Vinod Ganesh is popularly known as MENSA, in Chennai quizzing and other circles. He attained his MENSA membership sometime in 2003-04. The exam (yeah, since it’s a high IQ society, you need to pass an exam to join) was sometime in late 2003 or early 2004, and the results arrived during Saarang 2004. Thinking back, there is a possibility that the nickname could have been mine (though “Wimpy” was well-established by then). I’d also taken the same exam on the same day as Vinod did, and had cracked it. It remains one of the turning points in my life.

I was studying Computer Science at IIT Madras, and was in my final year of the course. Most of the class wanted to go to the US to do their masters, and along came a rumour (possibly substantiated given how universities in America work) that membership of elite clubs such as MENSA was a good bullet point that might enable admission, and offers of aid. Most of my classmates had signed up enthusiastically. The rumour had misled me, in the sense that I had assumed there was little to the exam apart from a bullet point for foreign apps, and had stayed away.

It was a Saturday, and the entrance test was going to happen over three sessions. MENSA entrance is one of those tests where they “recycle” question papers – the papers are taken back at the end of the test, and given out to the next batch. The nature of questions allows them to do this – they are mostly pattern recognition, and are quite hard to “describe” in the absence of the question paper. Sometimes someone else who took the test prior to you would have made marks on the question paper, but it is best you disregard them, for you never know how well they’ve done.

Friends who had written the test in the first batch told me that it was a tough exam. That it was all about pattern recognition and stuff. They also mentioned that for the third session, seats weren’t filled up and they were still taking on-the-spot registrations. I think the entrance fee was a hundred bucks or so, and I made a spur of the moment decision to write the test.

IIT was a hard time for me. For most of my time there, my confidence was at an all-time low. Except for one term, I never did well in academics. Extra curricular activities also floundered, and I would find myself wasting phenomenal amounts of time. I had developed a fear that I wasn’t good enough, and it was feeding onto itself and making things worse. Given my indifferent performances both in class and outside, my peers, too, didn’t have too much respect for me (IIT is strictly meritocratic that way, I must tell you), and that only contributed to my self-doubt. Given that I was going to graduate soon, I knew I needed a stimulus to break out of my rut, and so far hadn’t figured a way out.

MENSA, the exam that I had enrolled for in the last minute, unexpectedly proved to provide the stimulus. It turned out that in my entire Computer Science class (most of whom were double digit rankers in the IIT-JEE, and half of whom had better CGPAs than me), I was the only person to have qualified the MENSA test. I remember a couple of others coming close. Most, including a number of the top rankers in class, hadn’t even come close to qualifying. If my confidence levels were higher earlier, I might have yelled out a “howzzat”. In the event, I didn’t require it, since the success in the exam was enough of a stimulus for me to do well in CAT, which followed, and generally break out of the rut.

In the event, I ended up not joining MENSA. I got a letter asking me to come for a welcome party, where I had to pay a fee to become a lifetime member of MENSA Chennai. I knew I was going to move out of Chennai in about three months’ time, and I thought it would be a waste to become a life member of the Chennai chapter. I remember writing to the Bangalore chapter after I moved back, but the responses were vague, and I never joined. That letter from MENSA which declares my success in the examination, though, sits proudly in my “certificates folder”. And for some three years hence, the fact that I had cracked the MENSA entrance test had adorned my resume.

I’ve never been an “RG” (IIT term for someone who doesn’t hesitate to pull others back in order to get ahead of them), but in this one situation, I had taken great pleasure in my classmates’ failure to qualify for MENSA. For a good reason, I think, since that was responsible in setting me off on a successful run that would last close to two years.

Chowka Baarah

Yesterday after a gap of about fifteen years, I played chowka-baarah. For starters, the name intrigues me. It translates into four-twelve (I suppose), but that doesn’t make sense. Essentially, there are two primary variations of this game depending upon the size of the grid used (5 by 5 or 7 by 7), and these two numbers are “big numbers” in different systems. In the 5×5 version, the “big scores” are 4 and 8, while in the “7×7” system, it’s 6 and 12.

A certain variety of seashells (called kavaDe in Kannada) are used as dice, four of them in the 5×5 version and 6 in the larger version. The “score” of the dice is determined by the number of kavaDes falling “face up”, and if all fall face down, the score is twice the number of dice. So if you have 4 shells and all fall face down, you get 8 points. I haven’t done much research on this but I do think the probability of a die falling “face up” is much more than the probability of it falling “face down”. I don’t know the exact probability.

The game itself is like Ludo; your pawns going round and round in circles and inward in order to reach the centre of the square when it “queens”. The first player to queen all their pawns wins. There are concepts such as doubling pawns (they act as a pair hten, move in pairs only on even throws of the die, etc.), cutting (if your pawn reaches a square where an opponent’s pawn is, the opponent’s pawn “goes home”, etc. Simple game, and widely played in a lot of “traditional households”.

Considering that I had stopped playing this game when I was still quite small, i had never realized the strategies involved in playing the game. Back then I’d just generally move whatever pawn i fancied nad somehow my grandparents would move in a way in order to simply enable me to win. It was only yesterday that I realized that the game is not as simple as I thought, and that strategy dominates luck when determining how you do.

It’s not like bridge, where card distributions are exchanged across pairs in order to take the luck out of the game. Nevertheless, I realize that the number of “turns” in the game is large enough for the probabilities in the seashells to balance out across players. Rather, the decision that you need to make at each turn regarding which pawn to move is so important that the importance of this drawfs the number you threw! Again you will need to keep into account stuff like the distribution of your next throw, your opponent’s next throw and so on.

I think I have a thing for games with randomness built into them rahter than those that are completely a function of the players’ moves (like chess). I think this is because even with the same set of players, games with randomness built in lead to a larger variety of positions which makes the game more exciting.

Coming back to Chowka Baarah, the other thing I was thinking of last night was if sunk cost fallacy applied in this, when I was trying to decide betwen a reasonably advanced pawn and a backward pawn to decide as to which one to save. Finally I decided that apart from the loss in terms of the pawn being sent home, other things that I had to take into consideration when I moved was about which pawn capture would be more valuable for the opponent, probabilities of differnet pawns getting captured, potential danger to other pawns, etc.

It’s a fun game, one of the most fun “traditional” games. Maybe one of the most “strategic” traditional games. Miss playing it for the last fifteen years or so.