That's how good poker players can profitably play bad cards (that are statistically unlikely to make good hands).

In chess the table stakes are always the same. One point for a win, half a point for a draw. To win consistently at chess you have to play the openings carefully, play the mid game strategically, and grind out all the end games. Sloppy players who occasionally make brilliant moves don't get anywhere in chess, because a brilliant sequence of moves will only earn you a single point while small mistakes will still result in full point losses.

In cash game poker you can play sloppy but when you see the opportunity win a huge pot that makes up for all the mistakes and then some.

Tournament poker is a bit more like chess. Successful tournament poker players win by grinding out small victories over the course of many hours.


So it's thinking about the opportunity at the level of tournament and ladder, rather than individual games.

The distinction is how much a mistake gets punished. In chess, a tiny oversight might lose you the game ("Oops I didn't saw you could take my queen").

In poker, a huge mistake like "whoops I dropped my cards accidently open on the table" is "let's not bet this round" as if nothing happened.

Let me give you some real life examples so you can spot the difference.

Security always falls into the "don't make any mistakes" category. A small oversight might jeopardise your entire system. Some back door was open and nobody realised it. Whoops!

In startups, like I mentioned, when you solve a critical problem for customers, your UX can be terrible, your production can be inefficient, your product can be full of bugs. If your product solves a critical problem, it's still a big win for your customer, even though all the rest is terrible. This is exploiting an opportunity.

In sports, take basketball for example, the game is much more forgiving with mistakes compared to something like gymnastics. In basketball, a missed shot or a turnover isn't the end of the world; you have multiple opportunities to recover and score points throughout the game. However, in gymnastics, a slight misstep or a fall during a routine can severely impact your overall score, leaving little room for recovery.

You could also look at investments for example. In stock trading, especially day trading, a single mistake can lead to significant financial loss, especially if leverage is involved. It's a game where covering all bases and being cautious of every move is critical. On the other hand, venture capital operates more on the principle of exploiting opportunities. Venture capitalists invest in several startups knowing well that most will fail, but a single successful investment can cover for all losses and bring substantial profits.

In the end, knowing which game you're playing is essential. I see plenty of people trying to cover all bases when in reality it's the opportunity that really matters. If your personality is one more than the other, you can take a profession that leans into your strength.


> I computed a simple “error score” that includes mistakes while giving blunders more weight: [number of mistakes] × 2*[number of blunders]

This doesn't give blunders more weight..

Multiplication is commutative and associative, so the author's formula is also the same as this one: 2*[number of mistakes] × [number of blunders]

To give more weight to blunders, you could use an exponent, which is a common trick in baseball statistics (SABRmetrics), like this: [number of mistakes] × [number of blunders ^ 1.1]

See e.g. some of the formula concepts invented by Bill James https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_James#Innovations


(Author of article)

Sorry, that was supposed to be +, not * !

You're right. Just a typo! Now fixed.


Think the star represents exponent, otherwise they are using two different symbols for multiplication.

It's possible, but that formula is (after a log2 transformation) equivalent in comparison power to log2(mistakes) + blunders. This is almost reducing the mistake term to a tiebreaker, because mistakes and blunders are on the same scale (a proportion of the number of actions taken in a game).

> This is almost reducing the mistake term to a tiebreaker

Isn't that exactly what it's supposed to be?

>> However, in 40% of the games both players had an equal number of blunders. So I also included “mistakes”—the next-worst kind of error.


"Not strategy, not memorizing opening lines, not practicing your end-game technique, not studying the Great Games of History, not drilling with puzzles to get better at tactics,"

"In my games, the player who committed more blunders lost 86% of the time."

Goodness I wonder what methods one could use to reduce their blunder rate.


it's simple. if i were playing the game, i would make moves that lead to victory, and i wouldn't make moves that lead to defeat. that way, i would always win.

making mistakes seems really stupid and i'm not sure why anyone would do that.


