Put On Your Kicking Boots, It’s Time To Play Chess

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There is a saying that everything happens in three’s, in my case it was more like two’s. Two key events, some years apart, but both turning out to be significant, to me at least. The first happened in 1997, May 11th to be precise, the day IBM’s Deep Blue computer beat the world number 1 ranked chess player at the time; Garry Kasparov, in a 6-match series. The second event, took places some 18 years later on 24 October 2015, the day South Africa played against the All Blacks at the formidable Twickenham stadium in London, in the 2015 Rugby World Cup tournament in semi-final clash, and lost with 18 points to 20.

In a way I experienced both these events as traumatic but with mixed emotions; a part of me mourned the loss of something important, yet, on the other, valuable insights came to me as a kind of a comforting trade-off into the human condition. During 1997, now famous, chess game (which was later made into a film called Game Over), it became evident to me that the human brain could be beaten by computers – humans were officially not the smartest anymore. Any chess geek’s worst nightmare come true. Some years later in 2003, the famous Terminator franchise blazed onto the circuit, with their third edition in the series, entitled Rise of the Machines and it served as a stark reminder of the Kasparov incident.

The semi-final rugby match, the second event, in 2015, happened almost twenty years later as I, like many thousands of rugby supporters across the globe, were glued to their television sets, watching the fate of the Boks being determined by a wonderful back-and-forth kicking display of rugby talent. The majestic Dan Carter at the one end, seemingly unable to miss at goal, and on the other, a boisterous Fourie Du Preez launching one box-kick after the other, with a supercharged Brian Habana eagerly chasing down and cleanly catching the ball in the majority of cases; yet a spot in the finals for the Boks was not to be.

In my post-match sadness and frustration, I realised that, in spite of the loss, it was the tactical application of their kicking game that turned out to be such a strategic disrupter to the All Black’s game plan. I still think about how that game could have been different had Habana caught a few of those high balls at speed without being tackled…

One evening, some months ago, my wife and I agreed to a casual (dare I say friendly) game of chess, in which she unceremoniously gave me a decent whipping. It was then, ironically just right after I was beaten (is there a link between a good whipping and insight?), that I discovered the similarities between chess and rugby, and how, despite the best thought-out plans and strategies, we can easily come up short.

I also realised, as I did during my bearing witness to the two main events in 1997 and 2015 respectively, that kicking, if used strategically can win matches, but then, similarly, you also need an in depth and understanding of strategy, the kind of thinking you need to win a game of chess. Shortly thereafter I embarked on a journey to investigate, if a team could, through an improved understanding of the strategic elements of chess, used in conjunction with a solid kicking strategy, improve their chances of winning more rugby games. I think this is indeed true.

Attack Now Or Attack Later

If one argues that kicking is a tool that can be applied strategically, it is important to investigate how kicking as an element of play has changed over the past few years. One of the best benchmarks is the Rugby World Cup Series as it contains some of the best statistical data on the game, played at the international level, from 1987.

An analysis of the types of kicks, and their respective ratios, reveals that in the earlier editions of the tournament territory kicking was favoured with more than 50% of all kicks being long and deep. This is no longer the case as the box kick has become the number one favourite. Allowing defenders to re-organize and giving high-speeds wingers time to contest the ball, all while early on stopping any potential counter-attacks. One cannot help to notice that the touch kick, which ensures favoured and structured piece play, has remained one of the top 3 preferred kicking options.

Statistics on the rise of the box kick

Kicking, while being used more as a “slowing-down of the pace” technique in earlier versions of the game, has become a catalyst for action to maintain or facilitate an attacking game plan. While it also produces points as part of structured pieces of play, and other moving elements such as penalties and free-kicks, kicking has become one of the main signals of a team’s intention to attack. The only real question left to ask, seems to be; when do you intend to attack, or rather how soon will you employ kicking as part of your plan of attack? More about this tactical question later (see Choose Your Weapons Wisely below).

Storming Castles On Horseback

Bob Simon, host of 60 Minutes, presented an in-depth interview in 2012, with world-renowned chess player, Magnus Carlson, currently the number one chess player in the world. Simon jokingly said about chess, “How can it be a sport, nobody moves, but many Grand Masters will tell you, it can be more brutal than boxing”.

