The United States (Obama-Kerry) vs. Russia (Putin-Lavrov)
It is a pleasure to watch the Russians play. It is not a pleasure to watch the Americans play; in fact, it is embarrassing. The current quip, among the aficionados here, is that the Americans seem to think it’s a checkers tournament instead of a chess tournament.
Thursday’s move by the Americans – expelling 35 Russian diplomats – would have been a reasonable one, although pedestrian, if we were still in the midst of the middlegame. But we are in the endgame now; a last-ditch imaginative defense was what was called for, not Thursday’s token – and ineffectual -- offensive maneuver.
The Russian response was brilliant. When I say that it is a pleasure to watch the Russians play, this is a good example of what I am talking about. The classic response to the American move, especially in an endgame, would have been to block it by, in turn, expelling 35 American diplomats. Instead, the Russians deliberately weakened their checkmate combination in order to scoot across the board and wipe out the clumsy American threat. It was an exciting and, as far as we know, unprecedented move. The Putin-Lavrov team took it one step further though. They turned their tactic into a work of art, a Christmas ballet with the flavor of a Russian folk tale.
[Act I: Old Grandfather Lavrov decrees that, in retaliation against the crafty Obama, Russia will expel 35 American diplomats.
Act II: Wise Prince Putin, who has taken on the guise of Father Christmas, turns Grandfather Lavrov's announcement upside-down and decrees a jolly absence of rancor throughout all of Russia.
Act III: Putin invites the children of Moscow’s American diplomatic corps to a New Years Day Party.
And they all live happily ever after.]
After the Russians made their foray into Syria, it became obvious to anyone who still held out hopes of an American victory that the Obama-Kerry team was grossly outmatched. Because the Americans hadn’t been able to find a way out of their entanglement there, they assumed that the Russians would not find one. With the Russians bogged down – or so they thought – the Americans saw an opportunity to develop their center. Then, lo and behold, Russia turned Syria into a rout, captured all the American pieces in that corner of the board, and advanced on the center. It was brilliantly executed.
In truth, there is no way for the Americans to pull a rabbit out of the hat in this game. They might have been able to find some wiggle room if they could have moved up their forces on their right, but Putin-Lavrov had forestalled this tactic by strewing a barrier of blocked American pawns across their path.
By all rights, when their position in Aleppo became untenable, the Obama-Kerry team should have ceded the World Master match. They then could have turned their attention to trying to salvage something out of the tournament by aiding their allies in the second-tier matches being played in the grand ballroom downstairs. Britain, in its match against Europe, needs all the help it can get, as does Saudi Arabia, as it fumbles its way toward a draw with Iran. As for the Baltic States, who are playing their own match against Russia, their skills are equal to their opponent’s and the consensus among those watching that game is that Baltic calls for American help are simply a feint.
In the next round of the World Masters Tournament, the American team will be led by Donald Trump. That will present a challenge to Putin-Lavrov. If the Trump team’s game is as erratic and amateurish as it has been in practice sessions, Putin-Lavrov may find themselves blindsided by beginner’s luck on the part of the Americans. (As any devoted game player can tell you – and not just chess players – beginner’s luck is a real phenomenon, in which a skilled player, who has honed his strategies in contests with other skilled players, is unable to find adequate responses to the simplistic and irrational moves of an opponent unfamiliar with the game.)