These things all help, but ultimately reduction of blunders is the result of consciously checking whether you're blundering something, not being a genius calculator. Most blunders in chess (outside of the higher-levels) aren't the result of failing to see some 5-move tactical sequence, they're just hanging a rook because you were hyper-focused on your own initiative. Controlling your blunder rate is IMO a game of attending to your own mental state: ensuring that you're giving proper consideration to your opponents threats, being realistic about your advantages, and preventing your imagination from running away on you. Obviously study and puzzles can help you do these things more effectively (for example making you more likely to pick up material when your opponent blunders), but they are a necessity not a sufficiency. At the end of the day 'not blundering' is about staying humble, playing slowly, and not freaking out; everything else is points on the margin.

I think the point is to, instead of being on the lookout for the winning strategy, put more of your limited attention on preventing basic mistakes. It's about shifting focus, presumably, there's a baseline of competence in the endeavor at hand.

> Goodness I wonder what methods one could use to reduce their blunder rate.

Checklist:

1) Is there a checkmate? Yeah, you might want to stop it if you don't want to lose.

2) Is there a check? Checks are forcing and can make you do things you don't want to do. You probably want to prevent them.

3) Is there a capture? A piece with no defenders that can be grabbed probably needs to have something done about it.

4) Is there an undefended piece? Undefended pieces become capturable. Defend it.

5) Do you have any plan at all? Even a bad one is better than none at all.

The problem is that there are lots of these on a board. When you first start doing this, it's a slow process, and it is not fun. But you will get much better very quickly.


There are some major misunderstandings about chess amongst the general public. "Wanting to not blunder" and "not blundering" are two very different things.

I remember an in-person rapid tournament, 12m with a 3s increment, I was rated ~1600, playing a lot at the time, reading books, etc. In the first round got matched against the highest rated player there (which is normal, someone has to play them in the first round).

He was an IM, skittish small fellow, something like ~2200 or ~2300, I can't remember. Table 1 was up on a little podium. So we go through the opening, middle-game, and this guy is just sitting back. Solid, non-threatening, relaxed, barely used any time on his clock. I'm sweating, taking ages, nervous, seeing dragons around each corner.

I try reason with myself: look, this guy is in a worse spot than you, he has more to lose, etc. He's waiting for you to make a mistake. He is avoiding exchanges, and making little probing threats, at best. Just breathe, stay in the game, let him attempt an attack! Just keep things solid, and don't blunder!

We go back and forth like this for at best 4 or 5 moves into the middlegame let's say.

His move: he smiles apologetically and takes the rook I just put on an unprotected square his bishop was very clearly hitting. I resign with an embarrassed look and whisper an apology for my stupidity.

My advice to anyone who is feeling too big for their jodhpurs: go study chess as hard as you can, for as long as you like, and then go play a few tournaments. 12-year-olds will wipe the floor with you and then their Mom will make them a sandwich while they move on with their life.


> 12-year-olds will wipe the floor with you

Was chatting with a guy who used to play pick up games at the Marshall and I remember him talking about how humbling it was to get your head kicked in by like a 7 year old. I think this is one of the coolest things about chess: in most other competitions age is a huge predictor of the outcome (I'd crush a 7 year old in basketball), but in chess it can be almost harder to face a young opponent because their learning rate is so ferocious and they're young enough that pride often isn't a distractor. One of my ongoing struggles in getting my Elo higher is to try and keep the childlike playfulness front-and-center. As you say in your anecdote: it's all about playing simple moves and not getting tilted. Let the super-GMs calculate 15-move lines.


I think this is a case where doing the automated analysis on a large dataset is misleading, because the automated analysis is based on an automated evaluation of how good a move is. Another way of saying "don't blunder" in this context is "choose a move that is not much worse than the best move". That is hardly more useful advice than "choose the best move". The advice "don't blunder" only becomes useful when you can also give advice about how to recognize blunders: "check whether your pieces are hanging", "check whether your opponent has mate in 1", "check for forks". Probably many of the blunders in that dataset are simple things like this, but others are long forcing lines or counterintuitive sacrifices that are difficult to recognize both for you and for your opponent. The computer doesn't distinguish, but it's much easier to improve by focusing on the former than the latter. (obviously to continue to improve you have to do both, but "not hanging pieces" is a lot less work).

