Engage & Learn

Chess and Games of War

“Armies of box the sportively engage

And mimic real battles in their rage,

Please I recount; how, smit with glory’s charms,

Two might Monarchs met in adverse arms,

Sable and white; assist me to explore,

Ye Serian Nymphs, what ne’er was sung before.”

~ opening to Scacchia Ludus by Marco Girolamo Vida, translated by Oliver Goldsmith

The earliest forms of chess are known to have existed as early as 6th century India. Chaturanga, “four-armed”, was a game that pitted two opponents against each other with the four arms of the Indian army: foot-soldiers, cavalry, armed chariots, and elephants.  These were led by the king and vizier. War has always been a notable constant in human existence. It prevails in humanity’s imagery and art, why should it not exist as an extracurricular?

12th century Shatranj set. Image by Zereshk, via Wikimedia Commons.

Chaturanga evolves over the course of a thousand years into the modern identifiable game of chess. From India, it found its way to all corners of the earth, adopting to different culture as it arrives to those areas.  However, through these adaptations, certain aspects of the game still remain similar. Shatranj is the Persian/Islamic version of chaturanga. Like its Indian predecessor, it contains six positions:

-           rukh, or chariot, which moves much like the modern day rook piece

-           faras, or horse. It moves like the modern day knight.

-           al-fil, or elephant, which is the predecessor of the bishop

-           baidaq, or foot-soldier. It moves like a pawn, except it cannot move forward two squares in its first move. It also is promoted to a firzan when reaching the opposite side of the board.

-           firzan, or minister, which is the predecessor of the queen. It is not able to move as extensively as the queen does.

-           and shah, or king. It has the same moves as the modern day king piece.

Shatranj was played on an 8×8 square board, although not yet checkered. Terms from this Persian variation still are apparent today. Rook is an anglicized version of ruhk.

A xiangqi set. Image by Trongphu, via Wikimedia Commons.

Slightly more varied, xiangqi, “elephant game,” is the Chinese version of chess. While the goal of the game is the same, to capture or checkmate the king, xiangqi is played on a board of 9×9 squares, with the middle row representing a river. While chess, chaturanga, and shatranj pieces are easily identifiable and can exist within each game, xiangqi pieces are generally represented as pictures or characters on disks, each side usually consisting of not only different colors but different characters. Xiangqi also uses 7, not 6, positions on one side:  general, advisor, elephant, horse, cannon, chariot, soldier. While we can see the similarities between the names of the positions, the movement and rules associated with each are different. For example, the advisor piece is not allowed to leave the part of the board known as the “palace”. These restrictions would prove difficult in traditional chess play. However, an overarching theme between all four games is the idea that a game is a meeting of two armies on a battle field.

Go board and pieces. By User ?? on zh.wikipedia, via Wikimedia Commons

Chess is just once of the many games that pits two players against each other in mock battle, testing their skill and strategy. The popular Asian game of go uses a 19 x19 grid, in which players place black or white stones creating chains across the board. The goal is to ensnare the opposition’s chain so that they cannot make another move. While chess pieces play on the tiles of the grid, go is played on the grid. It has been reported that generals during Mao Zedong’s period of power needed to study go and today one needs to be proficient to rise up through the military’s higher ranks. Checkers, which many still confuse with chess, is another strategy game that two opponents play against each other. The goal is to take the other player’s pieces by jumping over them. In either of these games, movement plays just a strong of a role as attacking. The goal is to out maneuver the other player with the least amount of casualties or mistakes made in game play.

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While some consider chaturanga to have been a byproduct of tactical strategy, it is not clear whether or not chess has been used as a basis for military strategy. That is until now. In 2004, The Guardian published an article, “Chess! What is it good for?,” explaining that two research groups from Sweden and Australia,  had been looking at the strategy  and play of chess in application of real world battle tactics. Using variations of the game that take into account real world military variables, the Swedish and Australian researchers have developed two experiments, one using humans and the other computer simulations, to better understand and enhance tactical strategy and gain military success. Swedish researcher, Jan Kuylenstierna, notes “Chess involves a struggle of will and it contains what has been termed the essentials of fighting – strike, to move, and to protect.” By stripping away the chaos and confusion of a battlefield, the use of chess strategy helps researchers better see the optimal decisions in certain tactical situations. Both groups have found time and time again that the speed in which information is attained from the battlefield and decided upon create more positive outcomes for a side than size or power of one’s army. This might prove useful in the future, in which military budgets would approve faster communications systems rather than firepower or surveillance devices for positive military outcomes. Historically, chess has been merely a metaphor for war but as humanity advance, it has become its own version of tactical strategy.