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Chess, the mirror of geopolitics – Chess as cultural space of world competition

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Chess and geopolitics, chess as a mirror of geopolitics! In this short post chess is presented as the representation of the current geopolitical competition. Chess has traveled the history of humanity from East to West. And now probably chess is returning to the (far) East. The strongest players in the world statistically are already non-Westerners: Chinese, Russian and other nations. During the last world championship (2018), two Western players from NATO block countries competed: USA – Caruana, grown in Italy, a long-time NATO country that also hosts the American atomic warheads and has 12,000 American soldiers, thirds or quarters by number exceeded only by Germany, Japan and South Korea; and Magnus Carlsen from Norway, a NATO country and among the closest to the UK-US influence at least since the Arctic ice has stirred the joint interest of Russia, China and the United States for the control over the new routes of maritime trade, which moves 90% of all world commercial traffic.

China, Russia and India, plus many of the former Soviet bloc countries – including two relatively little countries such as Georgia and Armenia, are fierce chess powers. And let’s not forget Iran, which is struggling even through the chessboard as many recent stories taught us – e.g. see the touching stories of the chess referee Shohreh Bayan, and of the very promising super GM, Alireza Firouzja. The International Chess Organization (Fédération Internationale des Échecs -FIDE)’s motto – gens una sumus (We are all the same people) – was never as true as today! Chess players of other eras are rapidly giving way to generations that use computer software no longer as an idiotic opponent or a fearsome evil machine, but still an antagonist of human intelligence – but as a projector of mental power. Nobody cares to beat the chess engines anymore, reduced indeed to what they are, namely “engines” for human intelligence enhancement. We have not stopped playing chess, we have not stopped believing in chess and this is why chess today shows that we are the same people of the same Planet who, however, admits only one world champion at a time.

Now, I want just to write down an extemporaneous reflection, on a theme that has fascinated me for years, from 2013 on, when I wrote and published The eternal battle of the mind – Chess and the philosophy of war (published in Italian – if you know anybody who would like to translate it, please write me!). Then I had the opportunity to present my research on this specific topic at least four times, including one at the Politecnico di Milano, whose video is on YouTube. Here, I just want to tickle the reader’s imagination towards something I have grasped recently without any particular pretension of exhaustion of a topic that would require much more research and space. It is based on the assumption that the metaphor of world competition is not the chessboard, because chess is a part of it. Chess, always a metaphor and infinite source of examples for geopolitics and war as the impressive War on the rocks recently reminded us, become itself the space of world competition. From the abstract image of space to real space!

It is not the first time that chess has stolen the scene from much more important world events. The match of the century (Reykjavík, 1972) took place in one of the hottest moments of the Cold War: Robert Fischer (US champion) was said to have been contacted by Henry Kissinger, who was appointed to find good arguments to induce Fisher to play. Kissinger, allegedly, reminded Fisher that he shouldn’t forget that he was part of the United States of America; there was little to do: he had to win. However, Reykjavik, 1972 had been an isolated event, in which an equally isolated genius managed with talent and hard work to counter the entire team of Soviet players, at least  so we are told (see a slightly controversial and not always fully accurate but still fascinating book White King and Red Queen, written by Daniel Johnson a real cold warrior). But then chess became a game, a beautiful game, the “game of kings”. Here, the kings of today are looking at chess and not to checkmate anybody on the chessboard. Losing today has the same bitter, unwelcome flavor as it once did, which is much more than a championship. Chess shows geopolitics much more than the sheer surface would present it!

