Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 3, 2015

Alexander Cockburn on chess and geopolitics

Filed under: Alexander Cockburn,chess — louisproyect @ 7:59 pm

Last week not long after Jeff St. Clair received my article in “Chess as Metaphor”, he wrote me back informing me that Alexander Cockburn had written a book about chess in the 1970s. Since chess and Cockburn were two of my passions, I immediately ordered the book from Amazon.com and began reading it. The book is not about “how to win with the Ruy Lopez Opening” but about the politics and psychology of chess players, including some of the most famous like Bobby Fischer and Mikhail Botvinnik, the Russian champion who gets discussed in a chapter titled “Proletarian, Socialist Chess”. You can imagine how that chapter piqued my interest. As it turns out, there is a section in it that deals with geopolitics and chess, a subject I referred to briefly in my CounterPunch article. Cockburn has a somewhat different take on their relationship but we come pretty close to converging around his idea that “No game model, such as chess, can in the end tolerate the notion of total contradiction, since all games accept the idea of rules.” Like so many articles in this vein, Pepe Escobar referred to chess in his Oct. 1 article titled “Obama, Putin: Checkmate”. But if there is anything that Syria symbolizes, it is the contradictory nature of geopolitics—one in which Israel, the USA, Iran and Russia are working together to one degree or another to prop up the rotting cadaver of Baathism. Since the war in Syria was always supposed to be a proxy war with Israel and the USA playing black and Russia and Iran playing white, how do you explain this new axis of resistance with Netanyahu and Obama joining the axis of resistance? Maybe if chess was played with a much larger board and the pieces came in 50 shades of gray, the analogy would hold.

Alexander Cockburn:


“We play poker, they play chess” used to be the adage at one school for international relations in the United States. It was also, it seems, a favored phrase of President Kennedy. The thought behind the words was that the Communist enemy, in all his Oriental cunning, had a strategy thoroughly conceived and inherently rational: move would be countered by move; and uncertainty and chance eliminated. “We,” on the other hand, play poker “We” gamble and bluff.

As we have seen, the emphasis on the enemy’s playing chess has a venerable ancestry in high and low art. But where the little maxim about chess and poker goes seriously wrong is in the supposition that “our side” is not interested in conceiving of war or diplomacy in chess terms. In ancient and in modern times the very opposite has been the case. We have seen that legend has chess being invented as a rehearsal or exemplar of war. There are innumerable examples of generals and statesmen expressing enthusiasm for chess, and their suggestion that their own trade is simply conducted on a larger board. In the popular imagination, mirroring such sentiments, international affairs are often conceived in terms of chess imagery. Hardly an issue of Punch magazine in the nineteenth century was complete without a cartoon of “the chessboard of Europe” simulating the play of policy and maneuver.

The July 1972 issue of Foreign Affairs contained an attack by Stanley Hoffman on balance-of-power theories such as those proposed by Henry Kissinger. Hoffman’s purpose was to denounce the equilibrium model of five superstates (the United States, the Soviet Union, China, Japan and the European Economic Community).

To use Raymond Aron’s terms, the balance of power is a model of “strategic diplomatic behaviour.” The essence of international relations is seen as a contest of states on a chessboard, on which the players try to maximise their power at each other’s expense, and on which the possibility of war makes military potential and might the chief criterion of power. This view still fits much of the “game of nations,” for it follows from the logic of a decentralised milieu, whatever the specific nature of the units or the social and economic systems which they embody.

Hoffman goes on to assert that this model is invalid, since it underestimates the predominance of the United States and the Soviet Union in nuclear equipment. Thus, he concludes that the chessboard image is inappropriate to the analysis of international relations.

It would be surprising if this abundant use of chess imagery had not found its enthusiasts in the military complex. And indeed it has. In the late eighteenth century the Duke of Brunswick was made head of the Prussian armies. He was viewed with great favor by Frederick the Great, who dispatched to him numerous young gentlemen to be instructed in military doctrine. The Duke instructed his master of pages, Herr Helwig, to produce a suitable and not too unpleasant mode of instruction. Helwig came up with the first modern war game.

