22 Dec 2006

Learning From the Stones

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David Lai, at the Army’s Strategic Studies Institute, published a thought-provoking paper in 2004 comparing the differences between Chinese and Western Strategic thinking to the differences between the Chinese game of Go and such Western games as chess, poker, and football. Learning From the Stones is now available online, and makes for very interesting reading.

With over 2,000 years of inï¬u201auence from Sun Tzu’s teaching, along with the inï¬u201auence of other signiï¬cant philosophical and military writings, the Chinese are particularly comfortable with viewing war and diplomacy in comprehensive and dialectic ways and acting accordingly. Indeed, many of these observations have become proverbial components of the Chinese way of war and diplomacy. The most notable ones are bing yi zha li (war is based on deception), shang-bing fa-mou (supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy’s strategy), qi-zheng xiang-sheng (mutual reproduction of regular and extraordinary forces and tactics), chu-qi zhi-sheng (win through unexpected moves), yin-di zhi-sheng (gain victory by varying one’s strategy and tactics according to the enemy’s situation), yi-rou ke-gang (use the soft and gentle to overcome the hard and strong), bishi ji-xu (stay clear of the enemy’s main force and strike at his weak point), yi-yu wei-zhi (to make the devious route the most direct), hou-fa zhi-ren (ï¬ght back and gain the upper hand only after the enemy has initiated ï¬ghting), sheng-dong ji-xi (make a feint to the east but attack in the west), and so on. All of these special Chinese four-character proverbs are strategic and dialectic in nature. All bear some character of ï¬u201aowing water. This Chinese way of war and diplomacy is in striking difference to the Western way of war from ancient Greece to the United States today. In the Western tradition, there is a heavy emphasis on the use of force; the art of war is largely limited to the battleï¬elds; and the way to ï¬ght is force on force.

2 Feedbacks on "Learning From the Stones"

Dominique R. Poirier

Although I am not finished reading this interesting study yet, I would like to publish this comment whose pretense is a recommendation based on personal experience.

I learnt playing Chess and Go at the same time when I was just entering into adulthood, almost 30 years ago now. The man who taught me how to play these games was much older than me and skilled enough at Chess to be the winner, he told me, of some national tournaments. The fact is I never won a Chess game against him. He had memorized many winning Chess strategies and taught me some at that time. I understood that learning such strategies was of great help and gives one an indisputable advantage when facing opponents who do not have such knowledge, no matter how smart they can be. Countless books on Chess strategies and shrewd openings set by famous masters are available in bookstores.

In revenge, things are somewhat different with Go since rules and moves are not as codified and strict as for Chess. There are some strategic ways of planning a Go game, but, from my own opinion, they do not grant you the same tremendous advantage at almost all rates as in Chess when facing a smart opponent.

When this Chess player taught me Go he started playing with the same confidence he had displayed with Chess; but I lost only the first game against him. At some point, while it became obvious he was once more losing the third or fourth game; in an access of tamper as sudden as unexpected he suddenly hurled the Go board and all stones on it through the room. He never accepted to play against me again. As you can imagine, the young man I was was all at the same time surprised, proud, and disappointed. Eventually, I witnessed sometimes the same angry reaction with other persons, whether they were young, old, smart or not. A reaction I never witnessed with Chess. As anecdote exemplifying this frequent attitude, one can recall this scene happening on the Yale campus in the movie The Beautiful Mind when the young and overly confident John Nash loses suddenly his mind when he loses a Go game against one of his mates and comes to realize he had been fooled all along until the last moment. Beyond the mere appearance of fiction this scene pictures quite well how challenging for the mind Go is.
For, Go is game during which harassment like strategies often occur, due to the rules of that game which are, once more, not codified as Chess’ are. Much later, while circumstances made that I got interested in the subject of modern strategy and warfare I discovered striking similarities between Go, realpolitik, and modern warfare.

