Thoughts About Pawns and Austerlitz♟ 💭

“And they say he’s a skillful commander,” rejoined Pierre.

“I don’t understand what is meant by ‘a skillful commander,’” replied Prince Andrew ironically.

“A skillful commander?” replied Pierre. “Why, one who foresees all contingencies... and foresees the adversary’s intentions.”

“But that’s impossible,” said Prince Andrew as if it were a matter settled long ago.

Pierre looked at him in surprise.

“And yet they say that war is like a game of chess?” he remarked.

“Yes,” replied Prince Andrew, “but with this little difference, that in chess you may think over each move as long as you please and are not limited for time, and with this difference too, that a knight is always stronger than a pawn, and two pawns are always stronger than one, while in war a battalion is sometimes stronger than a division and sometimes weaker than a company. The relative strength of bodies of troops can never be known to anyone. Believe me,” he went on, “if things depended on arrangements made by the staff, I should be there making arrangements, but instead of that I have the honor to serve here in the regiment with these gentlemen, and I consider that on us tomorrow’s battle will depend and not on those others.... Success never depends, and never will depend, on position, or equipment, or even on numbers, and least of all on position.”

“But on what then?”

“On the feeling that is in me and in him,” he pointed to Timókhin, “and in each soldier.”

Prince Andrew glanced at Timókhin, who looked at his commander in alarm and bewilderment. In contrast to his former reticent taciturnity Prince Andrew now seemed excited. He could apparently not refrain from expressing the thoughts that had suddenly occurred to him.

“A battle is won by those who firmly resolve to win it! Why did we lose the battle at Austerlitz? The French losses were almost equal to ours, but very early we said to ourselves that we were losing the battle, and we did lose it. And we said so because we had nothing to fight for there, we wanted to get away from the battlefield as soon as we could. ‘We’ve lost, so let us run,’ and we ran. If we had not said that till the evening, heaven knows what might not have happened. But tomorrow we shan’t say it! You talk about our position, the left flank weak and the right flank too extended,” he went on. “That’s all nonsense, there’s nothing of the kind. But what awaits us tomorrow? A hundred million most diverse chances which will be decided on the instant by the fact that our men or theirs run or do not run, and that this man or that man is killed, but all that is being done at present is only play. The fact is that those men with whom you have ridden round the position not only do not help matters, but hinder. They are only concerned with their own petty interests.”

The text is from Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’. Prince Andrew’s determinism and pessimistic approach to the value of strategy and dynamics of the battlefield could be a chess amateur facing a stronger player. I often drift into a deterministic mindset when my position start to go from equal to worse against a strong opponent. It feels like I’m now just playing moves to make it look like we are still playing. Maybe how Prince Andrew felt after being beaten at Austerlitz?

During the last 14 days I have been reading ‘My System’ and ‘Garry Kasparov: Part I’, while I have been camping in the woods in Sweden. A little each night. Nimzowitsch describe how a chess position evolves, and how a childish organism shouldn’t try to win pawns but to evolve. And Kasparov has opened my eyes to pawn sacrifices and dynamic opportunities. Like in the game G.Kasparov - L.Polugayevsky
(46th USSR Championship, 4th round, Tbilisi, 1978), where Kasparov gives away a pawn with 10. e5 to activate his Bishop.

Nimzowitsch often uses the army analogy when talking about the chess pieces and why I thought about Napoleons triumph at Austerlitz. Napoleon managed to use the dynamic possibilities of the battlefield, developed with speed (after a march of 80 miles in just 50 hours, Davout’s III Corps arrived to support the French right flank.), confused his opponent by looking weak, and counter-attacked at the right time.

Many chess improvers often look at the numbers. Napoleon had estimated 65,000-75,000 men while the allied had 84,000-95,000 men. The allied had the advantage according to the numbers. In chess this would be the material balance. I have countless times been so focused about not losing pawns that I forgot to look at dynamic possibilities by giving them away.

In the future I will need to be more dynamic in my approach to chess and keep developing faster then my stronger opponents, so I no longer will be the bystander with a lost position.

I can’t however stop to think about to what degree chess masters win because they possess a the inner will to do so? To what degree does Prince Andrew’s statement hold truth?

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/Martin