Harry Potter, chess, and resilient communities

Because of course these things all have something in common...

When you have young kids, there are so many things that you want to share with them but rarely enough time to do them all. So when the opportunity arises, I do my best to take advantage. Such was the case this past weekend, when an ad hoc movie night provided the chance to share two disparate things with my oldest that I've been eager to share with him: Harry Potter and chess.

I'm sure Patrick is chortling under his breath as he proofreads this right now, but hear me out.

Like many of you, I was skeptical of the whole Harry Potter fad back in the early 2000s, but my future wife was quite the fan. Back in those days, you could pretty much only buy books at bookstores. And if you wanted to get the newest installment of a ridiculously popular series, you had to pre-order a copy, arrive at the book store several hours before release, and wait in a long line to get it. So it was that I attended 3-4 book release parties for a franchise that I had little interest in reading. (Part of me still wonders if she made me go with her because at the time I bore a passing resemblance to the titular character.)

It was several years later, though, just before we got married, that I finally gave in and read the first book. Just a few weeks later, I had finished the series. I'm not saying it's on par with Dickens or Tolstoy, but it's an entertaining story with quite a bit of depth and attention to detail. Callbacks in book 7 to something in book 2 make you wonder if the entire story was in JK Rowling’s head all along.

But this is all just pretext.

Toward the end of the first book/movie, Harry, Ron, and Hermione must LARP a game of Wizard's Chess in order to save the day. And of all the fantastical elements found in the first movie, this is the part that piqued my eldest son's attention the most.

"Dad, can we play chess?" he asked. #ProudDadMoment

I don't know how quickly a five-year old is supposed to grok the game of chess, but I'd say he did a fine job. He got a little antsy toward the end but he picked up the basic idea pretty quickly, even getting himself out of check early in the match with a pretty clever move I hadn’t expected. And though his win/loss record currently stands at 0-1 (I mean, I'm not going to go easy on him just because he's 5), I think the world has a new chess fan. That’s a good thing if you ask me.

Chess is a beautifully - perhaps deceptively - simple game. There are 6 different types of pieces, each with their own specific movement patterns. Aside from the occasional quirks, like castling and en passant, the rules are quite simple. But within the confines of these simple rules, a massively complex system emerges.

After both players have moved once, there are 400 possible board arrangements. After each player has moved 3 times, around 121 million. Talk about exponential growth.

Though there's room to doubt the claim, grandmasters of chess are said to be able to think 15-20 moves ahead, estimating their opponents reactions and identifying the best course of action. Even Deep Blue, the IBM supercomputer that beat Garry Kasparov and which could calculate hundreds of millions of positions each second, would only search to a depth of up to 20 or so moves at a time. Of course, Deep Blue's brute force approach to problem solving meant that it was more likely to evaluate lines of play that the grandmaster would know, through intuition gained by years of study and experience, were less favorable than others. That experience probably provides a useful heuristic to narrow the range of reasonable inquiry, reducing the computational burden the grandmaster must exert to choose his or her next move.

Which brings me to Magnus Carlsen, the 30-year-old Norwegian chess prodigy who became a grandmaster at 13 and who holds the record for the highest rating of any player in the history of chess. Even if you don't have a thorough knowledge of chess (which I don't, I just enjoy the game), watching him play is impressive. His approach is unique, in that he doesn't care too much about the opening sequences. His goal is to get straight into the middlegame, where he will play largely mistake-free chess while he waits for his opponent to mess up. Taking advantage of his impressive memory and pattern-matching skills, he waits for that moment when you've put yourself at a disadvantage and then he pounces.

But what's more interesting to me is that he doesn’t constantly try to think dozens of moves ahead. Sometimes, Carlsen says, he will make a move and "really [not] know why." He doesn't always know the moment that he makes the decision to move; he just makes it (sometimes immediately realizing he made the wrong move).

He doesn't always have a long-term vision of what he's trying to do at any given point in the match. He just understands the confines of the game and uses that knowledge to wait for the right moment to take the advantage over his opponent.

By now, you're probably asking what in the world this has to do with local government. As I was teaching my son the simple rules for this complex game, it dawned on me there is a profoundly Strong Townsian lesson to be learned from it. And since the founder of Strong Towns, Chuck Marohn, is making the rounds for his new book tour (including several stops in Texas), it seemed apropos to discuss.

