Open chess tournaments are played on gruelling schedules. There are two, sometimes three, rounds per day, meaning 12-14 hours playing time. Typically a tournament with "decent" prize money (whatever counts as decent) will attract big fields.
Players are paired off Swiss style . In every round, each player faces somebody with the same score, or near-about. There is an element of luck in the pairings.
For example, the recent Dr Hedgewar Open in Delhi had a prize fund of Rs 10 lakh, and 250 players signed up to play nine rounds over five days. Each player paid between Rs 3,500 and Rs 4,500 as entry fees. Outstation players were offered basic dorm facilities.
Complicated calculations are used as tiebreakers in Swisses. Here is a list of tie breakers. Sometimes prize money is shared. Sometimes not. So there is a large element of luck involved in tie breaks.
At this event, prize money was not shared. Four players tied for 1-4, each scoring 7.5 points from nine rounds. The prize structure was as follows : First Prize: Rs 1.5 lakh; Second Rs 1.2 lakh, Third 1 lakh; fourth Rs 75,000. The first spot was won by veteran Grandmaster, Pravin Thipsay, with Saptarshi Roy, Himal Gusain and Sahaj Grover following at 2, 3, 4 respectively.
The 5th -11th places saw another tie. Seven players scored 7 points each. Fifth prize was Rs 50,000, while 11th was Rs 15,000. There was a third large tie for 12th-22nd with each player scoring 6.5. The 12th player got Rs 15,000 while the 22nd got Rs 7,000.
(Read about the prize fund and other details)
Going into the last round, seven players (four playing on 6.5 points, and three on 7 points) had a shot at clear or shared first with three of them having a good shot. Obviously there is a premium for good nerves in such situations. There is also the question of optimum strategy.
The tie break scores are dynamic. But all the players in the running would have a sense of their tie break "strength." They would also know their opponents, and the match-ups of their main rivals.
Each would have to make a key decision: Play conservative or aggressive? A professional has invested Rs 3,500 in entry fees and five days in sweat.
A player starting on 6.5 and drawing his last game (playing conservatively) may hope to lock in a minimum return of Rs 40,000 (7th place). A win may fetch Rs 75,000. A loss could mean just Rs 7,000.
A player on 7, who draws, may lock in a minimum Rs 75,000. If he wins, he could make Rs 1.5 lakh. He may take home just Rs 15,000, if he loses.
Each player must weigh potential risks, rewards, assess his chances of winning against his specific opponent and also assess likely results of other key games including games that affect tie break scores. He must be prepared to switch strategies while in play if an opportunity suddenly opens up. And of course, above all, he has to maintain focus and play well, whatever strategy he decides upon.
Poker players make similar decisions. They need to know how much is in the pot; how much they must commit to compete; roughly how good the chances are of winning; the quality of other players. As the song goes, "Know when to hold and know when to fold". Similar decisions also arise in bridge.
These decisions are relatively cut-and-dried in games where there are clear rules, access to information, strict time limits and mathematically fixed rewards.
Consider the decision for a player with 7 points as above going into the last round. His opponent is about as good as him (since he has the same score) so, there is roughly 50:50 chance of winning or losing with aggressive play.
Suppose this situation arises 10 times. If he always plays aggressively, he could score five wins and five losses. Then he wins Rs 1.5 lakhs five times and Rs 15,000 five times. That adds up to Rs 8.25 lakhs. If he always plays conservatively, he will aggregate Rs 7.5 lakh, assuming ten draws. So he should probably play aggressively.
"Probably", because this is a simplistic analysis. There will be some draws anyhow even if he's very aggressive. A conservative safe strategy doesn't exclude chances of winning. But a conservative attitude also carries the psychological dangers of creating a defensive defeatist mindset. In the event, only one of these seven players, Grover, won in the last round.
Similar decisions often arise in business but real life is more messy. The risks and rewards are fuzzy. The timelines are unclear. The "tie breaks" may involve incalculable outcomes like connecting to the right bureaucrat, or politician, at the right moment. There may be external variables like the rupee-dollar rate to consider.
Will it help if the decision-maker has played a lot of poker, chess, or bridge? Perhaps. At least, he or she has some practice at taking such decisions. More subtly, game players actively enjoy these situations and train for them. This means that, right or wrong, their blood pressure is more likely to stay within acceptable limits.