I struggle with how I'm supposed to grok this advice, as it feels like a tautology.

E.g. with his chess example, I can't see how blundering isn't just a result of a lack of the things he mentions -- practicing technique, drilling puzzles, etc. How can we as amateurs know _not_ to make blunders without knowing _why_ it was a blunder, which usually involves being properly skilled to identify the blunder ahead of time in some fashion?

The main caveats I can think of are ego/recklessness/apathy/emotion, which revolve around not caring about making a blunder, along with distraction/hastiness, which revolve around not having the appropriate mental energy to not make a blunder.


Some of the best advice I've ever heard comes from the following observation:

    Blundering is often a result of trying to overplay a small advantage.
If you are playing thoughtfully, with an eye on the whole game, you are smart enough not to blunder. It's when you get excited about pursuing an opportunity that you overlook mistakes.

Play your advantages and play them hard. But don't lose sight of the big picture. Or alternatively, when you see an opportunity, look for the danger.

The insight has served me extremely well in competitive and security contexts, and I think it accounts for a lot of blunders in product design as well.


> Play your advantages and play them hard. But don't lose sight of the big picture.

Almost nothing is more dangerous to my winning chances than exiting the opening with a small material or positional advantage. Opponent is now incentivized to attack ferociously, and I'm left struggling to figure out the safest way to convert without playing too passively but also not over-pushing.


I agree. I like the way Arnold Kling expresses a similar idea [1]: "One of my beliefs about competition is that the business world is very forgiving of mistakes... On October 11, 1999, our business, along with the Scottsdale relocation business, was sold to homestore.com for $85 million. My share was quite dilute by this point...But a couple of percent of $85 million is still real money, particularly considering the sequence of mistakes, miscalculations, misjudgments, and erroneous forecasts that led to it."

Kling and coworkers had an important insight about what the internet was going to do to home-buying. This made up, in part, for such obvious blunders as failing to buy MapQuest.

[1] https://arnoldkling.com/~arnoldsk/aimst2/aimst218.html


Most blunders (at least 1500 ELO and below) are often board observation blunders, where your board vision lets you down. Either you're too tunnel visioned on your own attack or you just expose yourself to simple tactics. When I first started playing online, I would routinely blunder my queen roughly 10% of the time. Luckily I've improved and only do it 9% of the time...

Many many chess blunders are as simple as “I moved a piece where it can be immediately taken”.

The general message reminds me of both

"95th percentile isn't that hard to reach" (https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=22265197 / https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=38560345)

and "How to Be Great? Just Be Good, Repeatably" (https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=38686997)


Also luck is probably a much larger factor than most people realize. It's not just bad luck leading to failure, but luck leading to customers/revenue.

As an example, if no one is competing with you, it doesn't matter too much how good you are.


It's possible to make no blunders and still lose. That is not a weakness, that's life.

if no one is competing with you, it doesn't matter too much how good you are.

Temporarily. Once people see you're doing well with no competition the competition will spring forth, no matter how good you are. If you're also doing things badly those competitors will eat your lunch.

That isn't a reason not to launch when your product is very basic and scrappy. You don't need to make it good, and definitely not perfect. You just need to go fast.


Unless your first mover advantage lets you just stay there for decades. See: PayPal

they have only now been dethroned as the default credit card processor despite being awful to work with when I tried to integrate their API circa 2010


If first mover advantage in internet payment processing was important, CyberCash would still be around. I'm pretty sure there was another internet payment processor around before PayPal too.

Setup was harder, and the integration wasn't the same, but it was before PCI, so integrating with CyberCash meant you could own the whole payment flow, and have a better experience than PayPal, where you send the user off, and when they come back, PayPal may not have confirmed payment yet.


