Whenever I go brainless, working in my study, I play board games online. It used to be Shredder Chess, but a couple of months ago, I started playing online backgammon. Firstly, my game was falling completely apart on their "takeback button", and secondly, my wife and I had been re-watching the first season of LOST. When Locke told Walt "Backgammon's a lot better game than checkers." I thought, "Hmmm." After five seasons, I pretty much consider Darlton the best writing team on TeeVee in, like, forevah-evah, so I decided I'd better try backgammon.
I'd never learned the rules and I decided pretty quickly that this Skyworks Technologies program was cheating. Badly. But, brainless time is brainless time, and I was still learning, so I kept losing. After some weeks of getting better, I started to realize the computer wasn't cheating, it was teaching. As far as I can tell, the digital dice rolls are legitimately random, but each roll gives me a limited number of options. Each time I pass up a good move for a poor move - again, depending on each set of available options - the computer becomes more and more likely to punish me for it. Likewise, if I consistently make the best possible moves in each situation, the dice become somewhat more likely to fall in my favor. I'm still playing on level one, but I skunk the computer pretty regularly now, and yet it's still teaching me.
So what have I learned? Apparently, the key in backgammon is to minimize risks and maximize opportunities, while simultaneously doing the opposite to your opponent. Over time, it has also occurred to me that Chess is largely about creativity and vision against nearly endless possibilities (which the more novice player more greatly underestimates), whereas Backgammon rewards safe and cautiously calculated maneuvers against a slate of both known and unknown probabilities. As someone who's spent the past four years trying to raise my research and argument skills from amateur-quality apologetics to professional-quality historical analytics, I can't help seeing a fascinating parallel there. That is, assuming my assessment is actually sound. ;-)