Even though it’s not an ordinary Christmas, I hope you’re all safe and find comfort knowing that we’ll be able to gather with our friends and loved ones very soon.
Since today is Christmas eve I decided to do something a little different.
The first episode of this podcast was about female chess prodigies which happened to coincide with a show on netflix called the queen’s gambit. It quickly became netflix’s most watched series ever and reignited america’s interest in the game, so much so that sales of chess sets have increased up to 10 fold and chess.com has seen millions of new users. The first part of this episode will explain what the queen’s gambit opening strategy is, a couple defenses to it, and a person the show frequently references, Paul Morphy.
For the 2nd part I spoke with a marketing professor at Carnegie Mellon University who has done some really interesting research on the psychology of gift giving.
My name is Lowell Brillante and this is Prodigy
Because of the first episode on the polgar sisters, people often ask me if I’m really into chess. I actually haven’t played the game since I was a kid, but after all the research for that episode I’ve developed a keen interest in it and have been studying famous games.
If you want to get a better understanding of chess, there’s a youtube channel that breaks down grandmaster games. It’s really interesting and teaches you a ton. I’ll link it in the sources on the episode page at prodigypodcast.com
If you’re curious why the queen’s gambit has no mention of the polgar sisters, it’s because the show is based on a fictional book published in 1983. At the time of publication Susan was just 14 years old and Judit was 7 so it’s quite possible the author wasn’t aware of them even though just a year later she became the first female grandmaster.
Susan praised the show’s accurate depiction of chess as real and exciting but pointed out that it ignored the prevalent sexism that existed at the time, men would hardly acknowledge defeat by a female. Susan said, “Even today, as of 2020, there is clear sexism in the chess world.”
The author’s actual inspiration for the character came mostly from Bobby Fischer.
There’s 3 parts to a game of chess. The opening, mid game and end game. In the opening white moves (or attacks) first which provides a small advantage. Since black moves 2nd it’s often called a defense.
The opening and defense can sometimes consist of over 20 moves that are choreographed before developing into the mid game.
The queen’s gambit is one of many different opening strategies. There are dozens more and hundreds of variants.
In chess, pawns initially seem like weak pieces but they are critical for establishing control over the center of the board. They’re also unique compared to the others. They have the option to move 2 spaces the first time. They can’t move backwards and they can only take diagonally which is a different direction than they move.
Pawns are named based on what piece they are in front of. A pawn in front of the queen is called the queen’s pawn.
Pieces in the back row are named for which side they’re on. Either the king’s side or the queen’s side.
So the opening is called the Queen’s gambit because the first move is made by the pawn directly in front of the queen.
A gambit is a move in which a player sacrifices a piece, to gain a positional advantage. This is considered an aggressive opening because at a high level being down a single pawn is a significant disadvantage.
Here’s how the queen’s gambit is played. I’ll post a video of it on the episode webpage. You can find it at prodigypodcast.com
When the game begins, white moves the queen pawn up 2 spaces. Since white moves first, black is already at a disadvantage and is fighting to equalize control of the board. If black moves a pawn up to the left or right of white’s pawn it can be taken diagonally, so often black’s response is to mirror the move.
Now both side’s pawns are facing each other in the center of the board and it’s white’s move. White moves their bishops pawn up next to their queen pawn. So now white has 2 pawns side by side, facing one black pawn.
This offers black the ability to take that 2nd pawn.
Offering this piece as a sacrifice is why it’s a gambit. If black takes the piece the gambit is accepted, if not it’s declined.
So if black accepts the gambit and takes white’s pawn. White is now down a pawn, but their next move is to promote the king’s pawn. Now white controls 2 center squares and black controls 1. This is the basic strategy behind the queen’s gambit. Also black’s pawn is exposed to white’s bishop so if black doesn’t move to protect that pawn they will lose it and white will completely control the center of the board.
One counter strategy is the slav defense. In this defense instead of black taking white’s pawn they move an adjacent pawn up one to protect their queen’s pawn. It’s a good defense and minimizes white’s advantage.
Another counter strategy mentioned in the queen’s gambit show is the indian defense. After white opens by moving their queen’s pawn, instead of mirroring the move, black moves their knight. This concedes control of the center but sets up a strong albeit passive defense.
One last subject mentioned several times in the queen’s gambit that piqued my interest is Paul Morphy. He was an American chess prodigy born in 1837. Bobby Fischer ranked him in the top 10 of all time and Kasparov called him the forefather of modern chess. At 9 years old he was considered the best player in new orleans.
The commanding general of the united states, General Winfield Scott was visiting at the time and wanted to play the best local talent. General Scott was a military strategist and considered himself quite good at the game so he was insulted when they brought in 9 year old Paul Morphy. But was quickly humbled when Morphy beat him twice, the 2nd time in only 6 moves.
General Scott later went on to become an important advisor to President Lincoln.
When Morphy was 12, new orleans was visited by a hungarian master, who frequently defeated young talent but considered this match a waste of time. After just a few moves he realized the error of his judgement and ended up losing 2 games and drawing one.
Morphy went on to become the 2nd world champion. The title was universally accepted but unofficial because the championship didn’t exist yet.
I really enjoyed the show and appreciate the effort they put into creating realistic chess situations. They used Former world champion Gary Kasparov and legendary coach bruce Pandolfini as consultants. Aside from the failure to accurately depict sexism, the main aspect that I personally thought was unrealistic was the use of tranquilizers because the negative effect they have on short and long term memory. But overall I thought it was a great show and definitely recommend it.
Alright let’s switch topics to consumer psychology. I came across Dr Jeff Galak’s AMA one day while browsing reddit. AMA stands for ask me anything and he was answering questions about his research into the psychology of gift giving. I figured this would be an interesting holiday subject. So let’s jump in.
Dr Jeff Galak received his PhD from NYU in consumer behavior and is a professor of marketing at Carnegie Mellon University. He studies decision making and how products and experiences affect an individual’s happiness.
Galak: So what I do is I conduct behavioral experiments on humans. we usually, these are in the form of surveys or in the form of, behavioral experiments, where then I publish those results in an academic journal with the hope then of having firms use that, as they see fit.
Dr Galak and one of his postdoctoral students became interested in the psychology of gift giving and the questions surrounding it.
Galak: What makes for a good gift? what errors do gift givers make when they actually give gifts? are they well-intentioned or are they more selfishly intentioned when they give gifts? it’s a really big question because gifts not only are a huge part of our economy. So if you think about it, billions and billions of dollars are spent every single year, just on Christmas gifts, for example.
When I give a gift to a significant other or a friend, it’s a signal in some ways of how much I care about that person. It’s a way to form relationships and create close ties. And we might not be doing as good a job as we think we are. So a lot of this research is looking at how do we help people and to help them we first have to understand what their feelings are.
Galak: I would say the most common mistake that people make or the most common misconception is that to give a good gift, you have to give an expensive gift.
That belief is pervasive. Everyone thinks that if you spend more money, you’re going to make the recipient happier. And there’s virtually no evidence supporting that claim at all, quite to the contrary. There’s a lot of evidence suggesting that what gift recipients care about is the intentionality of the giver and the thoughtfulness of the giver and not at all about the quality of the gift itself.
So when you hear the popular phrase “it’s the thought that counts.” Turns out that’s actually well supported by research.
And yet when you actually look at what givers tend to gift and what their beliefs are, they don’t think that as well. they don’t think that at all. Excuse me. which is a little weird, right?
Because we, as individuals are both givers and recipients, We give gifts and we get them. When we put the hat on of being a recipient, we it’s like it flips a switch and we have a totally different psychology. As a recipient, I say to myself, Oh, is this gift that I just got from this other person, a sign of thoughtfulness and in almost all cases, it is right.
It takes a lot to give a genuinely bad gift. that’s a rare event. but the moment I take that hat off and now I act as the giver. I forget that experience that I had just a moment ago as a recipient. And instead I say, Oh, they’re not going to value me as a friend. If I don’t spend X dollars, some beyond some threshold and that’s just not true.
You yourself experience it completely differently when you have the recipient hat on. But when you put the giver hat on, it changes. So the psychology of what you think is important is not the same in those cases, which is strange.
This difference in mindset an individual experiences on either side of the same act is called an asymmetry because it doesn’t match up. The threshold for what constitutes a good gift is actually pretty low.
Galak: Sometimes writing our card is sufficient as a gift. sometimes a small gift card is sufficient as a gift.
A small purchase handmade items are generally very well received. we have a whole other body of work looking at, sentimentally valuable gifts. So these are gifts that maybe are not valuable from a monetary perspective, but you couldn’t resell them for anything. but they might signify something really important about the relationship that you have with that person.
Those gifts are way better received by recipients than comparably expensive, non sentimentally, valuable gifts.
Galak: The thoughtfulness dimension is universal. So as long as you, as a gift giver are engaging in the gift giving act and giving that gift, you’ve pretty much met the minimum requirement necessary for the recipient to like it with few exceptions.
Again, you can give those gifts that we can think of examples of them, but those are so unusual that they’re not even worth studying most of the time.
We’re going to get into some more mistakes people make and ways to avoid them right after this quick break.
If you live in Georgia, here’s a quick reminder to vote. Alright back to the show.
So the data shows that the cost of an item is not equivalent to it’s value as a gift. Another common error givers make is thinking that useful items are less well received than fun items.