Yes, but PayPal was growing off the back of eBay, CyberCash never became entrenched to get the first mover's advantage

> The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on March 11, 2001. VeriSign acquired the Cybercash assets (except for ICVerify) and name a couple of months later. On November 21, 2005 PayPal (already an eBay company) acquired VeriSign's payment services, including Cybercash.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CyberCash

so in a way, PayPal ate a lot of the other payment processors


I couldn't disagree more.

The idea that we are particles suspended in fluid at the whim of Brownian motion is already an idea that has been taken to ridiculous extremes.

Everyone already believes what you are saying to a ridiculous degree.

Like anything involving strategy someone always says "well we really underestimate that this is all just a stochastic procress"


A better way to read this is "80% of a not losing strategy". The author agrees with this but buries the lede at the very end of the piece:

"Is this a fail-safe path? Of course not. Even in chess. The rest of the game does matter."

I also think his framing is somewhat misleading, since the default mindset (Despite his hedging) is that you will win (Or have higher chances) if you don't blunder.

The problem is that winning in startups is often a tail event, which means reducing blunders doesn't have much impact on the overall probability. Is reducing blunders the highest order bit?

"An entrepreneur may look at a successful diner and think that customers are there because of the hip decor on the walls. She sets up a competing diner across the street with better decor only to find that it can't pull any customers away. The highest-order bit isn't the decor. It's actually the cheap but high-quality coffee that customers care most about. Without getting the coffee right, no amount of aesthetics will beat the competition."

https://commoncog.com/highest-order-bit/

The only time this is a winning strategy is if survival has compounding effects. For startups, they tend to be default dead.

This memo by Howard Marks explores the case when survival is actually a winning strategy:

"If we avoid the losers, the winners will take care of themselves"

https://www.oaktreecapital.com/insights/memo/fewer-losers-or...

Reducing blunders is obviously good in any situation, but is it the dealbreaker for startups? It always depends on the context.


> The problem is that winning in startups is often a tail event, which means reducing blunders doesn't have much impact on the overall probability.

Maybe you could compare it to playing chess against a much higher rated player. In that sense, minimizing your weaknesses is still useful. And looking at the "blunders" the author lists we can definitely say that making these errors is worse than not making them.

One place where this analogy breaks down is that chess is a zero-sum perfect information game. Business is neither zero-sum (competition can encourage innovation and better products) nor perfect information. In chess, we can calculate for each of the candidate moves and have theoretically perfect knowledge of the future state of the board. In business and many other situations, this kind of thing isn't possible. The upshot is that several of the "blunders" the author lists may only turn out to be blunders after the fact.


When playing against much better player there are two possible strategies in practice:

1. try to simpifly position as much as possible and hope for a draw (and inevitably lose the endgame due to playing too passively);

2. complicate position so much that neither you nor your opponent can calculate or understand it, then hope that your opponent will mess up before you will.

Take from that what you will.


Yes I know it's useful. The last line of my comment said that: "Reducing blunders is obviously good in any situation, but is it the dealbreaker for startups? It always depends on the context".

"is it useful?" usually isn't a very interesting question, because a lot of things are obviously useful and yet don't have much of an impact on results.


Have to agree with this sentiment, and I'm surprised it's not getting more traction. If startups are like chess, they are like very low level chess because the game was just invented. Nobody knows what a blunder is yet, many will go undetected, and worrying about playing perfect chess will probably outrun your runway.

As the author of the article, I really like your counter-point here.

Because I do agree -- in all startups most "stuff" is being executed poorly (if at all), with issues everywhere, and yet when you get the right 1-2 things _really_ right, that can overwhelm all those problems.

So, perhaps the charitable view is that this piece is a fun way of getting at the usual ideas of things which derisk a startup -- e.g. talking to customers rather than coding in a hole -- and indeed many of these things will surely be a net-positive.

And yet, the "80% of winning" might indeed be correct for amateur chess and amateur tennis, yet it's not "80%" for startups, and that bit is rhetorical.


It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.

-- Charlie Munger


This only works where the number of moves is finite, and you can only iterate in lockstep with your opponent: tennis and chess are good examples.

If you are a startup, you don't have to wait for your competitors to play before making a move, you can (and must, to survive) make as many moves as you possibly can, to get ahead.

A blunder is not as bad as not making enough great moves.


(Author of the article)

I agree with your counter-point. The finiteness and lock-step are interesting characteristics; I wonder what the set of characteristics are, for when this "rule" is especially applicable.

And then we could ask: Is a startup like that? Are some kinds of businesses like that, but some are not? (e.g. a one-person accounting service vs a "change the world" startup?)

I do agree that often with startups it's whether you find the 1-2 things that REALLY matter, and execute those REALLY well.


It's a bit like trying to know if a geometric series is going to converge to 0 or diverge towards infinity.

If a blunder is a 0, then avoiding blunders is super important.

For example if you are in finance or accounting, commiting fraud makes you lose your license and set your business value to zero.


> you can (and must, to survive) make as many moves as you possibly can, to get ahead.

The tricky part is not getting ahead in the wrong direction, because that could be a blunder if the strategy behind that move is not well thought through.


Based on the last thing I read from this guy, I’m surprised he didn’t include having a spouse, kids or friends on his list of avoidable blunders.

link please

Not GP, but perhaps this is the post: https://longform.asmartbear.com/two-big-things/

This is such a simplistic, winner-take-all viewpoint. Example: having an awesome marriage can open a bunch of doors and afford you the time, energy & space to DO a lot more things. Same with a family & friends. It must be sad to go through life viewing every course of action as work that eats limited capacity.

That doesn't say they're avoidable blunders. It says that they cost time and energy, and therefore preclude other opportunities.

But is having a good marriage a blunder compared to having a great career? I don't think he's saying that.


thank you. also, what does "GP" mean in this context? mistyping of "OP"?

No problem. And I’m delighted to find out that there is actually an Ask HN to answer your question: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=8363625

So in our case here, GP is nocoiner.


So the advice is "don't make so many small mistakes that it kills you"? and 20% of the time "don't make a fatal mistake". I just don't find this very helpful. Anyone who's worked at a startup already knows (1) it is a daily grind, (2) you don't die as often as you enter a zombie state.

"zombie state". I love that. I was the CTO of a healthcare startup for 6 years. Would have been a wonderful business for like 1-2 people to own but we raised venture funding. We made good money, had ok growth (attrition was high because well, that's what happens when your patient population is 70yo and have heart problems). I liked to phrase it as "a mediocre success is worse than a failure". You just get strung along, looking for a breakout, but are stuck with 10% growth.

But the blunders are where all the fun is.

Apart from them, games are boring mechanistic jobs.

If the enemy doesn't blunder I start to blunder as I'm getting more and more bored with the game.

If enemy plays bad I also get bored and blunder.

Anything to put the spark back into the activity that was supposed to be engaging.


This is mostly tangential to the article contents, but I've been watching interviews and talks by Benoit Mandelbrot [1] recently. I was a little surprised to find his work outside of fractals to be extremely interesting. He characterizes his own work as being on the general concept of "roughness".

The reason I bring it up in context of this article for blundering, is that he studies the chaotic movement of stock markets from the abstract perspective of "roughness". That is, he is interested in categorizing patterns that are in some kind of grey zone between smooth and completely chaotic.

One of the features I recall him mentioning in one of his introductions was related to "black swan" type events in markets. He suggests that only a few stock movements over time account for the majority of loss/gain. This is a feature he was interested in exploring and recreating using mathematical models and it lead him to investigate sampling from stochastic distributions that are not Gaussian.

