Chess May Not Be a Game of Strategy

Aug 23, 2018Article0 comments

By Dr Martin Chew Wooi Keat

The ancestor of chess was called Chaturanga which was invented in India, presumably, to teach strategy.Chess pieces remind one of the ancient army pieces – chariots, elephants, knights, and foot-soldiers.

The modern version of chess known to many today is Queen’s Chess. This version – with its powerful Queen piece – originated in Spain.  Earlier versions of the Queen piece could only move one diagonal step. Queen’s Chess combined the powers of the chariot (i.e. rook) and the elephant (i.e. bishop) to enable the Queen piece to increase the tempo and possibilities of the game.There are numerous other chess variations. Each variation serves to teach a different aspect or nuance of strategy.For example, Chinese chess – with the gaps in its ranks – requires quick attacks and dynamic defence. The German chess Kriegspiel is a game of chess with incomplete information: each player can see the positions of his pieces on the board, but not of his opponent.And Andrew Marshall is a Kriegspiel devotee. Best known as one of America’s most influential and enduring strategic thinkers, Andrew Marshall spent four decades running a Pentagon think tank with a direct line to America’s defence secretaries.

Credited with anticipating the Soviet economic collapse and criticised for treating a future conflict with China as nearly inevitable, Marshall has long been a mysterious Washington presence, nicknamed “Yoda” for his cryptic pronouncements and fanatical followers. [1]Though the most famous chess match is reputed to be the 1972 match between Bobby Fischer of the US against Boris Spassky of the USSR, held in Reykjavík, Iceland, the most instructive chess master is Andrew Marshall.What was so instructively significant?

There are two fundamental discoveries.First, although chess was invented to teach strategy, chess strategy is not a strategy.  Andrew Marshall’s key contribution to the field of net assessments (one of the principal frameworks for analysing the national security strategy) is realising that chess theories are essentially cost-benefit trade-offs based on numbers.In other words, it is complicated book-keeping, and one does not apply complicated book-keeping to long-term strategic competition.Second, why do talented young people grow up to believe that chess theories could be applied to long-term strategic competition?

This is perhaps the more important lesson. Chess is essentially a toy – chariots, elephants, knights, foot-soldiers.  And when a child plans and plots full spectrum domination over the chess board, the feeling of the world being your toy store, cannot be overstated. Everyone enjoys being perceived as some sort of Yoda, even the quiet ones.  While adults become soldiers, a child plays out the chess warrior ethos.  So much so, that the child loses sight of the fact that pieces move the way they do, not because the rules say so. It was all about the science of tempo (i.e. time) and possibilities (i.e. space). Just like infrastructure and high-speed rail combines time and space to increase the tempo and possibilities of an economy. Once you can increase the tempo and possibilities, you supersede the old rules.

Since we are on the topic of old rules, chess was like mental arithmetic.  After a long time, you could bring your slide rule into the exam hall. After another bout of “a long time”, you could bring your pocket calculator too. Today, some apps can scan a math question and detail out the workings and answer for you.You need to be able to do mental arithmetic, but not to the extent that you apply complicated book-keeping to long-term strategic competition.A computer can advise you on how to play chess during a chess competition. In other words, everyone can bring their pocket calculators into the exam hall. It’s essentially book-keeping. But you save your mind for the more important victory in life – which is how to combine time and space.In conclusion, Chaturanga was invented in India – presumably to teach strategy or Yoda found out when he was retired, arithmetic for children. Either way, playing chess increases problem-solving skills because chess match requires fast thinking and problem-solving on the fly because your opponent is constantly changing the parameters.Dr Martin Chew Wooi Keat is a software manager in Motorola Solutions, Penang.  He has a PhD in Artificial Intelligence and he studies chess history for fun.