The Fischer Random Chess Stock Market

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I grew up in Russia, where chess was a spectator sport. Chess is almost as old as the New Testament and has only gone through minor changes over its long history. Chess has the longest recorded history of any sport – you can study the first recorded game, played in Valencia, Spain in 1475. The game, which was called “Scachs d’Amor” (“The Chess Game of Love”) by those who played and recorded it, comes to us in the form of a poem comprising 64 stanzas of nine lines each.

Any player who takes chess seriously will carefully study every move in the tens of thousands of games played by grandmasters over the last 600 years of recorded chess history. Chess players study opening systems – the series of first moves (five to 15 in number) early in the game that lead to the middle-game formation of pieces. They study opening systems to the point that the early part of the game requires very little thinking; it is quite mechanical – you execute openings that you’ve studied day and night and thoroughly memorized. As the game leaves its opening phase and goes into middle- and then end-game stages, raw thinking becomes more and more important.

Enter Fischer random chess, which was popularized by the eccentric American world chess champion Bobby Fischer in 1996. It is the same as the traditional game, except that the first rank, the standard opening arrangement of kings, queens, bishops, knights, and rooks, is randomly reshuffled (symmetrically for white and black) every game. The second rank, where the pawns open the game, is untouched. The rules, objectives, and strategies are the same – you want to control the center; your pieces need to protect each other; your king has to be protected at all times; and the goal is the same: kill the other king.

The beauty and the difficulty of Fischer random chess is that memorization of the opening system is completely useless – there are 960 variations of starting positions for your army (this is why this game is also called Chess960). You cannot make an automatic move like pawn E2 to E4, because the piece behind it may not be a king but a rook. Studying the middle and end games still has tremendous value.

There is a parallel between today’s stock market and Fischer random chess. The last time we faced a global pandemic was in 1918, and this might as well have been in the BC era. Few of us were alive then, but even the history books are not that useful, as the structure of the U.S. and global economy, the central bank system, the diversity and dynamism of society, and the state of technological progress are nothing like the world knew then. Most of the mental models we as investors rely on are based on an environment that no longer exists. The only common denominator between now and then is that humans have not really changed that much – it takes a few millennia to rewire our DNA and thus our fundamental behavior.