This view is forcing me to evaluate some of this startup/business advice in a new light. This article seems to assume that both in chess and business that "blunders" are distributed in a normal way (probably not the correct mathematical term but I hope it communicates what I mean). But in reality, some blunders are tiny and some are massive.

Consider, you can avoid 99 out of 100 blunders but if the 1 blunder you make is that black swan blunder then you are dead. Conversely, you can make 99 out of 100 blunders but if you avoid that 1 black swan blunder then you can survive and even thrive. Of course, avoiding all blunders just happens to ensure that you also miss the catastrophic ones.

I haven't fully digested this idea but I think it is the basis for some profound advancement in our understanding. The problem is we can't really tell at any given moment which events are the ones that will end up being the most impactful, that seems to only come in hindsight. But even just realizing that there is an unequal distribution to the contribution of events over time feels pretty important to me.

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benoit_Mandelbrot


IN many ways this is just another perspective on the need for taking calculated risks. I think this becomes even more interesting when you add the factor time into it. I usually play 3+2 type games where each player gets 3 minutes on the clock plus 2 for each additional move. In this kind of setup i've found that playing more risky aggressive moves on the one hand exposes you to make blunders, but it also gives you the initiative and causes the opposing player to spend more compute time checking possible variations.

A famous Super Smash Bros player, when asked for advice, would always respond with "Don't get hit". Seems this principle of not blundering has wide-reaching applications!

That is surprisingly true: knowing nothing about Smash, I sometimes get roped into playing it at parties. I've managed to do respectably well, knowing nothing about special powers or any of the controls beyond navigating and jumping, simply by dodging like crazy and not getting hit.

I don't even bother attacking. It annoys everyone.


I’ve been discovering this is also very true for Elden Ring. Most of my deaths in the game are from being greedy and wanting to get in one more hit, but winning tough fights is almost all about avoiding getting hit.

And I agree, I think the idea of avoiding losing is better than “trying to win” in many cases. Like with health and fitness, it would be very hard to identify what the right action to “win” would be (what does win even mean?). But it is much easier to do the things that keep you from losing. Don’t eat poorly, don’t be inactive all the time, and so on. The avoidance approach won’t have you reaching the Olympic level, but you’ll be doing a lot better than most.


The author seems to be at Elo 1100. At this level players don't think even a single move ahead and blunder their queen every other game. Slightly better amateur players realize that they should trade pieces once they're ahead to get to a winning end game.

Avoiding blunders only works at chess at the lowest levels. It's the same for tennis. Complete amateurs can win just by returning the ball but at higher amateur levels you will have a bad time if you try this.


I get your point but in your analogy don't you think startups should be considered amateur chess players rather than experts? "Forced errors" are a thing in chess and tennis but I don't see that applying to startups. I can see Apple, Microsoft and other big companies playing chess through lobbyists and lawsuits but I think the article was about startups.

P.S. I've never founded a company or have any experience with it.


Your local pizzeria will probably do well by just not blundering. If the pizzas, location, decor, menu, and staff are good enough then the place will do reasonably well. If you do everything right as a pizza place you survive, if you blunder you go bankrupt. On the flip side, they don't have to do anything original. Just doing OK in all dimensions is the winning strategy.

Software isn't like that. It lives in the right tail of the distribution. You can blunder everything except product and still do extremely well, because software costs nothing to produce. Your gross margins are 95%. You can blunder left and right and it doesn't matter when people like your product and pay for it. Mistakes that would destroy any other low margin business you can shrug off.

A pizza place is a local business. They differentiate themselves from other pizza places by being closer to you.

Software is global. Your tiny startup competes with open source, big tech, and everything in between. If your product is mediocre you'll struggle or fail (and rightly so). If your product is great you get a fire hose that spews money.

In basically every interview with successful founders they joke about the giant mistakes they made (that ended up just not mattering). The kind of blunders that destroy any other business are no big deal in software. The article is wrong and the lesson should be the opposite.


