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Chess and Roller Derby

Why chess? I just think that the two games have a lot to say about each other. To put it in another way, the rules of roller derby didn’t develop in a vacuum, separate from every other game in existence. New games are built upon mechanics, themes, and conventions featured in the games that came before.

Games are a system, a logic engine, as I like to say. Their designers like using proven models that are rigorously tested so they don’t implode when they’re applied. Games are actually really hardy logic engines with memes, tropes that get used over and over. Some games have been around long enough to have the rules thoroughly thought out, and have remained stable for centuries, like chess. Roller derby is clearly still in development, but they still have a lot in common.

If you’re just getting started in roller derby, but know something about chess, I can offer some insight as to how roller derby strategy works, and perhaps make the process of learning to play easier. A lot of what I’m about to say comprises of chess metaphors I created to help me make sense of roller derby in the last year or so. Maybe you’ve even heard me refer to someone as an “isolated pawn”, to refer to a blocker who acts alone, or otherwise isn’t working with her teammates. I say that one a lot, mostly towards myself. Nobody’s perfect.

Let me begin with generally describing chess strategy. The most basic thing about chess strategy is that starting either first or second in the turn order radically alters your approach to the game:

White Strategy:

Sieze the initiative. Keep constant pressure on the opponent, controlling the pace of the game by forcing him to react to your attacks. Develop your piece position intelligently as you press toward the objective.

Black Strategy:

Stay calm and patient. Bide your time, avoiding disaster, matching White’s moves with neutralizing counterattacks. Maintain your options, and wait for White to make a mistake, then turn the tables on your opponent and crush him relentlessly.

Many players are better at employing either white or black strategy. They feature very different skill sets, and personality of they player may also be a factor. Which strategy do you think describes your own inclinations? Do you think you have something to gain by learning more about the other color’s strategy?

What a Derby Player Can Learn from Chess:

Time is Precious

Knowing how to use time will make you a superior strategist in anything; I can’t stress that enough. To master time, you have to stop thinking of it as an abstraction. Time can be quantified and subjected to classification, as it often is in game mechanics. Even in games where a player has a seemingly infinite amount of time to think and make a move, it is the move itself that represents time spent, and it must be spent wisely.

In chess, time is represented in the turn-based mechanic. By design, each player has an equal amount of time. The foundation of chess strategy is making the best use of the time allowed to you. Poor use of time is wasting turns, making moves that do not build upon the previous ones. If you make poor decisions early on, you will probably not have time to remedy them later. You’ll be stuck in a weak position.

As you learn to play, you will frequently feel the pressure of time, especially in the endgame. You will bitterly wish you had just one more turn to put something into place. Getting better at chess means making more effective decisions earlier in the game. You do this by learning how to keep your options more varied than those of your opponent, and recognizing opportunity to improve your position.

The way time works in roller derby is much more complicated, represented in the time limit to the jam, penalties, time outs, the time between the jams, and the time limit of the game itself. Spatial relationships also share an association with time. The distance between jammers is treated something like a time mechanic, since a lead jammer will use it to decide how much time they have to score points. Success in roller derby seems to have a lot to do with making the most of every moment, and not wasting effort on ineffective actions.

As with chess, derby teams are allotted equal time. However, one team is bound to use their time more effectively than the other. The more I learn about roller derby, the more I see ways to manage time. Blockers buy time for their jammer by focusing on hindering the opposing jammer. We lose time when we’re pushed out of position, or struggle to catch up with a fast pack. I can think of far too many examples to list here, though the subject of time will appear in later points.

The closing thought on this is this: Spending your time wisely offers a huge strategic advantage. Always look for hidden time mechanics, and learn how to make it bend to your advantage.

3 Distinct Phases, 3 Totally Different Objectives

Chess can’t be played skillfully if you don’t understand this simple fact: It’s not so much a battle as it is a campaign. It has phases in which you must complete specific objectives:

The Opening:

Each player advances their front line (pawns), in such a way as to support and protect one another, like a Spartan phalanx. Asserting their presence in ever more territory, the pawns win space for stronger pieces to maneuver. The kings are secured in a hard-to-reach corner of the board. Pieces are only sometimes captured during the opening. Chess players develop a repertoire of famous, time-tested move sequences, also called “openings”, which have names like the Sicilian Defense, and the Ruy Lopez.

