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Paper – Chess and the Modern Commander: Employing Abstract Strategy Games to Cultivate Intellectual Fighting Power, Tactical Acumen and Strategic Vision

The Game of Chess is not merely an idle amusement. Several very valuable qualities of the mind, useful in the course of human life, are to be acquired or strengthened by it, so as to become habits, ready on all occasions. For Life is a kind of Chess, in which we have often points to gain, and competitors or adversaries to contend with, and in which there is a vast variety of good and ill events, that are, in some degree, the effects of prudence or the want of it.

Benjamin Franklin – Morales of Chess (1779)

Abstract strategy games such as Chess are a proven method for increasing intellect, critical thought and development of the military mind. As the Army embraces emerging methodologies such as blended learning, simulation, online study and academic blogs, it would be prudent to maintain equilibrium with traditional approaches. Military commanders must possess the ability to face unanticipated circumstance and react with considered purpose, intent and boldness. Playing chess on a regular basis develops imagination and creativity, encourages initiative, decisive action and provides familiarity with making decisions under pressure; without the risk or resource expenditure required by other methods. Crucially, time in uniform does not inevitably result in professional competence. Therefore, intellect must be intentionally nurtured and desirable traits, encouraged. Chess is not war – but it can be used as a mechanism to develop many of the traits desirable in a commander; decision-making, creativity, patience, vision and adaption. Playing chess will not directly produce a genius of either academics or war, nor can it act as preparation for the rigours and complexities of the modern battlespace. However, there is significant potential for it to assist current and developing techniques to foster the improvement of intellectual fighting power[1]. Human affection for intellectual challenges and warfare is evidenced in the diversity of games that mirror military strategy and tactics[2], and this ingenuity should be harnessed. Chess is inexpensive in both time and resources, and could be valuable to the mental education of current and future commanders.

Traits and Attributes of the Military Mind

Despite all discussion on the complexity of the modern battlespace and the latest trends causing greater consternation, certain characteristics remain: friction, danger, uncertainty and chance[3]. Recent and ongoing experience of Iraq and Afghanistan has severely influenced strategic and tactical perspectives. But, notwithstanding sincere efforts towards a progressive intellectual mindset[4], adapting to the future operating environment remains a complex problem[5]. Accordingly, there is a need for expanded education beyond early growth in basic trade qualification[6] or within the constraints of formalised courses at training establishments. Caution is essential in order to avoid the easily discernible trends of recent conflicts driving the requirements of the future[7], and reclamation of traditional techniques is sensible. Investment in human capacity is extremely important, and whilst genius may be born, the majority of virtuosos of the military art were once mere laymen requiring investment and schooling[8]. The present-day approach to formal development is in many ways engrossed with universal outcomes and infrequently fosters development of intellect[9], tactical diagnosis or strategic cognition.

As a model for certain aspects of war, Chess is a feasible option for an individual to invest in the more intangible concepts of the military profession[10]. Not just a form of recreation, it can be used as part of a broader and ongoing education apparatus; whilst campaigning Robert E. Lee, Napoleon and many others maintained a to keep their skills sharp[11].  The envisioning of combat via games is timeworn, however this does not negate contemporary utility[12]. Adaptive thinking is essential for the modern warfighter, and soldiers must be capable of modifying actions in contact when confronted by unanticipated circumstances[13]. There is an ongoing problem in training commanders to reason adaptively in complex situations, and Chess develops mental behaviours which have great utility: problem-solving, focus, critical thinking, abstract reasoning, strategic forecasting, creativity and assessment[14]. During a game of Chess an individual is required to employ not only mental modes required of commanders, but also a comparatively similar arrangement of tactical and strategic analysis required in planning and execution of military tasks[15]. Most variants of chess are abstract strategy games, and are often theme-less, modest in design, perfect information games (complete situation awareness), pit two forces against each other, and have little to no element of random occurrence[16]. Whilst widely perceived as “nerdy” and overly intellectual, chess offers a mechanism for the development of traits that both units and formal training establishments struggle to actively nurture.

