Sword and Shield

Is Chess a Wargame?

The 2007 Gamesquad Chess Tournament
Is Chess a Wargame?
Arthur C. Clarke's Quarantine
H. G. Wells' Concerning Chess
Benjamin Franklin's On the Morals of Chess
A Review of Chess by Greg Kasavin
Archives of Victory and Defeat
The Tools of War
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Patroness Saint of Chess Players
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About Me


"The essence of the game is constant struggle against an adversary who, by whatever means of deception and disguise, is entirely, relentlessly, unfailingly dedicated to your destruction. It is only a board, but it is a field of dreams for paranoia." ---Charles Krauthammer

I have been noticing a disturbing trend amongst wargamers. Many of my brethren warriors seem to have completely forgotten their wargaming roots! How can one call himself a wargamer, a master of kriegsspiel, when you do not play the oldest of all wargames? A game of war that is as sublime as it is economical?

Of course I am referring to the royal game of chess.

Don't you know that chess is the first of all wargames? It was developed in India sometime around 600 AD (perhaps earlier as it was mentioned without any explanation in writings by that date, suggesting it was already well-known). The name 'chess' is derived from the Sanskrit Chaturanga which can be translated as 'Four Arms' referring to the four arms (or divisions, if you prefer) of the Indian army--- elephants, cavalry, chariots, and infantry. In this regard, Chess is very much a wargame that simulates what we would now call the combined arms operations of the ancient world. It is because of this combined arms approach that both strategy and tactics can be taught by the game (unlike Checkers, which is entirely tactics, or Go, which is entirely strategy). In this regard, Chess is unique. As a result, it is a most remarkably balanced wargame.

Now, I know some of you are already complaining that it doesn't look like a wargame. After all, where are the military units? Where is the terrain? They are there, albeit some of it is disguised by the artistic accumulation of over 1300 years. Let's take a closer look.

First we have the Rook. Funny name---Rook. It actually is derived from the Persian rokh which can be translated as 'chariot.' This unit displays the proper mobility of what can be seen as the tank of the ancient world. However, when chess reached medieval Europe, it came to resemble the castle, perhaps as a result of the Persian word's similarity to the Italian rocca---meaning fortress. Regardless of its Eastern or Western interpretation, the Rook is most definitely a military unit properly placed on the battlefield.

Next we have the Knight. This is an easy one. In the ancient world, prior to the era of "knights in shinning armor," the piece was actually representative of cavalry. Slight change. Instead of a single, armored warrior, the piece actually represented a horse-mounted formation that was ubiquitous in warfare until the 20th Century. Like its nimble and swift-footed namesake, the Knight is the only piece in chess that can side-step and jump over obstacles in its path---perfect for dealing deadly rear area and flanking attacks.

We now come to the Bishop. This appellation is a medieval nod to the all-powerful Roman Catholic Church of bygone eras. Originally, the Bishop was a war elephant. In fact, if you have a good quality Staunton chess set, the Bishop will sport a curved flourish upon its miter. This bit of detail is a clever way of representing an elephant's tusk---a testament to the fact that the military origins of the piece have not been forgotten. And let me assure you---in the hands of a talented chess player, it is not an easy thing to "see the elephant and be not afraid"!

Then we come to the Queen. Again, this is a medieval term. Originally, the Queen was the general (or vizier), a personage more aptly suited to the battlefield. Initially, the Queen was not as all-powerful as she is today, but due to the desire to better balance the game (to use a modern term), her powers of movement have been expanded to make her a fitting representative of the highest rank of warrior.

Of course, there is the King. The King was always the King. He is your representative, your avatar, on the black and white battlefield of chess. If he falls, all is lost (as an aside, the term checkmate is derived from the Farsi SHAH-K-MATE meaning "The King is dead!"

Last, we come to the lowly Pawn. This is an easy one as well. Outnumbering all other pieces, the Pawn is the common foot soldier. Like most soldiers of the ancient era, he is ordered simply forward to confront his foe. However, since he carries a large shield to protect his front (think Roman or Spartan infantry), his attack is limited to swift strikes at the sides That is why a Pawn can only capture another piece diagonally opposite his front (makes sense now, no?). Also, like the lowly soldier ever seeking to better his condition, if the Pawn survives the trek across the brutal battlefield he will be promoted to a higher rank (any other chess piece).

So, you see, the pieces of chess all are derived and based upon actual military units. Even when chess was changed by the cultural conditions of medieval Europe, the alterations involved little more than a cosmetic change in focus---a shift from the tactical to the strategic elements of battle. James Dunnigan, noted military historian and wargame designer, has done the best job of summing-up the wargaming roots of chess:

"Chess is one of the oldest surviving ancient wargames. Games similar to chess go back thousands of years. Chess is also one of the more accurate wargames for the period it covers (the pre-gunpowder period). Chess is a highly stylized game. It is always set up the same way, the playing pieces and the playing board are always the same. The board is quite simple. Each of the pieces has clearly defined capabilities and starting positions, much like soldiers in ancient warfare. Given that ancient armies were so unwieldy and communication so poor, it is easy to see why each player in chess is allowed to move only one piece per turn. Because the armies were so hard to control, the battles were generally fought on relatively flat, featureless ground. Then, as now, the organization of the army represented the contemporary social classes. Thus the similarity between chess pieces and the composition of ancient armies."

That's all interesting, Wargamer Scott, but what is this nonsense about chess terrain that you mentioned?