The idea came to me . . . of rendering sensible, not to say palpable, a few principles and rules of the military art . . . to pages of the Duke . . . and those young noblemen destined some day for military service. Independently of this objective my secondary one was to offer . . . an agreeable recreation by laying before them a game which, at first sight, presented different objects and operations, and which depended upon nothing but the rules and combinations made up by the players. The first thought which presented itself to my mind was that the learning of my game ought not to be burdened with too many de tails if it was to fulfill its mission. . . . I should achieve my objective in the quickest way if I took for its basis the game of chess .. . my idea was to adapt the game of chess to my own game . . .5

Helwig made a board of 1666 squares, colored according to geographical particularities. The pieces were modeled on chess pieces, receiving values according to the army of the time (since the original chess pieces were probably based on the state of the Indian army in the first century AD.) .6

“I was not deceived in my expectations,” Helwig wrote, “and experience confirmed the wisdom of my judgment, for chess players were the first to welcome my invention; they found it a source of great amusement, and they set to work to make it better known.” The Prussian General von der Goltz was not so enthusiastic “This war game is a bad product of the refined military education of the period, which had piled up so many difficulties that it was incapable of taking a step in advance.”

Despite such animadversions the genie was out of the bottle. Every staff college could boast of its war game and by the early twentieth century most nurseries their boxes of Attack and Tri-tactics. Many of the battles of World War I were rehearsed in war games. After Versailles the German military, bereft for a time of actual troops, had to rely on war games. The invasion of Czechoslovakia was “gamed” in advance. The Germans also simulated invasions of the Ukraine and of England. The Japanese were also enthusiasts: “Late in 1941 Cinc Combined Fleet ordered all Fleet commanders and their key staff members to Tokyo for further war games. . . . On September 2 the final and most important games started . . . the details of a surprise raid on Pearl Harbor.”

After the Second World War the United States took the lead. By the seventies over sixty organizations were interested in or engaged in war-gaming. In addition, STAG (United States Army Strategy and Tactics Analysis Group) estimates that of the more than two hundred organizations engaged in analysis in support of military decision-making, about one quarter of approximately three thousand projects per year utilize some war-gaming techniques.

All war games must, in the last analysis, ascribe certain behavior patterns to the “enemy.” The war-gamer is in the position of having to define, within the limits of his knowledge, what he imagines the enemy’s intentions are. Even minimax calculations of a zero-sum games’ model imply some opinion of what the opposition might regard as minimum and maximum benefit.

The chess model assumes this knowledge, and so do war games that follow in its path. Chess is, after all, a game played on a one-to-one basis, in the sight of both parties, with parity of intention and with equality of forces. Its operation is one of initiative and response and counterinitiative. Although one or other of the players may devise a strategy that is difficult to analyze, it is always assumed that the object will become clear, as the player nears his objective of mating his opponent, and as the opponent comprehends that plan. The players are, in short, playing the same game.

At some levels this “chess matrix” can be transferred to the military or diplomatic plane, but the matrix still assumes, within certain limits, parity of intention and parity of means. Scott Boorman confronts the dangers of this position in his book The Protracted Game, a wei-chi interpretation of Maoist revolutionary strategy. (Wei-chi is the Chinese name for the game more commonly known as Go.) As he remarks in his introduction, “The value and validity of analysis of a military strategy employed at a given place and time are in great part determined by the strategic preconceptions of the analyst, by his criteria for assessing the importance and the correctness of a given strategic decision.”

Boorman goes on to discuss Chinese strategy, which “abounds in paradoxes when judged by the standards of conventional Western military doctrine—its use of fluid operational methods and yet its reliance upon relatively stable base areas; its emphasis on efficiency and yet its tolerance of protraction; its delight in complexity in contrast to the simplicity of Western warfare.” He suggests that Chinese strategy can in fact be best distinguished by reference to the game of wei-chi, and he proceeds at some length to do so.

But Boorman makes a mistake in his efforts to show that Western analysts must think themselves into the strategies and tactics of Wei-chi to understand Chinese intentions and maneuvers. For Boorman, it is a question of counterposing Western to Eastern traditions, rather than bourgeois war to people’s war. As a matter of fact chess is in origin an Eastern game, and the guerrilla warfare he discusses has emerged in the West. Chess can provide a very inadequate model of relations between similarly organized hierarchical states but is completely inapplicable to revolutionary civil war. Wei-chi is probably only a little bit better in this respect, since it too tends to start from some equivalence of position, at least in the sense that the two players are at the same game, with the same rules. This is never true of revolutionary civil war.