Chess is one of those rare games which, due to its competitive nature and strategic requirements, seems to be a comparable fit with a number of other sports, if not all of them. Take for example Lance Armstrong’s8 description of world class road cycling and chess when he writes the following passage in his famous book, It’s Not About the Bike:

Nothing interrupts the high-speed chess match that goes on in the tight pack of cyclists called the peloton as you hiss through the rain and labour up cold mountainsides, swerving over rain-slick pavement and jouncing over cobblestones, knowing that a single wrong move by a nervous rider who grabs his brakes too hard or yanks too sharply on his handlebars can turn you and your bike into a heap of twisted metal and scraped flesh.

Chess is 2-player (represented by black and white pieces) strategy board game played on a checkered board with 64 squares arranged in an 8×8 square grid. After both players move, 400 possible board setups exist, after the second pair of turns, there are 197 742 possible games, and after three moves, 121 million. At every turn, players begin a distinct game, and each game evolves into one that has probably never been played before. The options of games are limitless.

The game of chess, by the very nature of all its pieces, reminds us that it is a game of war and strategy, with pieces named “Knight, Rook, Bishop, Queen and King”, to name a few, it stands as a stark reminder of some medieval bout of majestic and war-like proportions. At its heart, it’s a game of strategy with the intention of winning and outlasting your opponent.

Through calculated moves and advanced strategic foresight, one aims to force your opponent into a corner, while gradually limiting their options by taking their different pieces out of the game.

Besides strategy and the sound application of tactics, chess is also a game that requires intelligence. Magnus Carlsen, also described as the Mozart of Chess, instinctively knows what his next move is going to be, but he still takes the time to review his options and verifies his decisions. He once played 10 different opponents, won all of them all while playing blindfolded.

Yes, you read correctly, he never laid eyes on the boards or pieces. He memorised each board game with its different pieces and set-up. Absolute genius. A Grand Master such as Carlsen, claims he can remember 10 000 games of chess he played in his mind and he can see approximately 15 to 20 moves ahead. That is probably being as close to the maximum thinking depth for human-level chess.

While we can continue to unpack and analyse many more interesting facts, numbers, and stories about chess, I want to highlight four important similarities which are necessary to be successful in both chess and rugby:

  • Strategy – Both require a specific approach, philosophy, and strategy to the game. This means players must possess a deep understanding of the intended outcome of each game and what the key goals are for each game or certain elements of the game.
  • Game Plan – While the strategy is “the why”, the game plan is “the how”. Each player’s role, goal and objective are underscored and highlighted. The game plane provides the tick-box items necessary as the game unfolds.
  • Pieces / Players – Each game requires a firm understanding of every player / piece and their powers and functions, In chess, for example, a Knight can only move or be played in a specific manner, similarly in rugby the Hooker is responsible for the line-out throw-in and not the Outside Centre. Structure follows strategy.
  • Rules – Both games require a firm understanding of the rules and how they can best be applied and used to your advantage. Also, and very few times we think of this, but what happens to a team when any player or players breaks any of those rules? Think about the damaging impact of a yellow or red card in rugby for example.

I Am General…

When it comes to kicking, we routinely think of two, maybe three key positions namely Flyhalf, Scrumhalf or Fullback. These are traditionally the players that either kick the ball as part of the play to keep the game moving forward or secures points from kicking penalties and conversions. For many years the Flyhalf has been the assigned recipient of the title of general and key in determining the fate of the team.

The Flyhalf decides at key moments when to run the ball, when to kick for position and territory, or when to apply pressure on the opposition with box-kicks. Like a fighting general from his armoured vehicle the Flyhalf makes decisions in the heat of the battle.

Several star players can wear this prestigious rank with pride. Take for example Dan Carter (New Zeeland), top-scoring Fly-Half in international rugby, scoring a mammoth 1 598 points in 112 matches or the Jonny Wilkinson with his distinct kicking style, scoring 1 248 points in 97 matches for England, true masters of the kicking game. Many of the points from their marvelously accurate boots have led their teams to victories and championships.