Go is a more flexible game than Chess in the sense that if offers broader opportunities to change one’s strategy for another at some point during a game. While playing Go, your goals are to win and secure territory, to surround your adversary so as to undermine his objectives of territory conquest, and, when possible, to surround his pieces (stones) so as to capture them.
So, the main difficulty during a Go game is to not be overwhelmed by the great amount of pieces at stake on the board game so as to not fail to guess your opponent’s overall strategy while continuing to carry on yours. For, your best strategy and the opponent’s are based mostly upon deception; which materializes in Go game while luring one’s opponent into focusing on one or multiple attack(s) (or defensive tactics) from your side which may correspond to authentic objectives and be, at the same time, deceptive moves of forces masking a broader and more ambitious long term strategy. So, defensive and attack moves neither are necessarily true facts or deception. They may be both, so that winning painstakingly a fierce battle may mean losing the whole war! That’s why a Go game may be nervously demanding and why some players may easily become bad players sometimes.

As a person much more interested in strategy and realpolitik than in board games however my personal point of view, which once more has to be taken as a contribution, is that Go seems to be much closer to modern warfare and strategy (not to say insurgency and counterinsurgency) than Chess. In my own opinion, Chess, as a metaphoric representation of warfare and strategy, seems closer to an older vision of warfare backing to the XIXth century and earlier in the sense that wars and battles belonging to these earlier times went along codified rules exactly as Chess do. The King has the right and the power to do such or such move while the Tower cannot. There is no way for a King to move sometimes undercover. All forces in presence and their respective position on the chessboard are in full view of everyone. There is no way with Chess to suddenly add one or more pieces where and when no one could foresee it.

That’s why I’ll go as far as to say that the overwhelming presence of hierarchy and strictly codified rules with Chess implies something akin to gentlemanly protocol belonging to a bygone past. And, subsequently, that’s why I believe that playing Go could be an excellent and highly recommendable form of leisure for anyone studying strategy and military matters.

Merry Christmas.

Dominique R. Poirier

Having read David Lai’s document on Go and strategy, at last, my point of view about it is that it is a must read paper.

My only one critic is that I’m not sure that those who didn’t practiced Go until then will fully grasp the interesting comparisons between a Go game and some historical issues David Lai attempted to exemplify. For those persons David Lai paper will be definitely enlightening once they will have played a good deal of Go games, I think.

Although David Lai has an understandable tendency to put the emphasis on compared Chinese and American strategic thoughts and way of doing things, one could add with reason that learning Go does not necessarily restrain one’s focus on the study of U.S. and China affairs. Learning Go or improving one’s knowledge and skill in strategy in playing Go will be equally of great usefulness for those who concentrate their intellectual strength on any other area of the world.

From my viewpoint, and as example, Iran and terrorist organization unwittingly (?) relies on Go like inspired stratagems. David Lai is damn right when he says while concluding his exposé:

“In the evolution of warfare, the battle of wits has become more important than the actual use of force to achieve war aims (political goals). Today, we call the battle of wits, ‘strategy.’ It is about the ways to use force. The United States is the most powerful country in force capability terms, but less so in resourcefulness. The Chinese way of war and diplomacy can be a great supplement to American power. If one looks at American power as the yang (the upfront force) and the Chinese stratagems as the yin (the behind-the-scene wits), it is only natural that the two should complement each other. The Chinese are determined to improve their capabilities; Americans should improve their strategies and stratagems.”


“Americans will do themselves a great service to follow Sun Tzu’s dictum to learn about the Chinese way of war and diplomacy, and as this writing suggests, learning from the stones is the way to go.”


“The Chinese way of war and diplomacy will help the United States strengthen its leadership in the whole process of diplomacy.”

P.S.: I make profitable use of this comment to announce to readers interested by this field of studies that another quite interesting paper titled Counterinsurgency Manual, 2006 edition, has just been released this week. It is a 282 pages .pdf document freely available at the following link:



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