Football and Chess: What They Have in Common?
Adam Wells is the author of Football & Chess: Tactics, Strategy, Beauty. In the book he discusses the commonalities between the two games making the connections in a comprehensive, interesting way.
Complex dynamic systems
Both games represent a complex system (as discussed here), a network of interconnections of players or pieces to fulfill a purpose. What we’re trying to come up with is a possible conceptual framework that may offer us a better understanding of the behavior and success of a dynamic system consisting of interacting agents.
Any complex system has a certain organization or cohesive structure which helps create the optimal behavior and mobility in space and time where safety and survival are paramount. The point of strategy and strategic play in football and chess is gradual movement of the formation with the system’s safety always in mind. Mobility allows both chess pieces and soccer players to adjust their shape. In chess, the gradual movements, generally, take place toward the opponent’s back rank (pawns can’t go backwards). In football, it’s constant expansion and contraction of the shape relative to the flow of the game.
Our human point of view is that the aim of the game is to score a goal, or to deliver checkmate to the opposing king. Actually, the system has to possess a compact structure to withstand attacks in a hostile environment and survive. It has to take risks to attack and expand only to increase chances for survival (you can see that the most natural players like Capablanca and Karpov care about safety first, being aggressive to reasonable limits). As the venerable strategist Sun Tzu put it, “Invincibility (read survival) lies in the defense; the possibility of victory in the attack.”
Here are the links Adam Wells makes between the two past times on what he calls the technical elements (see The Heretic Coach blog). Try to put these elements into the context of the life of a complex system as discussed above:
To be effective at both games you need to build connections between your pieces or your players. Both require supply lines that connect the front to the back and the left side to the right. And both are architectural games which in particular is reflected in the use of the word shape when we talk about the positioning of our players on the soccer field. Connections in chess can either be direct between the pieces where one pass can move directly to the spot of another (like passing to feet) or indirect where two or more pieces could each move to the same spot that none of them currently occupy (like passing to space).
While shape is important, it is the movement of players within that shape that brings the shape to life and helps a soccer team maintain possession. The more options a player has, the more chance there are of keeping possession. Players that stand still limit their team’s chance of keeping possession. Chess pieces need space in order to be mobile or else they become static and unable to contribute.
Stretching and compressing
Shape and mobility allow both chess pieces and soccer players to adjust their shape. When attacking they stretch out side to side and end to end in order to create as much space to use as possible. When defending, they compress to the middle or to the area of greatest danger and in doing so shorten the distances between each other making defensive support faster and stronger.
Dominating the midfield
To control a game of chess, you need to control the middle of the board. In soccer we often talk about games being won or lost in the midfield. Having control over the middle of the soccer field allows teammates around them to be played into the game. Subsequently, not having control of the midfield means less chance to build attacks. Wells says that soccer teams that are ‘breathing smoothly,’ that is expanding and contracting their shape relative to the flow of the game, are much nicer to watch play.
In chess you choose your opening. In soccer you choose your formation. This is the general organization common to both which begins to flesh out the strategy of that particular game. That is, do you take the game to your opponent or do you sit back, soak up the pressure and counter attack? When you attack, will it be down the middle or down the flanks? Each organizational system will have its own strengths and weaknesses which begins to dictate the strategy. This leads to the tactics needed for that particular game. In chess that is finding the right attacking combinations to capture pieces. In soccer it is finding the right combinations to make a break through and score. The build-up process starts in conjunction with the strategic plan for the game. The goal is to bring as many pieces – or players – into the attack as possible in order to help sustain the momentum. In soccer, we can’t expect the strikers or forwards to do all the attacking on their own without midfield or even fullback support.
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“At the most fundamental level, football and chess are games that involve using space effectively and getting the timing right to break down an opponent’s defense whilst preventing them from breaking down yours.” – Adam Wells