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    Sunday
    Dec252016

    Merry Christmas!

    It's still Christmas Day in the U.S., but don't forget the "12 Days of Christmas": this is just day one of 12. Therefore, I won't consider this posting late, even for my European and Asian friends and readers.

    Some readings for the day - or days - of Christmas:

    "How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings glad tidings"; what can this mean? A short reflection from one of my favorite Christian philosophers.

    While some of what Jesus of Nazareth said can be appreciated from a wholly secular perspective, and even more so the sorts of things he did, the truth claims of Christianity are in large part claims about history. For some reflections on the topic, see this essay (and I would commend the entire site to those who are interested in further research - this is a good place to start). As for historical evidence and argument for Jesus, this is a very good, very readable book.

    A final reference, to an interesting article on a slightly quirky topic: people who have had religious experience but haven't felt compelled to convert based on that experience or even necessarily to consider doing so.

    In the last piece, the author makes a passing reference to Blaise Pascal's famous, infamous "Wager", which he (Ross Douthat, not Pascal) mischaracterizes in a common way. The wagerer is often seen as betting that God exists, but that's not quite right. In what follows I'll offer a short sketch of what Pascal is really doing in the Wager, and we'll see that on this interpretation it's much more sensible than it might seem on the short, caricatured model.

    The caricature essentially goes like this: a person should believe in God. Why? It pays: if God exists and you believe, you win eternal bliss. If you believe but God doesn't exist, then your life is still going to pretty decent most of the time, so the cost is minimal. If you don't believe and God doesn't exist, then your "payoff" won't be too different from the theist in the second case: you'll live an ordinary life with its ups and downs, and that will be the end of it. However, if one chooses not to believe and there is a God, then at best someone fails to "win", and at worst, well, uh oh. Therefore, it is rational in terms of expected value to believe in God, even if the evidence is terrible. If one has a one in a million chance of winning an infinite payoff, the strictly rational thing to do is to make the bet.

    Plenty of objections have been raised to this. Here are what I take to be the four main objections: the many gods objection, the minimal evidence objection, the bad faith objection, and the argument from doxastic involuntarism. (If you get nothing else from this post, you can at least impress your friends with that phrase.)

    The many gods objection notes that with different god-candidates, each or at least some of which are incompatible with each other and make mutually exclusive claims, one cannot reasonably choose between them. Christianity tells us to bet on Jesus, Islam proposes a different bet, and still other theistic religions can offer their own, similar arguments. Ultimately, they all cancel each other out, at least practically.

    The minimal evidence objection suggests that if one takes the evidence for Christianity (or for God as expressed in some other religion promising an afterlife) to be extremely poor, then it is still irrational to bet on it, the infinite payoff notwithstanding. None of us would wager on a freshly invented religion proposing a blissful eternity for all who put their trust in the Great Pumpkin, and this even if we granted that there was an incredibly minsucule but nonzero chance of its truth.

    The bad faith objection argues that the "faith" expressed in the Wager is not the genuine article. Belief in God for the sake of goodies is not the sort of faith the Bible speaks about, and I doubt there is any other major religion that call such faith the real thing, either.

    Finally, the objection from doxastic voluntarism is this: a person cannot just make himself believe that something is true. Try, for instance, to produce in yourself the belief that a red elephant in a tutu is riding on a small pony in the room where you're reading this. You can try to imagine it, but believe it? No, and this would be true even if I offered you $100 to believe it. In the same way, one can't just make oneself believe in God, even if one agrees that it's the practically rational thing to do, on the Wager.

    I think these are pretty good arguments against the quick version of Pascal's Wager; fortunately, I think they all fail when put up against what seems to be the Wager as he actually intends it.

    In the Pensees (the book including the Wager) Pascal spends a fair amount of time offering evidence for God in general and the biblical faith in particular. (For instance, he often refers to Old Testament prophecies of the first coming of Jesus.) So this suggests that he does care about evidence. When Pascal writes things like "reason cannot decide", he doesn't mean that there is no evidence for the Christian faith, but that it may not be enough to absolutely compel belief. But this is true of many things in our lives where we're forced to "bet": a choice of university, which job or career we pursue, who we marry, and to give a very humble example relevant to this blog's usual content, we often don't even know what move to make in a chess game. We have reasons for a given move, but sometimes we have reasons for other moves, or reasons to doubt the candidate move. But we have to do something, if only because doing nothing entails an inevitable loss on time.

