Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Mobile Infantry

I’m a little ashamed to say that one of my favorite movies is ”Starship Troopers”. A hierarchical insect-like alien society starts an intergalactic war with Earth. In order to fight more effectively, humans transform their society into a more fascist and insect-like one where the sacrifice of the individual for the common good becomes paramount. The human army has the traditional division between the foot-oriented Mobile Infantry(M.I.) and the flight-oriented Fleet. M.I. serves the usual cannon fodder role, and the plot surrounds their misfortunes. At one point, Johnny Rico says, “M.I. does the dying. Fleet just does the flying.” I liked the campy movie a lot better than Robert Heinlein’s book. The straight-to-DVD sequel royally sucked. Don’t go there.

In honor of the Mobile Infantry, here are four pawn endings: one simple, two moderately complex, and one highly complex.

Starship Troopers starts off aptly with a football game, an abstraction of war. Johnny Rico and quarterback Dizzy Flores successfully employ a play named “Flip-six-three-hole” and Johnny scores a touchdown. The first ending is a fairly common ending cited in all kinds of endgame books. Specifically, I will refer to GM-RAM #22 which I have flipped horizontally so that the six pawns are on the queenside like the other three problems. The GM-RAM problems are given without annotations and without even mention of which side is to move, sometimes giving double the content in lessons.

We’ll start with White to move. White wins by sacrificing two pawns in order to make a hole for one of the outside pawns, a or c, depending on how Black makes the first capture. 1.b6! axb6 2.c6! cxb6 3.a6 and the white pawn scores a touchdown early enough to mop up the three black pawns. Similarly, 1.b6! cxb6 2.a6! bxa6 3.c6 and the white pawn queens. In analyzing this position, it’s important to know that the method works because of the position of the Black King on h4. This king is out of the square of all of the white pawns on the queenside, especially the c-pawn. If the king were anywhere between f5 and f8 inclusive, or to the left of those squares, the second variation would fail for White after 3. c6 Ke6.

If Black is on move in the diagram, he stops all nonsense by playing b6 himself. This endgame has never been practical for me to know as I’ve never had such an advanced, well-regimented trio of pawns against a similar opponent pawn line. But the kernel of the idea presented itself in two pawn endings I have studied and only now began to link back to this elementary example.

In boot camp, Johnny and Dizzy adapt the “Flip-six-three-hole” stratagem during a capture-the-flag military exercise and win again. Diagram 2 is a position that only arose in a side line of my analysis of a recent game.

The analysis goes like this. Material is equal. White has the advantage of a better king position. Black’s King can move back and forth between e7 and f7 while keeping White’s King back with the help of the pawn control on g6 and d6. This means that opposition doesn’t come into play yet. The White King can capture any Black pawn that comes to the rank a5-h5 and isn’t protected by another pawn. Therefore Black needs to hold his pawns back. When the pawn fronts come into contact, both sides may begin to run out of moves, leading to opposition/zugzwang. When that happens, White would like to have a route into Black’s kingside or queenside. If White can somehow force Black to advance c7-c6, then the route e5-d6-c7 would become available and b7 would become the second weakness to the h7 pawn. The solution is to try to advance a pawn to b6. At one point White will weaken his queenside pawn structure to do this.

1.b4 Ke7 2.a4 Kf7 3.c5 Ke7 4.a5!! (4.b5 slow buildup fails 4...axb5 5.axb5 Kf7 6.b6 cxb6 7.cxb6 Ke7 8.h4 Kd7! and Black can tie in the queening race.) 4...Kf7 (4...c6 gives White his second pathway. ; 4...Kd7 allows 5.Kf6 and White wins the queening race.) 5.h4 White’s opposition guarantees that he can capture h7 or b7. 5.b5!! axb5 (5...Ke7 6.c6! (6.b6 also wins) 6…bxc6 7.bxa6 +-) 6.c6! bxc6 7.a6.

What astounded me about this endgame was that I never knew that starting with mobile pawns and moving them into the formation a5-b4-c5 would be a good plan until I saw it in this particular game. The b5 hole, especially with Black having played a6, looks like a bad weakness to allow, but rules change when your pawns and king are more advanced. The further fact that c7-c6 stops the pawn breakthrough, but allows the king breakthrough is what struck me as beautiful about this endgame.

