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Opening Move: Charge the Center?

Sean Gonsalves

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 (Qh4# 0-1).


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 office."

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 safety.

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."

Touché Obama.

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 the game."

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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Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times news editor and columnist. E-mail him at

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