In the South African context, there has been no short supply of kicking prodigy’s; take for example talented players such as Naas Botha (scoring 242 in 21 tests, impressive even by today’s rugby standards) of whom world renowned SARU President, Dr Danie Craven once said the following:

Dr Danie Craven

“Well you see, unlike most people would say a kicker, I don’t look upon Naas Botha as a kicker, I look at Naas Botha as genius, a player like Naas Botha is only born once in a few generations, if it’s a few, and not many”.

It is easy to see why Dr Craven thought so much of Naas Botha

Over the past years South African rugby produced many kicking legends in their own right; players such as Andre Joubert, Percy Montgomery, Morné Steyn, Joel Stransky, and many others. Steady players with even more steady kicking boots, many of them scoring the final points leading the Boks to victory, sometimes under immense pressure. Joel Stransky’s marvelously famous kick against the All Blacks in the 1995 Rugby World Cup standing in good stead as an example of such tenacity.

No matter how the game has changed or how and where kicking features in any team game strategy, it seems that we prefer assigning this role and task to either the Flyhalf, Scrumhalf and or Fullback. What is of utmost importance is to decide where, when and how these critical positions are supposed to kick.

Thinking back to the famous SA / NZ game I mentioned in the opening paragraph, I recall rooms full of people shouting in anger whenever Fourie Du Preez launched those Box-Kicks, and how we all groaned, yet we yelled in delight (or was it hope?) every time the ball landed in the safe hands of Bryan Habana, I guess we were all hoping for that one break, that one catch that just lands at the right moment in the ideal way to allow for a clean break-away run and a hopeful try – unfortunately that moment, although close at times, never came.

The key question, which I guess we will never answer is, was is it part of a kicking strategy employed by the Boks, or was it a desperate attempt by the men in Green and Gold, to try and penetrate an immovable All Black defensive line?

Of Kings And Queens

I was never going to be selected for the under 16 A team, I barely made the B team, and quite frankly, just being able to fit into a rugby jersey with my scrawny cross country built body was nothing short of a miracle indeed! Thinking about that now, we all looked like undersized primary school players and were always shocked at the size of our opponents. I always wondered what those kids’ parents fed them. With all of this in mind, kicking was our way of not being slaughtered or tackled to death. From that perspective it never occurred to any of us that we could, should in fact, develop a kicking strategy for our team; Who is supposed to kick? When? How?

Jonny Wilkinson kicking at goal

Watching many of the live international games today, I have to state that sadly many of the international teams similarly don’t seem to realise the importance of having a kicking strategy, especially when senseless kicking results in giving away the ball. Possession sacrificed in lieu of territory. The type of back and forth kicking which seems to hide unfit forwards and non-creative backlines. Stale rugby games feeling remarkably like early round Wimbledon matches played on a Wednesday – just wetter and without strawberries.

A good strategy is not a single game tactic, but forms part of a range of other game tactics – that line is not from a rugby commentary, but from an article on chess tactics. Once again, rugby is not only a lot like chess, we are also reminded that kicking in the context of a rugby game, must form part of several other moving parts. We kick to achieve two main goals namely 1) to exert pressure (attack), or, 2) to avert pressure (defend).

Although we also kick to score points on conversions and to make sure we score on penalties, both aimed at strengthening our attacking position, we still need a kicking strategy. We can achieve the following goals by developing a kicking strategy:

  • We gain territory
  • We find and exploit open spaces
  • We keep the opposition away from a point-scoring range
  • We create variation in our game plan
  • We reduce the number of physical collisions
  • We combat or exploit good or bad weather and pitch conditions

Kicking Strategies are no longer just support plays but can be used as major tactics in teams that lack certain key elements of the game. Improved tackling methods, better line play, faster ball retention (all linked to stronger and faster players, irrespective of position) are continuously evolving. Kicking can prove to be effective, not only in attacking defensive lines, but also to exploit weak field positions, players, or tactical plays of the opposition.

