Small Wars Journal

Back to the Basics: Chess, Poker & the Future of Warfare, Part II

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In the first part of this series, the following challenges the U.S. military faces were identified; improving the current state of PME programs, how to transfer the knowledge of lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, preparing for irregular warfare of the future, improving the low college graduation rates of veterans, and reducing veterans’ higher than U.S. average unemployment rates.  Consequently, the U.S. military needs to renew their focus on education and training, and to strive to change from not just a traditional military organization, but to a learning military organization.  A learning military organization is an organization skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring the knowledge, and to modify the behavior of the organization to reflect the new knowledge and insights over the last decade.  In the second part of this series, the remainder of this article will propose the solutions the U.S. military should undertake to meet the challenges of future warfare and those that serve in the U.S. military.

Dr. Nicholas Murray, Professor at the Department of Military History at the US Army Command and Staff College posits that France was not prepared with their war with Prussia and “lost because of the cumulative effect of the poor education system upon their critical reasoning skills and their consequent inability to identify and adapt to the flaws in their own doctrine and planning.”[1]  One way to ensure an education system does not become static is to transform the organization into a learning organization.  Daniel Tobin describes the five principles for a learning organization; 1) everyone is a learner, 2) people learn from each other, 3) learning enables change, 4) learning in continuous, and 5) learning is an investment, not an expense.[2]  Thus, in going Back to the Basics for training, the U.S. military focus on the cornerstone of military strategy concepts.  General Gray focused on PME during the interwar period after the Vietnam drawdown.  He said “[t]raining is the key to combat effectiveness and therefore is the focus of effort of a peacetime military.”[3]  Providing the learning material is only one component of the training process; students need to buy into the vision; and they need to actually read the materials and embrace what is being taught.  Some people are visual learners, so merely providing the literature to read is not enough, especially for core skill-sets.  What is also needed is an indirect learning experience which provides a tactile learning process in a learning environment that will resonate with the student.  The implementation of chess throughout the U.S. Armed Forces at both Officer and enlisted ranks can supplement or be included in existing PME programs.  Chess teaches the importance of forethought and develops the user’s ability to plan and think multiple moves ahead. 

U.S. Air Force Colonel John Boyd’s model on decision-making called OODA Loops, analyzes the decision making process into four steps of Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act.[4]  What this process does is teach the student to improve their situational awareness, analyze the information, make a decision in the Fog of War, and implement the decision.  One only needs to look to the Infantry Immersion Trainer (IIT), which provides direct learning experience with external stimuli to familiarize a Marine so they can improve their decision making process.  The IIT is designed to improve decision making skill set for every Small Unit Leader and Marine that goes through the simulation.  As every Marine is a Rifleman, and as a byproduct of a decentralized command structure where Marines are tasked in small groups to work independently, all would benefit from a sound understanding of chess strategy which teaches situational awareness, critical thinking to analyze the information on the board, and how to make accurate decisions quickly without complete information of the strategy the opponent is trying to implement.  Indeed, these skill sets are a force-multiplier that will provide an advantage to all those who have them.

In 1991, a USMC recruitment advertisement depicted a chess game in action, and in the end, with a Marine holding his Mameluke on the chessboard, the voiceover says “To compete, you’ve got to be strong, to win, you’ve got to be smart.”[5]  The change in the recruitment strategy was that in addition to being physically strong, a Marine had to be mentally strong to succeed.[6]  The Marine Corps implied in using that recruiting advertisement to demonstrate that intellectual fitness that is associated with the game of chess is also an important part of every Marine.  However, it is ironic that the USMC did not make the last leap to implement chess as a part of PME programs.  The USMC missed an opportunity to constructively use chess to their advantage in training and developing Marines, and now senior military policy makers have a second chance to do so.

