Strategy, Games, and Sport

Games and sports are useful in illustrating different aspects of Sun Tzu's Sun Tzu's strategy. The purpose of this article is to give you some ideas about how to use well-known games and sports such as chess, poker, the Chinese game of Go, checkers, putting together puzzles, football, basketball, football, and soccer to illustrate different strategic principles. Games and sports are useful both in their similarities to real competition and in their differences.

This is the first in what will be a series of future articles using games to illustrate various ideas from Sun Tzu's strategy. Since all sports are also games, but not all games are sports, we will use the single word "games" to refer to both.

In this article we look how real life competition is different them games and how games are distilled from real-life competition to allow competition in a more controlled and pleasurable form. All games are based on one or the other key elements of Sun Tzu's strategy. Games are therefore extremely useful for illustrating strategic concepts.

We will closely at two specific games, chess and Go and briefly at the very different of lessons that can be learned from looking at a wide variety of games.

Unlimited and Limited Competition

The big difference between the real world of strategy and the artificial world of games is that real world strategy is open ended and its elements undefined.

In a game, the key aspects of the philosophy, climate, ground, character, and methods clearly specified. A game's rules declare its goals (philosophy), the time, length, and progress of competition (climate), the required playing field (ground), the characters allowed (game players), and the method that can be used.

In real life, there are no such limits in any of these areas. Real life competition includes a variety of goals. The changes of climate are continuous, with many beginnings, endings, and continuations. The ground is infinite and constantly being created. The number of players is unlimited, varies, with many of them anonymous. Methods are continuously being invented. While classical strategy defines a set of "meta-rules" that function wherever human compete, specific rules only exist within a game, but

There are very different forms of real word competition. There are military wars, economic enterprise, and political battles. Each has different rules, but those rules do not limit the competition. While there may be discrete battles within these forms of real-world competition and even legal rules, these contest constantly evolve outside of the boundary of those rules. Even in the larger world of sports, the competition between players and teams that takes place off of the playing field never has clear rules and firm boundaries. New rules are constantly being created by the competitive process itself, which creates new methods and new methods create new ground.

What makes games and sports entertaining is that they bring clarity to competition. As Sun Tzu said, real competition is muddy and confusing. Competing philosophies and goals are often not clearly understood and even more often poorly expressed. The competitive environment is chaotic. There are no heroes. There are no real rules. Games makes the goals clear, set limits the contest, identifies heroes, and has a nice, thick Play Book. That Play Book in all games and sports is designed to prevent the evolution of the game in ways the would challenge the limits of the contest.

A Matter of Clear Goals

Nothing illustrates this disparity between a concrete and fluid rule set better than the nature of scoring and winning. In games, the way you win is always clearly defined. Both parties play for the same goal. Points are scored in the same way. Even when points are awarded purely on the basis of subjective judgment, for example in competitive diving, there are always clear, formal rule set defining how those judgments are made. Even when awarded based upon subjective judgments, the points are counted the same for every player, allowing objective comparisons.

In real life, the definition of "winning" is never so cut and dried.

In real world competition, each individual is free to select his or her own goals. Some goals, such as making money, are not only popular but necessary because of our physical needs, but those goals exist side-by-side with a number of other, often conflicting, goals. Some may want fame. Others may dread attention. Some want a wide variety of casual relationships. Others want exclusive, close relationships. Some crave change and excitement. Others crave stability and familiarity. We all make trades all the time among all these conflicting goals.

While some goals, such as making money, can be measured objectively, many other important goals, such as love or happiness, defy objective measurement and even meaningful comparison. No person can compare their feelings with those of another because we cannot experience another's emotions directly. We can only imagine the feelings of others through empathy.

Unlike the goals in a game, our individual, personal goals can and do change over time. The process of competing itself can change our goals. New goals can arise at any time to take the place of older goals.

To some degree, our goals also depend on our unique position. For a child living on a garbage heap in South America, finding a pair of shoes might be an important goal. A child living in LA might be more concerned with his or her standing in Halo 3. People within the same organization share some goals because their positions are related, but they never share all of their goals because each has a unique position within the organization.

This is why Sun Tzu's strategy defines the goal generically as "advancing a position." That idea can mean different things to different people at different times. It can also apply to final goal of a game, which is well-defined, as well as its intermediate goals, which are not nearly so clear in most games.

Games as Real Life Competition Simplified

Games and sports emulate different aspects of real world competition. However, the game distills one or more key aspect of life's competition to make the nature of the contest clearer and more entertaining.

For example, speed is an important element in real life competition. However, in real life, speed is not the most significant element to winning. The real-life race doesn't always go to the swift. Even when it does, speed is always mixed in with a significant number of other critical factors.

