InYo: Journal of Alternative Perspectives July 2002
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Physical Chess: Thoughts on Chess and Martial Arts

By Charlie Kondek

Copyright © 2002 EJMAS. All rights reserved.


Chess is ruthless: you’ve got to be prepared to kill people.-- Nigel Short, British chess champion


Perhaps because chess and combat are principally the activities of men, our still-patristic culture has assigned both of them the special mystique accorded to warrior arts. A glance at the game’s history reveals that chess is indeed based on generalship and warfare, originating as it did among the fighting nobles of India and making its way via Persian warrior scholars and traders to European knights in the ninth and tenth centuries. Throughout the ages, enthusiasts of the game have maintained that chess (a game, albeit a very special game with deep grooves in the competitive psychology) has something to teach us about physical, life-and-death combat, which obviously is not a game. However, is this assertion true? Does chess have something to teach us about real combat?


Courtesy Alan Cowderoy,

Before attempting to extrapolate further, I must state my credentials, which will no doubt disappoint the reader. In the first place, I am an unranked, amateur chess player who, though he has played nearly all his life, remains mediocre in skill, or at any rate only as good as the average skill of my peers. In the second, I am an amateur combatant and martial arts enthusiast who has viewed life and death struggles only through the distorted lens of the combative sports he regularly plays. To wit, I am a practiced kickboxer, and a student of kendo, judo, and iaido.

Additionally, I want to state that I know that martial arts and combat are not the same things. True, the former is supposed to prepare one for the latter, and in peace, martial arts have taken on a myriad other functions, not the least of which are sport and enrichment. Whether or not martial arts, principally the activities of civilians, can adequately mimic actual fighting, the activity of soldiers, is a subject for another article.

For now, however, I hope the reader will accept the synonymy of chess and combat for the purposes of understanding my ideas on the two.


By martial arts, I mean the very broad definition of the term. Consequently, I include both combative sports and traditional arts; Western, Asian, African, and Native American or Polynesian/Melanesian arts; plus modern arts such as karate, judo, kendo, boxing, wrestling, fencing, kung fu, shoot fighting, etc.

By combat, I also take a broad definition. Therefore, I take the term to mean both unregulated hand-to-hand combat and combat with hand-to-hand weapons such as swords, knives, sticks, etc, during which the aim is rendering one’s opponent dead, unconscious, or surrendered. With the reader’s indulgence, at times, for purposes of illustration and metaphor, I will equate victory in combative sports with victory in actual combat (and victory in chess).


Regardless of the similarities between chess and combat, one particularly important and immediate distinction must be made: chess, while a game of intense concentration and pressure, doesn’t deal with the paralyzing fear of injury or death that occurs in combat. After all, there is very little risk of physical harm during a chess match. Certainly the chess player takes his game very seriously and the effort of playing may exhaust him. Nonetheless, it is not (I think it cannot be) equal to the biologic of life-and-death danger.

Additionally, I do not mean to belittle the experience of persons who have risked their lives in combat by comparing it too closely with chess. No one that I know of, except the mentally troubled (whom we should also not belittle), has ever suffered debilitating injury or post-traumatic stress disorder from chess, as have actual combatants.

Finally, chess, while based on warfare, is not warfare. In chess, game pieces come back to life. Dead soldiers and civilians do not. Perhaps this, too, goes without saying, but it is necessary to remind our selves of it.

Making a Case

In an appeal to ancient authority, I begin by pointing out that a number of sources have touted the connection between chess and combat. There is, for example, an old fencing adage that swordplay is "physical chess," or "chess at one hundred miles an hour." Consider, too, that in ages past, chess and swordplay were part of the basic curriculum for a gentleman’s education, and that to this day, many dojo retain a chessboard (or encourage chess-play) for students to gain insight into their craft. My judo sensei employs the phrase "physical chess" to describe his method of grappling, and a recent US Marine Corps recruiting campaign depicted Marines as chess pieces (knights rather than pawns, I hasten to add.)

Moreover, chess, like physical combat, is primarily a masculine activity. The Russian grandmaster Gary Kasparov has said, "Women, by their nature, are not exceptional chess players: they are not great fighters." However, I do not share Mr. Kasparov’s opinion in this regard. Chess champion and writer Graham Burgess put it better, I think, when he said, "I tend to think that women are much too sensible to persist in playing a board game unless they can become really good at it. Men are perhaps more obsessive."

Accordingly, in contemporary popular culture (especially contemporary masculine culture), you sometimes find a man’s ability to play chess directly expressed as a statement of his potency. This is particularly true in the working classes, which often define masculinity and credibility for the rest of us. Consider the respect and admiration afforded a competent street player or hustler in the public parks of New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia; it is comparable to the admiration afforded a heavyweight boxer, "the baddest man on the planet." This points directly to the prominence of chess in hip-hop lingo. For example, anyone familiar with the rap group Wu-Tang Clan remembers this line from their 1993 album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers):

A game of chess is like a sword fight, you must think before you move!

There is no doubt that chess enthusiasts like to think of chess not in terms of a game (in the sense of diversion, recreation, etc.), but instead as a metaphor for all things in life. They also like to view it as nearly mortal combat. Note the language used; "capturing," "pinning," "forking," "scalping," "decimating the opponent’s ranks," etc. [EN1] In Nigel Short’s words, "Chess is ruthless: you’ve got to be prepared to kill people." Others, like Bobby Fischer, admit that chess, like much conflict, is about ego: "I like the moment when I break a man’s ego," says Fischer.

Martial arts enthusiasts, like chess players, often wish to assign their activities equivalence with the activities of physical combat. However, martial art training is not combat. True, it may prepare trainees for combat, by giving them some idea of what combat could be like. However, to do this, it breaks combat down into a series of abstract ideas, and then refines these ideas into physical and mental exercises. Therefore, no matter how physical or dangerous, it is not combat. Nonetheless, some martial artists (like some chess players and some street hustlers) would like to extend the mystique or potency of what they do into the world of combat. Accordingly, while such persons are concerned with "breaking centers," they act as if they are "breaking heads." They believe that potency at kata and one-step sparring has earned them the right to share in the title of "baddest man on the planet." It hasn’t, but again, that is a subject for a different essay.

Deep Grooves

The idea that chess equals life is not new. Certainly, chess can be made analogous to many things, and scribes of the game are probably not far off in asserting that chess is a metaphysical riddle that can be applied to any aspect of life. Psychologists believe chess speaks not only to our love of aggression and competition but also to a human need to impose order on chaos. By making sense of the moves (more numerous than there are particles in the known universe) and then organizing them into patterns, by nailing our opponent down and herding his unruly pieces where we want them to go, we fulfill this impulse.

Death and the Knight
Death (Bengt Ekerot) and the Knight (Max von Sydow) play chess. Ingmar Bergman, The Seventh Seal, 1957.

Indeed, chess runs with mathematical precision, and shows amazing insights into the field. The medieval Persians, master scientists who gave us the number zero, were hip to this. They and others have marveled at similarities to chess and the laws of numbers, which, in their view (and the view of many contemporary scientists), were the laws of the world. Why, for example, does the number eight play such a significant role in the game? The board is eight squares by eight squares, sixteen pieces to either side; everything is divisible by eight - as in the 8-note scales of music, which also follow mathematical precision. Coincidence? Probably not, inasmuch as I am told that there are no such things as coincidences in the study of numbers. And, whether coincidence or not, the numerological significance of the game led later scholars to believe its patterns held the clues to alchemical, astrological, and even magical secrets. Novelist Katherine Neville utilized these ideas for her well-researched thriller The Eight, in which she envisioned the game being used to create the legendary philosopher’s stone, which in turn gave its user immortality.

Chess has an eastern cousin. Like their western counterparts, Asian martial artists were also concerned with numbers, time, astrology, and alchemy. For example, the Taoism that underpinned Chinese culture posited that five forces (earth, wood, fire, water, and metal) ruled every human body. Through the martial arts, which encompassed not just fighting, but also medicine and the humanities, these five forces could balance within the body. The cooperation between yin and yang, masculine and feminine, symbolized this balance.

Just as the body functioned to maintain this balance according to the laws of the Tao, so, too, did the Taoist universe. Accordingly, Taoists could and did divide the world into elements and phases; they organized the days into calendars and knew, like the author of Ecclesiastes, what hour was best for combat, what hour for peace. Like their western counterparts, Taoists projected order onto chaos, imposed a chess-like grid on the world, and moved the pieces accordingly (think feng shui). This is the foundation for those Chinese martial arts lumped together as "kung fu," upon which would be built the Japanese models of combat and encoded into the kata, mudras, etc., that many of us are concerned with today.

Like their western counterparts, Asian cultures have chess-like games that incorporate these ideas. Perhaps the best known of these games is Japan’s own "chess," Go (called Wei Ch’i in China, and Baduk in Korea).


So, is there a connection between chess and combat? Is it the parlay of scholars and generals, a badge of manhood? Alternatively, do practitioners simply like to think there is to enhance their prestige?

Our historical forebears believed that there was a connection between chess and combat, and I concur. To put it succinctly, chess is like combat because both:

However, they are unlike one another in that they involve very different physical settings and frames of mind.

Choose Your Weapons

To win in chess, you must neutralize ("checkmate") your opponent’s king. Symbolically, this could represent a general sending his army to arrest a rival political figure or an individual piercing another individual in a critical spot. In other words, capturing the king in chess is similar to knocking the opponent out in a fistfight, or stabbing him through the heart in a duel.