Chess is simple to learn, with only a few rules, but difficult to perfect, which is why some might feel intimidated in matches against those who have played the strategy game for many years.  What has made chess successful is the standardization of the rules.  In fact, the standardization of the rules is what allows chess to overcome language barriers and be played internationally.  Just as it is important to learn and not just study, to learn any rule in life requires the understanding that “the important part of any rule is the spirit of it.  This is gained by understanding the wisdom and necessity of the rule, not by mere obedience because it is a rule.  No rule seems hard when you see that it is wise-worked out from experience-made necessary by existing conditions.[7]  Chess can be used as both a training tool and in a recreational setting allowing those who wish to proactively further their skill sets can do so on their own time, and the cost associated with acquiring the needed equipment is minimal.     

American superiority in poker skills may have been an asset to winning the cold war and previous conflicts, but knowledge of chess strategy coupled with poker strategy will provide decisive advantages in future conflicts.  Interestingly, Europeans are more enamored with chess, whereas Americans prefer poker and the results of competitions support those corresponding preferences.  In 2012, the World Series of Poker bracelets awarded went to the U.S. (49), Canada (3), France (3), Germany (2), Portugal (2), Belgium (1), Bulgaria (1), Czech Republic (1), England (1), Italy (1), Japan (1), Netherlands (1), Russia (1), Tunisia (1), and Ukraine (1).[8]  John von Neumann who worked on the Manhattan project viewed poker as a version of warfare, where in poker “[t]the best strategy involves probability, psychology, luck and budgetary acumen but is never transparent; it depends on the counterstrategies deployed by the enemy.”[9]

The military is using chess recreationally through tournaments that are held throughout the U.S. Armed Forces.  Marines participate in and through an All-Marine Chess Team that typically runs from October through February.[10]  Soon thereafter, an Inter Services Chess Tournament between the four different branches of the U.S. military is held for one week, where six Marines participate.[11]  The ultimate goal is where one to two Marines will represent the United States at the NATO Chess Championship held annually, now in its 23rd year.[12]  The activities programmer at the Single Marine Program at Camp Lejeune said “if a Marine can master chess, it would make him or her a better war fighter.[13]  In 2011, the U.S. placed 14th out of 15 teams represented, finishing ahead of only Canada.[14]  In 2012, the U.S. finished 9th.[15]  In comparison, civilians in the 2012 World Chess Olympiad held in September, the U.S. still finished 5th behind Armenia, Russia, Ukraine, and China.[16]  These tournaments are just recreation, but are rooted with the competitive spirit of those who participate in the matches.

Clearly, both chess and poker require strategic skill sets.  Chess is viewed as a game with complete information where all of the information about your opponent is known and is strictly dependent on the skill of the player with no determination of the outcome based on luck or randomness.  However, chess players need to have a great memory to recall the optimal strategies to deploy and to defend from opponent’s attacks.  In comparison, poker is a game of incomplete information, because players only know what they hold and what has been revealed on the table, not what is in the hands of their opponent.  In poker, the skill of the player has a strong determination with the outcome; however, luck or randomness of the cards dealt are a significant determinate.  In chess, the average number of possible moves each turn a player has is 36; however, chess requires forethought and strategic planning and to prepare five moves into the future, which may leave in theory on average 60,000,000 (36^5) potential moves.[17]

Tactile learning of theory based strategic ideas put into practice through an indirect learning experience allows for those theories to resonate in the student.  There are two types of practical experience to demonstrate training concepts, direct and indirect.  Direct experience is gained from hands on experience and is an important method, but typically comes with a higher cost.  However, “indirect practical experience can be applied with a wider scope to encompass many scenarios and thus, might be more valuable, especially as a training tool.[18]  Some people learn visually, whereas others prefer to learn through auditory or other means.  Regardless, a physical representation of concepts being taught will help resonate with the student when they can see the concepts actually play out, as they will be directly immersed and engaged.  Group training, one-on-one, or two-on-two in a personal setting is more valuable, because it facilitates the flow of information needed for learning.  While computer gaming and simulators are great assets, they are only one part and are more productive once one has gained a complete grasp of the basics.  Thus, the U.S. military can find that strategic chess training and computerized warfare gaming complement one another.  The best way to learn is to be forced to teach someone else, because it requires that you understand the concept at a level in which you can then transfer that knowledge to someone else.  As a result, chess is the ideal means in which strategy can be taught in a classroom environment that provides for the opportunity to transfer knowledge from those with battlefield experience to new Officers and enlisted personnel.  All who would participate in such a program would have the ability to improve their OODA Loop decision making process shortened.  Consequently, a robust PME program implemented during the next interwar period will put the U.S. military at a discernible advantage.  The U.S. military does not need to fight any harder; they are already doing that; what will tip the scales in the future is who has the intellectual advantage.   The lessons gained from studying chess strategy and the transferable skill sets that it develops are not something the U.S. should concede to our future adversaries.

