Chess, War Games and Birthday Parties
“When you see a good move, look for a better one”
Since Father had taught me to play chess, the royal game, as he called it, I took every opportunity to challenge my friends and classmates to hone my thinking skills. What I liked about it was that its outcome did not depend on luck. As a matter of fact, the game was for me like a metaphor for life containing all the ingredients necessary for success, such as planning ahead, anticipating good and bad situations, making decisions, keeping a solid grip on your emotions, distinguishing between a real mistake and a bait or trap, being gracious and humble in victory and defeat. The chess literature offers a plethora of anecdotes making fun of the foibles of human nature among chess players, especially among those suffering from an excessive amount of vainglory and self-importance. One character can be added to this list in the following true story.
Whether ancient languages, mathematics, physics were the subjects, or playing classical guitar or practically anything else Hans took on, he excelled and was superior to anyone around him during the nine years I happened to know him. Being so good in everything, he could afford to be humble. But when I had beaten him in chess three times in a row, his reaction was definitely not a modest, humble acknowledgement of defeat. He exploded, “I cannot understand how somebody as dumb as you can beat me in chess!” I was so content with my victory over the genius of the Wesel High School that I was not even insulted. Actually I took his disparaging words as a compliment.
The chessboard is like a miniature battlefield except that the opposing armies are at the beginning identical in position, numbers, and strength. But with trillions of possible moves for the average game of thirty moves and counter-moves, the scales begin to tip in favor of the player who has the superior strategy and avoids making mistakes. Somehow it was this combative game that inspired me to create my own war game for four players. From chess I learned that a good game should not depend on luck, on the roll of dice, or cards pulled randomly from a stack. In the final version that would take three to four hours to play, transport vessels and battle ships, tanks, trucks and soldiers had their own movement and attack properties, very much like pawns, bishops, knights, rooks, queen and king in the chess game. On a large piece of cardboard I had drawn a giant grid of 600 squares, on which I placed the four countries with their respective capitals around the inner sea in a perfectly symmetrical fashion. The successful occupation of a capital by any enemy piece would be equivalent to checkmate with one particular twist: all the lands, islands, the wealth of resources, war material and money would become immediate property of the player who captured the capital. Reflecting realistically the pattern of conquest throughout the history of mankind, the game had to include precious resources not available at the beginning within the borders of the four countries. Gold, iron, and other vital ores were located on the islands at the center of the ocean. To access any of the islands, the player would have to send his transport ships and occupy them. So war was inevitable. Each player depended on the resources to manufacture weapons or to turn them into money whose value fluctuated with the growth or decline of the island possessions. Add to this the player’s ability to form alliances, to make treaties, or arrange secret deals under the table, and we had an exciting game that was in its simplicity of rules and in complexity of scenarios years ahead of the commercial war games, such as ‘Rommel in the Desert’, ‘Eastern Front’, ‘The Battle of the Bulge’, and many others.
As for me, the inventor of the game, I had the distinct advantage of knowing how to deploy the army and navy units most effectively. So it was no surprise that for most games I emerged victorious either as an ally with a willing partner or daringly going forth all alone. One day I arrived a little late for our weekly war game at Rainer’s place. I immediately sensed that my three friends had come to some sort of agreement to form an alliance against me that was supposed to hold at least until I was defeated and eliminated from the game. I saw my suspicion confirmed, when the two players whose countries were adjacent to mine almost immediately prepared an attack with their ground troops at the two borders, while the third player was directing his naval fleet towards my favorite island amounting to a declaration of war. It was plain to see that Hans, Rainer and Klaus had prearranged this maneuver, because the ships were loaded to their maximum carrying capacity with tanks and trucks, while the borders remained virtually unprotected. Never before had I been in such a precarious scenario, in which I had been outnumbered three to one in a war against all three playing partners. Once the enemy forces would have occupied the islands and cheap production of more war material would have begun, the odds would even be worse. I had to act swiftly and decisively. I suspected that Hans had devised this Machiavellian scheme, since in the past he had always been at the losing end of the stick. Although he amassed his troops at my border, he merely engaged in minor skirmishes. He was obviously hoping that the major battles would be fought by his allies who near the end would be so worn-out that all he would have to do was to let his units undiminished in strength and number march into the poorly defended capitals and taste effortlessly the sweet glory of victory. To his dismay I concentrated most of my forces at his border and forced him into battle. While his allies were making good progress facing only token resistance at land and at sea, Hans suffered heavy losses against an experienced general and began to grumble against his allies. When I cheerfully encouraged Rainer to capture my undefended capital, he was convinced that he had been double-crossed. Although their unexpected success was due to my strategy, he called them traitors and hurled undeserved and unmentionable expletives at their faces. No longer able to control his temper he swept the playing pieces off the game board. Thus, I managed to escape the humiliation of certain defeat at the hands of my three friends and enjoyed the honor of the details of this particular game being discussed by my friends for a long time afterwards.