Losing at Board Games: The Sacrifice Necessary to Win

by Jon Beall


William Bell, a character in the TV show Fringe, spends a bit of time in Season 4 Episode 21 talking about chess.

“The art of chess… is knowing when a piece is most valuable and then… being willing to sacrifice it. For in the vacuum created by the loss of what is most precious, opportunity abounds, influences maximize, and desire becomes destiny.”

While Season 4 is one of the weaker seasons of Fringe I found myself compelled by this discussion.  Is it a little melodramatic?  Sure.  But I see in this statement an element of truth.

Chess Beginnings

I have played chess for as long as I can remember.  My dad is an intense chess player who did not believe in letting his children win.  He played me without his queen for many games; a crowning achievement of my high school days was when he switched to playing without his rook.

As a young player, I would get excited at moments where I could gain a piece for free.  My father would seem to leave a piece exposed and I would pounce, grateful to have captured an enemy.

I learned, however, that this was rarely an unforeseen move to my father.  Instead, he was sacrificing a piece in order to gain a positional advantage.  This advantage would typically lead to my downfall and the glee I felt at gaining a free piece would be short-lived as I found myself in yet another checkmate.

Issues of Chess Life would be floating around my dad’s office, and I started to learn from chess books.

Photo: Jon Beall
Photo: Jon Beall

Chess Discovery

These manuscipts illuminated why I was repeatedly loosing in chess.

The goal of chess was checkmate, and any piece should be willingly sacrificed if checkmate could be achieved.

My dad would dangle a carrot out in front of me.  I would willingly move a piece out of a controlling situation in order to take this “free” piece.  I thought I wasn’t paying anything for the piece, but in fact I was tendering a dear cost – sacrificing position for minimal gain.

There were many high school afternoons passed in the focus of honing my abilities in chess.  Many of these matches were with my peers.  I had starting learning from my father.  I observed what pieces my opponents protected most often.  I observed what pieces would be most tempting for them if I were to sacrifice them for greater position.

Some of my opponents would take any opportunity to capture a free piece – even a pawn.  Others would take a greater temptation and I would have to lose a rook or a knight in order to gain position.

Photo: Jon Beall
Photo: Jon Beall

There would always be a sacrifice in order to gain the victory.

One of my favorite games is Reiner Knizia’s Tigris and Euphrates.  I was engaged with a fierce battle with the Political Mastermind last Saturday afternoon.  I looked at the board, and examined our stacks of pieces in each color.  I knew that it would take a significant shift in momentum in order for me to have a chance at winning.

I had a plague tile available to play; I studied the board to identify where I could place it in order to cripple her the most.

One location stood out to me.  I could cut her off from a statue that was generating points in black, her weakest color, but in order to do so I would have to cut two of my own leaders off from their most significant armies.

I evaluated.  Those leaders that I would be impacting were my strongest two colors whereas the leader I would be crippling belonged to her weakest color.  I played the tile and cut her off from her statue.

It totally threw her off.  She hadn’t even considered that I would be willing to hamper two of my leaders in order to slow the growth of one of her leaders.

I wish I could report that this sacrifice won me the game, but unfortunately that is not the case.  She earned a narrow victory, but if I hadn’t made the sacrifice, she would have won by a large margin.

That one tile placement altered the momentum of the game.

Photo: Jon Beall
Photo: Jon Beall

Hiking in Winter

While I am playing a game, I think of myself as a hiker in the snow.  I’ll enjoy the calm, and feel good about my pace.  The air is still, and the mountain to my left is beautiful and scenic; it is a good day to be hiking.
Five minutes later, there is a huge avalanche, and I am buried where I stand.

That is what it is like to lose at a board game.

What’s the point?

I have only recently realized that I should be applying what I learned in chess to other games.  So I am losing… for now.

But I’m learning.  I’m studying.
And maybe one of these days I’ll win.

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