    This takes care of the minimal evidence objection, because Pascal assumes that belief in God is at least roughly on a par with its denial. Moreover, in the context of his book the many gods objection can also be dispensed with: he's offering evidence for the truth of the Christian faith. Now, that won't help someone who finds the evidence for competing religions on a par with each other, but the point is that what Pascal has in mind is one particular religion (Christianity, in the Pensees) being roughly as likely as not.

    What about the argument that the Wager is religiously inappropriate, a case of bad faith? This can be answered while simultaneously addressing the objection from doxastic voluntarism. What Pascal prescribes for the person who agrees, based on the expected value of the Wager, is not that he or she somehow spontaneously produce the requisite belief and thereby 'win" the heavenly lottery. Pascal recognizes that belief doesn't work this way. What he proposes instead is that the wannabe-believer "bet on God" in the sense of trying to live the sort of life that will tend to produce genuine faith. The person will go to church, pray, read spiritual works, hang around with mature believers, and so on.

    When we speak about doxastic voluntarism, we must make a further distinction between two species: direct and indirect. Direct doxastic voluntarism is acknowledged by pretty much everyone who has considered it to be false: aside from philosophically jokey cases (e.g. I can make myself believe that I'm going to make myself believe something [namely, that proposition itself]) I can't spontaneously make myself believe things. At any given moment, I simply find myself believing certain things, disbelieving others and remaining unsure or unaware of the rest.

    By contrast, indirect doxastic voluntarism, the thesis that one can (often, typically) do something such that a new belief will come to be held, is most likely true. And Pascal recognizes this, and thus when addressing someone who doesn't yet have faith, but recognizes that belief in God isn't irrational and is worth having, he proposes that they embark on a course of life likely to bring that faith about. We recognize the legitimacy and effectiveness of this approach in everyday life, as a way to overcome irrational thoughts and prejudices, or as a way to gradually change one's mind on disputed matters. To someone who can't help but reflexively feel that members of group X are vicious, even when he knows that this feeling must be mistaken, we would suggest that he spend time with members of that group, to read about them - especially their exemplars - and to engage in reflective activity likely to erode his prejudices.

    Likewise, this slow, lifestyle approach will fix the "bad faith" worry. Embarking on the kinds of practices that are likely to lead to a change of belief will typically lead to a change of attitude as well. Being a part of a well-functioning (say) Christian community will tend to produce the appropriate sorts of attitudes, at least once faith is formed in the wagerer.

    To say all of this isn't automatically to say that everyone should wager on Christianity. For that, one should first think that Christianity is a live option; that is, that even if one doesn't yet find him- or herself believing it, one does at least think it's a rational option. (To try to determine that, a first step might be consulting some of the works and sites mentioned above.) But once one reaches that point, then the Wager makes sense.

    Finally, one might use a version of the Wager, even in something like its caricature form, as an impetus to investigate the evidence. If you investigate it and find it compelling (or at least compelling to Wager in Pascal's true sense), then you "win" big if you come to believe and it's true. If you investigate and believe, but turn out to be wrong, then no harm done (assuming death is the permanent end of one's existence). If one doesn't investigate and death is the end, then the slight gain in time taken by not investigating is only a small boon at best, while if one fails to investigate and is wrong it could prove costly. So the rational thing to do is to investigate.

    Saturday
    Dec242016

    Paul Keres: Part 4

    Chess24 has been publishing a series on the great Estonian Paul Keres (albeit very slowly) in this, the centennial year of his birth, and the latest installment is here. It is outstanding, and very much worth your time.

    Saturday
    Dec242016

    Recent Events: A Summary

    A few days ago, I mentioned some of the other events that were going on, or were about to, other than the London Chess Classic itself. The World Rapid & Blitz starts on the Monday, the 26th (I'm kind of hoping that the overly excitable Dmitry Komarov will be the commentator), but the other events mentioned in the earlier post have finished. Here are the results:

    As mentioned a couple of posts back, the British K.O. Championship was won by Nigel Short, who defeated David Howell in the final match. As for the London Classic Open, a couple of players from across the Channel tied for first. Etienne Bacrot and Sebastien Maze both finished with 7.5/9, with Bacrot taking first on tiebreak. Eight players finished half a point behind them.

