Culture and Civilisations

War games: Battlefield strategy and the game of chess

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War games: Battlefield strategy and the game of chess


The game of chess was initially based on the four branches of the ancient Indian Land Army: Cavalry, Infantry, Elephants and Chariots. It was originally called “Chaturanga”, which referred to these four martial elements.

Back in the Cretaceous period, while studying chess and history at Dulwich College, I based my chess education on the writings of Aron Nimzowitsch, author of the chess player’s strategic Bible, My System. At that time, I also formed the theory that I could further model my chess style on the military campaigns of the Duke of Wellington, in particular in the Spanish/ Portuguese Peninsular War against the Napoleonic Marshals leading the opposing French forces. The key lessons I took from the Iron Duke – culled primarily from Sir Charles Oman’s A History of England, and Sir Arthur Bryant’s trilogy on the Napoleonic Wars – were the construction of impenetrable defence, as demonstrated by Wellington’s annihilation of the cohesion of Marshal Masséna’s columns at the lines of Torres Vedras. Unbreakable resistance would be combined with a lightning strike, when the opportunity arose, as in Wellington’s decisive victories at Salamanca and Vittoria. The latter of these inspired Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Battle Symphony”.

During the Peninsular War, Wellington faced the French Marshals Masséna, Marmont, Victor, Ney, Soult and Napoleon’s own brother King Joseph of Spain, outwitting them all. Of course, his ultimate masterpiece was the Battle of Waterloo, where Wellington defeated Napoleon himself, thus ending the Emperor’s Hundred Days of brief Imperial rebirth.

In general, it strikes me that many of the most famous military land-based victories can find parallels with chess games, as Hieronymus Vida wrote in his poem Scacchia Ludus (1525): “Ludimus effigiem belli, simulataque veris” (‘We play the game of chess, simulating war’).

Indeed, several armies (those of Nazi Germany and the USSR for example) have actively encouraged their troops to play chess. Meanwhile, during World War Two, US forces (supported in a campaign by the celebrated boxing champion Joe Louis) urged troops to take up the somewhat less demanding game of draughts/checkers. Finally, in his book The Protracted Game: Wei-ch’i Interpretation of Maoist Revolutionary Strategy, Scott Boorman explains the military campaigns of Mao Tse Tung, filtered through the refractive and explanatory medium of the ancient Classical Chinese game of Go (otherwise known as Wei Chi). The parallel thesis which I have proposed, is, therefore, backed up by history, precedent and fact.

Ray Keene in the Officer Training Corps at Dulwich College

These famous battles seem to me to invite, if not exact replicas, at least interesting chess parallels:

Battle of Gaugemala (aka Battle of Arbela) 331 BC: Alexander the Great crushes the vastly larger army of Darius, the Persian king of kings, bypassing his massed troops and aiming his aggression directly at the opposing monarch. The resonance for me here is the Immortal Game between Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky in 1851, where huge material disparity in no way deflects White from his purpose of launching a check mating raid against the black King. At the end of this game White’s minute but compact forces checkmate the black King, while the remainder of the black army looks helplessly on.

In the next eight examples, I invite readers of TheArticle to join me in the puzzle of identifying a chess game, whether one of your own, or a known classic, which fits the parallel bill. To set the ball rolling I have indicated a link in every case to a game of chess which I believe offers a suitable parallel.

Battle of Cannae 216 BC: Hannibal lures the congested Roman centre forwards and then crushes it from the flanks, a strategy repeated almost two millennia later by Sultan Sulaiman Kanuni (known as The Magnificent) when his Janissary troops, culled from the Devshirme, annihilated the Christian army of the king of Hungary at the 1526 battle of Mohacs. This parallels the chess game between former World Champion Tigran Petrosian and Viktor Korchnoi in 1971. Here Korchnoi establishes a huge and lumbering pawn centre, which Petrosian devastates from the flanks.

Battle of Pharsalus 48 BC: Highly trained infantry from the army of Julius Caesar outfight the cavalry of Pompey the Great. A decisive battle which ultimately leads to the replacement of the Roman Republic by the imperium of the Caesarian/Augustan principate. Compare to John Littlewood’s game with Mikhail Botvinnik in 1961 and how White launches a massive cavalier attack, which Botvinnik cunningly thwarts with his pawns.

Battle of Agincourt 1415: Compact English infantry, relying on the longbow, destroy a larger force of French armoured knights on horseback. The parallel here is the 1843 game between Pierre Charles Fournier de Saint Amant and English great, Howard Staunton. Staunton blocks every attempt to attack by his dashing French opponent. Indeed, at the time, Staunton’s victory in this match in Paris, was regularly likened to Wellington’s triumph at Waterloo, though I have reserved this parallel, as will be seen, to a battle royal between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky.

Battle of Naseby 1645: A decisive engagement in the English Civil War where Oliver Cromwell and the mounted troopers of the New Model Army deliver a swingeing right hook to the Royalist forces of Charles I, essentially terminating the King’s resistance in the First Civil War. In my own game versus Owen Hindle of 1970, I followed Cromwell’s strategy of crashing through on one wing and then wheeling to the right to destroy the black position in detail.

Battle of Blenheim 1704: The Duke of Marlborough, England’s greatest military genius in land warfare, weakens the flanks of the Franco-Bavarian army facing him, then breaks through in the centre with massed cavalry squadrons. The game between Jonathan Penrose and Mikhail Tal in 1960 contains preliminary flank skirmishing, followed by a tsunami-like central advance on a massive scale.

Battle of Austerlitz 1805 (otherwise known as the Battle of The Three Emperors): Napoleon’s chef d’oeuvre. Paradoxically, the Emperor surrenders the central high ground, only to regain it in a devastating counterattack. This battle figures prominently in Tolstoy’s mega novel, War and Peace. In chess the rivalry between two great world champions, Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov, yielded in 1986 a game where Kasparov abandons the queen’s side and much of the centre, in order to storm the black king’s shelter.

