The Chess Variant Pages

Interview with David H. Li:

The beauty of Kriegspiel

David Li is the author of two books on Kriegspiel, and several other books, including Xiangqi (Chinese Chess). Below, you can read an interview with David Li about Kriegspiel, his books, and more.

HLB: You wrote a remarkable number of books many of which are on topics of interest to readers of, and I am happy that you give us this interview.

DHL: Hans, you are a pioneer in having a website on games. Your efforts are to be applauded. I am happy to be included in your website.

HLB: Can you tell something about yourself?

DHL: I was born in China, in 1928; that makes me a septuagenarian. After receiving my baccalaureate degree in China in 1949, I came to the United States for postgraduate study, with a view of returning to China, after gaining a Master of Business Administration degree, to take care of our family business. Before I was awarded this degree, in 1950, situations in China changed dramatically, forcing me to remain in the States. I then did the best I could, picking up a Ph.D., entering the academia, being seconded for government service, working as a partner of a management consulting firm, etc. My last seven years were with the World Bank in Washington, from which I retired in 1990 (mandatory retirement at age 62).

HLB: You wrote two books on Kriegspiel. Can you tell something about these?

DHL: Beginning my retirement, I decided I wanted to do something different - I wanted to transmit Chinese culture to English-literate readers. While I have written 8 books when in the academia, I never had the experience of doing cultural books before. So I experimented. The first venture was a disaster. Assessing the experience, I knew I needed to find a niche. About that time, I read a chess column in our local newspaper (Washington Post), by Grandmaster Evans, about how difficult Kriegspiel is, quoting Bobby Fischer on this point in the process. I said to myself, "Hey, this is a game I know well - I have been playing for several years with my colleagues at the University of Washington." I dusted off the scores I kept for some 60 such games and did some casual research, realizing that a book on Kriegspiel had never been written. I then wrote to GM Evans, who confirmed this finding. So I decided to do one. That was back in 1995.

Clearly, Kriegspiel is far from my plan of transmitting Chinese culture to English-literate readers. But, I needed the experience to be in the right track after my disastrous beginning.

As it turns out, picking Kriegspiel was a very happy choice. Having done 8 books, many of them textbooks, I am at home in discussing difficult subjects in straight forward prose that a reader new to that sbuject can readily follow. Kriegspiel fits in this mold well, since its moves are based on logic. So, the process of writing a book on Kriegspiel was no different from writing a textbook on accounting (in which field I held a PhD and a full professorship at the University of Washington and elsewhere).

I started slowly, making sure that a reader can easily follow what I was talking about -- how to gather information, how to infer, how to reach a cost-effective decision as to which move is the best, etc.

After the first introductory chapters, I decided to feature specific pieces, one at a time, in remaining chapters. Drawing from the 60+ game scores, I was able to accommodate this feature on top of topical discussions. This made the book quite readable, and I was quite pleased with it.

HLB: In "Chess Detective," you use a story about a Chess Detective at Scotland Yard as a framework for information on Kriegspiel. Why did you choose this format?

DHL: I forgot to mention that the first book is entitled "Kriegspiel - Chess Under Uncertainty." After its publication, it created a lot of interest on both sides of the Atlantic. Reviews in UK, where the game was invented in 1898, were positive. But they chided me on two fronts. One, I somehow wrote Rook as Rock throughout the book. Two, rules on revealing pawn-capture opportunities are different in UK from that in USA (the latter are used in the book).

So, I decided to do some research at the great Library of Congress here in town. LC has an almost complete set of British Chess Magazine and many western-chess magazines published in USA. I was able to gather a lot of isolated Kriegspiel games appearing in these journals and game-related books.

By that time, more reviews of my first Kriegspiel book appeared, and sales were strong. This encouraged me to do a follow-up book, using the materials I have gathered. But, because the sources are more diverse, I needed a thread to link them. One of the books I read, while doing this research, was by a professor of mathematics - Raymond Smullyan - on Retrograde analysis, which linked many isolated features of retrograde analysis. I thought that was a good idea, so I adapted that for this second volume. Since Kriegspiel is information gathering at its core, I thought using a detective, a chess detective, would be appropriate. Since Kriegspiel was invented in UK, honoring the Scotland Yard would be equally fun. A detective is a consultant of sorts, which also fits in well with my experience serving as the president of a management consulting firm. I thought this was fun; I hope I have not infuriated anyone.

HLB: What do you see as the specific strong points of the game Kriegspiel?

DHL: The most attractive feature of Kriegspiel is that it develops one's logical thinking, one's ability to seek information, to make inferences, and to reach a cost-effective mode of action.

Another attractive feature of Kriegspiel is that this process (seeking and processing information) is ad hoc - each game is different. Thus, there is no carry-over value as in traditional face-to-face western chess (or other face-to-face board games for that matter). Stated differently, there is no regurgitation - memorizing openings means absoulely nothing simply because one does not know what one's opponent has responded. This should appeal to professional people with busy schedules but interested in orthodox chess -- ability to play a challenging game, without resorting to memory and all sorts of openings, regardless of how often or how little one plays.

The ability to infer leads to another of Kriegspiel's important features: one is able to discern the slightest differences in information received and assess their implications. This is useful both on and off the board -- one can use this improved ability to discern in daily life, in business, etc.

Indeed, in the process of doing research at LC, I came across information that Kriegspiel was regularly played by cryptoanalysts stationed at Bletchley Park near London during World War II - the German codes, at that time, changed every 15 minutes, which Kriegspiel can match, since the scenario technically changes with each move.

HLB: Do you often play Kriegspiel?

DHL: While at the University of Washington, my colleagues, all faculty members, and I played every day during lunch when school was in session. Now, after retirement, being a septuagenarian, my priority is somewhat different - I need to devote more time to writing than to playing.

As to Kriegspiel, at the moment, I have enough other material (gathered from writing to various clubs in UK, in USA, and elsewhere) to write another book on the history of Kriegspiel, which I intended to publish to celebrate its centenary (that would be 1998) along with mounting a centennial Kriegspiel tournament in London that year (I was in London to do some preliminary promotion in the summer of 1995). But, an incident in the early part of 1998 prompted me to reevaluate my priority, the result of which was to shelve these two projects.

HLB: Did you play specific memorable games of Kriegspiel?

DHL: The most memorable game of Kriegspiel in which I played a role (as referee) is documented in my first Kriegspiel book (at pp 74-80), where Black, with but two pawns, was able to checkmate White with the Queen, a rook, and two pawns! That was the ultimate in the beauty of Kriegspiel. That chapter is entitled "Self-Confidence is Paramount" -- one must never give up (as in face-to-face orthodox chess) until one is checkmated. Another valuable lesson from Kriegspiel one can apply in one's daily life.

HLB: Thank you very much for this interview!


Webpage made by Hans Bodlaender, answers by David Li. (c) 2001 David Li, Hans L. Bodlaender.
WWW page created: June 27, 2001.