A chess player’s analysis of the new world order

Brian Devlin

November 17, 2016

What a wealth of analysis we have been offered by journalists, politicians, scholars, writers and other concerned citizens in the last few months! Just for the sake of a different perspective, here is one from a chess player.

The conservative playbook is well known. Take command of the centre, as if it is your right to rule. Keep your hands on the levers of power (so that you can check and eventually checkmate the enemy king when you can). Set up clusters of pieces that work seamlessly together (such as fabulously endowed think tanks). Queen your pawns whenever you can (get your key people elected to high office).

Also quite familiar are the progressive strategies of influencing the media, the entertainment industry, academia and the government through ideas and critiques–whether these frameworks are based on socialism, the Frankfurt School, or some deconstructive, postmodernist strain associated with a favourite French philosopher (take over the flanks and exert influence on the board from there).


This photo was taken in Bali on January 17, 2014, before I could finish (and, I think, win) this game. Unfortunately, my chess partner was not around when I returned the following year to continue it. White to move.

At the grandmaster level of play a consistent strategy may be followed from start to finish. One can see this in the great games of Akida Rubinstein, Alexander Alekhine, Magnus Carlsen, Mikhail Botvinnik, Anatoly Karpov, Garry Kasparov, Bobby Fischer, José Raúl Capablanca, Emanuel Lasker and other wonderful exponents of the game. ‘Immortal’ games have long been celebrated in books and newspapers. At my level of play the bold ideas do not always come off. Nonetheless, the game is played by rules, which specify what moves are allowed.

I never imagined that there might be a new revolutionary version of chess, one that corresponds to international e-populism. We all know who the international populists are, for recently we have seen evidence of their activity in events such as Brexit, building the Hungarian wall, and the election of Donald Trump. But  international e-populism? What’s that? Well, you are forgiven for not having heard of it, for I have only just made up the phrase. It refers to a movement which uses social media brilliantly to achieve stunning influence, and so surprise those who trust polls, or read books and broadsheets made from paper. The heroes in this space have been people such as Andrew Breitbart and Stephen Bannon, skilled drivers of new ‘rage machines’ (Rebecca Mead, New Yorker, May 24, 2010).

Mr Bannon brings phenomenal social media mastery to his new role as chief White House strategist. As I am only a social chess player, I can only dimly intuit the rules of the new, revolutionary version of chess, but let me share with you what I have figured out so far.

The starting point is to forget about the game as a pleasant activity. It is an epochal, high-stakes, face-off. Your pieces are not just quaint medieval symbols: castle, king, queen, bishops, knights, peasants. The aim is not to work in feudal harmony while jousting chivalrously with the other side. Not at all. The forces at your disposal actually comprise the church militant, arrayed in all its ferocious might, true crusaders and forgotten people alike, pitted against Jihadist Islamic fascism and other forms of terrorism, crony capitalist Republicans, Ayn Rand libertarians and other enemies of those enlightened, commonsense,  Judeo-Christian working men and women whose jobs have been stolen from them.

In conventional chess the moves may be daring and brilliant, but they must be allowable. For example, the bishop can only move in a straight line in his own colour.  That familiar rule book has its corollary in real life, where peacetime virtues such as truthfulness, diplomacy, decency, tact and politeness are normally respected, and wartime activities are constrained by agreements such as the Geneva Convention through the procedures to be followed when handling prisoners of war.  In revolutionary chess new rules have been devised because of totally new thefts or threats. Two simple examples will suffice. Trillions of dollars have been diverted, as a result of the Global Financial Crisis, since 2008. Not only have those responsible not been held accountable, the resulting losses have often been covered by governments which can ill-afford to pay. The Panama papers give us a just a glimpse of new system that allows the ultra-wealthy ‘one percent’ to opt out of the old taxation systems in which only the losers pay for schools, hospitals and roads. Then there is the rise of Islamic State, which  calls for new rules of engagement. Its fighters have to be tracked down the rabbit hole with Leninist zeal. And so the revolutionary chess game seems to work in this way: You create your own post-factual marquee online. You devise avatars such as Joe (the Plumber) Wurzelbacher to be your mouthpieces. You assemble your audience, and entertain them in your own expanding echo chamber with a dizzying display of acrobatics, clowning and performing with tigers. Who knows? The virtual power you amass on the internet could even turn into real power in the physical world.

Let me hasten to add that I was only able to spare a few moments to write this piece, because I want to return to a game of traditional chess, which has begun to look very drawish. I look forward to playing in this old style way with my six-year-old grand daughter, Amy, in a few weeks time. She is learning to move her pieces very thoughtfully, and so we are now able to play some great games together. Meanwhile, I will await with interest the moves that will be played next in the revolutionary chess competition that is now being staged by international e-populists for all the world to see.


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