Chess is the world’s most popular war game. The creators of the game, both in ancient India and Renaissance Italy, designed the pieces to move in ways that simulated infantry, cavalry, chariots, and the like. The end result was a beautiful game of which I’m proud to call myself a mediocre yet enthusiastic player. But how well does it simulate the strategic realities of war? Not very well, I would argue.
First, a disclaimer: contrary to what some seem to believe, chess is NOT a universal representation of war ( if such a thing could ever exist). Rather, it is a representation of a pitched battle without terrain. Chess is also an entirely symmetrical game, wherein both players have access to the exact same resources. Historically, this kind of warfare is an anomaly rather than the norm. Pitched battles as we imagine them today, for example, were almost unheard of in prehistoric warfare, where raids and ambushes were the norm. Similarly, symmetrical battles have always been rare. Battles are a risky and high-stakes business, so few commanders would ever willingly meet an opponent with equivalent forces on an open field. Real commanders would much prefer to fight battles with a terrain advantage, an advantage in numbers, or some other asymmetrical factor. The kind of battle depicted in chess, therefore, is already rather unusual.
The second disclaimer is that chess only depicts warfare from the perspective of the commander. Chess has nothing at all to say about the experience of a soldier in battle, or a civilian caught up in the war, or any of the other thousand perspectives of those caught up in warfare.
Now that we’ve established what aspects of war chess is trying to represent, let’s get to the analysis.
Center of Gravity
The goal of chess is not to destroy the enemy army or kill more men than you lose. Instead, the goal of chess is to capture the enemy king. A good chess player might lose more pieces (material, in chess lingo) than her opponent and still win because she focused all available resources on the target.
This is one of the strongest aspects of chess as a simulator of warfare. The 19th century Prussian theorist Carl von Clausewitz famously argued that “To achieve victory we must mass our forces at the hub of all power and movement. The enemy’s “center of gravity.” A center of gravity is a versatile (albeit vague) term because it simply signifies whatever is most important to the enemy. This could mean a capital city, economic stability, military industry, or even (as in chess) the enemy leader.
In the attempt to seize the center of gravity, good chess players concentrate their forces. Force concentration has historically been one of the most important tenets of real warfare. Napoleon, for example, won great victories by achieving overpowering superiority in a single decisive point.
Politics of War
In one of the most quoted and misquoted phrases of all time, Clausewitz wrote that warfare “is the continuation of politics with the addition of other means” (I’m tempted to just give the original German, though, because analysts have spilled buckets of ink arguing the most faithful translation of the phrase). What Clausewitz basically means is that the objectives of warfare stem from the politics of a given conflict. Each side has specific objectives, which in turn dictates the decisions commanders make on the battlefield.
In chess, the main two outcomes are victory or defeat. Draws are possible but very rare (except at very high levels) occurring only if 1) both sides are virtually annihilated, or 2) a player has no legal moves. In real war, however, the result of battle is usually far more ambiguous. A tactical victory may mask a strategic defeat, or both sides might achieve their political objectives, making the battle a sort of mutual victory. Chess ignores these nuances and turns war into a zero sum conflict, rather than a political negotiation.
Fog of War
War is an exercise in uncertainty and guesswork. Commanders rarely have a clear idea of the enemy’s deployments or movements. Clausewitz coined the term ‘fog of war’ to describe the impenetrable murk that surrounds military operations. Chess, on the other hand, is a game of perfect information. Both players know everything there is to know about both armies, their deployments, and the rules of the game.
Another factor which contributes to the fog of war is luck. Simple chance plays a huge role in warfare, to the point where many battles have turned on a stroke of fortune. One might think of Stonewall Jackson’s accidental death at the hands of his own troops, or the battle plans that General Lee distributed to his staff, only for them be discovered by Union soldiers after one officer had discarded the orders after using them to wrap cigars.
Because of all this predictable unpredictability, most modern war games make extensive use of dice (although some quirks of fate, like the cigar incident, are too serendipitous even for dice to simulate).
Even for a general, the experience of ordinary soldiers is an important concern. Demoralized and weary soldiers fight far less effectively than fresh and enthusiastic ones. Chess, however, makes no effort to simulate that. Soldiers willingly sacrifice themselves if necessary, and they never get tired no matter how much the player moves them. Chess attempts to represent war from the perspective of a dispassionate commander. In real war, however, a dispassionate commander is an ineffective commander.
A final difference between chess and real warfare is that the rules of chess are static, while the rules of war are dynamic. Since the rules for modern chess became standardized in the Renaissance, players have grown to understand the game better and better. Openings popular in the 19th century faded away as players discovered better alternatives. Today, computer analysis allows top players to play the game at a level medieval masters could only dream of.
In warfare, however, the rules are constantly changing. Technologies come and go, and certain tactics become nonviable. While chess players have gained better and better understanding of their game over the past centuries, generals have struggled to keep up with the rapidly changing nature of warfare.
Wrapping it Up
The differences between chess and real warfare haven’t stopped people from making a connection. Napoleon was an avid chess player in addition to a successful general. Interestingly, Napoleon began to treat his battles like chess late in his career. During the battle of Waterloo, for example, he spent the whole battle almost a mile back from the front lines, relaying orders indirectly as he consulted his map. Unsurprisingly, such a passive approach did not help his performance.
Commentators have also drawn connections between chess computers and strategic calculations. The hopes that chess would illuminate military matters, however, eventually came to naught. As Ken Thompson, creator fo the Belle chess program, put it, “the only military application for a chess machine like Deep Thought is to drop it from an airplane to kill someone.”
Chess is a perfect game, beautiful in its simplicity and balance. War, however, is anything but beautiful and fair. That fundamental difference in philosophy explains why chess cannot represent the messy reality of military command.