Swords and Boards: A Study in Comparative Philosophy

Swords and Boards: A Study in Comparative Philosophy

Mar 1, 2009, 2:31 AM |

Recently I began looking at hypermodern theory in chess.  I was drawn to it because in many ways, it seemed to be the antithesis of the chess I was taught.  The principles of opening that I had learned in chess club in fifth grade seemed to be willfully broken with great effect.  Control the center!  What is this Reti thing doing?  Never move the same piece twice!  Who is this Alekhine person?  He did WHAT with his knight?  So, I studied (actually, I must admit, I have only just begun my peek into this strategy).  I leaned that for a hypermodern philosophy to work, tempo is more important than piece count in the traditional sense.

This all rung true, but from a source that I did not expect.  This was the flow of battle as described my Johannes Liechtenauer.  Liechtenauer was a longsword master in mid fourteenth century Germany that advocated a look at interpersonal (one on one) combat that essentially consisted of two phases, the vor- pronounced "for"- and the nacht, or in English, before and after.

When in the vor, one has control of the situation.  Your opponent is responding to your actions.  If one finds himself in the nacht, he is attempting to retake the initiative.  Between these phases, there is something of a grey area known as the indes, or in between wherein no one has the initative (think in modern fencing when the two fencers come into a corp-a-corp, both almost in each other's face).  The indes could only last for an instant before someone acted to take the vor.

This is a fundamental of hypermodern theory as I understand.  In chess terms it is frequently called tempo or momentum.

Liechtenauer and his students went on to say that when in the nacht, there are two strategies to be taken.  If your opponent has "strong" leverage on you, recover to safety and attack on oblique angles in an attempt to reclaim the vor without risking entering the indes.  In the event that his leverage is "weak," press forward into the attack.

In the world of chess, this can be seen primarily in the actions of the knights and bishops.  To fianchetto a bishop takes time, but it can be time well spent if your opponent has already secured a strong center.  In this case, you do as Liechtenauer suggests and use your pawns and other pieces to obliquely tear open the defense.  If he has a weak center (i.e. a few undefended pawns) use your knights to either jump the line or dismantle it directly.

Another similarity between hypermodern chess and longsword fighting can be seen in the oldest treatise on fighting called I.33 (called "one thirty-three" or "eye thirty-three").  This manual is known for its odd approach to fighting known as "point back."  The combatants in I.33 are armed with bucklers, a type of tiny (12 - 18") center gripped shield and your stereotypical sword, around three feet long with a simple cross shaped guard.

In I.33, fighters tend to use the buckler as a light but mobile defense and keep their swords pointed either behind or above them, not directly threatening their opponents.  This is, to my mind at least, the King's Indian defense.  The queen's pawn is the buckler, a small defense meant more to force the opponent to attack around it while the knight/bishop formation that it the hallmark of an Indian defense is the sword, held back waiting for the opponent to overextend his reach before making their attack.

I know that comparisons between chess and combat are as old as the game itself.  However seeing the same principles stretch over seven hundred years to a style of chess only dates back seventy years was startling.  Conversely, the "classical" chess game can be closely compared to the Italian masters of the seventeenth century, but those are points to be drawn later.