Playing Chess with Gaddafi: What boardgames teach us about winning.

Looks like chess, but Gaddafi is really playing poker

This bizarre image of the Libyan colonel playing chess, while continuing to defy NATO airstrikes and international condemnation made headlines round the world.  And according to a new book, fuelling the Miliband brothers’ Labour leadership feud,  Ed Miliband was a serious teenage  computer gamer: “As a child, Ed loved playing computer games such as Manic Miner, on his ZX81 home computer, when he was not studying.But who says that’s a slur? Read on.

In the 1985 Cold War geek classic WarGames, the Pentagon’s war simulation computer is an expert at chess, but it’s unable to distinguish the board game from reality. It is only when Matthew Broderick’s teen gamer forces it to confront the simple futility of Noughts and Crosses that World War Three is averted.

Teen popcorn fare it may have been, but it captured the idea of how games shed their meanings over time. Chess started out as a battlefield simulation for Indian princes. It evolved into a game of strategy so stylised that being good at one has no connection to being good at the other. Napoleon was a rubbish chess player.

Computer games make it hard for humans to distinguish the game from the real thing. The US Defence technology research agency, DARPA, is currently enlisting gamers to hunt submarines in simulations. Their crowd-sourced strategies will be fed into a neural network that will guide real underwater hunter drones.

Games tell us a lot about the motives of their inventors. But their evolution tells us more about the societies who play them.

Capitalist trumps Quaker values

Take Monopoly, claimed by its owners to be the most popular modern board game. It was
originally patented as “The Landlord’s Game” in 1903 by the Quaker and Georgist economist Lizzie Magie to illustrate the evils of America’s property focussed capitalism and the need for a  land value tax. A key aspect of game play — selling properties at a fixed price – was to accord with Quakers’ opposition to auctions.

As a critique of capitalism, Monopoly was a massive own goal. First it got stolen: Charles
Darrow pretended to have invented it and sold it to the Parker Brothers in 1935. And secondly, it turned out that people enjoyed pretending to be the plutocrat with the top hat, exploiting their tenants.

Board games have served as immersive propaganda for more than just capitalists and Quakers. According to Irving Finkel, a games historian, and assistant keeper of cuneiform inscriptions at The British Museum, Nazi Germany couldn’t get enough of ideological board games. “Bomber uber England” (1940) awarded points for hitting major cities, London was worth 100, Liverpool 40, while deducting points for hitting areas already under Nazi control, such as Brussels. “Juden Heraus” (Jews Out) (1936) a Parcheesi-type counter game, rewarded players for dispatching Jews to the 4 deportation squares. The patriotic inventor actually raised the ire of a senior SS commander for creating entertainment out of a very serious national mission.

In the drab 70s and 80s simple board and puzzle games, such as the code-breaking Mastermind (not the TV quiz) and Yahtzee flattered us into thinking we were glamorous intellectuals. Meanwhile Dungeons and Dragons offered adolescents an escape from dull suburbia.

In the 90s and 2000s the National Lottery and Jedward-style X-Factor successes have fuelled a plethora of nerve shredding games on TV. They promote luck over judgement and low cunning over knowledge. Huge numbers watch poker, Deal or No Deal and its imitators. I once found myself in an ITN makeup room explaining to Golden Balls host, Jasper Carrott that the finale of his TV show was the Prisoner’s Dilemma, as expounded in Game Theory.

Jasper Carrott: The Prisoner's Dilemma

Each player must separately decide whether to share or hoard the jackpot. Depending on the combination of answers, one or both may walk away empty handed. Like in The Apprentice, it’s your abilities as a stitch-up artist that we’re interested in, not your brains.