Galak: So giving you something like fun and frivolous and flashy, everybody thinks that’ll be a great gift, but no, it turns out the utilitarian, the useful gifts. Are often the best ones that you can give. If you start playing in that hierarchy of these are gifts that are already above the bar, they’re already going to be well-received by recipients.
They’re already going to think that you’re a thoughtful gift giver, regardless of whether it’s fun or utilitarian. but it turns out you do have more errors of the kind where recipients do value utilitarian gifts, more than they value, what are called. We call them hedonic gifts. So gifts that are just primarily for pleasure or enjoyment.
Galak: So another error that often people make is that they believe that gifts that are surprising or somehow particularly good. And that’s just not true. So the reason somebody makes a wishlist or for example, I think the most common one is a wedding registry, right?
So a couples getting married, they make their list of items that they would like to receive as gifts. That’s a very common example of a wishlist. You don’t, there aren’t that many other wishlists out there. you can have an Amazon wishlist or something, but most people don’t have a public one, but wedding registry is a very common occurrence.
What happens is that gift givers think that the only way they can prove their thoughtfulness is by going outside of the registry and getting something unique and special. But that completely ignores the fact that the reason that those items are on the registry is because the recipients, the wedding couple, they want those items, right?
They’re not arbitrarily placing things on their wedding registry. and so there’s this mismatch where givers think that to really impress a recipient, they have to be surprising. But that’s wrong. And in fact, by giving something that’s not on the wishlist, they’re necessarily giving something that’s less desirable to the person, There’s a reason those items existed on that wishlist to begin with.
Galak: Giving gifts is hard, right? Trying to be a thoughtful gift giver. Shouldn’t be hard, but it is because we have all these misconceptions about what it takes to be a good gift giver. So we spend all this time finding the right gift for all of our loved ones for all of our friends.
and that stinks, right? that’s a cost that’s incurred by a lot of people. so having wishlist obviates that need second, if somebody has a wishlist, there’s no risk of giving them something that they’re not going to like, because they’ve told you explicitly what it is. They want the caveat with all that is that people are still reluctant to do it.
they’re still reluctant to give those gifts off a wishlist. So in my like perfect utopian gift, giving world, The version of the version that works is something like you tell your friend, some other third party friend, all the items that you want. And then that third party friend goes to all of your primary friends and says, Hey, here’s the items that Lowell wants.
Like here are the things so that when you get that gift, it still feels like a surprise to you when you receive it. Because, how did I know that is what you wanted? But I don’t have this risk of actually, getting something wrong. that’s a hard world to live in. but if there’s a way for me to magically go into your brain and extract what you want, that is exactly what I should be giving.
if we can all get past this silly taboo of, I shouldn’t ask you what you want or you shouldn’t tell me what you want. That’s another weird cultural taboo that exists. we’d be much better off, Gift givers would spend less time trying to figure out what they want or what to give and give recipients would always be getting what they actually want.
Galak: So one of my favorite new lines of research that we’re working on is obligatory versus non obligatory gifts. So obligatory gifts are gifts for, things where you have an obligation.
You go to a birthday party. What gifts are going to be given you have an obligation to give a gift. You go to a wedding, you have an obligation to give a gift. That kind of a thing. non obligatory gifts are what I like to call my Tuesday gifts. Like it’s a random Tuesday and you decide to give a small token gift to a friend just because.
And what we want to look at as a comparison between those two in terms of how well they’re received and the overwhelming finding is that when it’s a obligatory context, people are somewhat sensitive to gift quality. So if you give let’s just think of a silly example, like a hundred dollars gift card versus a $50 gift card, people can sense the difference between those two, like 100 is better than 50, but if it’s a non obligatory context, if it’s a random Tuesday, people are just glad to get something.
Cause they had no expectations whatsoever. And what you find is that you can create much more happiness with a much lower quality and lower value gift on a random Tuesday. Then you can on a birthday. In fact, in one study, we looked at, excuse me, in one study, we looked at, gift cards in particular, where it was like a $5 versus a $50 gift card.
And on a random Tuesday, $5 and $50, it looks exactly the same to the recipient. But that’s not quite true on a birthday or anniversary where they like the present all th that they’re getting something, but they certainly value $50 more than five. And the conclusion that you could draw from that, maybe it’s a bit of a leap is that you can buy 10, $5 gift cards, hand them out to your friend on 10 random Tuesdays and make them happy 10 times, just as much as you could, if you spent $50 once on their birthday.
So we do need to meet our social obligations. They strengthen our relationships but you’re much better off in terms of how much money you spend versus how much happiness you’re generating by giving gifts on a random Tuesday.