In the middle of “Starship Troopers”, Johnny in an act of brave improvisation, jumps on the back of a gigantic powerbug, shoots a hole in its carapace and polishes off the bug with some grenades. He gets covered in bug guts, but it’s all taken in stride for the hero. I tried constructing an endgame study with the queenside pawns as they are after 4.a5, taking away the h-pawns, and positioning the kings as they are in the first pawn endgame, but the outcome and the lesson I learned were surprising.
After 1.b5, Black cannot capture as seen above, but he also cannot sit still because White can break through on the next move with c6. Like in the first example, Black precludes the threat by playing it himself with 1...c6!!. Any other move loses. Now, without the pawn breakthrough, it looks as though White is doomed, since Black’s king is more advanced and can move laterally to pick up the a-pawn and c-pawns. But White has surprising drawing resources after 2.b6!! Kg4 3.Kg2 Kf4 4.Kf2 Ke4 5.Kg3! Kd5 6.Kf4! Kxc5 7.Ke5! Kb5 8.Kd6! c5 9.Kc7! c4 10.Kxb7 c3 11.Ka7 c2 12.b7 c1Q 13.b8Q+ Kxa5 14.Qb6+ Ka4 15.Qxa6=. So the caption for the above diagram should be White to move and draw, but 1.b5 is not the only path to a draw. All the moves annotated with exclams above are only moves, but 1.b5 is not one of them. Apparently 1.Kg2 and even 1.Kg1 draw.

At the end of “Starship Troopers”, Johnny finds himself deep in enemy territory. The bugs have shown their hand in that a large brain bug, like the king of the insect society, shows up to interrogate the humans by sucking up their brains. Johnny appeals to the brain bug’s sense of self-preservation by negotiating a temporary cessation in hostilities using a hand-held nuclear bomb. The brain bug retreats. The last example is even more complicated, but it builds on the sacrificial ideas. GM-RAM #23 is an ending between Artur Yusupov – Sergey Ionov, Podolsk 1977. This may have been some sort of training game as I can’t locate it in my Big Database 2003. I’m not even sure how I found the names Yusupov and Ionov.

Despite the pawns being equal in number, White has three resources in the structure of the queenside pawns. First, the a-pawn has two reserve tempi. Second, White's pawns are more advanced, meaning they can queen faster. Third and most extraordinary, by sacrificing in rapid succession the c, a, and b pawns, the d-pawn can queen. Black himself cannot touch the queenside pawns because c6 allows White to capture twice and queen a pawn two moves later. But first, White maneuvers Black’s King to the corner and then blows up the queenside at the right moment. 1.Kf4! Ke7 (1...g6 2.h6! g5+ 3.Kf3!! ( 3.Ke3 also wins. 3...Kg6 4.a4 Kxh6 5.c5!! dxc5 6.a5! bxa5 7.b6! cxb6 8.d6!; 3.Kg4? Kg6 4.a4! Kxh6! 5.c5! bxc5 6.a5! c4! 7.a6! bxa6! 8.bxa6! c3! 9.a7! c2! 10.a8Q! c1Q!=) 3...Kg6 4.a4! Kxh6 5.c5!! ( 5.a5? bxa5 6.c5 b6!-+) 5...dxc5 6.a5! bxa5 7.b6! cxb6 8.d6!] 2.Kg5 Kf7 3.Kf5 Kf8 4.Kg6 Kg8 5.a3!! White has to time his pawn advances carefully so that Black's King is on g8 at the appropriate time. 5...Kf8 6.a4! Kg8 7.c5!! Now! (7.a5? bxa5 8.c5 b6!-+) 7...dxc5 8.a5! bxa5 9.b6! cxb6 10.d6! Kf8 11.d7! Ke7 12.Kxg7 a4. It looks as if Black might queen with check, at least tying the race, but looks can be deceiving. (12...b5 13.h6 Kxd7 14.h7 Kc6 15.h8Q b4 16.Qc8+ Kb6 17.Kf6+-; 12...Kxd7 13.h6 Kc7 14.h7 Kb8 15.h8Q+ Ka7 16.Kf7 mate in 14) 13.h6 a3 14.h7 a2 15.d8Q+! Kxd8 16.h8Q+ Kd7 17.Qa8 +-. I know it’s extremely hard to follow variations 35 ply deep from a diagram. To a large degree GM-RAM is about self-help. I was tempted to put up diagrams to help spoonfeed the lazy, but then I would be coddling. I guess that makes me a #32.Blog Luddite.

Civics Teacher/Lieutenant Jean Rasczak: “Figuring things out for yourself is practically the only freedom anyone really has nowadays. Use that freedom.”

Career Sergeant Zim: “Anytime you think I'm being too rough, anytime you think I'm being too tough, anytime you miss-your-mommy, QUIT! You sign your 1248, you get your gear, and you take a stroll down washout lane. Do you get me?”


Wahrheit said...

Very instructive pawn endings--thanks for posting them.

Now, let's move on to the movie:

Dude, you should be more than "a little ashamed," you should be wearing sackcloth and ashes for a freaking year for writing that you "liked the campy movie a lot better than Robert Heinlein's book" (emphasis added).

