Friday, September 19, 2008

The crowd of Turin: The application of wisdom in chess and football

Through a recent article in Club Troppo, I heard about a couple of excellent blog posts by Michael Nielson. Nielson is a Queensland educated writer and scientist who now lives in Toronto. In the first post, Nielson outlines six rules for rewriting that Troppo’s Nicholas Gruen rightly calls “simple but compelling”. Gruen then asks his readers to see how Nielson himself measures up to these rules in the second post, a fascinating story about “the chess game of the century”.

In this post Nielson talks about the famous chess game in 1999 played over the Internet between then-world champion Garry Kasparov and “the World”. Over 50,000 individuals from more than 75 countries participated in the game. One move was made every 24 hours with the World’s move decided by a vote which was open to everyone. Kasparov won a fascinating contest in 62 moves after 51 percent of the World team voted to resign. Afterwards Kasparov called it “the greatest game in the history of chess.” He said it was never clear who was going to win and he expended more energy on this one game than any other in his career. Although Kasparov was far better than any single contributor to the World team, collectively they produced one of the strongest games ever played.

The idea that a bunch of amateurs would give the best in the business a run for their money should not strange to anyone who has read James Surowiecki’s classic 2004 book, The Wisdom of Crowds. In a series of remarkable stories, Surowiecki shows how mass collective decision making consistently beats that of the few, even when those few are experts. His thesis was that groups are remarkably intelligent and are often smarter than the smartest people in them.

Will Brooks
, a former BBC sportswriter, took this idea to heart when he founded the company My Football Club in 2007. His idea was a fan-owned and fan-run football club in which the each of the owners would have an equal say in the day-to-day management of the team. With the help of thousands of subscribers, Brooks bought a controlling interest in the Football Conference (England’s fifth football tier) team Ebbsfleet United FC based in Kent. The fans are now the legal owners of the club and members vote on team selection and player transfers.

The club is doing very well under the crowdsourcing arrangement. There are currently 30,000 internet members who pay £35 annually for the privilege. Twenty percent of the membership login to the club’s website every day, posting thousands of messages and debating issues such which players to recruit to how to increase attendance at games. The club hopes to gain promotion to the football league in the next few years. Already Brooks experiment has paid off on the field. This year Ebbsfleet United won the FA Trophy (the highest accolade for semi-professional teams) in May beating Torquay 1-0 at Wembley, becoming the first team ever from Kent to win the trophy. At the club’s request, the game was made available as a live online video feed to satisfy members in the US, Australia and across Europe.

The Ebbsfleet experiment in trust and mass participation stands in stark contrast to the Italian experience. In “The Wisdom of the Crowds”, Surowiecki discussed the corruption that tears at the heart of Italian football. In 2002 Italy were knocked out of the World Cup by South Korea after Byron Moreno, the Ecuadorian referee made two crucial errors that gifted the co-hosts victory. Surowiecki noted how Italian fans didn’t blame Moreno for his incompetence but instead accused him of “criminal behaviour” in league with football’s governing body FIFA. If Italy lost, then it had to be because of a global conspiracy for which Moreno was just the front.

Although no evidence emerged in the weeks that followed to support the conspiracy theory, Italian newspapers and fans remained convinced it existed. Surowiecki put it down to the fact that corruption is assumed to be the natural state of affairs in Italian football. Every season some new scandal emerges and claims of corrupt referees are commonplace. Games are negative, foul-ridden affairs where defeat is never accepted as an outcome of a fair contest. There is a total lack of trust between participants and the system is geared to protecting interest at the cost of entertainment. Cheating on the field of play is commonplace and even encouraged. This problem was noted by AC Milan playmaker Gennaro Gattuso when he said in 2003: “The system prevents you from telling the truth and being yourself.”

Gattuso is not alone in despising the system, but no one seems to be able to address the issue. In the absence of trust, the pursuit of self-interest is the only strategy that makes sense. Surowiecki says Italian football has failed to find a good solution to the problem of co-operation. Co-operation problems involve more than just co-ordination, he says. To solve these problems, the members of a group need to adopt a broader definition of self-interest than that of maximising profit in the name of short term demands. Trust is needed. Successful co-operation relies on people who repeatedly deal with each other over time. The promise of continued successful interaction keeps the participants in line. The key to co-operation is what Robert Axelrod called “the shadow of the future.” Or as Surowiecki says, the best approach is to be “nice, forgiving, and retaliatory.”

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