Galak:I think the biggest advice I can give is people need to get over this weird taboo that you can’t ask people what they want. everyone needs to get over that the people giving gifts to people receiving gifts, especially now, right? If somebody is going to spend money in a time when it’s financially difficult to do And again, that’s going to be true for a lot of families this year.
at least make that money well spent, right? At least get somebody, something that they actually want. But really the best way to do that is to ask them directly what it is they’re looking for. There’s this belief that takes the mystery out of gift giving and the suspense and the surprise element.
And it does take those things away. But what research overwhelmingly shows is that those things don’t actually matter. Those are just things that people think are going to affect happiness and enjoyment of a gift, but there’s really no evidence suggesting that they do.
I asked Dr Galak how his family is celebrating the holidays this year. This audio may sound a little different because we talked on 2 separate occasions.
Galak: so my family is a mixed family, so I am Jewish. My wife is for all intents and purposes, nothing though her family was raised Christian. and so in our house for what it’s worth, we have a beautifully decorated Christmas tree as well as a menorah in our window. so we kind of try to dabble in all parts of the holidays. Picking the parts that we find the most enjoyable.
Lowell: Oh, I think I remember that as a kid, you guys were like unicorn parents, right? Because you, you got presents at both Hanukkah and Christmas.
Galak: our children, the deal we made was that they get one gift for the holiday season period. my, my parents would love to give their grandchildren a present every day of the calendar year.
And we’ve had to nip that one in the bud. Plus we wind up with. Incredibly spoiled children. Not to throw my parents under the bus too much. but they love their grandchildren and they want to shower them with presence, which I don’t think is an unusual thing for grandparents to do.
And we really do get to the point where there was just this. Glut of gifts. And what one of actually happening is our kids initially associated the grandparents with gifts. It would be like, Hey, grandma’s coming to visit. And the response wasn’t fantastic. I get to see grandma. It was great. What’s she bringing me?
And we thought that was not an okay response. So we really had to set expectations both from the kids and quite frankly, much more for the grandparents. About what was an acceptable number of gifts and we laid out the reason for that. You should love someone and want to be with someone, not because they’re buying new stuff.
I know this episode will probably be out too late to affect this year’s Christmas gift giving but I asked Dr Galak what a good gift might be in the present circumstances.
Galak: this isn’t based on research, just guessing a little bit, buying somebody a dinner or a gift certificate to a local restaurant might be really impactful because first of all, that’s a meal for them.
That’s nice. that’s a good gift. and also it is helping restaurants which are suffering dramatically right now with closures all over the country and all over the world. So you’re helping out that local business at the same time as giving something really fun and wonderful. If somebody gave me a gift card to my favorite restaurant, that’s. A great gift.
Dr Galak has a youtube channel called “Data Demystified” which does a really good job breaking down complex subjects.
Galak: So this is a channel that I started a few months ago, because I feel like there, isn’t a deep, intuitive understanding of how to think about data and specifically statistical methods for data.
Just about everything I do is about finding some small, interesting tidbit of information that’s out there in the world. And then trying to explain intuitively how one should even approach thinking about those data.
So for instance, in a recent episode, I talked about, the recent moderna vaccine. Of the 30,000 people who are actually part of the moderna trial when they released the initial report, only 95 actually got infected across all conditions, which seems like this tiny number.
Like how can we learn anything from 95 people infected out of 30,000? And it turns out because of the way that it’s split between control and treatment groups. So only five people were infected who were vaccinated and 90 people were infected who had the placebo, the likelihood of that being just a fluke if the vaccine was totally ineffective, is. It’s basically zero.
Galak: I think the best holiday gift that we’ve ever gotten is the vaccine for the COVID virus. that is just, we should all be thankful and hold tight until we’re able to get that and get over this horrible pandemic. So I wish everyone a safe and happy holidays and stick it out.
Check out Dr Galak’s channel “Data Demystified” on Youtube.
Next episode will go into the story of possibly the most intelligent criminal alive. Ted Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber.
Ted’s story is a unique one which is why there have been so many retellings of it. I spoke with James Fitzgerald, the fbi criminal profiler and linguistics analyst who helped catch him. James’ involvement in the case is the subject of the show “Manhunt”. Another agent involved in the case criticized the writers for dramatizing parts of James’ involvement but James says it’s over 80% accurate.
If you want to watch it, the show is currently streaming on netflix.
I also talked to a forensic psychologist and came to an interesting conclusion regarding Ted’s motive.
I have so many questions to answer, and a ton of really interesting topics to cover. Thank you so much for listening and please subscribe to the show, because I’ll be back next week, with another episode of Prodigy.
Prodigy was created and produced by me, Lowell Brillante. The best gift I ever got was a Nintendo, but the 2nd best was Tyler Klang as my executive producer.
Special thanks to Taylre Malka-miss, Eddie Michael, Adriano and you. Have a happy holiday and if you’re in Georgia, don’t forget to vote.