Historical Evolution and Cultural Manifestatio

Planning and adaption during the execution of war is essentially the practice of logical deduction combined with intuition. This combination is intended to allow an individual to understand and accommodate uncertainty, which in many ways is the defining context of war; persistent adaptation to fluid circumstance in an environment where chance and ambiguity dominate[17]. As such, advocating the use of chess to educate the military mind comes with the caveat that it is not a genuine depiction of the battlespace and but a mere substitute on a considerably reduced scale[18]. Nevertheless, from the time that early versions of Chess emerged to now it has been used as a method to envision battle[19]. As the variations of the game increased with migration from its Asiatic origins, the influence of culture, terrain and politics energised distillations reflective of socio-political environment. While previous iterations of the game can be the tangibly linked to the time and space of their manifestation, there is still opportunity to make an assessment of the states, cultures or societies from which they were generated, or are still played. Modern embodiments of the game are drawn from societal proclivities and cultural DNA, and are reflected and have the potential to inform a more accurate understanding of contemporary stakeholders.

One of the earliest traceable manifestations of chess, Chaturanga, materialised in India in approximately 500BC. It took the form of a gridded board and pieces that symbolised the commanders and soldiers on a battlefield. It involved completion between two and four players and is considered to be the predecessor to modern chess[20]. By 500AD, this game had migrated through the Middle East and Europe, and along the way many societies framed it as a fundamental test of thinking in a military context[21].  The use of specific pieces, movement forms ascribed to each, dimensions of the board, and more sophisticated guidelines necessitated centuries of experimentation to arrive at their current balance[22]. The development of each form served to act as both a recreational pastime, and most importantly, to develop the imagination, flexibility of mind, and judgment required by the martial environment of the time[23]. The game matured, evolved and migrated through the Middle East, into Europe, and also Asia, with each culture developing a manifestation unique to it strategic and geographic setting. Modern versions are now legion, be it the International Chess played in most of western society and most commonly recognised in the west as ‘Chess’, Hnefatafl of Nordic origin, Shogi of Japan, or the Xiangqi and Go of China. There are numerous other variations and almost every culture has a derivation of some form. This essay will address only four variations: International Chess, Hnefatafl, Shogi and Go. Importantly, each game variation is unique in its own way and reflective of the tactical and strategic needs and priorities of the society that produced it.

International Chess. The chess variant most common in western society origins can be traced to India, where its early form in the 6th century was chaturanga, which translates as “four divisions of the military” (infantry, cavalry, elephants, and chariots, represented respectively in the modern refinement as pawn, knight, bishop, and rook)[24]. The game migrated through Persia, into Ancient Greece and extended to Western Europe and Russia from the 9th century and by 10th it was widespread[25]. The variant is played on a board of 64 squares organised in eight vertical rows with these squares alternating between two colours: one light and the other dark[26]. It is relatively simple to learn, but challenging to master, which is commonly why some feel daunted during matches against those who have played before[27]. International Chess is considered as a game with complete information, as all of the intelligence about your opponent is known, results are strictly dependent on the skill of the player, and no outcome is based on luck or randomness[28]. Each piece in the game (king queen, pawn, knight, bishop, and rook) possesses unique abilities in regards to manoeuvre, range and versatility. The objective of the game is to force the opposition king into a position where it is threatened and cannot avoid capture via either movement or friendly unit interdiction. There is some argument that processing all the possibilities that may result from one move is too complex, and that it exceeds human mental capacity as feasible sequels grow exponentially for each subsequent action[29]. However, this premise is flawed as war is the assessment of observed fact, consideration of potentialities and associated risk, deduction based on experience and logic, and finally action, assessment of consequence then adaption –commanders must be able to assess all the potentialities and develop plans to confront the most likely. The main weakness of International Chess, and most other variations, is that players have 100% situational awareness of the disposition, strength and capabilities of their opponents; this is diametrically opposite from any military battlespace. However, this does not prevent the game from instructing its players in useful traits such as foresight, risk analysis and other useful skills.