Battle of Waterloo 1815: The Duke of Wellington fights the classic Wellingtonian battle against the hitherto greatest general of the day, Napoleon himself. The Duke combines impenetrable defence with a coup d’oeil, which recognises just the right moment for a tidal wave of a counterattack. This battle seems to me to parallel another great rivalry: the chess match between those opposing titans Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer in 1972, signifying a cognate battle between world superpowers – no longer the British Empire against France, but the USA versus the USSR. In this 13th game of their match, as at Waterloo, Spassky throws his battalions forward with impressive élan, but is thrown back by Fischer’s counter-offensive. After much “hard pounding” the American finally decides the game by an advance of passed pawns on the wing which had previously not been the principal scene of action, mirroring the arrival on the battlefield at Waterloo of the Prussian army under Blücher.

Battle of Gettysburg 1863: Confederate General Robert E. Lee launches a Napoleonic columnar attack by 15,000 infantry, known as Pickett’s Charge. As at Waterloo, massed defensive firepower, orchestrated by Northern commander Meade, thwarts the attack and the loss of the entire manpower of the column tilts the balance of the war in favour of the North. Thereafter, General Ulysses S Grant finally mops up Confederate resistance in his protracted war of attrition in the Battle of the Wilderness. Every chess player will recognise the syndrome of the premature and ill-considered attack leading to disaster. A prime example can be found when Deep Blue (a chess computer) defeated Garry Kasparov in 1996: Kasparov’s failed attack led commentators at the time to refer specifically to the Pickett’s charge débâcle.

Now to the tenth example, and the one which I specifically adopted as a guiding principle for my chess games in my teenage years.

The Defence of the Lines of Torres Vedras 1810: Wellington leads the army of Marshal Massena into a wasteland where the ne plus ultra defensive lines of Torres Vedras condemn the French forces to starvation and disintegration. This is my favourite and indeed seminal battlefield reference, since it formed the bedrock of the chess style I planned to adopt when I was young. Whereas the chess instruction manual which I had been following was My System by Aron Nimzowitsch, the manual which covered the exploits of the Duke of Wellington’s exploits was the book Years of Victory: 1802–1812 by Sir Arthur Bryant.

To paraphrase Sir Arthur:

The Duke of Wellington had been retreating during 1810 from Spain into Portugal and on to Lisbon, leading the French Imperial army under Marshal Massėna, to delude themselves into believing that they were driving the British army into the sea. In fact, Wellington was luring the French into a well prepared and deeply conceived trap. As the pursued and pursuers approached Torres Vedras, Wellington’s secretly prepared lines of defence rose suddenly and spectacularly out of the very mountains to greet both armies.

I found Sir Arthur’s description of The Lines both exhilarating and utterly inspiring: “Scarcely any one, even in the British army, had any idea of their existence. Scores of guns disposed in elaborate redoubts and earthworks looked down from every height. Trenches had been dug, parapets raised, palisades, abatis, chevaux de frises and trous-de-loup made, forests, orchards, mounds and houses all levelled to the ground, every hollow and ditch eliminated, that could give cover against the terrible cross-fire of the guns, had been filled in, and every hillside turned into a vast, exposed, featureless glacis. In other places, streams had been dammed to form impassable marshes, and defiles blasted into precipices. Wellington’s engineers had used the respite Napoleon had given them to good advantage. For nearly a year, thousands of Portuguese labourers had been working to turn a broken range of hills into an impregnable barrier. Every pass had been barred, every roadway transformed into a deathtrap. Behind, echeloned in immense depth, were other forts and redoubts whose guns covered every way to Lisbon.”

To Massėna’s rear awaited a desert, devoid of food or sustenance as a result of Wellington’s scorched earth policy, while on either flank of the twenty-one miles of mountain walls, the gunboats of the British Navy were already on guard. As a somewhat belated homage to Wellington, the Portuguese government in March 2019 declared the remaining elements of the Torres Vedras lines to be part of the Portuguese national heritage.

So, back to the military situation of 1810, with Sir Arthur continuing: “Masséna clung on manfully. In a starving match in which the dice were loaded against him, he persisted where almost any other commander would have despaired. He wrung sustenance – of a sort – out of the very rocks and fed his men on roots and garbage; it could scarcely, wrote the British general, be called subsisting. Where the latter had given his foe a month in which to starve, the old Marshal held out for three. It was an astonishing example of what a French army could do…” before falling back in headlong retreat, exit pursued by a Wellington!

The concluding game that parallels the defence of the Lines of Torres Vedras is an example of the fruits of my schoolboy study of both Nimzowitsch and The Duke of Wellington. My opponent was a sixth former, parachuted into Dulwich from Manchester Grammar School. Graham Sandiford was a skilful tactician, four years my senior, who had previously defeated me with a sparkling display of tactics in the knockout final of the Dulwich College school championship.  In the following encounter, our first since my setback in the championship, I was determined to eliminate all tactical interventions, by rigorously observing the Wellingtonian precept of impenetrable defence, followed, if feasible, by the decisive counterattack. Of course, the counter I chose against my opponent’s 1.e4 was an invention popularised by Nimzowitsch and, indeed, named after him: the Nimzowitsch Defence. In My System, Nimzowitsch developed the theory of prophylaxis, which again seems to relate to the Wellingtonian battlefield principle of impenetrable defence.

I would love to hear your views on TheArticle notice boards about any parallels between battles and chess.

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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 96%
  • Interesting points: 98%
  • Agree with arguments: 96%
53 ratings - view all

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