Hangin's Chess and War

8/5/2004

     

   I got the idea for this article after reading GM Alon Greenfeld article "chess and war" in the July Chess Life magazine.
  
     What does chess and war have in common? I think plenty. Some of the basic strategies in chess and war are similar. Such as piece or troop mobility and communication. Cutting the communication or supply lines to a piece can cause the trapped piece motif in chess. This can happen with rooks doubled on an open file. One rook invades the enemy territory; the invading rook can lose its communication lines and get trapped by an interposing knight or a bishop that can anchor itself off a pawn.    Cutting off supply lines and communication can demoralize troops, who need to receive supplies to lessen the burdens of war.  In order to have a strong army you must provide your soldiers with ammunition, food, medicine, clothing, and reinforcements. An example of cutting off the communication and supply lines occurred in the battle of Yorktown, Virginia in October of 1781. British General Cornwallis was under frontal attack from the American Revolutionaries. The French, who were helping the Americans, established a naval blockade of the ports in that area. The blockade prevented the British ships from supplying Cornwallisí army. Cornwallis had to surrender, thus ending the American revolutionary war.   In 1954 the Vietnamese were able to use this tactic against the French in the battle of Dien Bien Phu. The Vietnamese had surrounded and cut off the French military output in northern Vietnam. The French, unable to supply the base, were forced to surrender after 209 days of siege.

    Another strategy common in both chess and war is the concept of strengthening or supporting your weaknesses. If a vital square needs protecting, you move a rook, bishop or knight to protect it. If a piece is under attack, you protect it with another piece or pawn. In war you must protect your borders. The French learned this the hard way during World War 2. The French built the Maginot line, an impenetrable fortress on its border with its World War 1 enemy Germany. When World War Two broke out, France again faced Germany, however the French did not properly protect its northern border with neutral Belgium.  Unfortunately for the French, all is fair in love, war and chess. The Germans went thru Belgium to attack Franceís northern borders. The French were caught off guard and surrendered.

  In chess they say the best way to deal with a flank attack, is a thrust into the center. General Macarthur did just that during the Korea war. North Korea had invaded the south in 1950 and pushed well into the southern flank of the Korean peninsula. Macarthur made a daring thrust into the center of the Korea peninsula when he invaded Inchon. Macarthur was able to cut off the invading North Korea forces that found themselves caught in a deadly vice.

  The concept of the threat being stronger than the execution is also shared by chess and war. The meanings are different in both. In chess this strategy has to do with threatening to take a weak pawn. Sometimes it's better to have your opponent worry about defending the pawn than actually taking it. In war, the concept of MAD mutually assured destruction, kept the US and Soviets from destroying the world. Each has its nuclear arsenal and neither dares use it because it would lead to each sideís destruction. 

   The concept of overextending is common in both chess and war. In chess it is very dangerous to advance your pawns too soon, especially your center pawns. If you do this before you have properly developed, you can lose them or create major weakness behind the pawns. This happened in the Korea war; General Macarthur had pushed the North Korea forces up to the Chinese border. Our troops were over extended and poorly supplied. This brought the Chinese into the war; their human wave attacks pushed our troops back to the original borders of the 38th parallel. It is always dangerous to take more territory than you can properly support.

     Mobility of forces is important to both chess and war.   In chess if your pieces have more mobility than your opponents, due to a space advantage, then you can use that to your advantage by attacking one side of the board quicker than your opponent can defend. The Germans in World War 2 used mobility to great effect during the blitzkrieg attacks on Poland, France, and Russia. The Germans used their air superiority in coordination with their panzer tank units to over run and quickly destroy the opposition.

    GM Greenfield poses an interesting question: If chess is indeed so primitive, unsophisticated, and unvaried compared to real war, why isnít mastering chess easier.  

   Well this is because in chess the player does all the fighting. His pieces threaten, but they donít fight until commanded to do so. Chess would be more like war if the pieces had their own minds. For example if the bishop and knight could coordinate an attack or defense by himself or herself without the player's interference.  Chess is an infinite game; it is difficult for one person to see all of the important possibilities.

    Real war is an infinite game to a greater extent, if thatís possible. What makes real war easier to grasp is that the commander on down to the foot soldier all have the general game plan and each has a mind of his or her own. No single person makes all the decisions. In war, the commander does not have to concern himself with all the small details. He has a huge army of thinking soldiers. For the chess player, he has to do all the thinking. He has to worry about all the small details. The pieces donít have a mind of their own. Maybe that will be the next frontier of the game. Thinking pieces, well thatís another idea for an article. For those who master the game of chess and can play at a high level, they appear to have some sort of symbiosis with the pieces. The pieces seem to be an extension of the master. They become living appendages, like fingers and toes. While working as a broadcaster on Chess.fm, I was surprised at the speed and accuracy of the propagation of the position by the titled players. When I make a move, the piece is heavy, it stays there. But with titled players the pieces seem to float and move about rapidly in their minds. It is as though they are wiggling their toes and fingers. No doubt that chess mastery comes at the expense of long hours of daily study of the game.
 
       Military leaders, who have tried to make real war like chess have failed miserably. Hitler being one of them. Hitler often ignored commanderís advice. He made a lot of decisions for his commanders; they were not allowed the freedom to change plans based on the needs of the situation. In fact some of his military commanders were afraid to make decisions without Hitler's approval.  Hitler, who was just a corporal in the First World War, gave his commanders precise instructions that had to be carried out to the letter. This inflexibility probably cost Germany the 2nd world war.  During the Vietnam War President Lyndon Johnson made a similar mistake. LBJ tried to turn the US army into chess pieces instead of allowing them greater freedoms. LBJ micro-manage  the air strike campaigns by approving or choosing targets. This frustrated the military by creating unnecessary delays and reduced the effectiveness of the air strikes

       If the chess pieces had a mind of their own, then maybe a patzer who comes up with a good general plan could beat Bobby Fischer in a match. I could envision Bobby trading off an unruly knight, even though the position did not suit such an exchange.  I could also see Bobby having trouble with his queen as well. I don't think she could ever forgive Bobby for saying he could give knight odds to any woman in the world. I think Bobby would probably end up firing his own king. Bobby would end up on the wrong end of the first on board piece mutiny. 

     There is an interesting article on chess and sex at www.chessbase.com; unfortunately I am not equipped to cover this topic adequately. However I will add that chess and sex do have much in common. The main thing is that you don't have to be good at either to enjoy them, but both can be extremely frustrating at times.