Hnefatafl

Hnefatafl. Also known as The Viking GameThe King’s Table or simply Tafl, it is an ancient Viking game where an overwhelming force of raiding aggressors clash with a defending kings protective force. This variant is uncommon, as it is an abstract strategy game with two unequal sides[30]. It was highly valued by the Vikings and European warrior cultures of the Iron Age, and proficiency in some cases was a requirement of adulthood[31]. In Hnefatafl, the force on the defensive consists of twelve soldiers and a king, commencing the game in the middle of the board. Their objective is set the conditions for the king to escape to any of the four corner squares. The attacking force is comprised of 24 soldiers postured in four groups of six around the outside of the board. And must prevent the king escaping. All pieces move like the Rook in International Chess and pieces are taken by moving a piece so that an opponent’s is confined horizontally or vertically[32]. Hnefatafl is an asymmetrical game, each side has a differing objective and dissimilar forces to employ[33]; so while International Chess is good for developing basic tactical skills and traits in a Clausewitzian set-piece and arguably linear battlefield, Hnefatafl is a potential tool for developing skills employed against either a numerically superior or inferior opponent. Cost versus benefit is very important, and the assessment and acceptance of risk, paramount. In defence, shrewd sacrifices must be made to generate routes for the king into the open, but without significant diminishment of own force. It is also vital to quickly launch a threat against at least one of the important corners, as hesitance cedes the initiative; emphasis must be placed on short-range tactics and on the creation and seizing of opportunities. In attack, a long-term plan combined with patience is required to shape the defending force and set the preconditions for a decisive strike[34]. For a commander commonly required to plan and act in an environment against a numerically superior adversary, Hnefatafl provides a mechanism to cultivate a cunning and shrewd perspective, combined with both patience and audacity.

Shogi

Shogi. Originating in Japan, Shogi is played on a nine by nine board (though multiple other variations exist), and the objective is to seize the enemy commander. Shogi is the Japanese representation of chess developed to exercise military leaders in strategy and tactics[35]. It differs from International Chess in two main ways: every piece can promote if it reaches the opponents three last rows (not just pawns) and captured pieces join the force of the capturing player and during their turn can be inserted back onto the board instead of performing a normal move[36]. Because of this feature, the game can last longer than an International Chess game; the board generally stays moderately crowded and there is no simplification going into the endgame[37]. Interestingly the objective piece is restricted in the locations it can move, and is protected by a small force of retainers – reflective of the classic Japanese military period when it was developed. Additionally, gameplay tends to be more vigorous, with material advantage being less important than the tempo[38]. Shogi was championed by three great generals of the 16th and 17th century Japan: Nobunaga, Hideyoshu and Ieyasu. They appreciated it for the ability to exercise leaders in military strategy and tactics[39], ability to encourage powers of observation, speculation, reasoning, composure, and magnify the power of the mind[40]. Shogi is appropriate for developing both tactical acumen and strategic perspective. Whilst the game shares the need for close and decisive engagement with International Chess, the ability to capture and utilise the opposing force brings a complexity to risk analysis. Therefore players are required to develop a broader conception of second and third order effects of tactical action, and consider the following phases and engagements. Most importantly, Shogi allows a player to form and posture a reserve for implementation as mitigation against adversary attack or when an exploitable opportunity is presented. A rash player willing to sacrifice force early for material gain, will be punished for their overly audacious actions when their own force is employed against them at another time.

Go

Go. The board game known to westerners as Go, and to the Chinese as Weiqi, is a contest of territory, outflanking and patience and has a long relationship with warfare[41]. References from the time of the Hong Han dynasty (25-220 BC), considered Go as a game of war, and for some modern strategic observers, a potential model for contemporary Chinese military strategy[42]. At face value it is merely the alternative placing of stones on a board, but once comprehension of the basics is achieved the depths are staggering[43]. At the start of a game, players place stones to make territorial claims and to shape the remainder of the contest. Engagements and running battles involving the status of an assembly of stones occur in the middle and later stages. Hence, opening strategy focuses on setting the preconditions for later tactical success rather than the minutia of direct engagement[44]. Importantly, the game differs from others in that it doesn’t end until the board is full or when there is a concurrence to end it at which time victory is awarded to whomever controls the most territory. The attitude behind other variations is to achieve a decisive victory, and both players have the identical objective and accomplish this by annihilating whatever opposition is standing in the way[45]. Go differs in that the objective is to strive for relative achievement rather than enemy destruction; as such it is foolish to play Go by pursuing quick and decisive victory. An excessively aggressive approach will most likely result in force culmination[46]. Go requires both tactical and strategic patience, it is a war of multiple fights, and as such a participant must keep the complete situation in mind[47]. The strength of Go is that unlike many other variations of chess it doesn’t concentrate on battles and engagements, and is more reflective of operational or strategic level ‘big hands – small maps’. The visualisation required is more dispersed and simultaneous action, more achievable.

