Your Move

Chess terminology, imprecisely played

To practice politics, one must know something about strategy. Like a poker player, a politician needs to know when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em. And while politicians occasionally use poker terms when discussing strategy, more of them–and more journalists—put on their game faces with terms from chess.

You would think that people would use that terminology the way chess players use it. Most of the time, however, they’re using the terms colloquially, even though they are using them in a strategic context. While that usage isn’t wrong, it’s not as precise as it could (or should) be.

Let’s start with “pawn.” In chess, it’s the piece of the lowest value, and also the most numerous, and its movements are more limited than that of other pieces. A player may decide to sacrifice a “pawn” without much worry, since doing so often provides an advantage to another piece. Politicians use the term “pawn” mostly in a pejorative sense, meaning that an opponent has misused something or someone to gain advantage. (When the House passed its health-insurance bill, a Republican congressman said that the House speaker “used doctors as political pawns to add over $200 billion to our federal deficit.”) Colloquially, the lowly “pawn” becomes someone else’s sacrifice, not the sacrifice of the person who controls the destiny of the “pawn.”

In chess, a “gambit” is an opening move, one that almost always sacrifices a piece, usually a “pawn.” But its more common use, one sanctioned by most dictionaries, refers to any risky or surprising strategic move: “Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s gambit to include a government-run insurance option in health care legislation has given a fresh tailwind to the idea despite opposition from conservatives,” one news report said.

Then there’s the “end game.” It’s not so much the last phase of the game as the strategy invoked as the number of pieces on the board dwindle. (Most chess players spell it “endgame.”) Much of the time, though, it’s used to mean the winding down of something, or merely the end, not the strategy to win. “If 60 Democratic and independent votes aren’t there to break a Republican filibuster on health care, that could be the incendiary end game,” one news report said. (For some reason, though, when many politicians speak of seeking an “end game” for Iraq or Afghanistan, they are referring to a winning strategy, not just withdrawal.) Interestingly enough, a “pawn” becomes more important in the “end game” than in the “gambit.”

It’s okay to “pawn” colloquial use of chess terms off on readers, who won’t feel “rooked” even if they do play chess. But if you use it more precisely, consider yourself a “scholar’s mate.”*

*A “scholar’s mate” is a fast four-move checkmate, used mostly against beginning players.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.