History of Chess

For centuries military leaders have become familiar with chess, because of the intellectual challenges of strategy that are created throughout the match.  While chess was believed to have started in India around 600 A.D. and was called Chaturanga, in 2002, a chess piece was discovered in Albania that dates a chess piece back to the 2nd or 3rd century B.C... [19]  Chaturanga used foot soldiers, cavalry, chariots, and elephants which are today’s pawns, knights, rooks and bishops respectively on the chess board.  India’s imperial court used it as a method to teach princelings military strategy.[20]  The chessboard is laid out with the horizontal rows referred to as ranks, and the vertical rows called files, which are a reference back to Thessalian cavalry formations used in the 4th Century B.C..[21]  Europeans took to chess in the 15th and 16th centuries and has grown in popularity over the centuries.  The traditional game of chess was viewed as a symbolic game of war.[22]  The name chess was derived from the Persian word “shah” or “king.”[23]  Indeed, during their military campaigns Robert E. Lee, Napoleon, Peter the Great, and King Charles XII of Sweden had chess set with them.[24]  In addition to use by military leaders, English chess players in WWII were instrumental in breaking German codes.[25]

Benefits of using Chess in a PME Program

Chess can be used to teach informed decision-making skills, and it has been noted for improving many skill sets.[26].  Chess develops memory, improves concentration, invokes logical thinking, promotes imagination and creativity, teaches independence, and improves math skills.  Studies have also shown a correlation between those who play chess and reading, math, and an improved learning ability.[27]  Chess should not be narrowly viewed as just a game that provides intellectual challenges in a recreational setting, but also as a training tool.  The chessboard and pieces are the gym, and the equipment that the mind needs for regular exercise.  Knowledge of how chess is played over those who did not, was not a barrier to improvement, as progress was shown in “spatial, numerical, and administrative-leadership skills” to those students who were part of a study.[28]  Moreover, improved decision-making skills are the cornerstone for leadership.  According to General Gray these are the moral forces that are the mental aspects of war which are difficult to quantify.[29]  Additionally, one of the elements of combat power is the intangible effects of leadership.[30]  Chess teaches tactical decision making skills which every warfighter uses.  Chess has been used to demonstrate outflanking, isolation, concentrated attacks, and diversionary actions along internal positions so that those moves can be analyzed and evaluated and incorporated into future planning.[31]  Similar to war, in chess, matches are often broken down into three distinct parts, the opening, the middle, and the end game.  Thus, there are countless strategies for each in chess that are studied and perfected.  Those strategies learned are what will allow future military leaders to adapt, think abstractly, and create the next success strategy solution.

Having a broad skill set will provide Marines with the ability to improve their situational assessments and the corresponding operational decisions that they make on the battlefield.  In sum, those skill sets will improve Marines operating and strategic decision-making skills.  Similar to that of a quarterback with a broad leadership skill set, a good quarterback can identify the weaknesses in the opponent’s defense, find and exploit the weaknesses, use quick decision-making process under time constraints and call an audible to change the offensive strategy and execute a successful play.  In Strategic Assessment in War, Scott Sigmund Gartner describe warfare assessments by saying “[l]eaders assess and, if necessary, alter their strategies based on information they gather from the battlefield…These decisions can have enormous impact.  Decisions on strategy play a significant role in determining a war’s nature, as well as its duration, intensity, and ultimately who wins and who loses.”[32]  Using chess as a training tool will help participants understand “the logic of problems,” and “make definite decision.”[33]  Chess also provides the ability for individuals to improve their foresight in how the match is developing, which improves their real world skill of forecasting.  Warfighters at all ranks and grades are given leadership decision-making power when out in the battlefield, as a result, incorporating these lessons and mind exercises are important in developing those skill sets.