War at all levels consists of sides attempting to overcome the issue of pervasive friction in the battlespace and unknowable events that encumber operations[48]. The greatest of unknown factors is that of the adversary intent. Numbers and status of forces, physical locations and platform capabilities can all be fathomed via logical deduction, thorough analysis and reasoning. But analysis of a human thinking enemy is infinitely more complex. Commanders cannot overlook that adversaries at all levels are reasoning human beings, and they must not fall to the temptation to simplify battlefield dilemmas by treating the enemy as simply reactive[49]. Regardless of the type of chess that is being played, it affords the player an opportunity to make an assessment of their opponent’s mindset, bias and military proclivities (and most importantly their own). Do they have a penchant for flaking manoeuvres, aggressive shaping actions or deceptions? Will they try systematic attrition to deplete combat power? Are they capable of adapting when a key capability is removed from their organisation? From the tactical to the strategic level adversary analysis cannot be limited to the obvious and must go beyond face value deductions; the same should be applied to chess. The unobserved must be considered and the potential actions contemplated upon based upon assessment of one’s specific adversary. There is both science and art in warfare; the science is of the quantifiable and consists of assessing those things that can be measured, and the art is of the soul, and contains amongst other factors, the ability to assess another human’s intent and likely actions. Developing mental tools capable of assessing not just the quantifiable but the ethereal is import for any modern commander.

It is also interesting to consider the contemporary actions of nations in light of each chess manifestation. Historically, each variation of chess has been developed as an outcome of the styles and ideas reflected from cultural, political and psychological drivers[50]. International Chess is very much a reflection of the Clauswitzian decisive engagement and/or battle that most western militaries yearn for, but is very much constrained to a reflection of the tactical level of war. However, this does speak to the issues faced by many western armies in how to best structure themselves for future conflict; balancing the potential of high-intensity wars for national survival against the interventions of recent decades. For the Australian Army and its European origins, Clausewitzian theory is a comfortable perspective on warfare, and therefore the International Chess becomes an easy extension of their culture. However, different approaches to tactics and strategy are reflected in different games, allowing for the broadening of the mind and cultural understanding. Most interestingly, ongoing actions taking place in the South China Sea bear a conspicuous resemblance to the territorial acquisition of Go[51] and is a real-time representation of the geo-strategy employed the traditional Chinese approach to the employment of force[52]. These deductions may be pure coincidence, potentially just “gaming-nerd” confirmation bias, but evaluation of abstract games that have been developed by specific cultures likely represent many of their traits and proclivities, and may provide insight into future military-strategic actions.

Nourishment of Intellectual Fighting Power

In almost all modern armies commanders possess a personal history that is an amalgamation of formal schooling and practical experience[53]. But this cannot be relied upon, as personal lessons learned during engagement with a live adversary are difficult to pass on. Conflict is a reasonably rare occurrence, therefore experience is difficult to obtain and mechanisms for development outside of conflict must be sought[54]. Ongoing development of intellect is extremely important for the contemporary commander and solider, and while some individuals appear ‘immunized against significant adult learning’, most would benefit from investment[55]. Importantly, despite years of study, improving understanding of tactical decision-making and course attendance knowledge alone does not guarantee good adaptive thinking – it must be practised and honed continuously and energetically[56]. Whatever type of chess is played, all variations involve a contest of will and the essentials of fighting – to strike, to manoeuvre and to protect[57]. Games of abstract strategy involving two or more players permit individuals to nourish the intellectual and cognitive skills required to meet the pace, intensity and dimensions of future conflict[58]. Whilst ultimately only games, each variant of chess can permit energised and open-mined individuals to garner a perspective on the chaos, friction and uncertainty of war and most importantly to invest in the traits that make up intellectual fighting power.