In chess, as in combat, to win you must learn to use wisely the weapons at your disposal.

Make no mistake: chess is a game of weapons, and the goal is to bypass or eliminate the opponent’s weapons and carry the day by hitting him where it hurts the most. In chess, the weapons are the pieces, and each one has a specific use.

cartoon 6
Illustration courtesy Alan Cowderoy,

In combat, one achieves victory by using one’s weapons as wisely or as skillfully as a chess player uses his pieces. Sure, you can plow up the middle, but that is a war of attrition, and very painful. Even in situations where you are wielding only one weapon, as in a duel, in truth you have more than one weapon. That is to say, you may be in a sword fight, but the winner makes use of his body, footwork, terrain, etc. In kendo, this truth is called knowledge of "the four poisons," namely fear, doubt, surprise, and confusion. In other words, one takes advantage of the opponent’s psychological state, thus poisoning his mind and spirit.

That the fighter has many weapons is even clearer in an unarmed fight, where the weapons are whatever is possible by the human body. Although often neglected, these skills include biting, head butting, etc. My judo teacher (Frank Gerlitz, of the Eastern Michigan University Judo Club) once told me that the object of ground fighting is to "take away the opponent’s weapons, so that you have more weapons to bear than he does." By this, he meant that you had to be in a position where your opponent could not use all his limbs and his balance against you, but conversely, you could use all your limbs and balance against him.

This is true in fisticuffs, too. You have an arsenal of punches, kicks, elbows and other weapons, and you have to neutralize your opponent’s techniques while still using yours. This is analogous to the trading of pieces in chess, or the maneuvering of pieces to render your opponent’s pieces impotent. Just as a knight may check a bishop and keep it from advancing, so may a boxer ward a blow with one of his own, or a swordsman counter an attack with a parry.

Three Stages

Chess is an encounter that can be broken down into three basic stages, just as a combat can. In chess, these are called the beginning, middle, and end game.

The purpose of the beginning game is to develop your position, to bring your pieces into play. The purpose of the middle game is to control the board, to neutralize your opponent’s pieces while yours penetrate his defenses. In the end game, you "drop the hammer," as one of my chess chums (Phil "Moose" Colosimo) likes to say. [EN2] That is, you end the game by utterly neutralizing your opponent, thereby fulfilling your strategy (more on this later).

Even if a physical encounter only lasts seconds, these same three stages describe the encounter.

A fight’s "beginning game" consists of the steps leading up to confrontation as well as the initial attacks. On the street, this often includes "talking smack." This means trading insults or gestures designed to intimidate or provoke the opponent. There may also be physical or political maneuvering designed to put one fighter into better position once the encounter comes to blows.

In the middle game, you attempt to hold the dominant position. In a kendo match, this can include the exchange of kiai (shouts expressing internal energy) and subtle adjustments to maai, distance, before launching your strike. In judo, it includes the grip fighting and foot placement that happens before a throw is attempted.

The end game describes the decisive moment when victory or defeat is decided. This, in Clausewitz’s terms, is the Schwerpunkt, the decisive point. In judo, it is the throw or the choke, the arm-bar, the pin, the tap-out. In kendo, it is the deciding cut. In boxing, it is the knockout. In a contest of blows, it is the one that fells your opponent, or the one that gets you the necessary points. Checkmate.

Tactics and Strategy

Tactics are maneuvers that you perform with individual pieces. They are short-term operations with a short-term outcome, and are part of a series of steps designed to take to your larger goal. Strategy is the overall method you use to achieve that goal, the theme that strings each tactic together. Stonewall Jackson once defined strategy as getting your young lady into the moonlight, and tactics as what you do once you get her there.

An example of a chess tactic is to offer a pawn at a space covered by a knight. When your opponent takes the pawn with, say, his bishop, you take the bishop with your knight. Another example of this strategy in chess involves trading pieces with your opponent until all that’s left are pawns, then using one of the pawns to achieve the last row on the board so that the pawn may become a queen.

In both chess and war, strategy is what separates great players from average players, and certainly some people are just prodigies. Anyone can memorize sets of tactics; even the most basic players do so. But true champions of the game are able to calculate long-term winning strategies, to predict from among the thousands of combinations of moves which ones will (or most likely will) result in victory.

Tactics and strategy play a significant role in combat as well, and in the same way. Indeed, the purpose of martial arts training is to have practitioners memorize tactics and repeat them until they become natural reactions. Examples include the boxer’s jab/overhand right combination, or the judoist’s tokui-waza. A front kick is a tactic; a combination of sword strokes is a tactic. With sufficient practice, the fighter performs these techniques as naturally as he might roll over in his sleep.