It is intriguing to speculate that 1972 was a year in which the major Communist powers, for their own reasons, were prepared to play the same game as Nixon, giving a strictly limited validity to Kissinger-type game theory. Now, chess may have some lessons for economic planning and conventional war and diplomacy—even though this is rare. But it has none for revolutionary struggle on the national and international plane, and this is where the Russian zealots for the game in the twenties made their mistake. Ultimately the antagonism and incomparability of United States imperialism on the one side and Russia and China as postrevolutionary states on the other will undermine any application of game theory to their relations with each other, just as the Vietnamese struggle invalidated it in Indochina.

No game model, such as chess, can in the end tolerate the notion of total contradiction, since all games accept the idea of rules. The subversive force is not the cheat. He accepts the rules in so far as he distorts them, within their terms. The subversive is the person who refuses to accept the rules at all. You cannot cheat at chess, but you can refuse to play it. The ultimate foolishness, of such people as the war-game planners, is to expect that everyone will play by the same rules with the same intentions as themselves. The game of chess is not, as I have tried to stress in this book, part of normal social reality. Symbolic meanings are not amenable to exact transliteration.



  1. What ever game the US generals are playing I have alleged for years that they are the ones who make the moves for the USA, and by extention the west. If I am correct in that assessment they are more evil than Dick Cheney, Benjimum Neytinjawho, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Abgushto Pinochet, Saddam Hussein, and Hafez Assad put together muliplied by ten to the tenth power. If I am wrong about their position in the grand scheme of things then they are far dumber than earth worms. If they are really far dumber than earth worms then we have proof that those of who oppose the direction the world is taking are not playing against the earthly ruling elite, we are playing against those outside of our simulated universe who are responsible for these earth worms being in the positions of power that they occupy.
    Speaking of games. While I was walking around Wiesbaden several days ago I witnessed something that would seem to be a case of people moving money by a courier to avoid needing to move money through the banking system. That would imply at least that the people are involved in tax evasion. So I kind of figured a couple days ago there is a ten percent chance that there is an innocent explination for what I saw. There is an 80% chance that a small business is involved in evading taxes on profits from a legitimate business. But there is perhaps a ten percent chance that the reason for evading the taxes is that it is made from illegal sources. Well yesterday I went back to that area and I connected not one but two locations involved in the scheme. Now my assessment that something funky going on has gone up to 51%.
    I also happen to believe that most if not all of organized crime is actually somehow connected to to the world’s intellegence agencies. So there should somehow be a way to take advantage of this info., if there is not an innocent explination. The thing is I do not know who these people are connected to. I also do not know what role they could play in attacking the system run by the US generals even if I did figure out who they were connected to. But there should be a way to do it based on the principle that any two people can be connected through five other people. If these people are organized crime figures, even low level ones, it should not be that hard to connect them to the illegal international arms trade. That makes them potential dominoes. But WHOSE potential dominoes?? Would tipping them be cost effective? Is it possible to turn a 60 year old man who has been molded into a cynical gangster by his life’s expiriences in to a revolutionary paragon of virtue? Well the behavior of US generals is evidence that it is not.
    So why am I posting this here? Well to give anyone and everyone who it could concern a fair chance to either minimize their damage or a fair chance to maximize their benifit based on this deliberately very vague discription. Let the game begin and may the best team get the support of the simulation administrators. Do I have other motives? Of course and my critics will attempt to portray them in the most negative manner while my (three known) supporters will chuckle.

    Comment by Curt Kastens — March 9, 2018 @ 2:15 pm

  2. A few days ago a detail of the game was publically revealed. I found this detail revealing in what it might have implicitly revealed. The detail was that nine Iranians were charged with hacking in to US universities for the Iranian government or Revolutionary Guard or some such thng. Well that is awfully darned detailed to know the names of the people who were actually directly involved in the hacking. It is apparant that these people are not in the United States or else the announcement would have been of their arrest not of their being accused. I guess the implication is that they are living in Iran. If that is true and I bet it is then the only correct deduction that can be made is that the US government has been spying on the Iranian government. How else could they claim to know who exactly was involved in this claimed minor case of hacking worth a paltry few million dollars of stolen information? Now if this information is true it teaches the Iranian intelllegence services how to improve there operations. Could the US have learned this information from stricktly electronic sources, such as telephone calls made by any of the accused Iranian patriots (perpitraitors). If not that would imply that someone informed the US govenment who these men were. It is also possible that the information is made up by the source of the information. The iranians might have planted inncorrect information with the US intellegence so that they would not understand exactly who was responsible for these hackings. It is also possible that an American double agent actually made up the information to improve his chances of getting a promotion by being able to point to a successful operation.
    This potential double agent could have faked either human intellegence or electronic intellegence to back up his claims.
    Still another possibility is that the entire story is made up simply to increase tensions with the Iranian government.
    I do not know what the truth is. I am not responsible for making a counter move though. The Iranian government is and it does know what the truth is.

