Last year, the Netflix mini-series “The Queen’s Gambit” sparked a widespread interest in chess, bringing a slew of shuttered-in folks to the chessboard for some critical thinking.
Though chess has risen to new levels of popularity, not all players are indulging in the 600-year-old game (modern chess) for enjoyment and stimulation. Some people are playing for more practical reasons.
The U.S. Marine Corps Infantry School-West at Camp Pendleton, California, has adopted the game as a part of its nascent 14-week training course.
“What chess gives us is a method in which we can translate tactical thinking, where we associate different weapon systems against a thinking enemy to all the chess pieces,” said Marine Capt. David DeLong. DeLong is the Instructor Company Commander for Infantry Training Battalion-West.
Marines aren’t trained or conditioned to make decisions in boot camp, said Chief Warrant Officer AJ Pasciuti. And with the face of battle changing, the Marine Corps realized training adjustments were needed, to better prepare troops for the 21st-century battlefield, he added.
“The big catalyst was when we looked at the commandant’s planning guidance, one of his big initiatives is that every Marine — and translated into that is every infantry Marine — needed to be a problem solver and a critical thinker at the lowest level,” DeLong said.
Pasciuti said warfare was viewed through a linear lens in the past, with training reflecting that concept. But the Marine Corps recognizes that future wars might not be so symmetrical and that employing an abstract training methodology would be prudent.
“So what we understand is that we don’t fully know what the next fight will be like,” Pasciuti said. “So if I train a Marine who is only conditioned to be able to handle a specific scenario — a specific puzzle-piece answer — then he or she will only answer with that puzzle piece. It’s a hammer looking for a nail.”
The NFL is another hotspot for budding and long-time chess players. Examples abound. New York Jets head coach, Robert Saleh, is an avid player and possesses a near expert rating of 1950, reported The Sacramento Bee. Arizona Cardinals quarterback, Kyler Murray, has played since childhood and still competes via the Chess With Friends app, according to the Sporting News.
Though some football players participate for enjoyment, others believe the mind-sport can enhance their play on the field. Quarterbacks Deshaun Watson, Dwayne Haskins, Jalen Hurts, and Josh Dobbs work with chess guru Seth Makowsky to help improve their mental resolve. Former world champion and Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov said on Twitter that, “Yes, maybe American football is closest to chess with its detailed planning of each move/play in response to opponent’s structure.”
Initially, the Marines worked with America’s Foundation for Chess, a nonprofit based in Bellevue, Washington (Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald Jr. is a board member), and its subsidiary First Move Chess. The foundation taught the staff chess.
“And then they taught us how to teach chess … and then we kinda let them play themselves … we don’t force the Marines to play chess,” Pasciuti said.
Instructors leave chess boards everywhere so Marines can play during downtime. Chess isn’t an official component of the course. “Some of the fun things that we try to do in our chess games is we allow other Marines to play the same game together,” Pasciuti said. “And so we also take an opportunity to where sometimes we turn the board around on the Marines.” This tactic forces them to quickly adapt and create a new plan or strategy. The idea is that activity teaches problem-solving in a macro sense.
“This is the cool part … we wanted to incentivize play (free play). Play is where a lot of Marines can learn something,” Pasciuti said. “It’s where the human body or the human mind can adapt.”
Though it’s still early, results are trending upwards. DeLong said a quantifiable method to measure program efficacy is in development. It will evaluate chess’s effectiveness in predicting tactical decision-making. “We are trying to quantify decision making at its most elementary level.”