Nov 11, 2008
In upstate New York many summers ago, my father
introduced me to the game of chess. Our first game went something like this: I
moved my white pawn to f3. Dad moved his black pawn to e5. My next move was a
"careful" one: pawn to g4. Now if you're familiar with chess
openings, like my Dad was, you can guess his next move. With my king exposed,
he moved his queen on a diagonal track to the square next to my powerless pawn
My first chess lesson: Opening moves are paramount. A
bad start can lead to a quick and sudden endgame.
President-elect Obama comes to the chess board with
great expectations. And already the honeymoon is over. As the New York Times
noted two days after his election, "No incoming president in modern times
has been so pressured to begin governing, in effect, before he is sworn into
In a general 10-move chess opening, there are 169
octillion possibilities. That's 169 with 27 zeros attached to it - way too many moves to memorize or even think about. That's why an
approach to the game is necessary - if you're playing to win.
Chess master William Aramil teaches the
"five-element" approach - material (value of pieces), time
(speed of play), space (how many squares you control), pawn structure, and king
Obama is under pressure to start making moves. But with
President Bush still on the clock, it's a race against time. Aramil says
you can gain time by moving minor pieces (a knight or bishop) toward the center
of the board.
Who is Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel?
Reuters quoted Republican strategist John Feehery saying Emanuel "is
going to spend most of his time cracking Democratic heads, getting them to move
from the left to the middle."
Feehery's assessment seems reasonable given
Emanuel's former position in a centrist Clinton administration and his
more recent record as chairman of the 2006 Democratic Congressional Campaign
Committee, where he recruited and gave campaign funds to pro-Iraq war Dems
running against anti-war candidates like Christine Cegelis.
The grandmasters of the game say you move to the center
because it gives you the advantage in fighting for space. If your pieces are in
the center of the board, they are more mobile and have more options.
"The most common way to achieve more space is
through the center..." Aramil said. "Essentially, the center
and space go hand in hand."
Space for what? The New York Times reports
Obama's advisers are compiling a list of Bush policies that "could
be reversed by the executive powers of the new president."
Over the weekend, one of Barack's minor pieces,
transition team co-chair John Podesta (another centrist Clinton hand) said: "There's a
lot that the president can do using his executive authority without waiting for
Congressional action... . He feels like he has a real mandate for change.
We need to get off the course that the Bush administration has set."
Emanuel said: "Rule No. 1: Never allow a crisis
to go to waste. They are opportunities to do big things."
And thanks to Bush, Cheney and a compliant Congress, Obama
has inherited the office of the imperial presidency, complete with
unprecedented national security powers; not to mention control over the banking
industry. Jack Balkin, a constitutional law professor at Yale, says "the
next president will enter office as the most powerful president who has ever
sat in the White House."
So Obama is angling to do "big things" - hoping to control as many squares as possible. With Bush playing the
first move, a countermove to the center is known in chess as the classical Sicilian
defense. It's a "charge" chess master Aramil says "is a
highly popular and excellent choice for those wishing to dive into early
struggles or complexities."
Now it's our turn. If you're a pawn like
me, take heart. "Pawns are the soul of chess." There's more
of us than any other piece on the board, so we are crucial in determining how
the game is played.
Aramil says: "Pawns establish the style, pace,
and structure of the opening. Pawns can have lasting effects for the rest of
Now is the time to mobilize so we can establish the
style, pace and structure of Obama's presidency. The opening has begun.
And while you think about your next move - whether you want to be a sacrificial pawn or "the soul of the game"
- pardon me. I gotta go introduce my little Barack to chess.
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