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Chess and Testing

  • 02/03/2010
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  • Posted by EuroSTAR

The following post is from Rikard Edgren, Spotfire, Sweden and member of the EuroSTAR 2010 programme committee. In this post, he discusses two of his passions – Testing and Chess, Enjoy!!

Analogies are helpful, not because they come with truths, but because they can help you highlight and think in different ways about the phenomena you are comparing with.
I think you can pick any subject you know a lot about, and after some thinking, interesting things will emerge.

The important moments

If two chess players are at about the same strength, the winner often is the player that realizes at which stage it is necessary to re-think the strategy very carefully. Some moves are more important than others.
For software projects that don’t go perfectly well, and when unknown things happen, the better activities might be straightforward, or require a lot of consideration and creativity.


There are many typical methods that every good chess player must know about (forks, rook endings etc.) in order to see opportunities and apply them in the right situations.
Software projects differ much, much more than chess games, but there are many available quicktests, tricks and test design techniques that you can make good use of, if you know them well.

Opening Theory

In chess there has been an enormous amount of analysis of different opening moves, and a player has a great advantage if she knows a lot about how to start games, and the typical positions and strategies that are likely.
Since each project have a new starting position, and there are too many unknown elements, we can’t have this in testing.

Understand what is important

In chess there are some key elements the player needs to think about (material, development, centre, king’s safety, pawn structure etc.), but in each game these different aspects have different importance; it doesn’t matter if you have a great advantage on the Queen’s side if your opponent is mating in three.
It is the same in testing, we might know beforehand which areas and attributes that matter, but since testing can’t be complete, and unknown things always happen, we need to adjust and focus on all those things that are most important.

Time trouble

If you spend too much time on your moves, you will end up in time trouble, and once there, it is a much bigger risk of making big mistakes.
We can get in the same situation in testing (e.g. a fixed release date, even though everything else has been pushed), with the main difference that the test team have little chance of avoiding this by their own means, we just have to make the best out of it.

“It is better with a bad plan, than no plan at all”

When you learn chess, you are often told that you must have a plan, that having no plan is a bigger mistake. Later, I have realized that a bad plan probably is worse, but by always creating a plan, you get better at it.
So we have the same in testing: it is essential to have a plan, and a bad plan is better than no plan from a learning perspective.


There are many ways to learn chess, but a key element is to play a lot; and I think it is the same for testing.

Analysis of games

After a competition game where you have played for a couple of hours, it is common that the two opponents sit together and go through the game, move by move. They talk about their thinking, and examine what would have happened if better moves had been chosen.
The exact same thing is difficult to do for testing, but detailed retrospectives of important decisions or bugs can be a great learning exercise, and we should do more of this. Maybe directly after a pair session?

Classic Games

When learning chess you study the history, look at classic games that you learn from and get inspired by.
We don’t really have this in software testing, but I hope we eventually will have more written details about successful testing projects.


The people playing chess are of all different types, and like in testing with all types of backgrounds. Maybe the concentration of peculiar people is higher, both in chess and testing; this is a good thing.


You learn more when enjoying yourself, both in chess and in software testing.
When making comparisons it can be fair to list the most important differences:
* Chess is a game, testing isn’t.
* Team work and collaboration is very different.
* Chess has a defined play area, and a specific set of pieces; and this is certainly not the case for any two software projects.

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