When the mercurial Bobby Fischer, perhaps the most famous chess player in the history of the game, finally showed up in Reykjavick, Iceland, in the summer of 1972 for his world championship match against Boris Spassky, the anticipation in the chess world was so thick you could cut it with a chain saw. Even people who had never shown any interest in chess before were holding their breath for what had been dubbed “the Match of the Century.” Yet in the twenty-ninth move of the very first game, in a position that appeared to be leading to a dead draw, Fischer chose a move that even amateur chess players would have rejected instinctively as a mistake. This may have been a typical manifestation of what is known as “chess blindness” –an error that in the chess literature is denoted by “??”–and would have disgraced a five-year-old in a local chess club. Particularly astonishing was the fact that the mistake was committed by a man who’d smashed his way to the match with the Russian Spassky after an extraordinary sequence of twenty successive wins against the world’s top players. (In most world-class competitions, there are easily as many draws as outright victories.) Is this type of “blindness” something that happens only in chess? Or are other intellectual enterprises also prone to similarly surprising mistakes?
Oscar Wilde once wrote, “Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.” Indeed, we all make numerous mistakes in our everyday lives. We lock our keys inside the car, we invest in the wrong stock (or sometimes in the right stock, but at the wrong time), we grossly overestimate our ability to multitask, and we often blame the absolutely wrong causes for our misfortunes. This misattribution, by the way, is one of the reasons that we rarely actually learn from our mistakes. In all cases, of course, we realize that these were mistakes only after we have make them–hence, Wilde’s definition of “experience.” Moreover, we are much better at judging other people than at analyzing ourselves. As psychologist and Nobel laureate in economics Daniel Kahneman has put it, “I am not very optimistic about people’s ability to changet he way they think, but I am fairly optimistic about their ability to detect the mistakes of others.”