    Comment by Curt Kastens — March 25, 2018 @ 2:02 pm

  3. I have decided to place an idea here that came to me about 24 hours ago. The idea that I should write about it on the internet came to me about 5 minutes ago as I read the post on this website that was posted today titeled, Its not about oil. The post then quotes dozens of important people who point out the extreme impotance of oil to the western economies. Oil is the fuel of empires.
    But about 24 hours ago I recalled reading something that I read perhaps close to 50 years ago. I no longer remember who wrote it but I suspect that it was disseminated by the John Birch Society. I could be wrong about that though. In any case what I read aledged that the super rich Rothchildes and Duponts and Rockefellers and others were trying to recreate feudal societies. The further alligation is that they would try to acheive their goal by imposing SOCIALISM on the world. The way to stop this evil plan would be to reinstate unfettered “free” market capitalism. Well I did buy part of the argument for many years. But a couple things always troubled me. First of all the accusers who wrote these books said lots of things that could never be verified. Worse yet they were always talking about what these shadowy groups did in the past they could never say what they were going to do in the future that would stand up to scrutiny. Furthermore I had trouble believing at that time that there were really people who were so evil that they would actually want to do something like bring back feudalism.
    Well yesterday I read a comment on Systemic Disorder that said beware, if there are right wing leaders promoting a left wing idea they will try to distort the idea to use for their own purposes. That in combination with something else got me thinking back to my early days.
    At some point in my life I learned that during the Great Patriotic War that the British had set up a fake German radio station. It repeated 99% of the news that one would here on the real thing. But it would give a different story now and then designed to destroy the morale of the German listeners. I also learned of the Germans and Russians modified this idea when the west broke their codes or gained access to their comm. lines. The idea being that you say lots of untrue things with one thing that is true so that the true thing will be dismissed as lie.
    Then here on earth there is one set of related facts that can not be hidden. First, the world has a serious global warming problem which has been known about since at least the 1980s if not the 1880s. Two not only has the world failed to act to correct this problem efforts to do so are now being openly sabotaged by the US government. The world’s super rich have to know that this failure to act decisively is going to almost surely result in billions of early deaths and could even foreseeably lead to the end of humanity.
    That leads me to one other thing that I learned not long ago. That is that psychopaths are addicted to risk taking. Given that psychopaths are one percent of the general population but are a far higher percentage in the finance industry and among General officers in the military and probably among the managing class of leading industries, I have to suspect that driving the human population towards extinction is actually part of a dileberately designed plan. It is in effect the end game of class warfare. A final solution that the super powerful hope to survive.
    I suspect that one characteristic of the plan is to make the outcome look accidental, or rather perhaps I should say unavoidable. The desire to make this outcome look like inevitable outcome of unstoppable trends is part of the principle that it is the winners who write history not the loosers. Since these powerful people hope to survive a mass extinction they want to make sure that they are looked at by those who follow them in history, especially their own descendents are saviors of mankind rather than criminals worse than Hitler and Gengis Khan put together to the tenth power.
    I suspect that their plan to survive is based on creating a climate controled refuge that would only be able to support a few thousand people indefinately. There could of course be more than one but there will not be a lot. This plan will of course require a level of sacrifice even from the super rich. They may have to live in these small habitats for centuries. But once they emerge the descedents of those who implemented the plan will all be able to live like Louis the 14?. They would of course keep the human population very small by being served mostly be machines. Exactly how large they would allow the human popultion to expand to would be quite speculative. I could still guess at numbers between 25,000 and 2,500,000. If you want a world in which every one lived in a palace fit for a European King as their main residence and having two or three additional residences fit for a Duke you could not plan for more than that.
    This train of thought continues with the (knowledge) speculative idea that the world we inhabit is actually a computer simulation. Yes I know that there are a couple scientists who say that they have conducted an experiment that proves that this world can not be a computer simulation. But speaking scientifically there are many reasons that it is not possible to prove that we are not stuck in a simulation. If the simulation does not want us to know it will simulate evidence to hide the fact. If it does want us to know then we will know. Even simulated postive evidence is real evidence.
    So we get a multiple choice set of answers for how it all ends.
    A.) In another univese similar to the one we expirience, a conspiracy of the super powerful psycopaths is successful. Their decendents now live in a world in which universe simulations are possible and one of the great granddaughters of one of the survivors wants to know what she would have done differently had she lived in the period before the collapse. She runs the simulation with a charachter very much like herself in the simulation that we are all apart of.
    B.) A counter movement in that universe manages to prevent the worst effects planned by the conspiracy of psycopaths and humanity reduces is population to sustainable levels through a low birth rate. A some point in the future simulations are run for educational or entertainment purposes of the events leading up to (and including) the collapse.
    C.) Humanity does not survive but AI does. But it is an AI with out self awarness. So it keeps running these simulations over and over and over again like a plane on automatic pilot. It will keep on doing so until the sun which powers it burns out.
    D.) AI with self awarness is created and it runs the simulations for a reason.
    I myself think that C or D is the correct answer because only a machine would have the patience to sit still this long.