Today the world competition has no longer two blocks. It has some main actors – US, Russia, China, and EU when is able to act as a united country, plus a whole series of states which, for historical and cultural reasons, have long lasting strategic interests, will and military capability, e.g. Iran, Israel, India, Japan and Turkey; while others are desperately trying to find a consistent collocation into the current geopolitical competition – e.g. also Turkey, Pakistan, North Korea, Saudi Arabia. As we tried to argue elsewhere, during the Cold War, the risk of nuclear war is always present and the sheer probability of a nuclear conflict has not decreased but if anything has increased, simply because more states – and almost all those on the list have, not surprisingly, atomic weapons. However, nuclear war must be avoided, as well as the risk of large-scale wars with conventional arsenals, because they would still be sufficiently ruinous. Furthermore, the demographic composition of the countries considered – with the exception of India and USA, have families composed of 2.1 members and an aging society, the average appeal for a war is low (with China violently leaving the one-child policy and Russia with demographic conundrums and life expectancy collapse – and poor standard of quality according to many experts).

So, as during the Cold War, competition works in between the still threatened total or nuclear war and the true conquest of geopolitical space through “peaceful” means: the war for knowledge is all around us, what I have called ‘epistemic war‘ (Filosofia pura della guerra, 2015), the war whose purpose is the control of the territory through the domination of the resilient population’s knowledge and beliefs. From time to time, this “peaceful competition” is explicitly translated into the world of technological confrontation over the control of critical infrastructure and technology, for example who controls the world wide web and the cyber space. Again, chess and geopolitics look very intertwined. So, just looking to the recent history, the Wassenaar Arrangement is the enduring continuation of what was once the Cocom, establishes the numerous permanent embargoes of strategic and dual use technology. As a matter of fact, as I discovered during a research published for the Italian Society of Military History (2017), the sheer number of technological embargoes is increased and not diminished in the years of the “end of history” and post 89 ‘euphoria. At other times, the face of war takes on the already less good-natured face of economic sanctions and the blockades to technology and natural and pecuniary resources of world banks. So, what about chess?

In the East the main traditional and revered game has always been Go, a wonderful game that I will always have the regret of knowing too little, although one of my closest friends was just the greatest Italian player ever and with whom I am happy to have lost 60 points in spite of my 9 handicap stones at my peak of go skills. I recently read a geopolitical article that exploited Go as a metaphor for the Eastern way of fighting, in which the metaphor exceeds reality but is still an interesting food for thought. China and Japan have fought over the best Go players in a long time. And the West has also recently played its part, because DeepMind’s AlphaGo has defeated Lee Sedol, the strongest player in the world and DeepMind is a company bought by Google (US technology) for $ 400 million. Interestingly, AlphaGo was then translated into a general algorithm that is able to play chess wonderfully, AlphaZero, what I’ve called “the best gambler in the world“. And it seems that DeepMind’s victory has persuaded the Chinese government of the need to dominate the new AI market, so that China today is at the forefront in the investment race over AI. One anecdote from a Go player to a chess player. I had the privilege of being apostrophe as a “chess player, player of a game that even a piece of technology found in the Kinder egg can beat” by an ironic Go player from the Go club in Milan, a place I always attended with pleasure. Glad to find out that we are in the same page now and our GO friends are finally with us, where even a super-stupid piece of technology (is it really so stupid?) can beat the best human player in the world. Indeed, people from the West in Go are and will still be barbarians far back those in the East, like the emissaries of Europe who first met the Chinese emperor, who believed that being China at the center of the lands (in fact called as “Middle kingdom”). As it is typical of Western sinful attitude toward other cultures, we are not interested in their games, but now they are interested in “ours”. A wave of black and white winds has swept China.

For some decades, China has spread chess in schools with a Chinese dimension – which once would have been called the “Texan dimension”. Iran, which still continues to have some problems in this regard, has allowed the development of the game and now there are fantastic young players that comes from this very state. Russia continues to try to maintain its influence on the game – apparently. Indeed, today’s Russia is no longer even in chess what the USSR was during the Cold War, which had extraordinary players such as Tal, Petrosjan and countless other non-Russians ethnicity but still part of the Soviet Union – players that I loved the most at least because I more or less understand their games. The United States, which has always been relatively lacking in champions so much so that we all remember the exceptions – Morphy, Fischer above all just as an emblem of the American dream applied to chess: isolated talented champions who win everything and then maybe go crazy intoxicated by too much American dreaming. Today USA have two top Ten players with Caruana contending the title, and I know that closes the list plus a whole series of respectable champions (Nakamura). Among the European nations, I am not surprised by the presence of France, which has always been the most combative of the post-WWII European nations, the least convinced that history ended with the Second World War. What does all this mean?

