Limiting Options

The 1990′s was the golden age of computer AI’s for the board game Othello. OK, it was pretty much the only age.

Programmers love the thought of computers beating humans at “intellectual games.” For me it’s the “mad inventor” idea of creating something more intelligent than myself (whatever that means).

At the time, Checkers had been solved and even Chess was close. It was Othello’s turn to fall.

What’s interesting is how the winning strategy worked.

The typical computer board game strategy is to look many moves ahead and rate each resulting board position. Then you pick the next move that maximizes the ultimate board position you can achieve. The trick is in rating the “goodness” of a particular board position.

In Othello you win by having more tiles of your color than your opponent once there are no more possible moves. Therefore, typical metrics for Othello included things like “How many tiles of my own color do I have” (more is better), and “Tiles of my color at the edge of the board are more valuable than in the middle” (the edge is a better strategic position).

What’s neat is that the winning strategy used a completely different “goodness” metric. Specifically the metric was: How many valid moves does my opponent have? Fewer is better.

The flip was that it’s not primarily about how many tiles you have or even the positions of your pieces. Instead it’s about limiting how many choices your opponent has. Limiting choice is more important than what the choices are.

This principle is common in defensive theories of sports. The defense can never cover all contingencies so instead it forces the offense into higher-risk, lower-percentage moves. In basketball you can’t simultaneously cover the long shot and the charge, so you elect to give up the low-percentage three-point shot. In football you can’t cover both in-routes and out-routes, so you force a throw into as much traffic as possible.

In business your competitors always have options. How can you limit their choices to things that are low-percentage or expensive? Make them have to spend more money, get more lucky, or be more creative.

An example is honoring a competitor’s coupons. This eliminates the coupon as a way for your competitor to “beat” you; coupons are no longer a “choice” to develop a competitive edge.

You can think of patents as a way of limiting choice. If no one else can use your method, they’ll have to think of another way. That means research time and money, and maybe it won’t be as good or it will be more expensive to manufacture or support. (That is, if you believe in patents…)

We’ve done a few things at Smart Bear to limit options. For example, we’re so strongly established as “the experts in code review,” it would take an expensive, time-consuming effort for someone else to claim par, much less surpass what we’ve done. We literally wrote the book, we did the largest-ever study on code review, we have years of history, we have the most popular tool. It’s possible, but very hard, for someone else to compete on that particular basis.

This matters because in my opinion, being “the expert” is the best qualifier for our particular market. Our customers would be less interested in “lowest cost” or “simplest installation” (even though our installation is simple). If my opinion is true, I’ve removed the single best choice from competition, and they’ll have to find a less desirable, lower-percentage path.