The Mid-game:

The advancing armies compete for control of the center of the board, and thus more room to maneuver. Pieces are exchanged in attack after counter attack. A skillful player manages to advance their position, even as their own pieces disappear, while an inexperienced one wastes time on pointless or ineffective skirmishes.

The End-game:

The delicate art of capturing the opponent’s king, while protecting one’s own. This phase begins when most of the pieces are gone from the board, hopefully having had meaningful deaths, and naturally concludes when a king is rendered unable to escape capture.

As you can see, no single phase of a chess game resembles the others. In fact, they may well be three different games! The opening is about securing as much territory as possible through careful development. The mid-game is about sustaining a relentless assault for yet more territory, and contemplating possible endgame approaches. The endgame stands most independently from the others, so much so that it is commonly published in the newspapers as a puzzle.

I was delighted to discover that a jam in roller derby also has three distinct phases, and they’re even easier to identify than in chess, and have comparatively simple objectives: They go like this:

The Jam Start (The Opening):

The contest to determine lead jammer.

The Scoring Passes (Mid-Game): Two Parts-

a) For Lead Jammer’s Team – Score more points than the other team. This is done by allowing the lead jammer to enter the pack with speed, and exit it with speed, all with limited engagement to reduce risk of lead jammer penalty. The lead jammer’s blockers deny the other jammer opportunity to score points. Lead jammer controls the opposing jammer’s access to points by staying in play long enough to issue a timely call-off.

b) For the Other Team – Quite simple. Achieve a power jam, or else force an end to the jam by getting into scoring position as soon as possible.

Ending the Jam (End-Game):

The delicate art of ending the jam in a way that offers more “advantages” than the other team at the start of the next jam. This encompasses not just points, but also a high number of blockers in play, and starting a power jam with a fresh jammer. While the lead jammer often controls the moment the jam ends, it is still possible for the non-leading team to win some advantages, perhaps by forcing penalties, or speeding the pack to buy enough time to liberate their own players from the penalty box. Or if enough advantages are already established, simply forcing an end to the jam very, very quickly.

Strategy is hard to teach in both chess and roller derby. Without careful mentorship, novices are doomed to try and fail spectacularly, and hardly stand to learn from their mistakes. The gameplay is just incredibly nuanced. There’s no hard and fast rules, and the myriad scenarios are too much to learn by rote, or even by years of practice. And even then, unlike chess, there are ruleset changes in roller derby.

Teaching Chess and Roller Derby

I’m taking a moment to break down the conventional way to teach chess to beginners. As I said before, there are three phases. Beginners basically learn to play three phases separately. The opening is the easiest, because it mostly involves memorizing a handful of the most common openings for both white and black. One can build a novice’s confidence with the endgame by doing chess puzzles. The middle-game is where the masters distinguish themselves from their inferiors, but a strong middle-game is developed by working on the beginning and end. So how does this relate to roller derby? Read on.

As with chess, I think the first phase of jam is easiest to learn. The blocker formations at the jam line are very analogous to chess openings. The jam start can stand independently of the rest of the jam phases for the purpose of drilling. The contest to determine lead jammer could be a game onto itself, and a simple one at that. Making novice derby skaters strong in the jam start lays out a solid foundation from which more sophisticated mid-game strategies derive.

Learning to play the scoring passes (mid-game) are harder, because that’s where one is forced to act upon many different circumstances under intense time pressure. It’s hard to take effective actions under such conditions, much less coordinate an entire blocker line to work together on the same objective. However, at least understanding the general objectives of the scoring passes is a step in the right direction. It offers general guidelines when the nuanced tactics of the last week’s practice leaks out of their heads during scrimmage.

Ending the jam (end-game) seems to be the hardest of all, when once considers all the possible advantages that can be won for the next jam. Perhaps it could be said, that a novice team can start a jam well, but a master team ends it well.

Trading Material

In chess, exchanging captured pieces in the middle game is called “trading material”. Different types of pieces actually have a relative value assigned to them, with pawns being scored the least, knights and bishops being roughly equal, rooks somewhat more, and a queen being worth more than a rook and bishop combined! Then you have the king…

The king doesn’t have a relative score because his value is utterly incomparable, for if a player loses his king, that player has lost the game. More on that later.

The relative value system helps chess players calculate which side will benefit the most from a possible series of exchanges. As you’ve probably guessed, the improvement of position also matters in this consideration. A player may be willing to lose “material” in an exchange if it advances his position, reveals a brutal suprise attack, or lures his opponent’s pieces out of position.