In both chess and combat, strategy can be rushed in conception and sustained in an atmosphere of confusion. Thus, just as a chess player might trade pawn for pawn, a general might trade mobility for fortifications (think of World War I). Likewise, both generals and chess players might misjudge an opponent’s will, or ability to learn. Even after being warned that the other opponent is dangerous, he might be arrogant and say, "Oh, he can’t beat me." Conversely, the general or chess player might have a winning move, but be afraid to take it, fearing a trap.

Even in a sudden confrontation, there are strategies and tactics. For example, a combatant faced with an imminent threat might quickly strategize thus: "My opponent is bigger and stronger than me. Therefore, I cannot chance wrestling with him, as he will overpower me. To defeat him, I’ll go straight for his head and try to knock him out and, barring that, kick him in the groin." This takes place in a matter of seconds or fractions of seconds.

In the case of a duel-like atmosphere, where a participant may be able to gather more intelligence on the opponent, strategy may be more clearly thought out, and may more closely resemble chess. Indeed, some early military war games were essentially chess games where the pieces were given more realistic firing and movement rates. Armies have spies, and a boxer has a coach or trainer who barks instructions from the corner. Of course, both soldiers and physical combatants who are able to make excellent, conscious use of this advice on the fly are rare. After all, keeping one’s mind fluid enough or rational enough to strategize while being punched in the nose is difficult.

Accordingly, most fighters (and generals) appear to rely more on well-rehearsed tactics than strategy. However, there are exceptions. Consider for example the judoist who cannily tires out his opponent before coming in for the kill, or the kendoist who encourages his opponent into overconfidence by feigning weakness, than turns up the juice and turns the tables, or the general who follows Sun Tzu’s advice, and wins a hundred battles without fighting. These are rare animals in an experience where the usual reaction is simply a blind reprisal of "kill! kill!" Fight or flight.


Here, however, is where we find some critical differences between chess and combat.

One is in how the game is played. The world of the chess player is clean and orderly. There is no mud and blood; there is no physical and mental exhaustion; there is no fear for one’s life.

Additionally, the chess player has the freedom to quit any time he likes: there are few draftees in a chess tournament.

Finally, chess games are short. While wars last months, if not years or decades, chess games rarely take more than a few hours. Thus, there are no 24-hour operations, no logistics, and no political wrangling to distract the players.

Mentally, this leads to significant differences. Even in a timed game (except perhaps in "speed chess"), chess is played with an analytical, calculating mind. On the other hand, combat requires both analysis and spontaneity. In other words, a chess player who plays only by tactics will probably lose to a superior strategy, but a combatant who relies too much on strategy risks losing to the time-tested tactics of a well-drilled opponent.

Another difference is that in chess, the only things hurt are the players’ egos, and captured chess pieces are put into a kind of Valhalla that surrounds the edge of the board next to the ashtray and coffee cups, waiting to be set up for another round. However, in combat, there are injuries and deaths, and winners and losers alike suffer long-term psychological injuries.

Additionally, chess has no tempo in the sense that combat does. In a fistfight, you can anticipate the rhythmic or arrhythmic beat of your opponent’s attacks. For example, overhand right follows lead jab in a one-two beat. So, too, does a kote-men (wrist and head) combination in kendo: thump-thump. In combat, you know how long it usually takes him to re-supply, and so you know that you should have a respite or an attack. However, chess adheres to no such tempo. Like combat, it has momentum, but it does not have a tempo as such.


Chess is not combat, and one does not need to study chess to be an accomplished fighter. Furthermore, I have reached few conclusions from the comparison except that I find the continued comparison valid and worth pursuing.

Certainly, the analogy helps me see where I went wrong in a given exchange. For example, I am able to say I lost a judo match "in the middle game" of ground work, or that my kendo opponent used his weapons (or poisons!) in a superior way. Additionally, the exercise allows me to recognize that I am not (and never have been) much of a strategist in either pursuit. In chess, as in combat, my only strategy has been to sharpen my tactics and hope for the best.

Still, I think you can tell by this discourse that I agree with Benjamin Franklin, who wrote:

The Game of Chess is not merely an idle amusement. Several very valuable qualities of the mind, useful in the course of human life, are to be acquired or strengthened by it, so as to become habits, ready on all occasions. For Life is a kind of Chess, in which we have often points to gain, and competitors or adversaries to contend with... Franklin lists among these "qualities of the mind" foresight, circumspection, and caution, but also stresses that the chess player learns "not being discouraged by present bad appearances in the state of our affairs." This, I think, could be a nice way of describing that tempestuous and unpredictable enterprise that is a knock down, drag out fight.


EN1. It is interesting to note that real-life militaries employ exactly the opposite techniques to describe their skirmishes. Dead soldiers are de-humanized and reduced to statistics, and all graphic rhetoric is avoided.

EN2. He has also refined the chess practice of "talking smack." Another one of his tactics is to taunt his opponent with the bluff, "Now the fuse is lit."

InYo July 2002