How about a nice game of war?

3/13/2004 – Get out your grains of salt, it's time for more chess analogies. Teams of researchers are using chess and other board games for insights into modern warfare. Tempo and search speed versus the importance of material? We wonder if they have ever picked up a Tarrasch book! More..

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Military theory and chess

Researchers are trying to do for war with chess what the writings of Franklin K. Young tried to do for chess with war a hundred years ago. Let's hope they have more success at it because Young's books and their convoluted military terminology are famously laughable. (The chapter title "Processes of Greater Logistics" gives you the rough idea. It gets much, much worse.)

One of the many origin fables for chess has it being created as a substitute for real warfare in order to save precious lives. Could chess now provide information that will make man better at real warfare? We're skeptical, especially since many of the factors they are examining are things understood by any beginner chessplayer or army private. Still, hard data is hard data and that's what these guys are after.

This article in the UK paper the Guardian provides the details. A few excerpts are below, along with a letter International Master Colin Crouch wrote in response. What do you think?

Chess! What is it good for? – The Guardian

War, say researchers in Sweden and Australia. They are using the game to improve understanding of real battles, where you can't always see what your opponent is up to.

by Emma Young – Thursday March 4, 2004

"By studying chess and other adversarial abstract games such as checkers (draughts), researchers can strip away some of the confusion of the battlefield and identify the factors that are most important for winning, says Jason Scholz, who leads the Australian work. "The strength of this approach is our level of abstraction," Scholz says."

"These games, and other variations on regular play, led the team to a clear conclusion: being stronger and having more "battlespace information" than your opponent are both less valuable when there is little information available overall to both sides - but the advantage of a fast pace remains. "The value of information superiority is strongly tempered by uncertainty, whereas the value of superior tempo is much less affected," says Kuylenstierna."

"Using the same new mathematical techniques, and building on the chess and checkers work, Scholz and his colleagues are now creating improved computer-based war games for use in military training. Good artificial intelligence has been lacking from most war games until now and they hope their work will provide more realistic characters and situations, and therefore not only better training but also an improved method for considering new strategies for real warfare. One important advance from the chess simulations is to allow multiple moves at the same time, as would happen in a battle."

Click here for the full article at the Guardian Unlimited website.

Two days later British International Master Colin Crouch wrote in to the Guardian with this to say:

"I do not wish to condone the bloodthirsty business of warfare, but I agree that chess has much to teach military strategists (Chess! What is it good for?, Life, March 4).

One of the basics of chess strategy is to attack meaningful targets where the opponent is weakest. A tragedy of the first world war was that military planners used the opposite strategy, always attacking the opponent's strongest point on the basis that if this collapsed, the war would be won. Hundreds of thousands of lives were sacrificed in attempts to prove the validity of this strategy.

What lessons might there be for the recent Iraq war? Probably not many. If an alliance of formidable military powers attacks a country that is virtually defenceless, more or less any strategy will prevail. The critical point, however, is that "checkmate" – the collapse of the leadership of one side – does not end the game in real life. People do not on the whole like their country being occupied, and resistance forces emerge.

I doubt if any analogies with chess, or any simulation of the game to allow for limited information, will help deal with this sort of post-checkmate scenario. There are, however, plenty of examples that may be taken from the history books. Only a clique of politicians motivated by blind ideology and ignorant of history could have believed that the coalition forces in Iraq would be greeted with universal jubilation."

Dr Colin Crouch
International Chess Master

Photo © John Henderson


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