How this card game can help explain the war in Ukraine
As a strategist, is Russian President Vladimir Putin a chess or a poker player? Does he strive to anticipate every move and counter-move of his opponents or does he calculate the odds and attempt to bluff his way through when holding a weak hand?
Putin certainly likes chess but there is no evidence he has any ability at the game or that he has ever played poker. Judo is his sport, especially unexpected moves to throw opponents off balance.
Does that mean that he will position his pieces and go all in with a massive winter offensive aimed at total victory over Ukraine?
Not necessarily. During the first weeks of the war, Putin did attempt a rapid defeat of Ukraine to force a change of government and negotiation of a peace treaty that would ensure Russia’s future security. But when that blitzkrieg failed, the Russians turned to a strategy of attrition, trying to occupy as much Ukrainian territory as they could, whilst at the same time whittling away Ukraine’s armed forces.
The war has ebbed and flowed and in recent weeks Ukraine has re-occupied significant territories in the Kharkiv and Kherson regions. However, these successes have been costly for the Ukrainians, and the same is true of the fighting on other sectors of the front, such as the Donbass, where Russian forces continue to make incremental advances. According to Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Mark Milley, both Russia and Ukraine have each suffered around 100,000 casualties.
Recent Russian rocket attacks on Ukraine’s energy and transport infrastructure are also having an impact, not just on civilian life, but on Kyiv’s ability to re-supply its armed forces and redeploy them to crucial sectors of the front.
From the Russian point of view, their attrition strategy is working, and Putin may just reinforce his front-line defences and await Ukraine’s civil and military collapse.
Real wars are not the parlour games beloved by armchair generals. Both sides see this war as an existential struggle for state survival. Every day, hundreds of soldiers and civilians are killed in Ukraine and many more thousands are wounded. Vast swathes of Ukraine have been devastated. Millions of its citizens have fled the country. It is a conflict that constantly threatens to escalate the proxy war between Russia and the West into a nuclear confrontation that could kill many millions.
War is the most complex of human phenomena, but there is, perhaps, one game to which it can be usefully compared: bridge.
Putin may or may not be a secret bridge player, but this complex card game can help us understand his strategies, tactics, and modes of thinking. Bridge has always attracted high-level real-world performers, such as writer Agatha Christie, actor Omar Sharif, investor Warren Buffett, entrepreneur Bill Gates, and former President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
China’s Deng Xiaoping was a wildly enthusiastic player and advocate of the game. Deng succeeded Mao Tse Tung as leader of Communist China and said that as long as he could play bridge, his brain was still working.
Bridge is about winning tricks. The more tricks you win the better your results. Crucially, you don’t win these tricks on your own. You win them in conjunction with your partner and using various techniques and tactics.
Unlike chess and poker, bridge is a partnership game, and a team game when you play with another pair against other teams of four. Bridge is a collective endeavour. A strong partnership or team will always out-perform even the most brilliant collection of individualists.
Putin’s principal partners are his defense, foreign, and prime ministers and Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the Russian General Staff. On the Ukrainian side, the key partnership is President Zelensky and his Commander-in-Chief, Valeri Zaluzhnyi. In bridge, as in war, team and partnership harmony is an essential ingredient of success.
You can only play the cards you actually hold, just as in war you can only deploy the resources you have or can generate during the course of the conflict. In both war and bridge, the aim is to make the best possible use of your actual resources.
Bridge, like most wars, is a series of tactical battles that are part of a process of attrition. It is a marathon not a sprint. You win some hands and lose others. Overall success is determined by a series of hands, sometimes running into the hundreds.
Playing bridge is fun, but it can also be highly competitive and hugely stressful. A bridge tournament typically involves dozens or scores of hands against other pairs or teams. Each hand-battle requires your complete commitment and attention. Losing focus or making a bad mistake can have disastrous consequences. Luck can go your way or against you. Mentally, you have to be able to cope with setbacks as well as successes. In the military sphere such demands and pressures are exponentially higher, and the consequences of failure often fatal.
Famously, no battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy. Likewise in bridge, you need to constantly adjust your plans as more information about which cards each player holds comes to light. A related bridge technique derives directly from military tactics. “Echeloning” entails sequencing your play so that if one route to success doesn’t work, you retain the option to try another.
During the Ukraine war there have been some notable adjustments to battle plans. Having failed to defeat Ukraine by storm, the Russians withdrew from the outskirts of Kyiv and concentrated on the conquest of southern and eastern Ukraine.
Heavily out-gunned by the Russians, the Ukrainians used their superior troop numbers to launch a series of counter-offensives. These were costly actions but the Russians were forced to retreat in Kharkiv and Kherson. In response, Putin announced the mobilization of 300,000 reservists and annexed to the Russian Federation the areas occupied by his armies.
Experience taught the Ukrainians that concentrating their forces prior to attacking made them highly vulnerable to blanket Russian air, artillery, and missile strikes. So they thinned their columns and presented the Russians with too many targets to attack at once — a tactic the Russians now counter by using Iranian-sourced “suicide drones” that are designed to attack smaller targets.
In the bridge world this type of cut and thrust is particularly prevalent in the bidding part of the game which takes place before the cards are played. Players exchange coded information with their partners about each other’s hands while trying to disrupt the opponents’ exchange of information. These bidding battles often pre-determine the outcome of a hand, just like the correct deployment and disposition of troops does in war.
Psychology and deception are as important in bridge as they are in war. The key determinant of the Ukraine war is firepower — the number of planes, tanks, guns and rockets each side has at its disposal. But important, too, is disinformation and the masking of relative strengths and weaknesses and the location of key resources. Morale is also extremely important. Low morale leads to lapses of concentration, unforced errors, and lack of resolve. The same is true in bridge.
Putin, Zelensky, and their teams have better and far more important things to do than play cards, of course. But should they find themselves doing so, they may discover some uncanny resemblances between the ultimate card-game and the supreme test of war.