    The fourth event in London was the Super Rapidplay, won in a pretty big upset by Valentina Gunina. She is a grandmaster and known for being a tricky tactician, but she was still outrated by more than 30 other GMs. It didn't matter: she scored 9/10, going +5=2 against her fellow GMs. She defeated Nunn, Smirin, Iturrizaga, Howell and McShane while drawing with Fressinet and Bacrot - a spectacular performance for just about any player. She was a bit lucky in her last round game with McShane, but in the other games she was dominant. Eltaj Safarli took second, half a point behind her, and then 11 players finished with 8. (Full results here.)

    The Nutcracker Battle of the Generations finished in a 32-32 tie, and a two-game blitz playoff between Alexei Shirov of the Experience team and Grigoriy Oparin of the Youth squad finished in a 1.5-.5 win for the youngster. It was a bit lucky, as he was losing or at least much worse in the first game where the notation ends, but Shirov either lost on time or went on to blunder somehow. Oparin wins a big prize: the right to play in next year's Zurich Chess Challenge with Vladimir Kramnik, Viswanathan Anand, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Hikaru Nakamura, Ian Nepomniachtchi, and Peter Svidler. (More here.)

    The match between young superstars Wei Yi (17 years old) and Richard Rapport (20) has finished in a win for the older player. Twice he trailed in the match, but he came back both times and finally won the match in an Armageddon game. (There's a nice report on the event here.)

    In the earlier post I mentioned that Alexander Riazantsev won the European Rapid Championship on tiebreaks over Maxim Matlakov; as for the blitz, Dmitry Andreikin won with a very impressive score of 22/26. Rauf Mamedov took second with 20.5 points (he also finished third in the rapid, on tiebreaks), and the bronze went to Sergei Zhigalko with 19.5, on tiebreaks ahead of Matlakov. (A report on the event, in the context of an interview with Andreikin, is here.)

    Saturday
    Dec242016

    A Christmas Eve Carol

    Tis the season, so we take time out from our usual fare for a beautifully written reminiscence that may resonate with readers on any number of levels.

    Saturday
    Dec242016

    This Week's World Chess Column: Short Beats Howell in the British KO Championship

    Nigel Short won the British Knockout Championship, defeating David Howell in the final match 3.5-2.5. The last three games were decisive, and are analyzed here.

    Saturday
    Dec242016

    Komodo 10.3 Out

    A little news for fans of chess engines, especially those of you who may have bought a one-year subscription to the Komodo chess engine: version 10.3 is out, and the claim is that it's 30 points stronger than 10.2. Komodo 10.2 was itself stronger than the 10.1 release that narrowly missed the TCEC Superfinal, so don't reject it on that basis. (Of course, the TCEC champ, Stockfish, is always available for free, but different engines have different strengths, and one isn't always right vis-a-vis its rivals.)

    Monday
    Dec192016

    2016 London Chess Classic: So Wins The Tournament

    The last round turned out to be an anti-climax. Wesley So drew quickly and easily with White against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, and waited to see if Fabiano Caruana would catch him by winning with Black against Anish Giri. That never looked likely to happen, and it didn't: Giri drew for the ninth time in nine games, and So's +3 score (6-3) gave him clear first, to go along with his overall victory in the Grand Chess Tour. Caruana finished in clear second, and there was a three way tie for third, another half a point back. Two of the three were Viswanathan Anand and Vladimir Kramnik, who drew with each other, and the third was Hikaru Nakamura, who drew with Michael Adams.

    There was one decisive game on the day, as Levon Aronian not only failed to take advantage of a better position, but somehow lost the thread in an equal position after the time control to lose to Veselin Topalov. Topalov could have finished at -7, but instead pulled up to a -5 score, while Aronian finished at -1 rather than in the tie for third place.

    The last round games, without annotations, are here.

    Saturday
    Dec172016

    2016 London Chess Classic: The Leaders Draw; So Clinches Overall Grand Chess Tour Victory

    For Hikaru Nakamura to overtake Wesley So in the overall Grand Chess Tour standings, a lot of things would have had to go right for him in today's round and in the final round tomorrow, but having drawn his game with Levon Aronian and with So having held against Fabiano Caruana, that ship has sailed. So has won the overall tour and the accompanying $100,000 bonus. By drawing with Caruana, who was and still is the only player within half a point of him, he is in a great position to win the London Chess Classic as well.

