Clausewitz and Bobby Fischer? Just give me Clausewitz!

by Scott Manning on November 2, 2012

Bobby Fischer

In War: A Historical, Political and Social Study (1978), Jon M. Bridgman attempts to define war. After discussing how some wars are won through battle, he moves onto to victory through the “personalities of the commanders,” which he believes was a view espoused by everyone’s favorite dead, Prussian theorist Carl von Clausewitz (d. 1831).

The psychologists, however, argue that success in war depends less upon such mechanistic concerns than upon subtle human considerations. Battles are won and lost in the minds of commanders, as one gains psychological dominance over the other. Clausewitz was the most famous exponent of this view, but Bobby Fischer’s approach to his chess opponents exemplifies it even better. The key to success in battle is found in the personalities of the commanders.1

Let us start with the obvious. I am unaware of any tenant by Clausewitz on winning battles through the “personalities of commanders.” Battle and leadership is so much more complex. Perhaps the author meant “boldness,” which Clausewitz did value and emphasized, “Whenever boldness encounters timidity, it is likely to be the winner, because timidity itself implies a loss of equilibrium.”2 Yet, Clausewitz also clarified, “The higher up the chain of command, the greater is the need for boldness to be supported by a reflective mind, so that boldness does not degenerate into purposeless bursts of blind passion.”3

This is just one aspect among many when it comes to battle. Clausewitz understood this and he believed “every engagement is a whole, made up of subsidiary engagements that add up to the overall result.”4 It was not the personality of the commander, but instead concepts like the “cohesion and effectiveness” of the fighting force, the use of “the utmost economy of force,” and “the maximum psychological effect of strong reserves” that lead to “the surest road to victory.”5

The mischaracterization of Clausewitz aside, I am not ready use pop culture figures such as Bobby Fischer to explain warfare. Yes, this book came out in 1978 during the height of Fischer’s fame and intrigue and I am an avid fan of his chess game, but he does not belong in military history discussions. Making and predicting chess moves on an entirely visible board against a seen opponent pales in comparison to a commander making decisions in the heat of battle with minimal intelligence and risk of destruction.

Chess’s popularity may be a little dated, but the modern-day equivalent would be comparing football coaches and their “personalities.” Or how about poker players and their zany attempts to put their opponent on tilt?

It does not fit for teaching about war.


  1. Jon M. Bridgman, “Thinking about War,” In War: A Historical, Political, and Social Study, ed., L. L. Farrar, Jr. (Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio Press, 1978), 3. []
  2. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 190. []
  3. Ibid., 190. []
  4. Ibid., 240. []
  5. Ibid., 241. []

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