Good question. Believe it or not, but the seemingly flat chess board does contain terrain. In particular, I am referring to the squares d4, e4, d5, e5. Take a look:


Like a ridge occupying the center of a battlefield, it is the dominating high ground of the chess board. From these four squares, pieces can project a tremendous amount of power in all directions. It is for this reason that the initial strategy of the participants often focuses on their desire to control this precious piece of real estate.

There is also a road network of sorts. Every player has two Bishops, a white Bishop and a black Bishop. Like the name suggests, these Bishops are only capable of moving on squares of one color. And since each player has one of each kind, conflict over "Bishop highways" often result.


Just as the highly contested Highway 69 ("Hell's Highway) doomed the chances of XXX Corps relieving the besieged British paras at Arnhem, lack of control over these vital lanes of movement can doom even the best laid plans of the average chess player!

Why else should wargamers be enthralled with this game of kings and queens? The mere fact that chess allows the players to plan and execute just about every classic military operation should be reason enough! Feints, flank attacks, frontal assaults, deep penetration raids, sieges, pincer attacks, blockades, and fighting withdrawals just to name a few! Talk about your options! It's all here! In fact, there are so many possible plans of offense and defense, that chess players have organized them in a large number of openings. Openings are best thought of as pre-made and carefully evaluated battle plans that a chess player can commit to memory so as to be prepared for any eventuality. For example, if you like solid defensive play, you might consider the Stonewall System, a battle plan that organizes White's pawns (foot soldiers) in a rigid defensive formation---similar to the ancient shield wall:


Now, I am not the first to point out these similarities to real warfare. For many generations, professional and amateur soldiers of all stripes have been fascinated with the military implications of chess as a rudimentary wargame and have sought to improve upon it. For example, in 1664, Christopher Weikhmann developed what he called Koenigspiel (King's Game). It was similar to chess, but added a larger board and created new pieces to mimic the military formations of the day. This version enjoyed mild success and was later modified by another German, of the name C. L. Helwig, in a bid to make the game even more realistic with visible terrain (albeit, still in the form of color-coded squares) and more complex rules of movement. This slow process of chess modification reached its pinnacle in 1797 when Georg Venturini developed an ultra-complex version (including a sixty page rules set!) of war chess that utilized a 3,600 square board(!) that closely replicated the terrain of the Franco-Belgium border, as well as incorporating logistics and a piece for every conceivable military formation and fortification. It can be stated without hesitation that Venturini developed war chess to an unparalleled level of complexity and realism. Indeed, it would never be eclipsed as all future wargames would abandon the chess board in favor of more realistic terrain tables and maps.

But that hasn't stopped the close relationship between chess and the military. In 2004, Swedish and Australian teams studied the game anew for any lessons it may be able to impart to our current understanding of warfare. While both research efforts differed in their approach, both found that chess offers a unique insight into warfare. Jan Kuylenstierna, one of the Swedish researchers, remarked that Chess "resembles real war in many respects. Chess involves a struggle of will, and it contains what has been termed the essentials of fighting---to strike, to move and to protect." Indeed, Jason Scholz of the Australian group even found the initial stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom to confirm the results they were receiving from their chess wargaming:

"We watched with great interest the dialogue between General [Tommy} Franks, who wanted to use more materiel, and Donald Rumsfeld who wanted a fast tempo and lighter units," Scholz says. Based on the chess results, which favoured a fast, decisive attack strategy, Scholz says his advice would have been to go along with the US defence secretary's ideas. "In the end, there was a compromise," he says. "But a relatively fast tempo did really gain a very decisive, rapid advantage in Iraq."

What more can I say to get my fellow wargamers to try some chess? It is simply the ultimate wargame! This shouldn't be surprising as it has been "in development" for over 1600 years---even C & C cannot say that! And with such a long lineage comes a wealth of recorded games that provide endless AARs (in chess, they are called 'game scores') to study for the wisdom of past practitioners (such as the games of Ruy Lopez, a 16th Century Spanish priest and chess aficionado). Also, unlike Medieval: Total War, chess is a game that can actually claim to have been played by the very people (kings, queens, and peasants alike) of that age! Indeed, even the Vikings seem to have been fans of the Royal Game!

The Isle of Lewis chess set---circa 1170 A. D.

It is this aspect of chess that truly makes it quite special. And let's not forget the fact that it is optimized for PBEM gaming and competition! So, won't you give it a try today? Or perhaps this is the better question for wargamers: do you dare to wade out amongst us fanatical chess players and challenge us to battle on the merciless, checkered field? Be forewarned: we are so hardcore a community that many of us sport our chess ratings on our vehicle license plates! This is the game that sets the men apart from the boys, a wargame so insidious that it has been known to drive men mad - literally. Or, as Paolo Maurensig remarked:

"What occurs on (the chessboard), in the form of a creative act sometimes resembling a true work of art, is in reality a struggle of exceptional violence, a form of bloodless homicide whose outcome is shared by the contenders alone. Nothing binds two people like a serious challenge on chessboard, making them counterposed poles of a jointly produced mental creation in which one is annihilated to the other's advantage. There is no harsher or more implacable defeat. The players bear lifelong scars, neither body nor soul ever recovering fully."

And that is the truth! Do YOU have the courage to bear such scars? If you do, grab your sword and shield and meet me on the battlefield of chess where glory and ignominy are the wages of this wargame....

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