    So and Aronian had the black pieces, and both were very well-prepared in the openings, equalizing fully and drawing easily. Two other games were drawn, but with more drama.

    Vladimir Kramnik gave 1.e4 another punt, something he's been doing a fair amount lately, and Anish Giri played the Najdorf. The last two rounds saw Black get blown away in the Delayed Poisoned Pawn variation, but Kramnik played 6.g3 and went for a purely positional approach. Giri did his best to spice the game up, even giving up a piece for a few pawns. The game finished peacefully, but not from a want of effort or because the game lacked interest.

    Maxime Vachier-Lagrave continued his streak of unsuccessful openings, this time against Michael Adams. Adams equalized with Black pretty easily in a 4.d3 Berlin, and event obtained the advantage. To hold, MVL wisely gave up a pawn to reach a rook and four pawns vs. rook and three pawns ending, with all the pawns on the same side.

    Finally, Veselin Topalov managed yet another loss; his present score is one out of eight. (Granted, that's still one point more than almost everyone reading this would score, but for Topalov it's a disaster - he has lost almost 27 rating points and has fallen out of the top 18 in the world for the first time in more than two decades.) Today's suffering came at the hands of his conquerer in their 2010 World Championship match, Viswanathan Anand. Anand was ready with a great new idea in a major line of the 5.Bf4 Queen's Gambit Declined: 12...b5! Soon White was in serious trouble, but as has happened more than once in the tournament, Anand let his advantage slip away. Fortunately for him, but not for his snakebitten opponent, White's position remained precarious, and Topalov made further errors and lost. (The games are here, unannotated except for Topalov-Anand. That game has enough analysis to make up for the other four, and then some.)

    Here are the last round pairings:

    • Aronian (4) - Topalov (1)
    • Anand (4.5) - Kramnik (4.5)
    • Giri (4) - Caruana (5)
    • So (5.5) - Vachier-Lagrave (3.5)
    • Adams (3.5) - Nakamura (4.5)

    Friday
    Dec162016

    Coming Events (Mostly Rapid and Blitz)

    The FIDE Open in London and the British Knockout Championship started with the London Chess Classic, but finished two days earlier. Why? To make room for one more event: the Super Rapidplay, which runs on Saturday and Sunday, open to all those who played in the aforementioned events (excepting the Classic, of course).

    Then there's the Nutcracker Battle of the Generations, a Scheveningen-style event with Boris Gelfand, Alexander Morozevich, Alexei Shirov, and Alexei Dreev on the Experience side and Vladimir Fedoseev, Daniil Dubov, Vladislav Artemiev, and Grigoriy Oparin representing the Youth. The top scorer overall qualifies for next year's Zurich Chess Challenge, which is now the Korchnoi Zurich Chess Challenge. The present event takes place in Moscow from the 17th through the 22nd.

    Young superstars Richard Rapport and Wei Yi will play a six-game match in China from the 19th to the 24th of this month.

    An event that's already underway is the European Individual Rapid and Blitz Championship in Tallinn, Estonia; it started on the 14th and runs through the 18th. The rapid portion is over, and Alexander Riazantsev won on tiebreaks ahead of Maxim Matlakov; both players scored 9.5/11. Three players finished with 9 points apiece, and the bronze went to Rauf Mamedov on tiebreaks. (Full results here.) The blitz tournament takes place Saturday and Sunday (i.e. today/tomorrow and the next day).

    Last but certainly not least, and after all the aforementioned events have come to an end, the World Rapid and Blitz Championships take place in Doha, Qatar from December 25 (Merry Christmas!) to the 30th.

    Friday
    Dec162016

    Short Defeats Howell to Win British K.O. Championship

    One of the concurrent events in London alongside the Chess Classic is, or rather, was, the British Knockout Championship. Other than Michael Adams, who is playing in the Classic, all the top British players participated, and in the finale Nigel Short defeated David Howell 3.5-2.5 to take the title. The first three games were drawn, and then the player with White won the remaining games, all of which can be found here.

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