What Chess Players Could Teach Obama About Handling Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and U.S. President Barack Obama during the G20 Summit on Sept. 5, 2013 in St. Petersburg, Russia Photograph by Alexey Kudenko/Host Photo Agency via Getty Images

President Obama said last month that America’s disputes with Russia aren’t match play on “some Cold War chessboard.” Obama saw opportunities for outcomes that would benefit Russia and the U.S.: “win-win” solutions. But lately it appears that Russian President Vladimir Putin is playing the war-and-diplomacy game very much as if it is a game of chess—that is, a zero-sum game in which anything that benefits one side is by definition a loss for the other.

If that’s so, then maybe Obama could learn a thing or two from expert chess players. Over the centuries, the game of chess has developed an enormous repertory of defenses against aggressive players. There’s the Morphy Defense, the Norwegian Defense, the Cozio Defense, the Schliemann Defense, the Bird’s Defense, and on and on. (Disclosure: As a rank beginner, I don’t understand any of these plays.)

I found a thread on Chess.com sparked by a question that sounded like it could have come from the White House: “1) How should you play against an aggressive (attacking) player? 2) Is it better to fight aggression with aggression?”

The most interesting advice was from a forum participant named Estragon, who wrote, “It is usually true that the wild attacking players hate to be on defense, so playing for the initiative early, even at the cost of a pawn you don’t really get enough for, can work. Like boxers, the hardest punchers don’t like the taste of their own blood.”

After acknowledging that not every one of his readers can stomach a pugnacious style of play, Estragon wrote, “When an overaggressive player launches a premature and speculative attack, it is rarely enough just to repulse it with defensive moves. He will just regroup and try again! When the opponent overreaches, he must be punished. You have to be willing to launch a counterattack, to pursue the retreating army, to follow through and create your own threats.”

Yikes. That may work in chess, but it seems reckless for real life. Let’s go straight to the top of the chess world for strategic advice. Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion and one of the game’s greatest players, is a longtime nemesis of Putin. Kasparov doesn’t counsel Obama to go against Putin head-to-head, but rather to hit his soft underbelly—i.e., the support the Russian president gets from the rich and powerful oligarchs.

“As I have said for years, it is a waste of time to attempt to discern deep strategy in Mr. Putin’s actions,” Kasparov wrote in a column in the Wall Street Journal this month. “There are no complex national interests in a dictator’s calculations. There are only personal interests, the interests of those close to him who keep him in power, and how best to consolidate that power.”

So what to do? “If the West punishes Russia with sanctions and a trade war,” Kasparov wrote, “that might be effective eventually, but it would also be cruel to the 140 million Russians who live under Mr. Putin’s rule. And it would be unnecessary. Instead, sanction the 140 oligarchs who would dump Mr. Putin in the trash tomorrow if he cannot protect their assets abroad. Target their visas, their mansions and IPOs in London, their yachts and Swiss bank accounts. Use banks, not tanks.”

Obama is doing pretty much what the grandmaster advises. Early this week the White House announced sanctions on seven top Russian government officials and four others from Ukraine. The moves were made in concert with the 28-member European Union, which imposed its own set of penalties. The U.S. also included a ban on travel visas. On Thursday Obama followed up with financial sanctions on 20 more people–Russian officials and businessmen with ties to Putin–and a bank.

But Obama is correct that in the broad scheme of things, life is not chess. The U.S. has no interest in putting Russia in checkmate. The two nations would be much better off as partners. In chess it’s perfectly acceptable to sacrifice all your pawns, knights, bishops, and rooks if that’s what it takes to pin down the opponent’s king. Not in the real world. So Obama is correctly opening exit doors—if Putin steps back, Russia will be rewarded. For Obama, the trick is to play the diplomatic chess game like a grandmaster, while seeing the opportunity for moves that benefit both sides of the board.

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