The Politics of Chess

Of course, many of you readers are expecting this to be an article regarding infighting within the world of professional chess. However, this assumption is actually farthest from the truth! This article came about thanks to the recent Presidential election here in the United States (or should I say un-united states). How, you may ask, can a political election possibly serve as the inspiration for a chess article? It has to do with the subject of civics, an area of study schools here have deemed unnecessary as a practical course. This has led to a generation that has no idea how Democracy works, let alone how to vote (sadly, many simply choose not to vote and then complain about the state of politics after the election). I decided, rather than taking up the art of violent protesting which serves no real purpose, to introduce my chess students to the world of civics and politics via the game of chess. Here’s the gist of my lessons regarding chess and civics/politics. This lesson is taught to older students only because young children would end up having nightmares and be sent to a therapist due to my harsh approach.

We start the lesson by defining key ideas such as voting, The Electoral College (who are more mysterious that the Free Masons) and diplomacy as well as the role of the President, Congress and the Senate. I ask students questions regarding the above concepts during the lessons to make sure they understand the subject matter. Then the narrative starts:

Chess is a war between two countries. Our two countries both see an opportunity to expand their global control and will do whatever it takes to achieve this goal. Sadly diplomacy has failed and our two countries, Blacklandia and Whitelandia have decided to face off on the battlefield. Both Congress and the Senate have voted for a declaration of war. This is a fight to the death. You are the President of your country and now must face the hard decisions the Commander and Chief deals with during times of war, namely the loss of life. You cannot avoid the loss of life in war so you must try to minimize it. This means that the pawns and pieces (soldiers) you send out onto the field of battle must be carefully deployed to minimize loss. Your fellow countrymen have voted you into office and their fate lies in your hands. Don’t let them down. At this point, we discuss the role of the military during times of war as well as how it effects the economy.

The battle starts when one side strikes the first blow. In the game, members of the Whitelandia army decide to attack first. As with all wars, it’s not the King that goes out onto the battle field but the lowly foot soldier, the pawn. The pawn comes from small towns scattered throughout the country and is at the bottom of the military food chain (and the economic food chain as well). However, just because the pawn is low man on the Totem Pole doesn’t mean he can’t do great things. The history of warfare is littered with exceptionally brave acts and won battles thanks to the pawn. Treat him with care and always have him work with his fellow pawns (pawn chains) and provide support for the more specialized warriors who we’ll meet next. Pawns are the first to walk onto the battlefield so respect their bravery.

As with all military forces, there are specialized units that can greatly effect the outcome of a battle, but only if they’re used correctly. During the early stages of a battle, the opening game, it is crucial that your troops are carefully placed. You job is to corner the enemy King who, at the start of a game, is on a central file. The most direct route to victory is through the center of the board during the opening. Therefore, you should develop your forces towards the four central squares (d4, d5, e4 and e5). You cannot waste time because the other side is trying to achieve the same goal. So who do we deploy? The minor pieces of course!

We don’t want to waste time because the citizens of your country want this war won quickly and with minimal loss of life (pawns and pieces). Thus, you should try to develop a new piece with each move, only launching an attack on the enemy King once you’ve achieved maximum development of your military forces. What happens if you don’t do this? You approval ratings go down and you become an unpopular President. We briefly discuss the Vietnam War and it’s affect on Presidential approval ratings at this point.

Of course, you have to keep your King safe, the King really being you the President because if you’re taken down, the war ends and you lose. Therefore, Castling early is a sound idea. Unlike our political leaders who never actually fight on the battlefield, the King gets his hands dirty in the endgame!

To minimize the loss of life, you don’t want to attempt an early attack against the enemy. If you do and that attack fails, your fellow countrymen will want to know why you behaved in such a risky manner, allowing other countrymen to die. Build up your control of the battlefield, trying to maximize the activity of your forces before attacking. Remember, wars are not won in a single battle. They are won through many smaller battles. In chess, these smaller battles are called tactical plays. A brief discussion of the American Civil War reinforces this point as well as the great cost of life that war causes. Once you’ve developed your forces, only then should you consider striking at the enemy.

This is where your specialized forces come into play. The name of the game here is tactics. If the battlefield is crowded with soldiers from both sides we can can use our Knights to reek havoc because Knights can jump over other pieces. They’re like the Air Force! If the field of battle is wide open we use our long distance artillery, the Bishops and Rooks. We briefly discuss the idea of supply lines, something all armies need to survive, using examples from World War Two. I also interject a dialog about the cost of war and how it effects the National economy. In chess, keeping an open supply line means pawns and pieces supporting one another. If your material is chaotically placed across the board, you forces may end up being captured. This means a loss of life and there go your approval ratings as Commander and Chief!

Only now should you consider bringing in your special forces, the Queen. The Queen is your special ops (operations) force. Unlike a real army in which there are many members of the Special Forces, you only have one Queen, so use her awesome and deadly power wisely. If you don’t, the enemy will use their forces to hunt her down!

Eventually the time to attack comes. Are your pieces aimed at the enemy King? Are your forces deployed to active squares? Are your pieces coordinated and your supply lines open? These are all questions every Commander and Chief asks themselves before launching that final assault needed to win the war. It’s here that you must be patient and careful, often having to make adjustments in your position to ensure success. If everything is in place, it’s time to strike and deliver checkmate!

The game of chess can be used to teach a number of external concepts and is an entertaining way to do so. I teach the above ideas regarding politics over a few classes so that students can really grasp and thoroughly understand the concepts being discussed. Of course, the Electoral College still remains a bit of mystery since people know more about the doings of the Free Masons than the rather mysterious Electoral College. It should be noted that there’s nothing educational about this college. Here’s a game played by two members of the Electoral College to enjoy until next week. Just kidding. Those guys don’t play chess, they mysteriously elect Presidents and leave the rest of us dumbfounded…

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).