We've talked about Strong Towns before, but for those not familiar, it's a non-profit that focuses on helping cities achieve more fiscally sustainable development by taking lessons from the differences in how we build communities today versus how we built them for thousands of years. We don’t necessarily agree with everything they write, but their approach to local government issues is worth paying attention to.

So to round this out, here are three quick takeaways for city managers:

1) There are literally too many possible outcomes in chess for anyone to calculate. It's a complex game, but it's not a complicated game. There are simple rules to follow, and they lead to any number of undetermined outcomes. Because the rules of the road are simple, complex systems are flexible. They're able to adapt over time to different pressures that are unknowable when the rules are established.

On the other hand, complicated systems are brittle. They are governed by many small rules attempting to specify behavior in any given circumstance. As new pressures emerge, the baggage that comes with all of those rules makes complicated systems less able to change.

We should want our cities to function as complex systems rather than complicated ones. It's tempting to set rules that govern exactly how we desire our city to be, but that's a recipe for disaster. Instead, we should focus on creating simple rules that allow the creativity of our neighborhoods and residents to thrive, creating strong and resilient communities that can adapt over time.

2) Because the rules of chess are simple, it’s possible to beat even the best players with enough brute force. When Deep Blue looks ahead 20-25 moves, calculating every possible iteration of gameplay, it will evaluate paths that the grandmaster intuitively knows are less optimal. Deep Blue can get away with wasting that energy because computing power is cheap. When you can calculate 200 million permutations each second, what's the harm in a few wild goose chases if you end up with the “perfect” move? In other words, Deep Blue can sustain its gameplay style because it has effectively limitless resources.

Our communities, on the other hand, don't. We only have so much time, money, and space with which to operate. Strong Towns argues that the development style we've pioneered since World War 2 - the same development style that they argue is ultimately causing cities to be less resilient and less financially secure - came about in no small part due to an effectively unlimited set of resources.

With Europe in tatters, a booming post-war economy, millions of men and women back home in the workforce, federal programs injecting large amounts of money into local communities, and cheap undeveloped land, we didn't have to worry about the same constraints that the generations before us had to worry about. We didn’t notice that we were building insolvent communities because the next round of development was right around the corner, keeping our fiscal health propped up for another generation.

But eventually, they argue, the "Growth Ponzi Scheme" will catch up to us. Eventually, we'll have to learn to live within a reasonable set of constraints. And like the chess grandmaster, we'll have to use our collective intuition to narrow down the possible moves we can make. We have to work more like Magnus Carlsen than Deep Blue.

3) Even if you have a grand vision for what success looks like, it's better if you don’t try to plan every step on the way to achieving it. Magnus Carlsen knows what he's looking for in order to win a chess match; he knows that there are a handful of patterns - where the pieces are arranged just right - that will allow him to achieve victory. But he's not trying to plan out 20 moves in advance. He lets the game come to him, avoids making costly mistakes, and seizes the opportunity when it comes.

This is the chess version of incremental change that Strong Towns champions. The best ideas rarely come from grand, ornate plans. They often come at the spur of the moment, from a place least expected, and in a way that you might not even realize when it hits you. If you go all in on your ideal strategy, you might find that it blows up in your face 5-10 moves down the line. Incremental changes might fail, too, but they carry far less risk.

For local governments, that can mean less reliance on your detailed planning processes and more on listening to the everyday needs of people who live in your town. It can mean allowing your neighborhoods to change little by little, rather than building them all at once to a finished state. It can mean focusing on enhancing the value of what you already have, rather than trying to continually expand where you aren't.

Working on incremental improvement allows you to experiment, to fail, and to get better. Those are things that every city manager should prefer over shooting for the stars, succeeding, and then realizing you were aimed in the wrong direction.

If you made it this far, you deserve a gold star (or at least some kind of acknowledgement). Sometimes my analogies fall flat; hopefully this isn't one of those times, especially since we took some time off from this newsletter over the summer. From all of us at ZacTax, we hope you’re coming out of your budget process relatively unscathed and looking forward to a new fiscal year. If you found any of the Strong Towns arguments interesting, and will be in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on September 24, Chuck Marohn will be speaking at the Hurst Convention Center. As of writing, tickets are still available!