Mahatma Gandhi can be considered the greatest chess player even though he never played chess. If we think of the Indian Subcontinent as a chess board, then Gandhi was fighting a very complex battle. A battle that goes far beyond the typical chess game where there is only one opponent and a comparatively simple terminal value of capturing the opponent’s king. The goal of upliftment of the masses established by Gandhi required him to gain independence from the British as well as battle internal conservative forces that did not want to see changes in areas such as the caste system. This complexity is further intensified by him devising programs to achieve narrow goals while at the same time following his plans to achieve broader targets. In fact, it is especially surprising that while conducting his movement, Gandhi obeyed both British law and stayed within the ethical parameters which he had set.

In this paper, I hope to make a comparison between Gandhi and a chess player, as there are considerable similarities. Gandhi, like other grandmasters, played essentially position ally unless he had a specific goal to achieve. At that point, Gandhi changed to the combinational style, while at the same time not losing sight of increasing his positional value. It is interesting to note that while Gandhi is usually associated with the Indian independence movement (a positional goal); this was only an intermediate goal. The final goal was to uplift the masses. Of further interest is to see how Gandhi understood the historical significance of religion on the masses, and like other grandmasters using Non-Markova processes, he also incorporated this understanding in his decision processes. Finally, Gandhi’s use of material sacrifices has been acclaimed for decades as being key components in his success.

While going through this paper, it is important to note how Gandhi’s goals are far more complicated to achieve than those in a chess game. Consequently, the classification of these goals as to whether they can be achieved via the positional or the combinational method is extremely gray. While I have tried to dissect them into one of these two areas, realistically this distinction is rather blurry.

Usage of the Positional and Combinational Styles by Gandhi

Like all grandmasters of chess, Gandhi "played" both position ally and combination ally. The positional aspect of this statement is corroborated by several facts. First, the main goal of Gandhi was sarvodya. This essentially translates to "the upliftment of the masses." As is obvious, this goal is vague and composed of other parameters besides material. While the combinational style does require a clear goal that is usually a material parameter, the latter condition is not requisite. Gandhi’s style cannot be considered combinational for another reason which is the lack of a program. Gandhi essentially only had a plan that outlined broad parameters. Decisions made by him were subjective based on his personal evaluation of the situation and could not be objectivised as in the case of playing combination ally. Another reason that Gandhi played position ally was because achieving a goal as vague as his required extreme political sensitivity. He had to focus not only on achieving material goals (this usually required combinational play) but he also needed constantly re-evaluate the strength of his position. The fact that many players were involved meant that there were literally millions of permutations (easily dwarfing the number possible in a game of chess) possible.

Most people associate Gandhi with the Indian Subcontinent’s independence movement. While this idea is not wrong, it only looks at an intermediate goal of Gandhi and not his final goal. Swaraj(independence) was only an intermediate goal of Gandhi; he felt that as long as Indians were under Western imperialist rule, they could not develop as individuals or improve their economic situations. The end goal was always sarvodya. Other intermediate goals of Gandhi were the elimination of the caste system, the secularization of Indian politics, and finally the self-reliance of the Indian people. These intermediate goals themselves required Gandhi to play position ally for two reasons: The goals are not clear or narrow and they require a plan not a program in order to be achieved.

There were times when Gandhi played combination ally. During these specific instances, the goal was very clear and Gandhi was actively involved in devising a program to achieve it. For example, the movement started by Gandhi to produce salt was in direct violation of the British monopoly. This case study is explored in-depth via a case-study later on. For now, though, it is important to note that specific events organized by Gandhi as part of his nationalist movement had narrow goals with clear and well thought-out programs to achieve them. This style is very common in today’s chess games as grandmasters set intermediate goals (e.g. capture a piece) after playing a couple of positional moves.