A kicking strategy should involve all the different aspects of the kicking game and how it links up with field positions and team tactics and must include the following:

  • Exits – Clearing kicks to alleviate defence pressure
  • Territorial Gains – finding gaps and initiating turn-around plays
  • Winning the Kicking Battle – Methods and plans to win the psychological game
  • Initiating Attacking Plays – Tactics to increase points such as forced errors, drop goals, penalties, and conversions

In a TED talk presented by Garry Kasparov in 2012 (Don’t Fear Intelligent Machines: Work with Them) said that “In spite of 200 million positions per second, Deep Blue’s method provided little of the dreamt of insight into the mysteries of human intelligence”. A solid kicking strategy must always connect with this very same team intelligence and never become a stale matter of simple calculative repetitions, it should instead represent the tenacity and deep character of the team.

Choose Your Weapons Wisely

The 1995 Rugby World Cup saw some of the new laws in international rugby in action. These laws proposed changes to formation of rucks, stricter actions against high tackles, moving mauls and other set pieces of the game. To promote the safety of players and to make sure that each game continues at a steady pace and flow, these laws are constantly reviewed and changed.

Besides protecting players and improving the game, it has also influenced the way the game is played and how players are prepared and utilised in their respective positions. What we see today are specialised training regimens to produce better-rounded off players. Gone are the days that props can barely keep themselves upright in a tackle, and in some teams, props are some of the quickest men on the field.

Ball placed to kick at goal

The same rings true for the kicking game. The days of locks, loose forwards and all sorts of players kicking the ball away in sheer desperation, are long gone and teams that continue to play like this are heavily punished with brilliant counter attacks, often leading to tries or points in the form of penalties. Teams simply cannot afford to allow players to kick the ball as they wish.

As discussed earlier, the first thing a team needs to do in order to better control the kicking game is to create a kicking strategy, and secondly, to make sure the entire team has a clear understanding of the different types of kicks and their purpose. This is useful information to coach and recites to players during coaching sessions.

Here follows a detailed description of the type of kicks and their intended outcomes for each of them, for the benefit of players and teams:

  • Exit Kicks – A strategy used to alleviate pressure on defensive lines or to reposition a team further into their opponent’s territory. Try to get your kickers to kick with their balance towards the front foot. Give your kickers some breathing space by playing two or three phases first and position your main kicker in their kicking area of choice and skill. Don’t allow your opponents to catch you in a repetitive kicking pattern. Rather keep them guessing by switching between angles, using the different types of kicks, and following through by running the ball when least expected. Every player in the team must understand their specific role to play, once an exit piece is played, either by tackling, chasing, or hanging back. Don’t be caught napping!
  • Territorial Kicks – This strategy aims to move you upfield in the most energy-efficient way. Try, as often as you can, to find the pitch instead of being caught on the full. A critical success factor in this type of kick is the chase; let your opponents feel the pressure with enough runners chasing them down. Remember that pressure forces errors! Be regimented in who you allow to execute these precision kicks. Traditionally this will be assigned to your Scrumhalf, Flyhalf or Fullback. Two secrets to good territorial kicking are finding distance and hitting the wider channels of the pitch.
  • Kicking Battle Kicks – The kicking battle in most instances is a psychological fight and it is often the team that breaks the kicking cycle that ends up scoring with a solid counter-attack or ends up very close to the try-line with secured possession. There must be strong communication between captain and kicker to be clear when the ball is to be kicked again or run. If the ball ends up from touchline to the 15m line in the opposition’s 22, keep the ball in play. Played from a central location on the pitch, the option of attacking to either side remains open and keeps the opponents guessing as the fullback can’t cover both angles. Once again, is especially important that the entire team knows their roles. If the ball is retrieved within your 22, the best option is to kick into touch to regroup and play from a set-piece. Beyond the 22 creates a chance to counter-attack. The decision will be influenced by the available support players, ideally, aim for at least five. It should now be evident why knowing who chases, who stays and who falls back and protects the exit lines are so important. Keep a close eye on the opposition’s chase lines and the kind of pressure they create. Is the opposition chase determined and focused? Key factors that ease with the decision making to run or kick is the time left for play, the difference in scores and precise location on the pitch.
  • Attacking Kicks – About 1 out of 5 tries come as the result of attacking kick. The land of opportunity is often located just beyond the defensive line. These are handy kicks in cases where the opposition’s tackling and defense are outstanding. Attacking kicks need to be chased down to ensure the opposition is under such immense pressure that they lose the ball in the ruck and you regain control of the ball. Examples of good attacking kicks are the cross-field kick (mainly for the Wingers or Fullback to chase), the chip and reverse chip kick (mainly for strong running centres and wings to chase), the box kick (mainly for strong catchers and sturdy runner of the ball to catch).