If I may calmly and succinctly sum up the situation: Some piece of Eurotrash director took a work of serious ideas (agree with them or not) and deliberately twisted and distorted them in order to trash the very concepts that the original work embodied, THEN was allowed to use the original title and draw people to the theater in the belief they were seeing a movie that was actually "based on" the book.

Let's review.

In order to fight more effectively, humans transform their society into a more fascist and insect-like one where the sacrifice of the individual for the common good becomes paramount.

No. In the book, existing institutions (limited franchise, generally libertarian society, all-volunteer military) must meet the challenge of, as you say, "A hierarchical insect-like alien society." It is individual M.I. in powered exoskeletons, which turn each soldier into the equivalent of a regiment or so, that have to get down and dirty with the Bugs--they're only foot-oriented cannon fodder in the excreable excuse for a movie, running around in fatigues with M-16s in a society that supposedly has interstellar travel.

The overall theme of the book, one that Heinlein explored in a number of works, was the fight of an individualist society against a hive society, and how the flexibility and "distributed intelligence" of the individualists wins in the long run.

The overall theme of the movie was how Amerikans are a fascist, violent bunch of yahoos. Or how awful and just plain mean, but especially stupid those poor deluded tools who volunteer to be cannon fodder are. Or something. As you say, it was camp, and in the end it just seemed to embody the whole idea that as evil as those militarists are, postmodern intellectuals don't take anything too seriously, you know, cuz all we are is dust in the wind and soon enough we'll all be wormfood.

Hey, opinions on movies, books and works of art come in all flavors--thanks for the opportunity to express mine, something I've felt like doing ever since I walked out of the theater after paying my hard-earned cash to be defrauded and have my intelligence insulted by Paul Verhoeven.

Soapstone said...

Wahrheit – That was an unexpectedly poignant response.

I think what bugged (pun intended) me about the book was that it was rather conflict free. I know science fiction is fiction, but war without conflict or any plot without conflict is frankly rather boring. It was rather hard to get past my antiquated concept that war is hell to embrace Heinlein’s utopian vision of futuristic war as synchronized swimming. I reiterate my complaint about foolish villains. If the antagonist puts up not much more resistance than a real 20th century ant colony versus the MI, then it’s not much fun to read. In the context of a nearly conflict-free conflict, the most tension I felt was when the protagonist had to decide to obey orders or be a rebellious hero which raises the clichéd oxymoron of military intelligence. Within the framework of blind obedience to orders and the clearly delineated punishments for failing to do so, can there really be individualism? I thought that Heinlein’s picking and choosing of the virtues of both to match the lukewarm urgencies of the situation were awfully convenient.

The movie taught me that I love some degree of camp. It’s unfortunate that you experienced bait-and-switch based on your respect for and prior reading of the book. I read the book after the movie. I would offer you $8.50 if you could feel a little less ripped off by Verhoeven, but I can’t give you back the two hours of your life or take back the insult. You’ll be happy to know that your reaction to Starship Troopers is similar to my reaction to Starship Troopers 2, so my glee did not go unpunished.

Wahrheit said...

I'm very pleased to be poignant!

Your criticisms of the book are fair enough. It was sure a lot of fun to slice, dice and cube up the movie for me. I felt great for the rest of the day! And nothing personal in any disagreement about works of art, of course. Your chess/movie linkups are a fun idea. Another movie that really steamed me was the 70s version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers for some of the same reasons; if you're going to use someone's title you don't get to trash their story. At least not in my world.

Soapstone said...

Wahrheit - I'm glad you found an outlet to get some small measure of revenge on Verhoeven's insult. Of course, no offense taken, since there was nothing personal in your criticisms. I'll even help you by pointing out the stupidest, cringe-eliciting line of the movie. Dizzy, spitting up blood, says with her dying breath, "It's OK, because I got to have you" and then dies in Johnny's arms. I understand the writers are after subtle parody, but perhaps a line like "At least we'll always have Planet P" might have worked.

Wahrheit said...

perhaps a line like "At least we'll always have Planet P" might have worked.

(snrothghgh,caughcaugh) That was Brilliant!LOLx2.

Or, at the end, Zim and the Brain Bug could have walked into the sunset and Zim could say, "Buggy, this looks like the beginning of a beautiful frienship."

Soapstone said...

Wahrheit - LOL. I don't think I can work this into a chess game, but since I'm in a confessional mood, another campy 1-star sci-fi movie I really like is "The Fifth Element" and I don't think it's just because of orange-haired Milla Jovovich as the hot supreme being messiah. The whole contruct of Bruce Willis as the washout ex-paramilitary and Gary Oldman as the evil technocrat are just good fun. Surely you don't have a vendetta against that one, too. I don't even know if there was a book.