I’ve noticed that roller derby played at the advanced level features similar exchanges of value, particularly at the end phase of the jam. I return to thinking about the relative number of blockers at the jam start. Considering the importance of getting lead jammer, it’s quite important to have as many blockers in play as possible to help make that happen.

To achieve this, I’ve noticed that in ending the previous jam, the lead jammer will often decide to concede five points to the non-lead, if there is an teammate standing in the box. Think about that for a moment, the mental discipline it must take to [i]not[/i] flap your arms like crazy every time you see the other jammer get into scoring position, but instead wait a couple more seconds, so that the next jam can start from a stronger position, and potentially deny the next opposing jammer not just lead status, but a good deal more than five points!

Unsupported Individuals are Ineffective and Vulnerable, or Cooperation is Powerful

When I first introduced the chess opening phase, I described the pawns advancing like a Spartan phalanx. Assuming most of you saw Frank Miller’s 300, I trust this won’t take much explanation.
The pawns not only are in position to strike out at the opponent’s pieces, but they are also standing in spaces that could be attacked by its own ally. To put it in dramatic terms, this creates a situation of mutually assured destruction for any enemies who would be so foolish as to clash with any single member of the pawn line. And since pawns as individuals are worth next to nothing, it’s the enemy who often has the most to lose.

This is why strong pawn structures are so fucking scary! They take up a lot of space when they’re in good formation, when they control a lot of squares. If you get too close, they unfurl themselves like a deadly trap. Worth far more than the sum of its parts, strong pawn structures are immensely powerful, if often short-lived entities.

On the other hand, an isolated pawn is worth less than nothing. It gets in the way, it invites predation and enemy advancement, and it takes a whole turn to develop into something remotely useful. The best you can hope for is that a greedy opponent gives up the initiative when he goes to gobble it up. Nobody wants isolated pawns – they’re a liability, not an asset.

Lone derby blockers, like isolate chess pieces, are generally not so good at defending themselves. They get bullied by coordinated offensive lines. They’re easy points for any jamming style. Lone blockers can’t hear their pivot’s direction so well.

Tight blockers, on the other hand, can do more together than they could separately. It’s much easier to bully opposing blockers as a pair, and it’s much easier to arrest a jammer as a wall. Tight blockers are smart, because they can communicate easier. Tight blockers are strong, because they can ward off attacks. Tight blockers do better offense by controlling a lot of space. Tight blockers do better defense for all the same reasons.

Freedom is Power, Immobility is Death

While I’m on the subject of controlling space, there is another point to make. The value of a chess piece on the board comes down to how many squares it can reach in one turn. All the low value pieces, your pawns and knights, are weak because they have many limits to their mobility. Meanwhile, the most high value pieces are powerful because they have infinite reach along many possible vectors, hindered only by the placement of other pieces and the boundaries of the chessboard. This suggests that weak pieces are most useful on a crowded chessboard, and the powerful pieces only come into their own when the board is clear of obstructions.

Any chess piece’s value is also dependent on their proximity to the edges of the board. Generally, a piece is less valuable when butted up against the edge, because they control fewer squares than they are capable. They are generally the most powerful near the center.

Now, we all love our agile jammers, but they’re kind of like your queen. She can dart swiftly in every direction, but her mobility is hindered by a large pack. She is also greatly compromised while butted against the track boundary. Because a skater cannot willingly exit the track boundary, blockers can leverage this knowledge by keeping a jammer penned in, close to, but not quite driving them over the track boundary. By messing with their potential to maneuver or gain momentum, you take away the skater’s power. Therefore, if you want your jammer to do what she does best, give her room and don’t let her be rendered immobile on the edges. Let her have the middle of the track, and do your best to make a clearing for her there.

Relative Value

Come to think about it, the jammer is like your queen, [i]and[/i] your king: Powerful, essential, and therefore utterly vulnerable. All your enemies want to neutralize and capture the jammer, because without her, your team cannot score points. Clearly, the jammer is more important than a single blocker. In fact, the jammer, like the king, is incomparable in value. The jammer is not a bargaining piece; it is an integral part of the main objective. Therefore, value your jammer above all others, and dread the opposing jammer with equal intensity. Make it a priority in cultivating your pack awareness to keep a visual on both jammers at all times.

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