Sure, and he makes this point right there in TFA:

"This observation applies only to amateur tennis. In professional tennis it’s just the opposite: 80% of the rallies are won rather than lost, as unforced errors are infrequent. This is true in chess as well, as high-level players don’t blunder, and thus it really is that litany of other skills that results in high standing."


Article is not about becoming a pro - it is about creating a company that doesn't fold like most of companies.

Most startup companies are run by amateurs and that is advice for amateurs.

People who have experience already stuff that is in article ;)


It's "Elo", not "ELO" (it's not an acronym).

You're right. Fixed.

As a side note, I think this blunder-centric approach to chess is underappreciated, especially at low to mid levels where the vast majority of players peak. In addition to working on tactics, players should also specifically work on not blundering.

What this means in practice would be something like an "anti-tactic". In normal tactics, we need to find the best move which will usually win the game or give a decisive advantage. But an anti-tactic is a fight with your intuition: you want to make a move but that move is actually a blunder. There are several correct answers but one or two attractive but very wrong answers.

Of course the "rest of the owl" is how to determine which moves are very attractive to certain players. That is something I am working on now.


So it's not "ok to fail" this week?

It is ok for others to fail, don't put pressure on them. It isn't ok for you yourself to fail, put pressure on yourself, at least if you want to outdo others.

Failure was never alright despite what people claim.

They say "you need to fail to succeed". The key thing is that it is not enough to fail, you also have to reflect on why you failed, and this is the reflection which has you progress.

It is not the failure itself which is progress, it is the act of failing, then feeling BAD, and then thinking about how not to feel BAD anymore. Failure without feedback is pointless failure. (This is the same idea than deliberate practice.)


I think that's "fail" in a way that's different from "blunder".

Let's say I'm a programmer. I try an approach. It doesn't work. I realize it doesn't work and back out my changes. That's a failure.

Let's say instead I try an approach. It' doesn't work. I keep trying to force it to work, distorting the overall architecture and still leaving an unreliable, unmaintainable mess. That's a blunder.


It seems to me that the main difference between chess and startups is that in chess you only have one opponent. The more opponents you have, the more likelihood that not blundering on its own is not sufficient.

I read a blogpost long time ago which said he made more money on working on startups which he sold during the bubble economy rather than bust. All boats rise during high tide. It is better to sell your boat during high tides.

I think that there are at least 10 main differences between chess (or other sports) and startups.

It's a very weak analogy.

He does have a few good points though if you disregard that.


I think the sports analogy is bad. Using table tennis as an example, a point can look blundered from the outside, but really the opponent hit a very difficult shot to return and the player did their best to do so. There's also the ongoing factor of one's position relative to the table and one's read of the opponent's likely next shot. These aren't factors that can be judged just with a simple measure of whether the player's return hit went wide.

Thought of chess immediately after seeing the title.

I really do recommend everyone play. There are innumerable insights like this that arise (though this may be true of any sufficiently complex game).


"Slow is smooth and smooth is fast"

This applies to software engineering and I've had a hard time explaining it to people throughout my career.


Arrogance. We believe our domain is singular and concepts and wisdom don’t translate from other specialties.

I’m bad enough at chess that every match features some blunders.

It’s why I can only play humans. Any not-extremely-subtle-in-its-badness blunder is spotted too consistently by even “easy” chess engines. IIRC I used to go about 50/50 versus the weakest computer on Chessmaster and the entire experience was stressful rather than fun, LOL.


Not sure if it's been linked in this thread yet (although I did see it on another post yesterday) but iirc this is one of the core messages of Playing To Win by David Sirlin (https://www.sirlin.net/ptw). To win, all you have to do is not lose.

It is easier to avoid errors and accidents than it is to be good at emergency room surgery.

this is the greatest article i ever read on HN in the past 12 years i been coming here

Any good coach will tell you to spend the majority of your time honing the fundaments, in any sport or competitive activity. This is a big part of why.

This goes back to the medieval idea of via negativa, defining through negations. Interesting it worked out for you.

"Product Market Fit" that's it - #4 in the article.

Few startups fail due to #1-3 after achieving #4. So many startups blame #1-3 because they couldn't find #4. If you don't have PMF, you're burning cash, pivoting, arguing (founder disputes) to figure out your way there. All #1-3.

PMF is incredibly hard and don't let anyone fool you.


Sorry but no: I've seen lots of great companies die from #1-3 and competitors copy the PMF product and win.

One of my saddest investments was an amazing company gummed up in co-founder squabbles too far gone to recover, even while the product was growing like weeds. Company died in lawsuits and walkaways. Another was pre-PMF and ran into this, I learned from the previous experience and jumped in and helped them keep the band together. They found PMF the next year and off to the moon ($1M ARR, 100% QoQ growth, 36 months that, <6 months to truly profitable).

I have lots of examples of all 3 and more. It's all 100x easier than PMF but if you don't do FIRST then you don't get to work on PMF.


"If you’re asking yourself 'Do I have PMF?' then you don’t have it"

What a useless post. BRB while I control things I'm never able to control


Avoid blundering?

To do that, you need to learn opening strategy, endgame strategy, tactics, etc.

This isn't helpful


In amatuer tennis, he would say that indeed you need to learn how to play. But you just play and return the ball. You don't need anything fancy to make you win. You just keep playing until your opponent makes a mistake.

Just hit the ball back, simple as

On the face of it this seems to imply, moving slowly and deliberately.

However this is not always true.

Example: Detroit lions Vs SF in 2023 playoffs. Avoiding blundering means being adaptable to the situation at hand - not using instinct derived from previous battles.


> To win at chess, blunder less.

How to win: don't lose.

C'mon it's not like people actively choose to make mistakes.


Sure, but you can choose your play style. I find I’m way more likely to win a chess game if I play a few moves of a really safe, boring opening, and then just focus on keeping everything protected and never extend myself too much until the opponent hangs their queen (I’m about 400, so that’s actually very likely).

If I get creative and come out all aggressive, I hang my queen. But the former is boring as hell, which is why I don’t play chess.


That's you, when I play aggressive chess the OTHER side makes blunders. It will show up as "the other player made a mistake so you won" and as an unforced error

of course it's unforced, if we all played perfectly there would be no game to play, but the aggression is what showed their bad tactical play


The problem is you don't know if it's a blunder until after.

Blunders are things you _could_ or _should_ have avoided, had you only taken a moment to pause and think.

By "blunders", the author includes both those which can be prevented (see section "Preventable blunders") and those which can't. This is one of the reasons this article is silly.

Next in the series is, "Avoid accidents: 80% of being a good driver."


To be fair, you could stop calling them accidents. "Avoiding collisions" does sound like it will get you to 80% of being a good driver.

Like the author, I also play chess, and I could have written the same advice. Maybe the charitable take here is "Don't worry about long term plans so much, at least until you manage to stop making trivial mistakes, evaluated looking retro-actively at decisions you made."


Driving accidents are largely avoidable though.

If you avoid the wheel while tired or with alcohol in your system, you'll slash a big part of the risk. Avoid conversations in the car, on the phone or with your passenger(s), that's even more risk reduced. Keep your tires in good shape, your windshield clean, that's even better. Finally, if if you practice defensive driving, situational awareness, more still accidents can be avoided.

Nothing will of course mitigate all accidents, but there are definitely things that make you more or less accident prone in traffic.


That's not applicable to chess. Some blunders are deep and neither player sees mate in 10.

The computer immediately sees mate in 10 and calls the last move a blunder. The opponent misses the mate in 10 and moves elsewhere, the computer puts it as a blunder.

Both players blundered without even seeing a clear win, and it would take them an hour of analysis to see the exact sequence and prove there's no way to escape it even though there are a hundred variations


So success is more likely by not being an idiot. Not exactly helpful advice.

A tattered sign hanging over Chesterton's fence: this way lie blunders.



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