This article originally appeared in the July 2000 issue of GammOnLine.
Thank you to Kit Woolsey for his kind permission to reproduce it here.

Panic City

By Stephen Clark
One of the great myths of our time is of the great hero who is able to perform at his best under great pressure. When the chips are down the hero steps up to the plate in the bottom of the ninth, hits a home run to win the championship, and gets carried off the field in another heroic performance.

Everyone knows how it happens. Under great stress the batter's focus narrows. As he attempts to overcome the stress and panic he feels, unimportant factors go out of his mind until all he sees is the pitcher and the ball as it is thrown. His problems at home disappear, his sore feet disappear, the crowd disappears, only the ball is seen. Of course this great hero misses the ball by a foot more often than he hits the home run. Then the pitcher becomes the mythic hero and the batter is just another victim who couldn't take the pressure.

After having observed high level competitive games for many years, I have come to believe that the reality is significantly different. Perhaps in physical games the repetition of the activity can bring heightened performance. In games such as backgammon when one is under great stress, performance breaks down.

As the focus narrows to the roll and the position, the player sees less of the board, he may certainly miss plays involving the area out of his narrow sight. He may also concentrate on two or three plays, completely missing a more attractive alternative. He will often have extreme difficulty analyzing the relative merits of the few alternatives he has seen, with the unseen alternatives gone completely by the wayside.

I can remember a fine high level player using 40 minutes deciding whether or not to take a critical double at the end of a match in the championship round. A brief inspection of the position, even in those days before rollouts, showed that the double was vastly premature and the take was trivial. I was certain that the player must have spent at least 38 of the 40 minutes trying to control his nerves. How much of the other 2 minutes he actually spent analyzing the position was not so clear. He did, however, take the double--and lost soon thereafter.

Here is another example recently reported in the Chicago Point.




White 10

11 point match

Blue 10

Blue is one of the best players in the world. This is the quarter finals of the consolation so significant, but not really big, money is at stake. Blue has just had to face some difficult choices in his prior moves so his tension level must be quite high. And now White has thrown a joker so that Blue must throw an ace or he is a dead duck. You can just imagine his thoughts as he rolls a 6,1. He got him. He is saved. 10-9 hits, what about the 6? 9-3 is safe, it is terrific, he is a big favorite. So Blue plays 10-9-3, missing the fact that he is playing a lemon. 10-9, 8-2 is a far superior play and would have allowed him to make his prime on his next roll. Instead he missed the prime, White escaped again and easily won the race.

As I said, Blue is one of the best players in the world. He is certainly capable of determining that 8-2 was the right 6 to play. But this was the end of a long week. He had played many matches and had done quite well. As his vision narrowed for this one last, or nearly last, high stress moment, he focused, not on the play, but on the more important aspect, rolling the ace. The equity to be gained or lost in the play was quite small compared the equity to be gained or lost in the roll. He rolled the ace and then could not shift his attention back to what had been a very secondary problem just a moment ago.

How do we overcome the problem so that, when the chips are down, we will play at our best? One answer is clear. Those who have faced the situation before will perform considerably better than the newcomer. The fact that one has performed (poorly or well) at a certain level greatly improves his chance of performing well at that level when it is next attained. As he repeatedly competes at a certain level, it become easier. The stress goes down to the point where he can see to the other end of the room. He can think. It becomes routine. Sure.

Well it does become routine. But as the stress level rises, the fatigue level increases and the importance of one last lucky roll (or 50 last lucky rolls) goes through the roof, all players have to struggle to maintain their ability to analyze as well as they are actually capable. It is the mark of the fine player that they succeed more or less. But it is also true that no player succeeds all of the time.

All of this was exemplified by my recent appearance in the finals of the Nevada State Open. I had played in the finals of a number of lesser events and had done well, winning much more often than losing. I had adjusted to the level involved. I also saw that most of my opponents had not adjusted, so I was able to play confidently. But I had never reached the finals of a big event, and experience at one level does not usually count for much when you step up to the next level. I was feeling the pressure.

It was double match point. I had run up a big early lead in the match but my opponent, Dorn Bishop, had fought back and gone ahead. I also had made a comeback and now this was it. In the final game I already had made a couple of errors. Dorn had done better, perhaps assisted by the fact that he had spent much of the time on the bar and so had fewer chances to blunder. I faced the following position with a 5,3 to play:




Dorn Bishop 16

17 point match

Steve Clark 16

At this point the main thing running through my mind was that I was probably going to win. I noticed that I could hit him and take a checker off. I tried to analyze the merits of making the 3 point on his head. In retrospect this is clearly the right play. It resolves all the problems of the position at a time when Dorn will have difficulty taking advantage even if he hits me because of his 3 men on the bar. I finally rejected this play, playing safe as is so tempting when under pressure. I played 8 off, having forgotten about the hit, thereby making the 3rd best play. During all this time the main thought running through my mind was that I was winning. Yes I am going to win.

He flunks. I roll a 6,5 still safe and I am going great. He flunks again and I roll a 5,1. I am doing terrific. I am winning. He flunks again and I roll a 4,4. Oh God, how could this happen to me? I might lose. In a flash I recognize that I should take the extra man off and leave the blot on the 5 point rather than the 4. He rolls the dice and it comes up 3,1. I am safe. All I have to do is get by. I am going to win. This is the position as I roll a 5,3.




Dorn Bishop 16

17 point match

Steve Clark 16

Two men off and let the celebrating begin. Why is he shaking his dice? What do you mean he flunks? Did I make a mistake back there? I now have 3 men on the deuce and 3 men on the ace. I need to roll an ace. An ace, an ace. Come on doubles. I roll a 2,1 and Dorn concedes.

Of course I should have played 5-2 and 2-0, taking only one man off. Despite my idiocy, the equity cost was relatively small, much smaller than my previous error. If I make the correct play jellyfish gives my winning chances as 100% whereas after my play, a rollout shows I win 99.7% of the time.

During this sequence I demonstrated the three primary weaknesses which the pressure brings on. First, when looking at the 5,3 play my thought process became so jumbled that I was unable to correctly analyze the position. Second I forgot about an important possibility. Hitting as I took a man off was a clear improvement over my play and was almost as good as making the 3 point. Finally when I took two men off in the final diagram, I had not clue that anything was going on. I thought the match was over. I did not recognize that I had a significant choice to make.

Interestingly, 3 different people pointed out to me that Dorn conceded in a position where he still had winning chances. All it would take was for him to dance against a 2 point board. I then had to roll an ace, then he would have to dance against a one point board. I would have to not roll doubles, he would have to roll an ace to hit my last checker. He then would have to put his board together and get all his men off before I got my checker around the board. I put his chances of winning at less than one in 100,000. He was right to concede.

Now that I have played in a big money final (you do not need to win to gain the necessary experience), I would expect to play better the next time. Will I play at my best? Quite possibly not. As I have said, virtually all players break down to a greater or lesser degree. The better players are the ones who can resist the problem best. These breakdowns do not occur in every match of course, but often enough so that if you watch a number of high level matches, you will see it happen over and over. It's part of the game.

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