Chess is just about my favorite game. Whatever my mood, it always makes me feel calm, thoughtful, and relaxed. Which is a good thing, because I’m really quite bad at it.
I pretty much always lose at chess, often to middle schoolers who only recently started playing. I’m convinced my four-year old twins are roughly a year and a half away from making a complete mockery of their father.
I’m a chess idiot
Given the time I devote to the game, you’d think I‘d be better at it by now. I study openings, I read books, I study my past games. Despite that work, I lose as badly as someone who doesn’t know how to play.
But I do. What I love about chess is the pieces move in defined ways. A bishop always moves like a bishop. Only a knight moves like a knight. You don’t have to think about how pieces move, you only have to think about where to move them and when.
Unfortunately, there’s more to chess than how pieces move. You actually have to move those pieces in a way that helps you win–something I almost never do.
Once, after an embarrassing loss, a friend tried to make me feel better.
“When you’re learning to play chess,” he said, “the goal is not to win, but to avoid looking like an idiot.”
He didn’t know I’d been playing for twenty years. It seems I will always be a chess idiot. I seem strong until I realize my opponent is controlling the entire board with maybe three pieces, while mine are scattered wildly about and mostly useless. I always realize it too late. A better player would avoid these situations. At least they’d be able to recover, possibly with a smart move like lowering defenses around their white queen, or not relying on a weak bishop.
Gambit: The Hidden Attack
The hardest aspect of chess is that attacks are so often not actually attacks, but distractions. I will often rally against an attack, happily capturing an opponents piece only to discover that was their plan. I then realize there’s now a wide hole in my defenses that I can’t close.
In chess, this move is called a gambit– a tactical risk, often involving a sacrificed piece that puts the user in a strategic advantage. I fall for them every damn time.
Gambits often leave a player with two terrible choices. Do I take down my opponent’s pawn and accept a weak position? Or do I not take it, and end up in even more danger?
Strategy vs. Tactics
The gambit illustrates the two important aspects of chess thinking: Tactics and strategy.
Tactics are the actions you take to achieve an immediate goal–the thing you want that is at most a few moves ahead. Strategy is the master plan you make to achieve your long term goal. A good chess player can do both. They can make a strategy without knowing the details of individual choices, then play tactically so that those individual choices support the master plan.
Over the years, I’ve come to realize I’m a tactical player. I can’t formulate a strategy, and even if I do, I can’t stick to it. Every move I make is atomic– barely related to other moves, if it is even related at all.
My thought process usually goes something like this: “They moved a piece … I can take that piece … yay, I won a piece!”
Recent events have caused me suspect that Vladimir Putin is an excellent chess player who is great at both strategy and tactics. I’m also beginning to suspect that America, as a country, plays chess about as horribly as I do.
Putin knows how his pieces will move. He knows he can focus on where to put them, and when. Once placed, his pieces will move without his attention to support his strategy.
We know Putin influenced our election and helped make The Orange Candidate™ our president. More importantly, we knew this during the campaign, but chose to do nothing about it. Without any consideration for what a Russian strategy might be, the GOP saw the presidency and thought “I can take that piece … yay, I won a piece!”
Thanks to this childish play, we now have a president who is a tangerine-colored Russian pawn. We are responding by analyzing why he’s a pawn. Is it money? Is it oil? Is it NATO?
We’re now completely focused on this pawn as if it’s is the most important piece on the board.
The Tangerine Gambit
In the days following the inauguration, I’ve begun to see the brilliance of The Tangerine Gambit. We now have two choices, and both of them leave us weaker.
Putin knows how an authoritarian white supremacist pawn moves, and he knows where to put it. He knew it would try to destroy the media, purge the government, ingratiate and control the security services, gut social services.
In short, he knew his pawn would take whatever steps it could to become an authoritarian embarrassment.
Our media is just trying to survive while it spends time exposing stupid lies about inaugural crowds and fake CIA sycophants. And it seems much of his cadre, even his pick for National Security Advisor, is under investigation for Russian collusion. Meanwhile it has been less than a week, and this fascist government is threatening the Central Intelligence Agency, placing gag orders on the USDA and EPA, silencing the twitter accounts of The National Parks Service, threatening to send federal troops into Chicago, and God knows what else.
The Tangerine Gambit worked.
Putin left us with two choices: Take out this pawn, and leave ourselves weaker (and probably in chaos), or don’t take out the pawn and quite likely destroy our entire democracy.
America is a Chess Idiot
Putin knew we are bad at chess. He knew that our society is terrified about protecting our white queen. He knew that we rely entirely on our weak bishop. All he had to do is create a few fake news stories about how scary brown people and Muslims are and he could place that pawn right where we wanted it.
He used our own behavior against us while we were stupidly focused on power tactics, making moves without any consideration at all for strategy. Now we’re stuck with two really bad choices while he has free reign to do whatever he wants on the entire rest of the board.
America, we are chess idiots.
I could be wrong. It could all be about oil, or simply laughing that America elected a sentient trash fire as president. Maybe that was actually his end goal, but I seriously doubt it. Our opponent is controlling the entire board with maybe three pieces, while ours are scattered wildly about and mostly useless.
Putin is too good at chess and we’re only a few moves from checkmate. It’s a shame we realized this too late. We’ve already lost this game. I just wish we could have avoided looking like a bunch of idiots.