A significant distinction between chess and war is that chess does not include a comparative level of information uncertainty other than the opponent’s next move or placement. As such, where a commander immersed in the battlespace will have incomplete intelligence about adversary equipment, disposition or capabilities, one chess player can always see the other’s pieces, and note their every move[59].  However, like in war there is always chance, friction and uncertainty, and the ability to contend with this remain the enduring problem confronting every military organisation. In many ways the uncertainty is generated by the opposing player, not the game, this necessitates understanding the human dimension; and without intelligence players must make their own assessment of the environment and then act accordingly[60]. So whilst all variations of chess contain rules that restrict certain aspects of game-play, this is not so different from the contemporary battlespace where fuel, equipment capabilities and enemy action all play a part in restricting employment of force and achievement of mission objectives. Depending on the level of war that individuals are interested in expanding themselves, a variant of chess is available to reflect some of the ethereal concepts that represent similar opportunities, constraints and restrictions. As an example, Prussian military officers in the 1800s developed a variant of chess in which three boards were used, with neither competitor capable of observing their opponent’s board or pieces. The third board was controlled by an adjudicator who executed the moves called out[61]. This variation introduced ambiguity and friction, whilst also requiring the participants to conduct reconnaissance, make deductive judgement on adversary disposition and take judicious risks when appropriate. Elegant in its simplicity, this is a way to bring commanders at all levels to be comfortable in uncertainty and develop the capability to make measured decisions based upon logical assumptions.

Imbuing commanders with ‘knowledge, creativity and analytical ability’ is a persistent challenge[62]. All the schooling and instruction in the world is inadequate unless it is underpinned by experience and judgment, as a mixture of diverse qualities produces a competent commander[63]. Study of history is essential and the understanding of human and physical aspects of our past is pivotal, but when faced with thousands of examples of an art, one must adopt an eclectic method to complement book learning[64]. ‘Every soldier has an individual responsibility to study the profession of arms’ and a ‘soldier without interest in the intellectual content of the military profession is a soldier in appearance only’[65]. An individual, regardless them attaining the rank of Sergeant or Colonel, who is ‘unwilling to keep learning or listening to new ideas has been promoted beyond capacity and should be eliminated from service’[66]. However, it is difficult to acquire intellectual versatility, agility and adaptability via reading alone, and for many the administrative and management requirements of command preclude development of themselves during a normal training day. Each cultural manifestation of Chess offers options for fostering these traits. Both International Chess and Go requires player to maintain awareness of multiple engagements and need to shift between them rapidly, promoting mental dexterity. All variations require players to analyse immediate and long-term problems rapidly and produce solutions. All types of chess games require the players to be able to adapt to change in circumstance of the game. Building the capacity and inclination to innovate and evolve is the objective. Even though the multiple variations of chess are mere abstract strategy games, they were established to exercise cerebral and intellectual attributes that are desirable in the contemporary tactician and strategist.

Cultivation of Tactical and Strategic Acumen

Jomini maintains that ‘war in its ensemble is not a science, but an art’. As such, classroom education is not sufficient to prepare one to be an effective soldier[67], and a number of studies associated the supplement of academics with chess resulted in increased performance and conception. Military commanders require skills such as critical thinking, intelligence and objective decision-making skills to function[68], and planners must be able to consider contingencies and build flexibility in chosen actions; all variants of chess require constant adaption and recalibration[69]. Importantly, chess involves the employment of tactical and operational manoeuvres such as ‘outflanking, isolation, concentrated attack and even diversionary actions’, establishing a mental predisposition towards manoeuvre[70]. In The Art of Manoeuvre, Robert Leonard makes the point that will teach a player to focus on all the pieces, rather than just fixate on those individual pieces in contact with the adversary; an extremely desirable trait in commanders at any level[71]. Behaviour must be repeated to make it habitual; social and educational playing of chess can provide a mechanism for developing tactical and strategic predisposition[72]. A player will adapt their playing style if sufficient games are played against a specific or multiple rivals, and it is the ability to develop a library of strategies and continually evolve that is beneficial. Both tactical and strategic thought must be continuously exercised so that skills do not atrophy, unfortunaly there are few mechanisms to achieve this.