For centuries, military leaders have understood the importance of tempo in battle.  Similarly, businesses understand the advantage of being first to market.  Sun Tzu stated “The value of time, being a little ahead of your opponent has counted more than numerical superiority,” and “an attack may lack ingenuity, but it must be delivered with supernatural speed.”[34]  In war, actionable intelligence has a shelf-life in which the information loses its value over time.  Therefore, tempo is an important component in both business and war.  A former Marine Commandant took his military leaders to Wall Street to see how tempo and chaos played out of the floor of the stock market, because he thought tempo was an important component that Marine Corps Officers needed to visually see play out and to have a firm understanding of.   That trip was invaluable, because it allowed the concept to resonate with Marine Corps Officers.  Consequently, incorporating an environment that will replicate quick decision-making is a necessary component of a well thought out and challenging PME program. 

Variations of Chess and Military Applications

Strategic decision making ideas are often studied in economics and game theory, which is associated with finding optimal results under bounded rationality.  Bounded rationality is similar to making decisions under the Fog of War.  Reaching an optimal solution is limited to three components; cognitive limitations of the decision maker, the information the decision maker possess, and the time the decision maker has to decide on an optimal outcome.  The U.S. Army Research Institute studied rapid decision-making, and there were two striking results.[35]  The first is that when a decision maker has a lot of information and must make a quick decision, the decision maker does not properly take into account the relevant missing information even though the decision maker knows that it is important (think out of sight, out of mind).[36]  The second is decision makers weigh the information they can either physically see or hear directly more than information obtained secondhand, even if that information is better.[37]  Therefore, if you know what bias human nature takes and how strategic decision making is optimally achieved, you can impart this knowledge to military decision-makers so they can be cognizant of all the facts when they are forced to make quick decisions under pressure.  These concepts can be taught and practiced through repetition in an indirect learning environment using chess.  Doing so results in an improved quick decision making process which provides an advantage over an adversary.   

An individual’s perception is important in understanding what decisions they will make.  If you believe the world is flat, which our European ancestors did for thousands of years, then you have limited your potential in solving problems and finding new solutions just as those in the old world were bounded by their perceived rationality.  Similarly, if you limit the exercise of your mind, then you limit your knowledge base, and your tool-kit that is at your disposal is not as big as your adversaries who might have the advantage of a different perspective to the problem at hand.  Accordingly, the issues that surround developing successful strategies for counterinsurgency and the future of warfare, must take into account a decision-making process that is not limited by the person making the decision, the information they have or the time they have to make that quick decision, and most importantly not restricted from what they believe is possible.

In 1812, Lt. Georg von Reiswitz of the Prussian Army modified the game of chess so that each opponent did not know the exact position of the opponent’s pieces. However, instead of using one game board, three boards were used, one for each of the players and one for the third party intermediary (umpire).  The game was called Kriegspiel (Kriegsspiel), and was popular in the Prussian Army Officer Corps and ultimately spread to other militaries.[38]  In fact, Kreigspiel which uses incomplete information is now used to study artificial intelligence.  “Kreigspiel is often objective-drive when played by humans, objective-based heuristics are the most likely candidates to make good progressive strategies…”[39]  The Australian military has studied variations of chess, replicating military power and tempo.  Dr. Calbert found “the most devastating combination occurred if you played a game at a faster tempo than your opponent and you planned at a greater depth.”[40]  Tempo is just one component; the other requires an informed decision-making skill set to strategically plan.  The Australians studied what the effects of maneuvers are, how the planning process is developed and try to do so replicating the decision-making process the military must operate under.[41]

In corporate America, CEO’s realize that a corporate culture or structure that needs change to address new problems sometimes needs to go outside of the company.  Groupthink prevents abstract thinking and limits creative problem solving.  Boards of Directors might find the next leader in-house and groom them for taking over the reins of the company; however, they also know that sometimes the groupthink in the company or groupthink in the industry is too much to overcome to adequately address the challenges the company faces, so they recruit CEO’s or other senior executives from other industries.  A prime example is Ford’s Chairman, Bill Ford seeking out Alan Mulally from Boeing.  If a rigid chain of command is an impediment to finding creative solutions because new ideas could be a career fatality, then the military needs to both listen to those who can create those solutions within the military and bring in those from America’s corporate sector to come up with creative solutions. 