Kick Mate

To become a Grand Master chess player, a player needs to achieve several performance ratings and win many games in different categories. You automatically qualify as a Grand Master if you win any of the world championship titles. In short, it means you must play a lot of chess and you must play against other high-quality players. As in most cases, it requires dedication, focus, training, and game time. It is a title inferred for life unless the player is ever found guilty of cheating in which case the title may be evoked.

However technical it may be to qualify as a Grand Master (GM) or an International Master (IM), it requires a firm understanding of the game, at its most profound and philosophical level, and one has to be a great player of the game. This means not only winning games but also playing at complex levels against other sturdy opponents.

From within the technical structure of high-level chess, three main strategies are taught in the game of chess, and they are similarly applicable and comparable with the game of rugby, specifically where kicking is a key tactic.

The three main strategies19 that apply in kicking in rugby includes the following:

Comparing chess and rugby kicking strategies

Winning at chess, as in rugby is not only about understanding how to play the game, but how to manipulate and amplify those parts of the game that proves most effective and beneficial. No strategy or plan is of any use if it does not create the right kind of opportunities that win matches. This means that to be successful at either of the two games means that we must master multiple elements in a game.

As we have seen in several cases, kicking is one of those keys that can unlock playing potential and cause the required disruptions needed to score points and win. Our understanding of both strategy and tactics will be most helpful when it comes to achieving success.

Dungeons And Dragons

In the 70’s and 80’s a famous board game was developed by Garry Gygax and Dave Arneson known as Dungeons and Dragons, or D&D (or DnD) as it is more famously known. The game was derived from miniature wargames with a variation of the 1971 game Chainmail serving as the initial rule system. The game is recognised as the beginning of modern role-playing games and the role-playing game industry. It is still played and enjoyed today although several new editions exist.

One characteristic about this game is its ability to play on the creative imagination of the players, and the dependence on each other’s wits, to go beyond their circumstances and get them out of trouble. The lucrative idea of going on quests and adventures turned out to be more than just the prowess of intelligent Science PhD’s as was portrayed in several The Big Bang Theory episodes, it also has something important to teach us about game plans and strategy.

The main principle of the game is that players can create their own characters with character and personality traits, skills and even a moral code, or set of principles the character abides by. In true D&D fashion, the game is the culmination of imagination and strategy. The game is regularly played in team format where group players will embark on a quest. Their skills, wit and wisdom will see them through the challenges in their way. Sounds familiar? Yes, D&D is indeed like chess and rugby.

The rules of the game, as in rugby and chess, determines, to a great extent, the behaviour and decision making of all characters and it inevitably influences the course of the game. A set of principles on how to play the game, and how to apply them to the variable set of circumstances, is what makes this game so popular. In similar fashion, the rules, the environment, the nature of the players and several peripheral factors, influences the outcome of each game.

Ending off this piece about the importance and specific intricacies of kicking as a strategic tool and tactic in the game of rugby, is governed by a range of short principles, and presented below as a bulleted summary:

  • The type of kick is determined by the intended goal in mind
  • There should be no kicking without an approved Kicking Strategy
  • Decides who kicks, stick to it, and the entire team must in support of this
  • Kick when it fits into the game plan

In the final analysis, kicking as a critically important element of the game, must be applied strategically and with common sense. While kicking is a perilous game changer, this much we have seen, it remains a dangerous game tactic that can bring about success to any team if it all can come together on the day.

In spite of our best intentions and kicking plans, we are fortunate to be reminded that the game is still played by 15 players, unless of course you were one of the All Blacks back in the 1995 Rugby World Cup semi-final, when a fax22 arrived which read: “Remember that rugby is a team game, all 14 of you make sure you pass the ball to Jonah!”.

Ivan Oosthuizen

Ivan is a freelance writer and specialises in creating digital content for clients on marketing, branding and thought leadership within the Medicine, Healthcare, Senior Living and Mental Wellbeing sectors. Ivan has more than 20years of senior and executive management experience in various industries, and can be contacted pencilthis.com