What Chess and 'Go' Tell Us About India and China’s Strategic Thinking

Both games are intellectual demanding and reflect the two countries' geopolitical moves.

Does the game we play influence the way we think? Or does the way we think cause us to choose our preferred game? Could chess and go – popular indoor games in India and China respectively – tell us something about the strategic thinking of the two countries?

Chess (chaturanga) is thought to have originated in India around 600 CE. The Indian game was adopted by the Persians (as shatranj) and then reached the West through the Arab conquest of Spain. Simply put, in chess, two opposing teams of white and black pieces face each other on an 8 x 8 chequered square board. The objective of the game is to render the ‘king’ of the opposing side immobile through a series of moves that capture his pieces and diminish his army.

Weiqi (Mandarin for ‘board game of surrounding’) had its origins in China sometime before 500 BC. Since the West first heard of weiqi through Japan, it is more familiar to most people by its Japanese name ‘go‘. It is played on a 19 x 19 square board with black and white pieces. All pieces are identical and have no power of movement once on the board. The objective of the game is to surround the opponents’ pieces and capture more territory – a balance between attack and defence.

The go game. Credit: Flickr CC BY ND 2.0

Both chess and go are intellectually demanding games with a capacity to entrance if not enrapture the players. The film Shatranj Ke Khiladi dramatically illustrates a situation where two chess players sat unmindful, whilst the British intrigue against Avadh caused their world to fall apart around them. The latest research using functional MRI shows that chess activates primarily the left hemisphere of the brain. On the other hand, go affects both sides, but particularly the right parietal lobe of the brain which interprets shapes and patterns.

This is significant. The left hemisphere of the brain controls language functions and logical thinking, while the right hemisphere deals with pattern recognition and musical tones. And how do we decode languages like Sanskrit and Mandarin – the root languages of India and China respectively?

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In brief, Sanskrit is decoded by the left brain, whilst Mandarin – a character-based and tonal language – involves both hemispheres. If neural pathways are constantly stimulated by use, they create lasting nerve connections and hence strong responses and memories. Since the language and cognition pathways of the brain for Sanskrit and Mandarin are the very neurological regions, respectively, that chess and go tackle, we can postulate, for now, that each game stimulates and reinforces its corresponding thinking pattern.

India and China: Language, culture, chess and go

Time-honoured traditions in both India and China link chess and go to the formal education of princes and scholars. In China, weiqi was considered as one of the ‘four cultivated arts’ for ‘gentlemen’ to master statecraft. And in India as well as Persia, chess was part of the training of the ruling elites. So, how much are these two games really about strategy, rather than tactics, skill, or even chance?

Chess is much easier to learn. In part, this is because an incredible number of moves are possible in go –10 raised to the power 360 versus a mere 10 raised to 123 for chess! Chess is hierarchical and more of a ‘winner take all’ game: you win or lose clearly, though there is the intermediate position of a draw.

In go, what matters is positioning with give-and-take across the board. Chess is like a takeover bid whilst go is a competition for greater market share. To that end, go may approximate real-world conditions, where the goal usually is sectoral dominance rather than outright extinction.

To the horror of many chess enthusiasts, the famous German grandmaster Richard Teichmann (1868-1925) declared, “Chess is 99% tactics!” There may be a germ of truth here: certainly, in an evenly-matched chess game, an early positional advantage can be pushed through to a checkmate.

In contrast, go between equals usually produces marginal ranges of ‘victory’. Even a poor start in go can be converted into a victory later, because the risk perception and management matrix for go is quite different from that of chess: it takes a longer view, with greater caution. But caution is not incrementalism: go games can display unusual or paradoxical moves – and at different places – but within an overall pattern.

A chess board. Credit: Inessa Akhmedova/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Geopolitics, chess and go

Coming to specific analogies between chess, go and strategy, consider the ‘deep penetration raid’ – a particular outcome from chess theory. Spectacular instances of success here include the US Navy Seals raid into Abbottabad (2011), the earlier Israeli hostage release at Entebbe (1976) and the extraction of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann from Argentina (1960). Equally, the disasters – the botched US hostage rescue from Teheran (1980) and the infamous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba (1960).

On the go theory, the best success example would be of China’s astounding economic growth during the 40-year period starting from 1979, when Deng Xiaoping advised China to keep a low international profile and bide its time, focusing on its own development. The jury is still out on whether Xi Jinping’s recent adoption of a more assertive approach by China is premature, if not ill-judged.

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Even China’s setbacks eerily reflect the tendency in go to develop ‘frozen’ positions on the board which reflect a static and unsatisfactory status quo. The best examples are North Korea, and within China itself – the prolonged uneasiness in Tibet and Xinjiang. These illustrate the lack of suppleness symbolised by the immobile nature of go pieces, as opposed to the mobility of chess pieces.

