Winning isn’t always about talent and skills. Winning is an attitude. Everyday you see people with less skill and talent being successful. They’ve tapped into a place that pushes them past their competition. It’s the will to win.

“Chess is a test of wills”

The essence of any conflict is confrontation between two opposing wills, as in the above quote by the great Paul Keres. Or as Fischer put it: “Chess is war over the board. The object is to crush the opponent’s mind.”

Chess is a duel of wills

Duel, by Aleksey Kulakov

It is like two wrestlers locked up in a hold, each using force and counterforce trying to throw the other. It’s a dynamic interplay, a process of continuous mutual adaptation, of give and take, move and countermove. This is true for warfare, chess as a no-blood-spilled representation of it, sport or business competition, interpersonal or international relations.

The fundamental purpose of warfare is the destruction of the opponent’s strength, and, even more importantly, his will to fight. The objective in any conflict is to impose your will on your competitor. While you try to impose your will on them, they resist you and seek to impose their will on you.


Seen as a clash between two opposing wills, chess may appear a simple game. In fact it is extremely difficult because of the countless factors involved. These factors taken together may be called friction.

Friction may be imposed by enemy action in the current situation on the board. For example, as in effective enemy fire, or some obstacles in the way the opponent put up his defenses that you have to overcome.

Friction may also be mental, or self-induced, caused by such factors as lack of a clearly defined goal, an indecision over a course of action, lack of confidence or other psychological factors.

While striving yourself to overcome the effects of friction, you must attempt at the same time to raise your enemy’s friction to a level that weakens his ability to fight.

That’s Dr. Lasker’s Law of Struggle: follow linea minoris resistentiae. You should always take action that puts up the stiffest resistance to the competitor, while looking for the line of least resistance for your team.

Juliusz Studnicki (1906 Kniażyce - 1978 Warszawa) GRA W SZACHY BISKUPA Z DIABŁEM

Bishop playing chess with the devil, by Juliusz Studnicki

Now the question is how you should impose your will on them in an environment where friction abounds? Through organized application of force (or mere threats of using force). In chess it’s threat-of-attack—attack—capture sequence. In war it’s use of all those means of annihilation of enemy and his assets.

Since your goal is not merely the cumulative attrition of enemy strength, you must have some larger scheme for how to gain some distinct advantage and ultimately achieve victory. Before anything else you must establish what you want to accomplish, why and how. Without the concept, the necessary unity of effort is inconceivable.

Shaping the opponent

Before you engage and clash with the opponent you have to prepare the battlefield. Basically, all actions in warfare are based upon either taking the initiative or reacting in response to the opponent. By taking initiative you dictate the terms of the conflict. You must seize the advantage through initiative and offense and force the enemy to meet you on your terms at the time and place of your choosing. To master the enemy in this manner is what Sun Tzu means by “shaping.”

“Skilled in war bring the enemy to the field of battle and are not brought there by him.” — Sun Tzu

You must identify those critical enemy vulnerabilities that will lead most directly to undermining his strength. Having done this, you can then begin to act so as to shape the battle operations to your advantage in both time and space. Ideally, when the moment of engagement arrives, the issue will have already been resolved. Through your influencing of the events leading up to the encounter, you have shaped the conditions of war that the result is just a matter of course. You have shaped the action decisively to your advantage. Remember, the events are won before the battle starts.

In one word we call this strategy.

War over the board to crush the enemy will

Another duel (I’m afraid I was unable to identify the author)

The universal aspects of shaping the opponent and wearing him down are:

  1. Aggressiveness. Through gaining and maintaining initiative you impose your will on the enemy [1].
  2. Fighting the enemy’s strategy. You should frustrate his plans and intents and create as much friction as possible to weaken his capabilities to win over you.
  3. Holding strategic positions. If you are able to occupy and hold critical lines and points on the strategic roads the enemy cannot come and use his force against you effectively.

Shaping activities may leave the enemy vulnerable to attack, facilitate maneuver of your forces, and dictate the time and place for decisive battle. Examples include channeling enemy movement in a desired direction, blocking or delaying enemy reinforcements so that you can fight a fragmented enemy force, etc.

“Now, an army may be likened to water, for just as flowing water avoids the heights and hastens to the lowlands, so an army should avoid strength and strike weakness.” — Sun Tzu

As water shapes its flow in accordance with the ground, so an army manages its victory constantly modifying the strategy and tactics in accordance with the situation of the enemy.

Never ever take the eye off your rival!

* * *

Here is a game (Rubinstein-Hirschbein, Lodz, 1927) from my guest post on NM Will Stuart’s showing the principle in action.

1. Here’s what the current #1 in tennis has to say about it: “We know each other well and I know I have to be focused when playing him. I must not let him impose his game on me as he wants to take the control to dominate the court. I have to be aggressive.” — Novak Djokovic on Roger Federer in his interview before their French Open semi-final (from Serbo-Croatian, Blic, June 7, 2012)

If you enjoyed this post, make sure you subscribe to my RSS feed!