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Chess is War..war is chess....Sat, January 21, 2006 - 3:05 PM
CHESS AND WAR. (PART III)
The entrance of the soldier, like the breaking of a potent spell, unloosed a score of tongues. Draught, domino, and chess-players threw up their games to converse on the all-absorbing topic of the war. With no little amount of vociferation and gesticulation, the movements of the allied armies were freely criticized, and approval or censure loudly proclaimed by the wordy disputants. I need scarcely observe, that there are matters connected with the war humiliating and painful to the English ears--with true French politeness, these subjects were not brought forward in my presence. But as the hot debate was rapidly leading towards that unpleasant direction, the wily old Pole created a diversion by exclaiming: "After all, gentleman, war is but chess, and chess is war."
"What!" shouted the Zouave, with that indescribable emphasis which a Parisian gamin gives to the simple pronoun quoi.
"I repeat," replied the colonel, "that the principles of chess and war are the same, and in chess will be found a complete epitome of the art of war. For instance, no one can play at chess without first acquiring a perfect knowledge of the various moves which distinguish the different pieces, neither can a general command an army who is ignorant of the simple evolutions of a peloton. How can a man handle a number of regiments, who cannot maneuver a single battalion?"
"True, true," chorused a number of voices. It evidently appeared that the Pole had mounted his hobby; and the audience, forgetting their previous debate, had unanimously determined that he should ride it for their amusement.
"When opening the game," continued the colonel, "we direct our moves so that no one of our pieces or pawns can neutralize the effect of another; while, at the same time, we place them where they cannot be attacked with impunity, and in the most advantageous positions for assaulting the enemy. A skilful general will act on a similar principle. He will select the ground most favorable for the action of his infantry and cavalry, taking care that they do not restrain the fire of his artillery; and, by the same rule, he will use all the means in his power to prevent the enemy from deploying his forces in so advantageous a manner. At chess, this can be done only by having the first move. There are first moves also in war. The general who first takes the field acts on the offensive, his opponent being
compelled to act according to the manner in which he is attacked. And, as in chess, it is no very great disadvantage to be forced to act on the defensive; for, in the course of a campaign, the attacking army will be almost sure to make some mistake, which, if promptly taken advantage of by its opponents, will change the defence to an attack. In war, as in chess, it is much more difficult to attack than to defend. The great secret of success in chess is foresight, not only to direct your own moves towards a definite object, but also to penetrate the intentions of your adversary. It is the same in war. Your enemy makes a certain movement; it is for you to divine his motives for doing so. This is absolutely indispensable, if you wish to be in a position to parry successfully his attacks. A small disadvantage in chess, a crowded situation, an unsupported piece, a neglected opportunity of castling, and other apparent trifles, frequently leads to the loss of the game. So it is in war; the fate of arms depends upon a number of minute particulars and combinations. We should be astonished if we knew the very small links in the chain of circumstances which have lost great battles, and neutralized the effects of glorious campaigns. But I am tiring you, my children, with the garrulous gossip of an old soldier and chess-player."
"No, no!" was vociferated from all parts of the room. "Proceed, if you please; we are all attention."
"Well, I will say a few words more. I need not tell you that, when a projected attack at chess is foiled by the superior defences of your adversary, it should be immediately abandoned, and your men placed in another position of attack, or on the defensive. In war, an obstinate peralatence in attack has been fatal to the flame of many generals: they lost their men, and with them the means of forming another attack, on a less formidable position, and even the power of making a vigorous defence. A great general is never obstinate. Napoleon I., particularly in his Italian campaigns, was the bean-ideal of a chess-player. The art of war, as exemplified by that great general, wholly consisted in the proper application of three combinations; first, the disposition of his lines of operation in the most advantageous manner, either for attack or defence; secondly, the skilful concentration of his forces, with the greatest possible activity, on the weakest or most important point of the enemy's lines; thirdly, the simultaneous employment of this accumulated force upon the position against which it was directed. This is exactly the correct system of attack at chess. The principles of defensive operations in war and chess are precisely similar. It is an acknowledged principle, that the basis of a plan of attack should form the best possible line of defence. This fundamental rule can never be violated with impunity; for nothing is more embarrassing than a sudden transition from offensive to defensive operations--when false moves, or an unfortunate oversight, has deranged the plan of an assault. There likewise is considerable analogy between the abilities required to form a great general and a skilful chess-player. The commander of an army should possess a complete knowledge of the general principles of war, which may be required during a tedious campaign, or demanded by the exigencies of actual conflict. He must plan, arrange, and conduct preliminary operations; act with promptness and decision in case of emergency; judge of the importance of a position, or the strength of an intrenchment; discover, from the slightest indications, the designs of the enemy, while he shrouds his own in impenetrable obscurity; and, at the same time, preside with unshaken self-possession over the shifting fortunes of the tumultuous battle-field. A skilful chess-player requires qualities of a similar description. To a perfect mastery of the difficult art of selecting and occupying, with the utmost rapidity, a commanding position, he must add a thorough knowledge of all the many and complicated varieties of stratagems and snares, which he is alternately called upon to invest and put into practice--to see through and defeat."
"All great generals have been chess-players; and it is a curious fact, that the traditions of both the East and the West relate that chess was invented during a siege. The Hindoo legend states, that it was invented by the wife of Ravan, king of Ceylon, in order to amuse him with an image of war, while his metropolis was besieged by Ramah, in the second age of the world. The Western tradition, however, is more feasible. According to it, the game was invented by Palamedes, to amuse the Grecian warriors during the ten tedious years of the siege of Troy. Sinon, it is said, was one of the most celebrated of the Greek players, and derived the idea of the wooden horse, with which he finally checkmated the Trojans, from the knight of the chess-board."
This awful climax recalled me to myself. I had begun to fancy myself in the Regence, when, startled by the appearance of that wooden horse, I looked round and saw that I was in a vulgar cafe without traditions and without celebrities.
Catching the old soldier's eye, I made a significant gesture, implying that I was going to dinner, and walked out. I had gone but a few paces ere he rejoined me; and I was soon happy to find that neither his appetite, nor his immense fund of anecdotes, was at all affected by his lecture on Chess and War.
About the Author
This article is from the journal THE LIVING AGE (Second Series, Volume XII, January, February, March, 1856), which is in the public domain.
Content by Chess Samizdat
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