Americans love big theories, and don’t have much patience for the myriad little details that make the world so difficult to understand. Thus spoke Alexis de Tocqueville in the early 1830s, and that insight goes hand in glove with another one: democracies, including our own, stink at foreign policy. Nowhere are those two important truths demonstrated more vividly than in an article in the weekend Wall Street Journal that recounts a recent infatuation of American strategists, from Henry Kissinger to military thinkers, with the study of an Oriental board game known as “Go.” I think it comes from Korea, and its recent elevation to importance for deep thinkers seems to be the work of one David Lai, who teaches at the Army War College, and believes that Go is the key to understanding the Chinese strategic mind. To quote from the Journal:
“Go is the perfect reflection of Chinese strategic thinking and their operational art,” says Mr. Lai, who grew up watching his father—who was jobless during the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution—constantly play the game. A self-described midlevel Go player, Mr. Lai came to the U.S. about 30 years ago.
Theories of this sort are not new. During the Cold War, self-important Washingtonians used to intone that we were poker players, while the Soviets were chess masters, which was said to give them an advantage over us. The Go theory is of the same ilk. My favorite variation, known to be favored by Dr. Kissinger, is a kind of meta-theory of the relationship between games and national character, according to which you can see the basic components of a nation’s spirit by the way its teams play soccer. Germans attack, Italians defend, Brazilians look for elegance, and so forth.
It’s all good fun, but it’s mostly balderdash. The biggest problem with the chess and Go metaphors is that they are both board games, and board games have very little to do with life, or even with that slice of life (war) they are said to embody. Whatever the rules of the game, the players see everything. All the pieces (as in chess) or the stones (as in Go) are right there in front of you, and there’s no room for many of life’s and war’s most important elements: confusion stemming from lack of full vision of the battlefield (“fog of war”), deception, the need for, and simultaneous danger of, communication with allies and troops, and many other problems that are all too real to political and military leaders, but irrelevant to the players of board games.
Card games are much closer to the real world, because you don’t see everything. Many years ago I noted that it was no accident that Machiavelli was a card player. Nor that Eisenhower was a bridge player. Indeed, it always seemed to me that Americans, being card players, had a distinct advantage over the board game players. In the purest form of poker–5-card draw–you only see a small fraction of the cards in play, and deception is an integral part of the battle. In bridge, the most you ever see is half the cards, and during the most important part of the game–the bidding–you only see a quarter of them. You have to guess, or deduce, the rest, and that process involves deception, error, and bluff.
I do love Go, it’s a terrific game. I doubt that it has much to do with Chinese grand strategy. The greatest Chinese strategist of modern times–Deng Xiaoping–was a famous bridge addict, and the original “gang of four” was composed of himself and three other bridge players who had their own train car reserved for their games.
If I were in charge of the curriculum of the War Colleges, I’d make our strategists play bridge many hours a day. But then, I love the myriad details and I’m suspicious of grand theories.
Mr. Lai, call the American Contract Bridge League and emulate your mother country’s greatest modern leader.