Knowing the Endgame — in Chess and the Economy
In the economic chess game now being played, everyone will be checkmated.
July 27, 2009 - 12:35 am
“However studiously and conscientiously the bullsh*tter proceeds, it remains true that he is also trying to get away with something. There is surely in his work, as in the work of the slovenly craftsman, some kind of laxity that resists or eludes the demands of a disinterested and austere discipline.”
— Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullsh*t
When my son was five years old, I introduced him to the game of chess. Within months he had acquired a schematic overview of the board but, naturally, tended to bungle the opening and would stall somewhat in the middle game. Still, he might survive the occasional contest until he reached the complexities of the endgame, which, with its empty spaces and five or six remaining pieces, defeated him utterly.
The first twelve or so moves are relatively straightforward whatever staple opening or variation one adopts. The middle game grows increasingly intricate, as is to be expected. The endgame, however, is a bitch, which may seem paradoxical, given the board is almost Mother Hubbard bare. But that is a delusion. For it is at this vertiginous moment when a giddy array of probabilities arise that do not allow for the slightest miscue. One wrong move in the endgame, writes Garry Kasparov in How Life Imitates Chess: Making the Right Moves — from the Board to the Boardroom, and the win can “evaporate.” It takes “precision … to complete a successful move.” The “exercise” is “almost mathematical.”
Accordingly, my son set himself to repair his dilemma by practicing assiduously, distributing a handful of pieces across the board and playing solo as both black and white. Only, his idea of practice, of gaining competence, was not to master the byzantine maneuvers needed to resolve the ramifications of endgame analysis, but simply to change the rules in order to improve his situation. This was his version of hope and change. And it must be said that these attempts at dominating the intimidating vacancies of the finale succeeded brilliantly. Whatever side he identified with invariably won, thanks to an imperial knight assuming the bishop’s role or an insurgent pawn leaping two or three squares instead of crawling forward the requisite one square at a time.
The problem was that his endgame tactics — assuming he got that far — failed miserably whenever he played against someone else and was forced to stick to the standard rules of chess. Reality refused to play by his suddenly invented rules as he surveyed a checkered desert stretching tauntingly before his frowning gaze. My poor boy had not yet understood that, confronting a board of 64 squares, most of them empty, and with only half a dozen pieces or fewer left to advance, the calculations required to queen a pawn and achieve victory demanded strict, logical, relentless thinking, leaving no margin for even a single mistake. That is how a labyrinthine game is won. An unskilled player, however, must inevitably lose when the board begins to clear.
Which brings me by way of extended preface to the current échec on the domestic scene. The present American administration plays the economy the way my five-year-old son played chess. It knows the opening moves at least sufficiently to occupy the appropriate squares, gets itself into trouble as the match heats up, and finds itself utterly at a loss when trying to make sense of the endgame with its bewildering profusion of blanks, abstractions, projections, estimates, developments, and unimagined vacuities.