We separate out that single element of speed into the games based on racing--foot racing, speed skating, car racing, etc. In all speed races, the competitive skill of speed is distilled. Speed is combined with other aspects of competition--physical or mechanical skills and abilities--by the rules of the contest. Those rules defines the playing field, equipment allowed, and so on. In all races, however, speed is the single determinative factor, making it easy to declare a winner or loser on that single competitive attribute.

In every game or sport, there is are "key" competitive abilities, strategic skills, that are highlighted. What makes the game entertaining is often not the objective moves of the game as much as their strategic implications. Games are entertaining to watch when the strategic elements are visible to the audience. Game such as chess are not very entertaining because the strategic elements are hard for most people to see. Successful games such a television poker, which show all the players hands, make the strategic elements visible so the audience can enjoy them. The popularity of certain sports is largely due to their ability to make strategy visible. By their nature, all popular forms of sporting contest reward good positioning and adapting to changing situations. The more the observer understands the strategic elements of the game (mission, climate, ground, character, and methods), the more they enjoy the game itself, quite apart from the physical abilities involved.

Of course, the physical sports also reward specific physical abilities. Those physical abilities are part of their entertainment value, but it is the strategic elements of the game that provides the drama that frames those physical skills. Pure trials of physical ability: weight lifting, foot races, and so on, are not very interesting because the involve little or not strategy. They only become interesting in the context of competition such as the Olympics where you can root for a specific nation and its champions. When physical abilities are put into a framework of strategy, those physical abilities before elements of high drama, defining factors in the element of character.

For our purposes in teaching people strategy, games and sports are useful for illustrating various concepts. From their everyday experiences of playing games and watching sports, every member of an audience can understand strategic lessons more easily when put in the context of a popular game or sport. Different games and sports reward different sets of strategic abilities.

  • Chess, Go, Checkers, and similar games are determined by your ability to foresee your opponent's moves.
  • Poker rewards the ability to calculate simple odds and discern hidden information on based your opponent's moves.
  • Picture puzzles reward the ability to see the factors identifying a solution to a given opening.
  • The Rubic's Cube rewards the ability to see how making a change in one area also has an the effect of changing conditions in another area.
  • Basketball, hockey and world football (soccer) reward the ability to position yourself in a highly dynamic environment, instantly seeing and utilize short-lived openings.
  • American football rewards the ability to choose the appropriate play based upon the results of the previous play.
  • Baseball rewards the ability to gradually adjust to a complex combination of subtly changing strategic factors--the inning, strike/ball count, runner position, pitch count, character of pitcher and batter, batting order, and so on.

Chess and Go

Chess and Go a based primarily on the skill of foreseeing an opponent's potential moves, but they also illustrate a number of other important strategic lessons. For example, one of our Master Trainers, I believe Alex Fonnesbech, uses the difference between chess and Go to contrast the difference between fighting battles of attrition and Sun Tzu's method of building up positions. Chess is usually played as a game of attrition. You sacrifice your own pieces to whittle down your opponent's strength. The winner is the last person standing. Go, in contrast, is won by building up positions. You start from nothing and develop positions, attempting to leverage your positions against your opponent's positions, looking for opportunities to anchor your positions so that they cannot be overturned. In chess, both players lose most of what they had at the beginning. In Go, both player end up with more than they had at the beginning, but one player has a stronger position than the other.

The power of this analogy is that the before and after pictures say it all. Chess starts with a well-organized, full board in the beginning and a nearly empty board with and overturned king at the end. Go starts with an empty board in the beginning and a complex, nearly full board at the end.

Go also illustrates some very important subtle ideas in Sun Tzu's strategy. As Allan Elder, another Master Trainer pointed out that "shape" and "form" are important concepts in Go. The Chinese term we translate from Sun Tzu as "position," actually means "shape" or "form." Having a positions is more than a location on a grid. It is the form which fills that location. In Go, the positional qualities of a group of stones determines how well a group creates or removes life and territory. Good shape uses stones efficiently use of stones to create strength in a group or forms the "eyes" (internal openings) that assure a group can stay alive. Bad shapes are heavy, without eyes, and targets for attack. Strategic awareness in GO means recognizing at a glance what is a good shape and what is not.

Similarly, chess illustrates some very important ideas about openings, limited, options, and developing positions based on capabilities. While chess among novices is always fought as a war of attrition, a contest between a novice and an expert usually involved the loss of very few piece, with checkmate occurring rather quickly based upon positioning. The most common mistake beginners make is in not understanding the importance of the "opening." Unlike Go, where stones can be placed almost anywhere, chess pieces, like people, require openings in order to move effectively. The "opening" part of the game is designed to enable openings. As with almost all games, the critical openings are created by your opponent, but in chess as in live, novices tend to get in their own way.

Competitive Arenas: