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The Russia Journal
July 15, 2003
When oligarchs are beaten at Go
By John Helmer

The most famous game of Japanese Go ever chronicled was the last match of the 64 year-old master Shusai and his young challenger, Kitani Minoru of the Seventh Rank. This began in June, 1938, and ended, 237 moves and six months later, on Dec. 4. The master was defeated.

Go is a boardgame, first invented in China and then refined over several thousand years by the Japanese. It is not at all like chess, except in the most general sense that the object of the game is to establish a position that is not only invulnerable to attack by your opponent, but that enables you to surround and capture his pieces, known as stones. The game is so complex that the unwitting player will sometimes not realize when he is surrounded and his stones about to be annihilated. Among the great players, considerable expertise is required to determine the score.

To understand how a run of apparently random moves on the Go board became a sequence of fatal mistakes, it is necessary to study the chart of the game, as well as the contemporary commentaries, as retold in a story by the great novelist Yasunari Kawabata, who first reported the match in more than 60 installments for a Tokyo newspaper.

The game was second nature to the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese generals who applied its principles to plot the downfall and defeat of the U.S. army in Vietnam between 1963 and 1973.

The great Russian strategists, from Suvorov to Zhukov, have been strangers to Gos precepts, and I doubt that the game is taught much these days at the General Staff college. Russian commanders, like the Germans and Americans, believe in the chess-like defense and offense of massive threat and overwhelming force. But if you are to realize how many mistakes Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky has already made in his game with the Kremlin, it will be useful to keep your eye on the Go board. That Khodorkovsky himself appears to think his tactics will enable him to keep the territory he has marked out as his property reflects a chess-induced belief that the game he is playing is the same as the one by his opponents. That Khodorkovsky is a naive and inexperienced player is something that naturally attracts sympathy. But, as the old masters have always known, money can never buy experience. Belief in the overwhelming force of money is a mistake Khodorkovsky made even before he sat down at the game-board.

Once play commenced, Khodorkovsky made six errors, the evidence for which he has disclosed himself.

Mistake Number One Khodorkovsky calls on U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow to inform him that his partner and Yukos co-shareholder Platon Lebedev is about to be arrested by federal prosecutors.

Mistake Number Two Lebedev is arrested and imprisoned on charges of quarter-billion-dollar fraud and embezzlement on July 2. Shortly afterwards, Khodorkovsky attends a reception to mark Independence Day at the U.S. Embassy, where he tells all who will listen that Lebedevs arrest is a political attack. By that, I suppose he means to imply that he prefers to play games that are strictly commercial in character. Thats another way of saying that, if the preponderance of money doesnt assure control of the game, Khodorkovsky doesnt want to play. But since Khodorkovsky has also let it be known that his money is being spent for political purposes, his second move appears contradictory in character. Either that, or he is trying to say that he only likes to play games he is sure to win. Of course, thats most unsporting.

Mistake Number Three Khodorkovskys American retainers (among which Henry Kissinger has been identified as being on the payroll) lobby the U.S. State Department to intervene with a demonstration of support for Khodorkovsky. An official statement is released accordingly.

Mistake Number Four Khodorkovsky attempts to mobilize his stones, rallying fellow oligarchs to his defense. He proposes that the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs send President Vladimir Putin a letter and follow up with a face-to-face meeting. Writing pieces of paper has always seemed a feeble method of operational deterrence, at least since Chamberlain tried it with Hitler at about the same time as the great Go match in Japan. It is doubly unfortunate for Khodorkovsky, because the other industrialists are unable to agree on what the letter to Putin should say.

Mistake Number Five Khodorkovsky threatens that, unless his partner is released from prison, Yukos may stop lifting crude oil or pumping refined products into some of the Russian regions. This turns the unfortunate Lebedev into a hostage for a lot of other stones on the board that Khodorkovsky has yet to control.

Mistake Number Six The oligarch-controlled Russian media publish the rumor that a wave of asset cash-outs may be underway, as Khodorkovskys fellow oligarchs threaten to give up their stones and abandon their positions.

In the 1938 match, the challenger and the master opened ceremonially, the former (playing Black) at the top right-hand corner of the board and the latter (playing White) at the bottom right-hand corner. It wasnt until moves three and four that the game began in earnest.

As Go is a territorial game, with almost no limit of time, space or pieces to play, each of your moves is a test of the intention of your rival to contest space or to outflank. When the stakes are high, the lack of limits inevitably pushes the players to great patience and the game to great lengths. A show of impatience in the early stages usually dooms the player to a short game and defeat.

If Khodorkovsky knew his history, he should have had second thoughts about engaging Kissinger, because the latter famously failed to win at Go and just as famously lost the Vietnam War. But Kissinger is more than a loser; he is, by the self-proclaimed standards according to which the Washington administration judges others, a war criminal. Impatient even in the ceremonial opening stage of the game, Khodorkovsky thus showed his opponent that he is counting on defending Russian assets with American losers. This is inexplicable.

As an ambassador, Vershbow was just the messenger: The message was delivered by the State Departments announcement Khodorkovsky had paid for. Khodorkovsky thereby converted a game for assets that were not in question Lebedev is charged with stealing a fertilizer company, not Yukos into a game for Khodorkovskys survival as an American dare we use the chess term? pawn. In the Japanese schools that teach Go to aspiring masters, they say, ever-so-politely, "Never listen to a loser, or you will be doomed to repeat his mistakes." Concentration of force failed Kissinger in Vietnam, just as it is failing the U.S. Army in Iraq today. But a threat of force, without the substance to back it up what is that?

In his first errors, Khodorkovsky offered himself up as Lebedevs hostage and then threatened to use force, while at the same time inviting his bluff to be called. He became a prisoner himself, spread so thinly over the board that he invited the very thrust he and Vershbow couldnt muster. The Kremlin display of arms during the 17 hour search of Yukos premises and archives on July 11 was the inevitable result. The combination of move and countermove demonstrates that Khodorkovskys territory is space he lacks the ability to hold.

Young Go players often cannot stand the strain of deliberation. In the annals of the Japanese game, there are cases of brilliant young men who went insane. It is reported that the challenger in the 1938 match went to a clairvoyant and asked for advice on how to win. The proper method, he was told, is to lose all awareness of self while awaiting an adversarys move. Shedding the desire to win is the key and attaining selflessness the only way. It is understandable that a young fellow like Khodorkovsky might not have heard this advice. But in just six opening moves, he has demonstrated such callow vanity that he has all but convinced his opponent that defeat will be easy. If Khodorkovsky is to survive the mid-game, with a chance of playing the endgame, he will have to study not the board, but himself.

But the Kremlin, playing White in this game, knows it commands the advantages of both time and space. I am, of course, opposed to arm-twisting and jail cells, Putin replied when the Khodorkovsky alliance presented itself for the face-to-face meeting last Friday. But, then, he added, arm-twisting is exactly what Khodorkovsky and the other oligarchs are doing to lobby the Duma and the other institutions of government. As for prison, Putin went on, I dont think this is the method to deal with economic crimes, but at the same time we need to punish economic violations.

What Khodorkovsky, Lebedev and Vershbow all know is that the president was referring to the lengthy process by which Lebedev had been invited to address the dossier of his crimes and negotiate his amends. If he hadnt refused, he would not have been arrested. So what Putin was saying was that the other methods had been tried, and they had failed. A society split into small groups with their own narrow interests cannot concentrate on implementing major national projects, Putin went on. And to make certain Khodorkovsky was attending carefully, he told him what the end-game would be like. Unanimity isnt winning, Putin said. But we will have to agree on all the main ways and work on a common position if we want to develop our country. To a man who had run to a foreign embassy and appealed for the intervention of a foreign government and who has been negotiating with foreign companies to sell a strategic stake of his company, Putin was saying: "Forget it, or you will lose."

Sometimes, in the late stages of the great games of Go, a situation arises called "Ko." It is one of the big differences between chess and Go. Roughly speaking, Ko is when two players take and retake each others stones and can continue doing this for an eternity, without making a significant difference to the larger disposition of their forces. To put a stop to this and allow the game to reach an outcome, the player whose stone is first taken must play elsewhere on the board before being allowed to return to the scene.

Khodorkovsky has enough resources to imagine that he can play the Kremlin into and out of the Ko situation. But whether hes right about that we shall see, although only after the next round of moves is played. By moving his U.S. pieces so prematurely and hastily, however, Khodorkovsky hasnt left himself much space on the board. ExxonMobil and Chevron-Texaco have already turned down buyout opportunities they were presented with by Mikhail Fridman and Tyumen Oil Co. The American oil companies must now reconsider whether Khodorkovsky and Yukos carry the same level of risk. In the mid-game, as Khodorkovsky tries to persuade them otherwise and convince the Kremlin he has succeeded, Putins play should haunt him. Has Khodorkovsky already demonstrated that the territory Putin called our country is just a boardgame to him? If that is so, Khodorkovsky has lost.

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