Tactical assessment and action requires a sharpness of mind that must be cultivated and enriched. Chess has the potential to instruct warfighters in tactical decision making skills and the increase mental acuity. It does deliver recreational challenges but is also a training tool, and the board and pieces can be considered as a mental gym and part of ‘the equipment that the mind needs for regular exercise’[73]. Crucially, chess can build into a commander ‘s mental toolbox a ‘repertoire of feints, sacrifices, stratagems and manoeuvres’[74]. Chess variations develop abstract thought, the ability to weigh options, results of actions, and encourages decisions based on logic rather than impulse[75].  However, in light of the nature of the multiple chess variations some are more suitable to imbuing attributes appropriate to tactical action. International Chess, Hnefatafl and Shogi are all suitable for developing adaption, creativity and decisive action, whilst also fostering the ability to build deception into one’s plans. Importantly, each manifestion is appropriate to a type of tactical action or formation. International Chess is useful for all in the development of set-piece engagements and decisive action against a peer force, whereas due to the unbalanced force ratios Hnefatafl has probable utility in developing nuanced tactical action for units conducting long-range reconnaissance, strikes or special mission profiles. However the complexity and battlespace density of Shogi in regards to force reintroduction and promotion make it useful for management of multiple units, whilst also encouraging tactical prudence and vision.

Strategy is essentially about making decisions with the objective being the instruments of performance tomorrow[76], requiring adept and creative short-term action in order to set preconditions for a long-term endstate[77]. Chess can be used to enhance abstract thought, systematic thinking, big picture vision and interpretation of future potentialities[78]. While International Chess and Hnefatafl are both appropriate mechanisms for developing creativity, risk analysis and audacity, they lack the strategic farsightedness that Shogi and Go possess. Shogi is an appropriate balance between the tactical level of International Chess and Hnefatafl and the comprehensive strategy of Go, perhaps it bridges that gap and provides an operational level game…however this is likely too far of a conceptual stretch. Go most definitely is a game that requires forethought, patience and vision. Importantly, it punishes ill-considered or rash action and rewards the player that has the patience and judgment to conduct appropriate shaping and evaluation prior to committing forces. Potentially, the most pivotal strength of Go in developing strategic thought is that decisive victory is not pursued; rather, it is a game of continuous interplay and compromise, and there is no easily identifiable endstate. Playing chess necessitates strategic and analytical thought, promotes prefrontal cortex development, and offers improved foresight[79]. Strategic commanders must be capable of visualising the dynamic strategic environment, being capable of mental agility under pressure and patiently setting preconditions for success. Whilst far from the pinnacle of strategic development, chess offers a mechanism to cultivate some of the traits that a potential strategic leader may require.

Conclusion

The routine playing of chess develops creativity, intuition and vision; all requirements of strategic and tactical command. It also develops mental models for analysis, adaptive thought and cognition; all vital contributors to intellectual fighting power. Of course, it will never truly reproduce the psychological and material hardships of the battlespace, but is it not intended to. Rather, the multiple variations of chess are potential tools for the development, maintenance and expansion of attitudes, traits and skills that are valuable to commanders at all levels; small team through to formation. There is no expectation that training establishments will quickly purchase chess sets, nor battalions form chess clubs, or that Staff College will introduce Go or Shogi into the curriculum. Rather for those few energetic individuals hunting for alternatives to expand themselves, a version of chess is an option; online, at home, or against a peer. Whilst the Army embraces digitised training tools,validated analogue means are still on hand and proven. Chess is economical, resources modest and fosters enduring traits commanders require.

 


 

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Benjamin Gray is the Senior Instructor of Combat Command Wing, and has served in a range of operations and training appointments within the Australian Army, including overseas service in the Solomon Islands and Afghanistan. He is a graduate of the Australia Defence Force Academy, the Royal Military College – Duntroon, and the Australia Command and Staff College. He holds a Bachelor of Arts and a Masters of Strategy and Security from the University of New South Wales, and a Masters of Military and Defence Studies from the Australian National University.

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