Aside from implementing chess to teach transferable skills to help future veterans in college and the civilian workforce, there are steps that can be done now to help current veterans.  First, seek corporate commitments to hire and maintain a set percentage of the company’s workforce as veterans.  Making an effort to hire some veterans is not enough.  Maintaining a percentage of veterans on staff will keep the company actively engaged even during an extended interwar period, helping out future veterans.  Congress can further this goal in indefinitely extending The VOW to Hire Heroes Act of 2011 which can provide a tax credit of $2,400 to $9,600 per qualified veteran hired to a for-profit employer.  Second, programs that provide feedback from current veterans attending college should be implemented along with military counselors and/or vocational rehabilitation counselors with the sole focus of matching veterans with the right military friendly institutions and right career path. 


The military needs a strong corporate America than can hire veterans, so citizens who want to join the military can plan a pathway after their military careers.  Similarly, corporate America needs a strong military so that they can fill their intellectual capital needs to compete globally.  Therefore, senior military policy makers should take the opportunity now to invest more in training and create a dynamic PME curriculum that teaches transferable skill sets which include critical thinking, and informed decision-making skills that will serve the needs of the military, those who serve in the military, the future workforce needs of American corporations, and the citizens of the United States of America.  If military leaders can implement a dynamic and challenging PME, the men and women that serve in the U.S. Armed Forces will rise to that challenge, do their part, take the lead and distinguish themselves from civilian counterpart job applicants.  Bold leadership requires action now to rebuild the farm system, and transfer the knowledge from veterans and prepare for the future warfare of tomorrow.  General Gray said “whoever can make an implement his decisions consistently faster gains a tremendous, often decisive advantage.  Decision making thus becomes a time-competitive process, and timeliness of decisions becomes essential to generating tempo.  Timely decisions demand rapid thinking, with consideration limited to essential factors.  We should spare no effort to accelerate our decision-making ability.”[42]  Getting Back to the Basics during peacetime requires focusing on improving decision-making skills.  The purpose of using chess as a training tool is not to create better chess players to represent the U.S. Armed Forces at the NATO chess tournaments, but to go Back to the Basics, to teach informed decision-making processes and the many skills that chess develops.  Those skills are the foundation that is needed to be perfected before teaching advanced war-gaming strategies, which include decision making without complete information and making decisions in a Fog of War.

Benjamin Franklin best summed up chess by saying “The game of chess is not merely an idle amusement; several very valuable qualities of the mind are to be acquired and strengthened by it, so as to become habits ready on all occasions; for life is a kind of chess.”[43]  If chess leads to increases in reading, math and science scores, then incorporating chess into PME programs will concurrently address the aforementioned issue at hand.  Chess will not solve each of the issues completely, but with looming budget cuts not only in the military, but in all of government, this has the potential to address multiple issues in an efficient approach.  Given the challenges that the United States faces through militants, insurgents, and an adaptive enemy, then solving counterinsurgency challenges and solving future strategy problems is going to require new approaches through different perspectives.  The forethought of planning three to five moves ahead in chess provides a base for critical thinking for which advanced PME programs can build upon.  The U.S. military cannot afford to let this opportunity to pass by to produce smarter U.S. Armed Forces at all grades and ranks which can address the problems future battlefields will bring.  Therefore, those that serve in the U.S. military should be afforded the opportunity to learn the applicable concepts and informed decision making skills that chess can provide.

