Chess, Vikings and Asymmetric Warfare

Chess, Vikings and Asymmetric Warfare




Asymmetry as a Way of (Chess) Life

Asymmetric, or irregular warfare occurs between opposing forces which differ greatly in warring power; it typically involves the use of unconventional weapons and encourages the use of non-traditional tactics, used generally by the weaker force to balance out the power inequity. Generally, asymmetrical is something that is uneven, unequal, or imbalanced. The irregular warfare is also frequently used to describe what is also called "guerrilla warfare", "insurgency", "counterinsurgency", "rebellion", essentially violent conflict between a formal military and an informal, less equipped and supported, undermanned but resilient and motivated opponent.

In fact, all warfare is asymmetrical. In any conflict, the opposing sides will differ in some important aspect: manpower, civilizational and technological level, training, intelligence (in both senses of the word). Even when both sides are pretty much “equal” in this regard, there are differences of culture, doctrine and strategy that is going to affect the way each side in conflict fights war.

The question is, what is the main distinguishing factor that helps one side prevail over the other. Strategy! As with everything else we do in life, it is an art of planning and directing our action to achieve goals. Strategic interaction, the battle of strategies during a conflict best predicts conflict outcomes. The art of how to see through, frustrate and forestall the adversary’s strategy. Like the rudder on a ship, it steers us through high seas and toward winning waters.

Bak Samuel, Reflexion, 1990

Samuel Bak, Reflexion, 1990


In this post it is going to be seen how even with a significant power asymmetry, the weaker side in a conflict may design and use the right strategy to win war.

In general, asymmetric systems tend to produce more complex, unpredictable and otherwise interesting behavior.

Asymmetry the Vikings' Way


“[Asymmetry] is the way the world works today,” says Kris Wheaton, a Mercyhurst University professor of intelligence studies who designed a game with the aim of teaching valuable lessons of strategic thinking, cultural intelligence and asymmetric warfare to today’s intelligence students and professionals. ”We’re not facing force on force" in the traditional sense any more.

“It’s a really useful exercise in forcing you to think like the other guy who has different goals and resources than you do. [ ] It’s one of those games intelligence professionals should play because we’re tasked by and large with thinking like the enemy. [ ] We have to be able to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes, and this game forces that.” Nothing new, putting yourself in the opponent's shoes approach just repeats the teaching of Sun Tzu and his "best strategy is to fight the enemy's strategy," expressed twenty-five centuries ago.

Wheaton has modeled his strategy game after Hnefatafl, or King’s Table, the board game played by Vikings in the fourth century AD. And that is the game of asymmetric warfare in a very real sense.

Originally, Hnefatafl (pronounced Nev-eh-TAH-full) simulated a Viking raid. It is played by pieces that move like Rook on an 13×13 board. There are twice as many attackers as defenders, White has 13 pieces, Black 24. White has a King, Black doesn’t. The attackers are situated along the four sides, each side representing a Viking ship. The king and the defenders are located in the middle of the board. The game starts with White outnumbered and surrounded, like this:

Viking Warfare game

Pieces capture by surrounding, something like in the game of Go. The goals of opposing sides are different: Black’s goal is to surround and trap the enemy king so he can’t move, White’s goal is to move the king to one of corner “refuge” squares, called burgs. An asymmetry par excellence.

How Asymmetry Can Make You a Better Chess Pplayer


First, is chess a model for (a)symmetric warfare at all? Well, the two sides have the same fighting power at the onset of chess war. And they both rely on strategic and tactical weapons that are similar, differing only in details and execution.

Still, there are many ways unevenness is expressed in chess, aside from material imbalance. a common one bishop versus knight, for example. Superiority in midgame is many times decided by who has better minor pieces. Think other forms of asymmetry: the exchange sacrifice, two or three minors versus the queen; or when a pawn promotes. They all bring unusual positions full of interesting possibilities.

As always in life, and there is an old reflection that life is a struggle, you try to get into your adversary's thinking. Every strategy has an ideal counterstrategy, especially against an opposition of different skills and strength. You should be able to predict their plans and intentions which will dramatically improve your chances of success by choosing and implementing that counterstrategy.

@FangoBo has recently written a piece about how a Grandmaster beats a lower rated player. As lower ranked players are an overwhelming majority in chess, it make sense to see how they can engage with the stronger opposition with a little greater success. Having read up to this point could hint you a new-fangled idea on how to try to do it. Of course, forcing asymmetry is the answer!

