How Chess Strategy Reflects the Principles of Warfare

Strategy as the main vehicle for success in a competitive world

Strategy refers to a plan of action designed to achieve a particular goal. It is distinct from tactics, which is concerned with the conduct of an engagement, while strategy is concerned with how different engagements are linked.

Development and implementation of strategy is a creative process. Be it real war, sport match, or chess battle, a framework is required to shape the strategist’s thought process. The principles of Warfare provide such a structure.

The war principles as listed and defined in British Defence Doctrine follow (you can find detailed explanations in the BDD, Chapter 2, and you may see they apply to chess nicely):

1. Selection and maintenance of aim
2. Maintenance of morale
3. Offensive action
4. Security
5. Surprise
6. Concentration of force
7. Economy of effort
8. Flexibility
9. Cooperation
10. Sustainability

Warfare principles help your chess strategy
War games. Gears of War is one of them. Chess is still another

Once understood, the principles of war may be used as a decision making aid during formulation, planning, and execution of strategy.

Master principle: Selection and maintenance of Aim

A single, unambiguous aim is the keystone of a successful military operation, or action on the chessboard. Selection and maintenance of the aim is regarded as the master principle of warfare.

The ultimate aim of a game of chess is to give checkmate to the opponent’s king. Practically, this aim is replaced by the aim of gaining a significant advantage which is sufficient to convert into victory.

Here’s an actual game to help see how principles of Warfare may bring clarity to strategic thinking (Smyslov – Suetin, USSR 20ch, Moscow, 1952):

1. c4 e6 2. g3 d5 3. Bg2 Nf6 4. Nf3 dxc4 5. Qa4+ Bd7 6. Qxc4 Bc6 7. Qc2 Nbd7 8. O-O e5 9. Nc3 Bc5 10. d3 O-O

Smyslov – Suetin, USSR 20ch, 1952 (after 10…O-O)

Black equalized the game. There are no weak points in his camp. The further course of the game now depends on the selection of the right aim for both sides.

What might have gone through Smyslov’s mind at this point? GMs use the intuitive process that has become almost automatic through experience. It takes more global (rather than a detailed, analytic) perspective.

The first thing White may have sensed would be menacing activity of the bishop pair firing across the board at his king’s position. He may have also perceived that the central e5-pawn is staying in the way of the advance of his army. Might the pawn be attacked and possibly destroyed? That way White would gain a powerful pawn mass free to advance in the center and on he K-side. Both ideas above may be coming from deep understanding of the strategy and its first principle, which is: put restraint on the enemy and gain freedom of movement for your troops.

Here’s the great strategist von Clausewitz on the main objective of Warfare:
“To conquer and destroy the armed power of the enemy, always direct your principal operation against the main body of the enemy army or at least against an important portion of his forces.”

The most prominent of the black troops here really are the bishop pair and the central e5-pawn. The question now is, how the above strategic ideas may be translated into action in terms of tactics?

11. e4 White’s plan begins to take shape. The pawn move reduces scope of one black bishop. The other (as we will see later) will be neutralized by exchange. At the same time the e5-pawn is fixed and may be attacked (by f2-f4) to open up the center, gain the pawn dominance there and possibly organize a campaign on the K-side.

This comes at a price: the g2-bishop is obstructed; d3-pawn is backward; d4-square is weak. Black should create his strategic plan to exploit these weaknesses.

11…Re8 12. Be3 Qe7 13. Rac1 Concentration of force (another Warfare principle!) against c5

13…Rad8? No good is 13…Nf8, because of 14.Nd5

14. Nh4 Qf8 15. Nf5 Bb6 16. a3 Preparing b2-b4 to take control of c5. White is skillfully using the entire board to achieve the aim

16…Ng4 17. Bxb6 Nxb6 18. h3 Nf6 19. f4 exf4 Or 19…g6 20.fxe5 Rxe5 21.d4 Ree8 22.d5

20. gxf4 g6 It wasn’t easy to put up with the f5-knight threatening Black’s headquarters – however, weaknesses are created.

21. Ng3 Qc5+ 22. Kh2 Kg7 23. b4 Qd4 24. Rf3 The white pawn center reduces the activity of the black army (“put the brake on them,” the first principle of strategy). Now b4-b5 is threatened, so Black must take measures against it.

24…a6 25. Nce2 Qd7 26. Qb2! As e5-pawn was traded before, the long diagonal is now cleared for the queen to fire along. With double threat, 27.Nh5+ and 27.e5, there’s only one response to it

26… Qe7 27. Nd4 Double attack again. It consists of the knight attacking the c6-bishop and threatening the f5-fork to win the black queen (according to GM Averbakh, all chess combinations basically depend on either double attack, or combined attack)

27…Kg8 28. Nxc6 bxc6 29. Rxc6

After 29.Rxc6

As a result of the strategic operation carried out, that used tactics as linking blocks of strategy, White is now pawn up and winning.

They say chess is 99 percent tactics. And most of the time we spend for improvement is focused on tactical exercises. But don’t forget the tactics is subordinate to strategy. And “direct every military (and chessboard) operation toward a clearly defined, decisive and attainable objective” (US Army Field Manual FM 3-0).

What is the use of running when we are on the wrong road? — German proverb

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