A PME training module on chess is good for the U.S. military, provides the U.S. military workforce with diverse and transferable skill-sets, fills corporate America’s need for a dynamic and intelligent workforce, and the short and long term security needs of America.

[1] Murray

[2] Tom W. Goad, The First-Time Trainer, (1997). emphasis added

[3] Warfighting, at 59.

[4] OODA Loops Understanding the Decision Cycle, (last accessed Feb. 6, 2013).

[6] Patricia Chantrill, The Legend of the Gulf War: Marine Corps Recruitment & the Metaphor of Chess, 3 (1994).

[7] Sigman v. Rudolph Wurlitzer Co., 11 N.E. 2d 878, 879, (1937).

[9] James McManus, Game Theory: Poker; Bluffing and the Royal Flush of Cold Warfare, N.Y. Times, Section D (Oct. 1, 2005).

[10] Race to All-Marine Chess Team begins, January 10, 2012, Lance Cpl. Jackeling M. Perez Rivera, Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C., (last accessed Feb. 6, 2013).

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid. (emphasis added).

[14] (last accessed Sept. 23, 2012).

[15] (last accessed Oct. 11, 2012).

[16] (last accessed Sept. 23, 2012).

[17] Play faster and plan more to win the game, says researcher, Canberra Times, (Mar. 18, 2004), (2004 WLNR 7165783).

[18] B.H. Liddell Hart, The Classic Book on Military Strategy 3 (2d ed., 1991).

[19] Ancient chess figure found, Advertiser (Australia), Section: Foreign (Aug. 7, 2002), (2002 WLNR 6143403).

[20] Derek Parker, More than a pawn in the game: A beautiful illustrated new book looks at the history of chess, Vancouver Sun (Mar. 24, 2001).

[21] J.E. Lendon, Soldiers & Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity 100 (2005).

[22] Chantrill, supra at 7.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Chess clearly a war game, Connecticut Post (Bridgeport), (Dec. 17, 2010), (2010 WLNR 24999850).

[25] Shelby Lyman, Chess, Buffalo News, Section: Local, (Jun. 19, 1999), (1999 WLNR 1289662).

[26] Dr. Gyorgy Kende & Dr. Gyorgy Seres, Use of Chess in Military Education, at 12 (2006).

[27] Mara Knaub, Mind games: Teens enjoy ‘unplugged’ chess, The Sun, Yuma, AZ. (Apr. 26, 2011).

[28] Ibid, at 14.

[29] Warfighting, at 16.

[30] Warfighting, at 39-40.

[31] Dr. Gyorgy Kende & Dr. Gyorgy Seres, supra, at 7. 

[32] Ben Connable, Embracing the Fog of War: Assessment and Metrics in Counterinsurgency 4 (2012).

[33] Dr. Gyorgy Kende & Dr. Gyorgy Seres, supra, at 11.

[34] Sun Tzu, Art of War,13.

[35] Quick thinker a U.S. Army-sponsored research program provides clues on how to help military leaders make better decisions under pressure, Training & Simulation J. 24, (Apr. 1, 2005), (2005 WLNR 27197992).

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Michael Kaplan, “10”, 245-246 (2006).

[39] Paolo Ciancarini & Gian Piero Favini, Monte Carlo Tree Search Techniques in the Game of Kriegspiel,

[40] Play faster and plan more to win the game, says researcher, Canberra Times, (Mar. 18, 2004), (2004 WLNR 7165783).

[41] Penelope Debelle, War or chess, the tactics to win are the same, The Sydney Morning Herald (Australia), Section: News and Features, (Jan. 19, 2004), (2004 WLNR 23971439)

[42] Warfighting, at 85.

[43] Benjamin Franklin, The Morales of Chess, (1779).


About the Author(s)

Brian T. Dolk holds a B.B.A. (Bachelor’s in Business Administration) in Accounting from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, a M.B.A. in Entrepreneurship, Marketing, and Technology from Northwestern University’s Kellogg Graduate School of Management, and completed his J.D. and LL.M. (Master of Laws) in Information Technology & Privacy Law from The John Marshall Law School in Chicago, Illinois in May 2013.