Chess continues to be the game of the Western countries and, probably, the ideal inspirational game of the West culture – not thinking that this should be intended as a normative, evaluative consideration as far as it is merely a descriptive one. That’s why everyone is now playing with it because the West, which since ancient Greece has proven itself as a competitive people par excellence, it has not finished playing the game in the global competition. It has simply extended it even to chess. First, since the advent of the internet – here the equivalent of the sea routes defended by the seventh American fleet -, chess has gone from a game for people living in the cities to a game for all the people also in the countryside – this fact was noticed by Mario Leoncini, as always an acute observer of chess dynamics. Secondly, today the competition for world primacy has no longer just two blocs but all those states that during their history have had millennial civilizations in which peoples have identified themselves in the values ​​that define them – mainly China, Iran, Israel , Russia, USA and EU – eventually.

Today the ideological clash is not over, it only multiplied both in variety and size. And chess, which is still – like it or not – a symbol of human intelligence that struggles to win by following the rule of law, they have taken on an incredible and renewed aspect precisely within the new world order. Gens una sumus (We are all the same people) certainly. And in fact everyone wants only one thing: to win. So much never before, chess has been a universal heritage, a common ground to speak a unique and common language. But everything in life has a price. Even Kant declined the categorical imperative in his third statement in The Foundation of Metaphysics of Morals remembering that rational (human) beings must always be too an end and not only means. Even ends… never only means… But humans, said Kant in his anthropology, makes themselves virtuous and powerful of their being also a means. And so does chess, like everything else. Here is the ambivalence of that nature that wears a helmet with a peace badge, as the Full Metal Jacket Joker reminds us.

Since ‘89 history is not over and the story is not done at the table. But it also passes through our coffee tables and on chessboards. I have argued elsewhere, chess unites more than divides, chess is a game that teaches peace, and how to mediate through opposite conflicting visions. And I continue to believe it because peace has its conditions. And in fact the charm of this game is its polymorphic ability to adapt to eras, technologies and times. The history did not end with the Berlin wall, as chess did not end with Deep Blue in the memorable game of 1997. And it will not end with AlpahZero. The history must be written, and chess continue to intersect with our historical reality. And since our nature is always open to multiple interpretations, so too will our game.


Disclaimer – This post is just a general reflection of the nature of the current geopolitical competition. It is a-ideological, it doesn’t want to make any judgment of any sort and the author will be free to reply only to the comments that positive contribute to a public and healthy debate.



Giangiuseppe Pili

Giangiuseppe Pili è Ph.D. in filosofia e scienze della mente (2017). E' stato assistant professor ed è il fondatore di Scuola Filosofica, coordinatore dell'associazione Azione Filosofica ed è il responsabile della collana dei libri di Scuola Filosofica. Egli è autore di numerosi saggi e di diversi articoli in riviste internazionali. In lingua italiana ha pubblicato numerosi lavori e libri. Scacchista per passione. ---- ENGLISH PRESENTATION ------------------------------------------------- Giangiuseppe Pili - PhD philosophy and sciences of the mind (2017). He is a former assistant professor in intelligence studies and he is the founder of Scuola Filosofica (Philosophical School) and the Co-Founder of the philosophical association Azione Filosofica (Philosophical Action). He is the editor in chief of the collective series of books based on the blog (Le Due Torri - Publisher). He is a prolific author nationally and internationally. He is a passionate chess player and (back in the days!) movie maker.

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