Tactics or Strategy

I think I love chess. Until last Christmas, I never played. My wife got me a Star Wars chess set with themes for each side: white is the Alliance or Jedi and black is the Empire or Dark Side. Truthfully, I rarely use it. She doesn’t really like to play so it just sits in our box of board games. But the set prompted me to start playing with a friend from Virginia (I’d be lying if I said the Star Wars theme wasn’t the catalyst). Since we spend most of our time about three hundred miles apart, we mostly play online by way of an app we each have on our phones.

The game is just as fascinating as people say it is. I play the occasional game against random online opponents or the computer that allows me to select the level of competition, but nine of ten contests are with Hunter. Few games require so much thought or such particular attention to the balance between tactics and strategy; small and large. That our other favorite game is Risk is no surprise at all.

Risk requires a delicate balance of detail and vision, but the comparison doesn’t do chess any justice. Risk is played on a huge spacious board with several small points of inflection; much like real global diplomacy. The important thing is not to hold the eastern and western halves of the United States and expand northward but to make Venezuela and Brazil impenetrable, expand into Central America and make that impenetrable too, make small moves until there are armies enough to sweep through the whole continent and fortify a new set of crossings. The game moves along a predictable set of pathways, carved from a world that necessarily can’t change. That’s not to say the game is simple, but rather that parts of it are rigid. I can effectively change the board by building up countless armies in North Africa and making it impenetrable, almost as disruptive as the ocean to the west. But North Africa will always be where it is.

Chess is different in that North Africa moves. The pathways through the chaos change with every move and are infinitely variable from game to game, even after I establish patterns and tendencies. Risk is like huddling around a table in the war room. Chess is like sitting at Leister Farm atop Cemetery Ridge as columns rush across the valley.

Risk bills itself as the game of global strategy. It is. It’s very difficult for a tactical mistake to derail a strategic advantage. Grant marshalls superior resources as Meade huddles around Petersburg and Sherman guts Georgia like a fish. A single Cold Harbor or Battle of the Crater stings but can’t shake loose a larger, better-positioned army.

Chess is a game of smaller strategy, tactics and foresight evenly balanced. If reinforcements take the wrong road or get bogged down in the rain, if a general bickers with his subordinates, if scouts read an enemy fortification poorly then the whole position collapses. Even still, a devastating flanking maneuver or midnight shift of force or brilliant feint can’t compensate for an opponent who is better equipped, better positioned, better prepared.

Hunter has put me on the business end of that imbalance many times. As I finished editing a piece and prepared to begin this one, I was ahead of him in material, checking him repeatedly, pushing his king across the board and its defenders all to the same flank. He threatened my queen and I balked. Checkmate came fast.

ChessPeter Amos