The Chinese could not transplant the highly innovative “one-country-two-systems” formula from Hong Kong to Tibet and Xinjiang, where – with some tweaks – it might have provided the intellectual impetus to break the stalemates.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is an example of recent Chinese geostrategy with some signature imprints of go theory. First, Chinas’ moves across the South Asian, African and Eurasian geographies mirror how a typical go game might progress on the weiqi board.

Second, the win-win formulation of the BRI appeals to poorer nations hungry for development but lacking the credit-worthiness and institutional structures to attract conventional global finance; this is despite the win-win being asymmetrical – ‘I win more but you also win’.

Third, the BRI comes without pesky conditionalities on governance or human rights. Since China’s BRI financiers face higher geopolitical and financial risk (including that of sovereign default by debtors) than the Bretton Woods twins, they seek a higher reward (‘market share’) in these uncommitted countries.

The above three-point approach aims to achieve this goal by playing for the long term and accepting some setbacks as the costs of learning and higher risk-taking. This pragmatic formula – amoral or realist – is classical go strategy, aiming to outmanoeuvre opponents whose risk and reward horizons are more near-term and tactical.

Recent pushbacks to BRI

On this reasoning, one should view the recent pushbacks to BRI in Malaysia, Maldives and Pakistan as a pause rather than a lasting setback for China – most likely, the Chinese will reflect, learn some lessons and make some adjustments, but the BRI will roll on.

What about the lessons for India from chess theory? The obvious one is from May 2014, where the new government launched a breath-takingly fresh initiative, which could have re-ordered India’s policy towards South Asia (not excluding Pakistan) and set the course for a connected and re-energised South Asia.

After all, eight prominent leaders including presidents and prime ministers from the South Asian and Indian Ocean nations had attended the swearing-in ceremony of the newly-elected council of ministers amidst soaring rhetoric and hopes that the new dispensation could set a new direction for South Asia, including the vexed India-Pakistan relationship.

Alas, that was not to be – the knights had sallied forth, but the rooks, bishops and pawns did not rally in support – and matters soon resumed their tired old course. This was a failure at the strategic level; at the tactical one, some initial blunders were followed by repair and recovery in the following years. But even these advances will founder if not grounded in a clear and articulated longer-term strategy.

Chinese President Xi Jinping applauds at an event marking the 40th anniversary of China's reform and opening up at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China December 18, 2018. Credit: REUTERS/Jason Lee

The jury is still out on whether Xi Jinping’s recent adoption of a more assertive approach by China is premature, if not ill-judged.. Credit: Reuters/Jason Lee

Doklam viewed as a chess/go problem

Finally, some what-if questions. Could go be played on a chess board and chess on a go board? A go player would feel highly constricted on the much smaller chess-board, whilst chess players would be adrift in the much wider go landscape.

But what if both the chess and go players were unaware of the nature of the board on which they were playing? Presumably, each would adopt their preferred strategy and play accordingly. Since the rules of the two games differ, both sides could claim victory in such a situation, but still be left with a nagging feeling that something was not quite right.

Such a piquant situation did indeed happen, at the “Doklam stand-off” between June-August 2017. In its essentials, Indian and Chinese troops confronted each other within disputed (between Bhutan and China) territory, near the point which each perceived as the location of the tri-junction of Indian, Chinese and Bhutanese frontiers.

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The Chinese were constructing a road aimed at the Zompelri ridge, which would threaten India’s narrow link with its Northeast. In a swift advance redolent with memories of Bobby Fishers’ best games, the Indian Army blocked the Chinese construction crews.

The ensuing stand-off lasted two months until the Chinese stopped the road-building and Indian troops resumed their status quo ante. Both sides proclaimed victory. But whilst the road construction had ceased, the Chinese had augmented their rear positions. And whilst India had retreated from its foray, the threatening roadworks had not resumed. Stalemate? This ambiguous resolution still casts a shadow on Sino-Indian relations.

Satellite map of Chumbi Valley, Doklam region. Credit: Scribble Maps

Satellite map of Chumbi Valley, Doklam region. Credit: Scribble Maps

Psychology and Geopolitics

Geopoliticians and strategists view themselves as hard-headed folk who follow ‘facts’ and logical reasoning, eschewing woolly subjects like psychology. But psychology has come a long way since kindly old men with white beards put their patients on a couch and asked them to bare their innermost fantasies.

Psychology today is based inter alia on the biological sciences, decision theory and linguistics. Two of this century’s Nobelists are psychologists – Daniel Kahneman and Richard Thaler – who have shown that ‘facts’ and ‘reality’ depend on human perceptions, memories, logic, emotion and language.

Perhaps our geopoliticians must make bold to venture beyond the simplistic categories of international relations theory and embrace the study of psychology. That is where the greatest of strategists – Kautilya, Sunzi, Plato and Machiavelli – started their journey, which they called the study of ‘human nature’. It is time to explore that terrain again.

Ravi Bhoothalingam is an independent corporate director and honorary fellow of the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi.

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