Gaming out chess players: The Italian Renaissance and Vladimir Putin

Gaming out chess players: The Italian Renaissance and Vladimir Putin

 If learning the precious truth that we can be the danger (see my Gibbon column of last week) is the first commandment of political risk analysis, gaming out chess players is surely another. Chess players—foreign policy actors playing the long game, possessing fixed, long-term strategic goals even as they use whatever tactical means come to hand to achieve them—are rare birds indeed. Patient, low-key, but implacable, chess players do that rarest of things: they actually think ahead and are not prisoners of short-term day-to-day events, instead conditioning all that they do in furtherance of their long-term strategy.

Chess players manage to cloak their dogged, disciplined strategies, hiding them in plan sight of our frenetic 24-hour news cycle, from a world that does not generally follow such fixed principles and cannot really conceive of how others might be able to hold to a clear strategic line. In a world of tacticians, it is easy for a strategist to conceal themselves.

Pope Julius II as the true hero of The Prince

Following on from the Crusades, the western world entered a period of cultural and political regeneration we now call the Renaissance. As is true for most eras, it was more politically chaotic, brutal, and bloody than it seems in retrospect. In the confusing, uncertain milieu of early-sixteenth century Italy, a man arose who fit the tenor of his times.

Pope Julius II has been shamefully underrated by history, as his contemporary Niccolo Machiavelli–the author of The Prince, the bible of modern realpolitik—instead lionised failed Bond villain Cesare Borgia rather than the more successful pope. However, we have five centuries of distance from the swirling events of the Renaissance, allowing us to take up the more dispassionate, chess-playing view that Machiavelli urges on us. So let us here re-write the ending of The Prince, this time using Julius II as the proper analytical hero of the piece.

Julius was born Giuliano Della Rovere around 1443. Like Cesare Borgia, his path to power was speeded along by close familial contacts to the papacy. Della Rovere was the much-loved nephew of Pope Sixtus IV, becoming his uncle’s de facto prime minister. Following on from the death of Sixtus, Della Rovere assumed that he would succeed him. However, he was beaten out by Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, Cesare’s father, who assumed the title of Pope Alexander VI. So Della Rovere, in good chess player fashion, tried to undercut Alexander, knowing his time was coming.

When Alexander VI died in 1503 (and with the lightning quick demise of his successor, Pope Pius III, in just 26 days) Della Rovere at last made his long-considered move. He deceived the supposedly worldly Cesare and ran rings around him diplomatically, securing the papal throne by means of bribery, both in terms of money and future promises. With Cesare throwing the powerful Borgia family’s crucial support behind him, the new papal conclave was one of the shortest in history, with Della Rovere winning on only the second ballot, taking all but two cardinals’ votes. He ascended to the papal throne at the end of 1503.

Now that Cesare had outlived his usefulness, Julius withdrew his promised political support from him in true Machiavellian fashion, seeing to it that the Borgias found it impossible to retain their political control over the papal states of central Italy. Julius rightly reasoned that to fail to eradicate the Borgia principality would have left the Vatican surrounded by Borgia possessions and at Cesare’s very limited mercy.

Without papal support Cesare’s rule on his own—without the critical backing his father Alexander VI had provided—lasted merely a matter of months, with his lands reverting to Julius and the papacy itself. Julius had run rings around Machiavelli’s hero, fulfilling the chess-playing maxim that securing one’s political position leads to political stability and long-term rule. That, Niccolo, is what a real chess player looks like.

Making sense of Putin

 However, chess players are not just relic of the byzantine Renaissance age. Russian President Vladimir Putin is a perfect modern-day example of a chess player, as all the many devious tactics he pursues ultimately amount to a very single-minded effort to restore Russian greatness, often by blunting the west’s drives into what he sees as Russia’s traditional sphere of influence in the countries surrounding it. In other words, the Russian strong man resembles another chess player, former French President Charles De Gaulle, in his single-minded efforts to restore pride and great power status to his humiliated country.

As such, Putin’s many gambits: theatrically opposing the US despite having a puny, corrupt economy the size of Texas; pursuing an aggressive adventurist policy against the pro-western government in Ukraine; intervening to decisive effect in the horrendous Syrian war; all serve one overarching strategic goal. They are designed to make the world (and even more the Russian people) change their perceptions about Russia as a declining, corrupt, demographically challenged former superpower (which it is), and instead see it as a rejuvenated global great power, one that is back at the geostrategic top table.

Despite all facts to the contrary (and in the end, as was true for De Gaulle’s France, the facts just don’t bear out the incorrect perception that Russia will again be a superpower), Putin has been very successful in (wrongly) changing global perceptions of Russia’s place in the world. It is also the reason the current tsar has an 80% approval rating in his own country, as he has restored pride to his formerly humiliated countrymen. By knowing what ultimately motivates the chess-playing Putin, we in the west can do a far better job in assessing the entirely explicable tactical gambits emanating from the Kremlin.

The rewards for spotting the rare chess player

 Despite the difficulty in spotting them, it is well worth the time trying to game out chess players, perhaps the rarest of creatures in global politics. For once they are analytically brought to ground, the fixed, rational, patterns that chess players live by means a true analytical understanding of them is possible, as well as a far better understanding of the world in which they live.

Published by Princeton University Press, March 13, 2018

Dr. John C. Hulsman is the President and Co-Founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises (, a prominent global political risk consulting firm. For three years, Hulsman was the Senior Columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the city of London. Hulsman is a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the pre-eminent foreign policy organisation. The author of all or part of 14 books, Hulsman has given over 1520 interviews, written over 650 articles, prepared over 1290 briefings, and delivered more than 510 speeches on foreign policy around the world. His most recent work, To Dare More Boldly; The Audacious Story of Political Risk, will be published by Princeton University Press in April 2018 and is available to be ordered on Amazon.