21 March 2004

Chess! What is it good for?

The board game Go, known in China as weiqi, is a game of territory and encirclement, and has long been linked with warfare. Some of the earliest military references appear during the Dong Han dynasty, from AD25 to AD220. They describe weiqi as a game of war, and some modern scholars infer that the Chinese might at that time have been using it to model military strategies. Mao Zedong reportedly insisted his generals study weiqi - and there are rumours that today senior members of the Chinese military must be proficient at the game to progress through the highest ranks, says Jason Scholz of Australia's defence science and technology organisation.

The Persian game of Shatranj is believed to be adapted from the Indian chess-precursor Chaturanga (although there are some scholars who argue that Shatranj came first). Like the Indian version, the Persian game includes elephant pieces and horses, and Persian nobles were taught Shatranj as part of training in military strategy. It has even been suggested that pawns' ability to move two squares in their opening move in modern chess is a Persian modification, to better model a strategy in which foot soldiers with spears rushed ahead of the rest of the attacking army - but the true origins of military influences on chess, and the game itself, remain murky.

The build-up to the war in Iraq coincided with the first results from the chess simulations run by Jason Scholz and his team. '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.' However, trying to win a battle as quickly as possible might not always be the best strategy, he adds: 'You can win a battle quickly but hearts and minds are not so easily won - and of course we do have continuing trouble in Iraq.'

The Younger Avesta claims that Zoroaster invented chess to explain the meaning of things to King Vishtaspa. It's a nice tale that deserves to be true, but probably is not.

I used to play large and complex boardgames with actual people. We were all close friends and fairly social. Sadly, Civilisation was released and we all retired to our solitary and antisocial keyboards.

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