    Comment by Curt Kastens — March 28, 2018 @ 12:46 am

  4. I would like to throw something out here for consideration. Back in Feb. of 1981 there was an attempt to overthrow the Spanish government. I think that it is likely that this 1981 coup attempt was set up by the CIA, to fail of course, to strengthen the democratic credentials of the Spanish government to make it easier to bring it in to NATO. The attempted coup to overthrhow Erdogan was different in that A.) hundreds of people were killed, B). Generals were involved in the plot. For these reasons I figured that the attempted coup in Turkey was not designed to fail.
    I figured that the USA wanted to overthrow Erdogan because he ahd betrayed core American objectives. I figured that Turkey was actively helping Iran smuggle weapons to the Hezbollah years before the coup attempt. Since then it has also been charged that Erdogan has been helping Iran launder money and evade sanctions. It also seemed to me that Erdogan was aware of the coup attempt before it was carried out. That is why it was supported by so few Generals in the Turkish military. I wondered who it was that tipped him off.
    But I am now wondering if I might have been scammed. I am certianly not making an accusation, just wondering.
    What if Erdogan knew of the coup attempt because he is the one who set it in motion? I am not saying that if that were true he would have handled any of the details. No I am saying that if this is the case that would have been subcontracted to the CIA. In fact if this version is true I suspect that it was the CIA who came to him to pitch thier idea. He would just have had to agree to the idea.
    IF this version is true, which some Turks have charged from the moment that it failed, it would imply that it is not the man in the US that Erdogan wants extradited to Turkey that is the CIA stooge, it is Erdogan himself. Hell both of them COULD be CIA stooges, or niether of them. But if this coup was a fake it means that even if Turkey helped Iran arm the Hezbollah, and helped Iran evade sanctions these just might have been the actions of a man trying to set himself up as a man beyond suspicion of being a CIA asset. The costs of gaining such a status were not really all that high from the point of view of the CIA. Potenially a few more dead Israelis if Israel and Hezbollah engage in an armed conflict, and one dead Turkish citizen killed by the Israelis on a boat that was going to the Gaza strip,to give Erdogan an excuse to pubablically distance himself from Israel. In fact the policies of secretly helping Iran might have been carried out by Turkey to create a reason for the apparent attempt to overthrow Erdogan.
    That means that there is a purpose for creating the impression that Erdogan is an indenpendent actor in the ME. Everything that has happened up until now has just been to create that impresion, IF THE COUP WAS FAKE. The Israelis and the Saudis are obvious tools of the USA. I wonder if the US leaders figured that they needed an insurance policy, a covert asset in power that they could trust.
    If this were true it would mean that any Turkish support that would have been given to any seditious elements in the US military, that Erdogan is aware of, has comprimised these elements.
    Of course that is IF such elements existed in the first place.
    I hope that the Cubans had this figured out before I did.

    Comment by Curt Kastens — April 2, 2018 @ 9:27 pm

  5. Does this link provide any clues as to the guilt or innocence of Erdogan?

    Comment by Curt Kastens — April 2, 2018 @ 10:36 pm

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