Clash of Civilisations

The Player of Games

I recently came across a paper called ‘Civilization differences in Chess Experts’ by Chassy and Gobet (2015) and my mind immediately recalled The Player of Games by the late Iain Banks.

In the far distant future, Jernau Morat Gurgeh, one of the greatest game players in his galactic civilization ‘The Culture’ is invited to travel to the distant and rival ‘Empire of Azad’ to play the most complex game ever created. The Azad use the game as the principal method of determining who their next emperor will be, and hold regular tournaments for this purpose. It is to one of these tournaments that Gurgeh is invited, and is expected to be defeated easily. However as the story unfolds it becomes clear that Gurgeh’s vastly different cultural background to all the Azad players is deeply apparent in his approach to the game. This makes him unpredictable to them and gives him an edge in his play. As Gurgeh faces the reigning emperor in the final match, so much so do their cultures influence their styles of play that the game becomes a proxy for the war between The Culture and the Azad Empire.

Chess differences in Chess Experts

Chassy and Gobet examined the first move made by chess experts from across the globe. By far the two most frequent in expert play are e4 (king’s pawn forward two spaces) and d4 (queen’s pawn forward two spaces). This is because an important initial principle in chess is to control the centre of the board with your pieces. On, these two moves are played in around 80% of all games. Therefore all other first moves were lumped together in a third category.

As it transpires, taking into account wins, draws and losses, e4 is a ‘riskier’ move than d4 at this expert level of chess. With d4 the game is slightly more likely to end in a draw, whereas with e4 one has a slightly greater chance of both victory and loss. Importantly, neither is clearly ‘better’ than the other, e4 is just slightly riskier and d4 slightly more conservative. The third category (all other moves lumped together) was intermediary, being slightly less risky than e4 but slightly more risky than d4.

An interesting idea

The authors then divided the world up according to Huntington’s (1996) classic text The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. Huntington thought that in the post-cold war world, the primary source of global conflict would be people’s cultural and religious differences rather than specifically territorial boundaries. He divided the world up based on these cultural / religious differences. These included: Western, Orthodox (Russia and the eastern bloc), Islamic, African, Latin American, Sinic (Chinese and neighbouring countries), Hindu, Buddhist and Japanese. In the current paper, ‘Japanese’ had to be removed by the authors as they didn’t have enough chess games to analyse and ‘Jewish’ was added.

As far as games go, chess is a natural choice to examine cultural differences as it is played globally and has the same rules all over the world. There is even a single global rating system (the elo rating system). It was also, as is widely known, one of the many platforms in which the United States and Russia competed during the cold war. Given the amount of data available, the authors were able to extract games played between experts across the globe and compare them meaningfully on opening strategy. The results can be seen to the right...

Cold hard boring reality

... and here the fun stops. So as much as we (I) might want to ring some gripping narrative from this paper, instead it will have serve as an instructive tool for how boring reality often is.

Firstly, the authors don't sufficiently address the limits of their correlational data, and attempt to make causal claims. The authors want to make the claim that 'Differences in culture cause differences in risk seeking (at least, in chess)', or at least that there is some direct link between cultural differences and risk seeking in chess. However this rests on the assumption that e4 is chosen on average slightly higher by some cultures ‘because’ it is a risky move and further that this choice of risky move somehow says something about that culture.

The paper says that “the level of risk-taking varies significantly across cultures”. Not quite. The level of choosing e4 vs d4 varies across cultures, and you want to say this is because one is more risky than the other, but you have no evidence for this. We really can’t be sure that that is why the move is chosen. Different cultures may have different opening strategy habits, passed down from teacher to student for generations which have more to do with tradition than optimization or risk. Or there might be another reason for the differences. We really can’t be sure so we can’t confidently take the leap of inference from move choice to general approach to risk.

Even if we could make this 'Cultures vary in terms of risk seeking attitudes in chess' (and remember even then it would only be established in chess, not more broadly as a cultural trait), these differences are very small and they are averages. If you pit two players from the US and Russia against each other you aren’t going to see a Rocky IV style clash of cultures, let alone anything on the scale of the Gurgeh-Azad game. In fact if they are representative of the Western and Orthodox regions as a whole the most probable outcome on this data is that they would both play d4 when they are white. You also won’t find any validation for classic stereotypes in this data.

In my experience this holds true for all research on cultural differences. Not only is the research usually correlational, but even then, the differences are tiny. We humans are all just too boringly similar to each other. I suppose we will have to wait until we meet a neighbouring chess-playing galactic empire before we can get some really interesting data.


Chassy, P., & Gobet, F. (2015). Risk taking in adversarial situations: Civilization differences in chess experts. Cognition, 141, 36-40.

Huntington, S. P. (1996). The class of civilizations and the remaking of world order. Penguin Books India.