Tuesday, October 2, 2007


When I was nine I won a friendly chess game at the downtown Nashville YMCA with a guy I was told had once placed second in the city chess tournament. I have no idea if that was true; certainly he shouldn’t have fallen for my strategy, which was a variation of a fool’s mate (and not nearly as quick as one). Assuming that the whole thing was as advertised, I assume that he just wasn’t paying attention to a minor game with a young kid. I will say that afterwards he was surprised and annoyed enough for me to doubt he purposefully threw the game.

Hypermodernism was a chess movement that came to prominence after the end of the first World War. It would probably have been called Modernism (as was so much around that time) except for the fact that its predecessor, a set of rules based on the ideas of the great chess pioneer Wilhelm Steinitz and popularized by the German Siegbert Tarrasch, was called both Classical and Modern chess, thereby really hogging the central real estate in the name department.

That’s what Steinitz’s ideas were all about, as it happens: hogging real estate, most specifically the center of the chess board. Pawns advance down the center, protected by knights and bishops in strong positions. Grind it out, don’t make mistakes, and win by not losing. If Vince Lombardi had played chess, that’s the kind he would have played. Also, if you happened to be stuck with Black, you were pretty much doomed to playing defense.

The Hypermodernists were full of the revolutionary spirit of the times, guys like Richard RĂ©ti, Aron Nimzowitsch, Ksawery Tartakower, and Gyula Breyer, all hailing from central Europe (where the aliens landed, to judge by the impact other Hungarians, Austrians, etc. had on the sciences at about the same time). They thought that chess had become boring and they were going to shake it up.

They didn’t dispute that the center of the board was important; they just thought you could control it by some method other than stomping all over it. So they inventing asymmetrical strategies with cool names like the Bogo-Indian defense and the King’s Indian attack, many of which involved deliberate trades of knight/bishop. All the while, the idea was to allow the attacker (generally White) to grab territory, but with a weakness in the attack structure that could be exploited by the more wide ranging pieces.

Part of the reason why it worked was because it was new. When you follow a strategy that is unfamiliar to your opponent, you start with a leg up. In fact, in the 1930s, the Russian chess clique expanded this idea to a more or less deliberate strategy. They played with an eye toward tipping the game into some unusual position that they’d previously studied intensively, but which their opponents almost certainly had not.

It’s sometimes said that chess was designed to sharpen the wits for the battlefield, and the analogies are certainly there. Prior to the Classical/Modern style was the Romantic, which I’ve seen referred to as “swashbuckling,” more than a bit like forms of warfare before it got all tech-y. So grind-it-out Classical is like trench warfare, and you can stretch the metaphor to even include Hypermodern, with the power pieces like tanks and air power.

I’m sure it’s a crappy analogy. I haven’t played serious chess in years, and never at anything like an advanced level. But the more general analogy bears some further thought. It’s easy for any “revolutionary” or “radical” in the early stages, where none of his opponents are expecting his strategies. So he rolls right over the opposition, who blink a few times and try to figure out what hit them. Then, as the victories mount, the opposition builds, but more importantly, it adapts, and analyzes, and waits for an opportunity.

Hitler frequently overruled his generals, and at the beginning, it looked like genius, partly because no one was expecting it, and partly because the nature of warfare had changed with the new weaponry. But eventually he got himself locked into a grind-it-out bloodbath with the Russians, and that was the end of him. The new weapons didn’t help much at all when it came down to just swapping men, even at premium exchange rates.

Politics is war carried out by other means and the same rules apply. You can break the rules and win for a while just because you’ve broken them. But eventually, either the reasons for the old rules present themselves, or the new thing becomes the new rules. Either way, you don’t take anyone by surprise any more.

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