Usage of Non-Markovian Processes by Gandhi

An aspect of Gandhi’s genius which is frequently forgotten is his use of religion to achieve not only nationalistic goals but also to reform certain aspects of Hinduism. This was Non-Markovian, as he realized that the trajectory of the past does matter and he weighed that in his decision-making. As the Indian Subcontinent was a breeding ground for some of the world’s oldest religions, the attachment of the people to their religions is intense. In fact, this attachment dwarfs their political inclinations. What complicated the issue was the presence of literally hundreds of different languages and religious sects within India. How could Gandhi unite all these people under a common umbrella of nationalism if there were so many differences between them?

It is the solving of this riddle that set Gandhi apart from his nationalist predecessors in India. The key lay in his recognition of the power of religious symbols. While many consider Gandhi to be a Hindu extremist due to his extensive usage of Hindu concepts, this opinion is very short-sighted. The prime fact against their viewpoints is that Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu extremist. Gandhi only used religious symbols (realizing that historically people would relate with these more than to political symbols) that had universal appeal in order to unite the Indian people. For example, his nationalist movement was called Satyagraha (the strength that comes from following the path of the truth). This is a universal theme in all religions and hence appealed to the multifaceted religious community in India. It is true that a lot of the religious symbols used by Gandhi were Hindu in background. This was dictated by the fact that the majority of the nation was Hindu. Swaraj (independence) actually has its roots in the Hindu religious texts meaning the "cleansing of the soul." Gandhi reinterpreted this for the masses to reflect independence from the British. Once again, we see the usage of religious symbols in order to tap into the sentiments of the masses. A key point to keep in mind is that Gandhi was only able to utilize these religious symbols for nationalistic purposes only because these thought processes were already running in the minds of the populace. That is, religion is a good measure of the pulse of the nation.

Another example of Gandhi recognizing the trajectory of the past and formulating his positional strategy accordingly can be viewed m the context of his fight against the caste system in India. Gandhi recognized that the caste system had for centuries been deeply rooted in all aspects of Indian life. In fact, it was religion that was providing the legitimacy behind this discrimination. Gandhi once again quite brilliantly used religion to change attitudes regarding the caste system. Instead of calling the lower castes "untouchable," he called them "Harijans" (children of God). He then went on to frequently quote and interprets passages of Hindu Holy Books in his speeches in an effort to convince the masses that the caste system did not have religion as its backing. Gandhi’s charisma and usage of religion was fundamental in reforming an aspect of Hinduism — the caste system.

The fact that Gandhi’s message was secular can be best seen in its successful implementation by Martin Luther King, Jr. and more surprisingly by a tribe of Pathans m the Western Frontier of Afghanistan. The Pathan has been described by William Crooke as "the most barbaric of all the races with which we are brought into contact. War is traditionally the normal business of the land." It was with this sort of a past that Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a Pathan, set up the Khudai Khitmatgar (Servants of God) group. Like Gandhi, Ghaffar Khan recognized the trajectory of the past and the influence this past has on his people. Therefore, he also used religious symbols to unite the people and bring about change. "The purpose of this organization was to effect social, political, and economic reforms paramount to the people of the Frontier." Furthermore, like Gandhi, Ghaffar Khan established a plan (not a program) in order to achieve the aforementioned goals. While the differences between Islam and Hinduism are many-fold, such as the notions of reincarnation, role of ritual, etc., Gandhi and Ghaffar Khan relied on a feature common to both religions — the importance given to peace. Ghaffar Kahn used the ancient texts to frequently stress the concept of Salem. That is, to be tranquil and at rest by surrendering yourself to God. The Khudai Khidmatgar was successful to the extent that they were able to establish a parallel government for a short period in the city of Peshawar.

Role of Sacrifice in Gandhi and Philosophy

Like all grandmasters, Gandhi believed in using sacrifice as rarely as possible. At this point, it is very important to actually separate the type of parameters that Gandhi did feel relatively comfortable sacrificing Gandhi‘s viewpoint was that while you may lose your life, you should not lose your pride. The following quote by Gandhi best illustrates this point:

It is one of the tragic facts of life that the demands of our physical self and the aims of our mental self can conflict; that actually we may have to sacrifice our physical self in order to assert the integrity of our spiritual self. This sacrifice will never lose its tragic quality. Death is never sweet, not even if it is suffered for the highest ideal. It remains unspeakably biker, and still it can be the utmost assertion of our individuality and freedom from the imperialists. In terms of chess, Gandhi felt that the loss of material parameter (human life) was at times necessary in the struggle to achieve independence in the intermediate term, and moral upliftment (sarvodya) in the long-term. Gandhi always talked about the sad state associated with these sacrifices, but he also realized the pragmatic implications.

Some political scientists have claimed that it was these material sacrifices (loss of life, voluntary renunciation of property, etc.) being done on a large-scale by the Indian people that really played a key role in India’s independence. That is, it was these material sacrifices by the Indian people that gave Gandhi the positional advantage. The sheer sight of seeing line after line of non-violent Indian men and women courageously step up to the blow of the sticks lent considerable sympathy for the Indian nationalist cause. As the British themselves had fought hard to have their legal rights wrested from the monarchy, they understood the importance of freedom. Bondurant claims that "the self-suffering imposed by the Indians via Satyagraha was the least acceptable feature to the British mind. Yet, such sacrifice may well have provided the ultimate means of touching the hearts of the British and realizing the characteristic so eminent in Western moral philosophy: the dignity of the individual."

Other political theorists have claimed that Gandhi supported these material sacrifices as he realized that m the long-term, the usage of violence would only increase the number of sufferers created in the process of getting independence. The comparison has been made with other violent nationalist movements such as Kashmir, etc. where more lives have been lost proportionally while trying to get independence.

There were moments in the nationalist movement where Gandhi had to engage in a positional sacrifice in order to improve his position later on. The prime example is the splitting of the Indian subcontinent between India and Pakistan. While Gandhi vehemently opposed the splitting of the golden bird based on religion, he had to give in eventually as it became clear that this would be a prerequisite demanded by the British if they were to get independence. While he was very upset by the situation, he had to sacrifice his dreams to achieve a more important positional goal of independence.

As has been stated by Dr. Katsenelinboigen, material sacrifices should be left to the grandmasters. That is precisely the advice Gandhi gave to his followers. He said hunger strikes and material losses should be avoided as much as possible and used only in rare circumstances. There was essentially one reason behind his thinking, besides the avoidance of unnecessary pain: Excessive usage would reduce the shock appeal and make the acts less effective, as the opponents would see those sacrifices as a routine affair. The positional advantage would not be gained. He did state, though, that sacrifice was acceptable if it was done to protect one’s honour.


Creating a Plan Not a Program

Gandhi realized early on that leading millions of people to a goal as nebulous as "the upliftment of the masses" would require a plan (not a program) that could be used in any corner of India. A plan that would transgress both religious and linguistic boundaries. Furthermore, this plan would also have to create predispositions within the populace so that they would be able to make the correct decisions after he was gone.

First, it is important to note how he, like grandmasters playing chess, in his pursuit of independence did not violate the rules established by the British. That is, his non-cooperation movement (part of Satyagraha) included features such as fasting, striking, etc. None of these explicitly broke the letter of the law. What frustrated the British was more how Gandhi, a lawyer by training, was able to circumnavigate the letter of the law while successfully opposing the will of the law.

The criteria Gandhi established internally for the behaviour of the millions involved in Satyagraha was a lot more stringent. This stringent laying out of the parameters of his plan was not only important to increase the positional value, but also to create predispositions within the population.

The three pillars of Gandhi’s Satyagraha were: satya (truth), ahimsa (non-violence), tapasya (self suffering). The first pillar stated that God is Truth and Truth is God and hence it is the duty of every individual to be honest in whatever venture he endeavours. There is force within truth and hence force in God. Gandhi recognized that individuals would have different views as to the truth as absolute Truth is known only to God. Hence, it becomes important not to use violence when pursuing your view of the truth. This is where the second pillar ahimsa comes into play. Ahimsa is not only the refusal to do harm, but also the unwillingness to think harm about the opponent. Hence, while it was of utmost importance to follow the path of truth, one could not use violence to that end. Therefore, tapas would have to be endured. It was these three pillars of Gandhi’s Satyagraha movement that formed the broad parameters for his plan. Gandhi also wanted the populace to have a predisposition towards these personality traits as they would ensure harmony and prosperity (material and moral).


Usage of the Combinational Style by Gandhi

One has to generalize in order to outline the steps that a nationalist would follow when striving for a clear and narrow nationalistic goal. An example of a clear and narrow nationalistic goal would be the freeing of specific political prisoners from a particular prison. Bondurant has done a great job of analyzing the steps involved which I summarize portions of below in the order that a nationalist would go about them:


Stay self-reliant at all times and don’t rely on outside help. Hence, carefully evaluate right at the beginning whether your ideas can be brought to completion with the resources at your disposal.

Engage in a lot of propaganda before to the population and especially to the domestic and foreign press.

Inform the British government of what you are going to do much before you do it.


An interesting thing to note is that tens of successful protests across the nation were conducted following the aforementioned program. Not surprisingly, Gandhi was not involved in a lot of these protests. But by writing out this program, he had objectivised it to the extent where it could be replicated by others.


Brief Case Study: The Salt Satyagraha

The purpose of the following brief case study is to highlight the type of political game Gandhi was playing. It reveals how Gandhi was, like grandmasters playing chess, simultaneously trying to achieve both positional as well as combinational goals. Furthermore, this study reveals how Gandhi was able to create programs to achieve clear and narrow goals within the framework of his plans to achieve positional goals. The role of sacrifice is also explored via this study.

The Salt Satyagraha took place from March 1930 to March 1931. It started off in Bombay but gradually spread to all parts of India.

Comparison of chess and Gandhiji’s strategy

Clear and narrow goal:

Removal of the Salt Acts that provided for the government monopoly on salt


Combinational Goal:

Revenue realized from the Salt Tax amounted to $25,000,000 out of total revenue of $800,000,000. These laws were held to be a hardship on the people.


Over-riding goal:

Weaken the resolve of the British to stay in India by reducing the benefits they receive (positional goal of independence.)


 Positional goal:

Improve the situation of the Indian population by reducing the taxes they pay (positional goal of sarvodya. More long-term than independence.)



The program used to achieve the aforementioned combinational goal is as follows:

First, he got all the volunteers to sign papers saying that they or their families would not hold Gandhi or his party responsible for what may happen.

Second, research was done to figure out just how much of a loss the British would suffer with the loss of this tax. Also, research was also conducted of the benefits accruing to the Indian people. These facts were heavily advertised to the respective constituencies.

Third, Gandhi informed Lord Irvin, the Viceroy on March 2, 1930 that he along with his co-workers would non-violently disregard the provisions of the Salt Acts and walk to the sea to make salt. They would then inform the Indian population and get them to do the same all across the nation. This would go on till the Salt Acts were removed.



The Salt Satyagraha fit in very well with Gandhi’s long-term goals that he was trying to achieve via the positional style. That is, this movement, though, did not stray from the parameters outlined in his plan to achieve independence and improve the life of Indian citizens. Gandhi believed that the truth/the right way (satya) was that Indians should not be taxed if they were not the ones receiving the benefits. As the British had a different opinion of satya, violence was not a viable option. Hence, suffering via sacrifices would have to be endured to achieve the goals.



While this movement was very successful, it was only after considerable sacrifice by its participants. Many were killed and thousands were arrested before the goal was achieved. That is, Gandhi’s positional value had increased and the specific combinational goal of the removal of the Salt Act had also been achieved.



Gandhi can easily be considered of the sharpest thinkers of all time as well as a profound chess player. He went beyond the style of today’s grandmasters that have both plans and programs in their game. Furthermore, they are playing both combination ally to achieve specific goals and at the same time playing position ally to improve their position. Gandhi had to deal with all this duality in a more complex setting. The presence of literally millions of pieces, the stakes being higher than that of a normal chess game, etc. Only further highlighted his brilliance. He was able to procure his goals by thinking straight and using good judgment. He will always be remembered and respected for his achievements.