We are going to go over a game played in the 19th USSR championship in 1951 to demonstrate this style of play. The opponents in an unequal duel between a David and Goliath are:

1. GM Efim Geller. He doesn't need any special introduction. He finished second in the 1951 championship tournament behind Paul Keres, ahead of the world champion Botvinnik and future champions Petrosian and Smyslov; a World's leading Grandmaster for over three decades, one of the strongest players never to become world champion who had an impressive overall plus score against Botvinnik, Smyslov, Petrosian and Fischer; Geller was a great theoretician and considered the father of the KID; Botvinnik once said: "Before Geller, we did not understand the King's Indian." Geller is our chess giant.

2. Candidate Master Evgeny Terpugov (born 1917, now 101 years old), an engineer by profession, is our David who was just shy of beating Goliath in the game we are going to see.

CM Evgeny Terpugov

In the CM Terpugov against GM Geller encounter, the power asymmetry is obvious and quite substantial in favor of Geller. However, as already mentioned before, the weaker side can map out and implement the right strategy in an attempt to get the favorite out of position and off balance. That would increase their prospects of seeing a different outcome in their duel of unequals. We are going to see how CM Terpugov made an already asymmetric encounter (due to large disproportion in chess strength between them) even more pronounced by sacrificing three pawns, followed yet by a queen offer!! It turned out that the Father of King Indian and Grandmaster of daring attacks found himself in a lost position in a KID game! Terpugov had two chances to execute the right continuation and beat Goliath, but the experience and class of Geller prevailed in the end. Yet, the game is going to vividly show you how the weaker opposition can create chances by using asymmetry.

It is interesting at this point to mention how Candidate Master Terpugov found his way to one of the strongest tournaments in the world? The old USSR championships were real killers.


GM Keres and CM Terpugov at 19ch USSR

GM Paul Keres and CM Evgeny Terpugov during 19ch USSR, Moscow 1951

To qualify, Terpugov played in the semifinals in the so called Leningrad group. In the first ten rounds he earned 3.5 points. That would discourage even more experienced and skilled players. Yet he didn't lose his head and didn't lose heart. In the next eight round he beat all his opponents (Moiseev, Kopylov, Ratner, Aratovsky, Lutikov, Tolush, Panov, Kan) overachieving Soviet Master norm by 1.5 pts in the process and making it to the final, coming in second after Smyslov!! Here is the list of participants of the 19th USSR ch Leningrad semifinals:

1. Smyslov – 13,5 out of 18; 2. Terpugov – 11,5; 3. Moiseev – 11; 4. Kopylov – 10,5; 5–8. Bondarevsky, Kan, Korchnoi, Suetin – 10; 9–10. Tolush and Chekhover – 9; 11. Lisitsyn – 8,5; 12–14. Krogius, Ratner and Reshko – 8; 15. Panov – 7,5; 16–18. Aratovsky, Kuzminykh, Chistyakov – по 7; 19. Lutikov – 5,5.

Chess in USSR (No 9, 1951) tells us about our hero Candidate Master: "one of high qualities of Terpugov's creative effort is his tactical prowess, while at the same time, his positional imperfection requires hard and serious work." Then they give an illustration of his tactical resourcefulness from his game with Master Kopylov.


In the finals CM Terpugov finished last, but he beat GM Kotov and gave hard time to Petrosian who sought to sharpen the game from the very beginning playing on Terpugov's inexperience. However, our hero held up well in a difficult situation and it was him who initiated an attack on Black's King position as Petrosian's counterplay on the Queens wing was developing more slowly. But then Terpugov didn't find the right plan and allowed Petrosian to launch a decisive counteroffensive...


And now, finally, the unsymmetrical clash between a David and Goliath:

So you want to play better chess, become a stronger competitor in the business arena, or sports? Then play asymmetry! You may face many unfortunate moments in the beginning. But in the long run you will become a stronger player by practicing more complex and more interesting games. After all, you have nothing to lose. Henry Kissinger once commented that ''the guerilla wins if they don't lose. The conventional army loses if it does not win.'' Be that rebel, be that insurgent by picking a furious fight of asymmetry.
Unless you want to see a slow but inevitable death.
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I want to take a moment to thank the following people and recognize them for their important contribution in preparing the post:

- FM Andrey Terekhov @ddt_ru from Singapore for invaluable information on the Leningrad semifinal from the newspaper scans he made in Russian libraries this summer (as it happened, he was researching for his own project), so he was able to provide a full round-by-round report on Terpugov. He might well be the only person in the world who could do it, so you the readers and I were in luck

- Dmitry @gottfrid from Moscow for his screenshot of Shakhmaty in SSSR (Chess in the USSR, No 9, 1951) on the Leningrad semifinal; thanks to him you saw that tactical blow against Master Kopylov

- @SimaginFan from an undisclosed location in England for  the semifinal's table of standings in English and his generous overall support in blogging matters.
Correction - As indicated by FM Andrey Terekhov, by the time Terpugov faced Geller, he was already a Master. He was awarded the title on the basis of his performance in the semifinal. Thanks Andrey