If Monopoly was the game that defined the Great Depression, the game of our era is the German bestseller, The Settlers of Catan, which has sold 15 million sets in 30 languages since 1995. It’s a “God” game, like The Sims and Civilisation. The premise is of conquering “terra nullius”. Settlers compete to build roads, settlements and cities, trading natural resources – ore, timber, livestock. Robbers occasionally take supplies. The game has proved a global success, notably in its online version in Silicon Valley, reportedly played by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Settllers of Catan: German Kolonisation gaming

Niall Ferguson would no doubt approve. Irving Finkel says he’s stunned by how monumentally boring the game is, but it’s proved a long term hit with even the Wii generation. Was Catan really uninhabited before the settlers arrived? I haven’t found any players who care. Maybe the German designers remain unencumbered by the kind of colonial guilt that would make such a game an impossibility to invent in Britain. The latest variants include the Old Testament –era Settlers of Canaan (each player is a different tribe of Israel). The popularity of The Settlers of Catan reveals only that board games can be forgotten or reinvented in a country as quickly as political regimes.

The Twitter-fuelled regime changes in North Africa also benefit from a games-based
perspective. Bush approached foreign policy as a Texan plays poker, calling Middle Eastern leaders’ bluffs. Obama plays it as chess. Meanwhile, the Arabs in the streets are playing Angry Birds.

That’s what the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya were quickly dubbed after the addictive Finnish computer game, in which birds are driven to exact extreme revenge against the green pigs who have raided their nests. Parodies of the game, featuring Gaddafi in a bunker, managed to capture the simple underestimated power of people who’ve suffered years of burning injustice.

A decade ago Saddam Hussein went all-in on a bluff that he had weapons of mass destruction. George W Bush called his bluff and raised him Operation Desert Storm.  Barack Obama is more a of a straight chess player. The high score of killing Osama Bin Laden after a decade long hunt required linear computer gaming logic and stamina. The kind of endurance that makes professional online gamers wear nappies to see them through to the win.

Computer gaming requires stamina, not cunning.

With a maverick like Gaddafi, Obama made the classic mistake of amateur chess players who believe that they’re playing a game of logic.At Grandmaster level, chess is as much about bluff as poker.

In match six of their 1993 World Championship duel in London, Nigel Short exploited a
21st move error by Gary Kasparov that should have secured Short victory. (See how in the analysis above: watch from 7:45). Kasparov, though aware he was in real danger of losing, played his 25th move and, as documented in Dominic Lawson’s “End Game”, with only 8 minutes on the clock “sat back in his chair with a relaxed expression on his face, put his watch back on his wrist and walked off the stage.” Short, flummoxed by Kasparov’s apparent confidence, lost his own, and ended up drawing the game he could and should have won.

Gadaffi: Mad Dog sometimes. Maverick always

Though Gaddafi’s letter to Barack Obama, expressing hopes for his reelection was trumped by the Abbottabad mission, the Colonel continues to outsmart NATO’s supposed moral mission in Libya: Take his recent encouragment of boatloads of African migrants across the Med where their presence creates humanitarian embarrassment for NATO, and Italy and France squabble over keeping them out. Cunning beats brains.

And what about our own Prime Minister? His defence cuts, just ahead of NATO operations in Libya might have lowered our standing in a traditional military board game like “Campaign” (1971).

Campaign: Napoleonic era gaming from 1971

But David Cameron’s £650 million pound education aid package for Pakistan in exchange for tackling corruption and terrorism, unpopular at home in many ways, is exactly the sort of mutually beneficial trade that would score a couple of victory points in The Settlers of Catan. And I also hear that he’s played every level of Angry Birds.

I haven’t been able to do fair analysis of the rapidly changing situation in Syria and Robert Gates’ scathing comments on Friday June 10th about European NATO allies’ “unacceptable” military attitude. Perhaps “Campaign” is not so irrelevant after all.

Written with special thanks to the font of knowledge that is Irving Finkel, a games historian, and assistant keeper of cuneiform inscriptions at The British Museum who kindly took the time to talk to me, particularly about the Nazi games covered in this article. And also to Brian Millar (@arthurascii) — a master of gaming in his own right.

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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