Chess: The Art of War
Sun-Tzu - The Original Chess Master?

Chess: The Art of War

Mar 3, 2018, 8:43 AM |

Chess is not a physically harmful game. Besides perhaps a headache or eye fatigue, there is next to nothing to worry about in terms of physical well-being and, unlike other pastimes such as rugby, boxing, martial arts etc. , the only thing at risk when you play is a couple of rating points, not your health. Why, then, do I compare the game of chess to such a dangerous thing as war?

Well, a few weeks ago I picked up the classic that is The Art of War by Sun-Tzu. I was very impressed after reading the blurb, which said that: 

For more than two thousand years, Sun-Tzu's The Art of War has provided leaders with essential advice on battlefield tactics and management strategies. An elemental part of Chinese culture, it has also become a touchstone for the Western struggle for survival and success, whether in battle, in business, or in relationships.

Pretty impressive stuff! I took it home, excited to dive in. However, there was one thing that became evident to me after only reading a short amount: this book is full of chess knowledge! Sure, it's been around longer than chess itself, but you can easily interpret the military advice given as tips to improve your game! Let me elaborate.


After reading a couple of pages, I realised I needed to start taking notes. It wouldn't harm you to do the same!

The first chapter is titled 'Making of Plans'. Here, Master Sun outlines his five elements: The Way, Heaven, Earth, Command, and Discipline. These are the constant factors that he says are present in every battle. An understanding of these things is crucial to victory. Here I will provide what Master Sun says about these elements and also give my own notes on how we can draw parallels between the text and the game of chess.


The Way cause men to be of one mind with their rulers, to live or die with them and never to waver.

Of course, chess pieces don't have emotions so they are never going to be 'of one mind' with you but I found that the part where Master Sun mentions men being willing to die and never wavering could be compared to the activity and involvement of pieces. No piece should be left out, just as every piece should be considered for sacrifice if need be.

Heaven is Yin and Yang, cold and hot, the cycle of seasons.

I interpreted this as being the nature of the position (whether the position is closed or open, dymamic or slow etc.). Only when the nature of the position has been understood can the player create a plan that suits what is happening on the board. For example, open files and only one or two pawns in the centre would indicate that an emphasis on piece-play is needed.                

Earth is height and depth, distance and proximity, ease and danger, open and confined ground, life and death.     

Here Master Sun talks about the physical aspects of the battlefield. This led me to decide that 'Earth' in chess concerns features of the position such as pawn structure, open files, outposts, and so on. Just as above, a good plan can only be constructed when these features have been acknowledged and understood. For example, if a player has the majority of pawns on dark squares it is almost certain he will want to trade his dark squared Bishop and be left with a 'good' piece.

Command is wisdom, integrity, compassion, courage, severity.

I regard this as the element that is probably the hardest to master. It concerns the decisions that the leader (you as the player) makes and the motivations behind them. Refining one's thought process takes years and is a complicated matter that, as of yet, has no definite way of going about. It is something that is constantly evolving for every player and is likely to never be truly mastered. 

Discipline is organisation, chain of command, control of expenditure.

This concerns the deployment of pieces on their best squares. To do this, the leader must truly understand 'Heaven' and 'Earth' and decide where each piece belongs, relative to each other and the features of the position.null

Command is all about decisions and their motivations- it is a tough skill to master!

Once these five elements have been deeply contemplated and understood, one can go about using them. To do this, Master Sun provides ways to assess positions. He says to discover:

  • Which ruler has The Way?
  • Which general has the ability?
  • Which side has Heaven and Earth?
  • In which side is discipline more effective?

Simply put, consider the elements and assess for which side the element is more favourable. From there, a plan can be made. Adress your weaknesses, work to your strengths, exploit the opponent's weaknesses, minimalise their advantages. Master Sun puts it like this:

Settle on the best plan                                                                                                                         

Exploit the dynamic within (follow the advantage and grab opportunities that arise)                 

Develop it without (keep building and improving until the opportunity presents itself) 

Now, let's take a look at some of Master Sun's other ideas:


The way of war is a way of deception. When able, feign inability;

(When strong, appear to be weak, therefore lulling your opponent into a false sense of security)

When deploying troops, appear not to be.

(If your opponent knows you are trying to orchestrate a crushing Kingside attack, he will have time to take defensive measures. If you are subtle in your ways, he will be left hopeless.)

When near, appear far; when far, appear near.

(Your movements will therefore not be predictable)


 "The way of war is a way of deception"- make your opponents see ghosts!


Lure with bait; strike with chaos.

If the enemy is full, be prepared, if strong, avoid him.

(Of course, if you find yourself playing a stronger opponent it would be foolish to resign without trying. Although it is good to test your skills against good players, don't make a habit of only playing people that are considerably stronger than yourself-  know your limits)

If he is angry, disconcert him.

If he is weak, stir him to pride.

If he is relaxed, harry him;

If his men are harmonious, split them.

(Know your opponent and tailor your plans to his weaknesses)

Attack where his unprepared; appear where you are unexpected.

(If your opponent has foolishly deployed his forces solely on one side of the board, strike him on the other, as that is where he is weakest)


Victory belongs to the side that scores most in the temple calculations before battle. Defeat belongs to the side that scores least in the temple calculations before battle. Most spells victory; least spells defeat; none, surer defeat. I see it in this way, and the outcome is apparent.                                            (Master Sun says that a leader must look at both the opponent and oneself. Whoever prepares the most before battle has the upper hand. These calculations must be in line with the five elements)


Be sure of victory by attacking the undefended. (Attack a weak point in the enemy’s position, where defense is too weak and relief will come too late) Be sure of defense by defending the unattacked. (Make it impossible for the enemy to attack by sufficiently defending your potentially weak points) The skilful warrior attacks so that the enemy can not defend; he defends so that the enemy can not attack (A skilful attacker waits for a lapse of concentration from the enemy and attacks with full force. A skilful defender doesn’t allow any weaknesses in his position. A master of war, or chess, can do both)


There are five pitfalls for a general:

-Recklessness, leading to destruction; (a foolish leader who is also brave is never going to work. His foolish braveness will lead to tricky situations and, imminently, failure.)

-Cowardice, leading to capture; (he who is too afraid to take advantage of opportunities will be overrun by an opportunistic opponent) 

-A hot temper, prone to provocation; (a leader whose emotions cloud his judgement is destined for failure.)

-A delicacy of honour, tending to shame; (the exaggerated sensitiveness of a thin-skinned man. In chess, as in lots of things in life, a thick skin is needed to deal with criticism and defeat.)

-A concern for his men, leading to trouble. (It is natural to feel hesitant about parting with material, especially if it isn't part of an exchange. However, it is often found that sacrificing material can lead to compensation elswhere on the board- sometimes we just fail to see it or feel comfortable about it! As I discussed with my friend Simaginfan, this is a problem that hinders many amateurs. Here's a game between two legends of the game that illustrates this point:

This is what I wrote to Simaginfan about the game:

"The Knight on b1 was tied to the defence of the c pawn for almost all of its time on the board. In the meantime, Black kept improving until White had no way back. Instead, he should have let the pawn go and tried to get some counter-play instead of suffering in silence all game."

Surprisingly, I was correct!

So, what do you think- was Sun-Tzu the original chess master or should his work be kept well away from chess? Let me know below and, as always, leave your advice and/or suggestions there too. Until next time, take care and thanks for reading!                                          

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