the pleasures of chess

or: in defence of shobu ippon

i have a memory of playing in a chess competition when i was younger. it is not a complete memory, more a series of images, of boards and tables, and it doesn't extend as far as knowing if i did well, where i was, or how it came to be that i was playing at all. there is surely no mystery to it; i used to play chess a lot when i was younger, including playing in the chess club at school. i have fond memories of learning and playing the game, alongside my sister (who also played in that same competition), and playing against my father and uncle.

chess, as a game, pervades western culture; it is commonly used as a trope in films and stories to indicate the conflict and manoeuvring between two parties, with the hero inevitably (but heroically) announcing 'checkmate' at a suitable point in the denouement. the appeal of chess is that while it is simple to learn the rules and it is easy to understand the concept of trapping the king to win, it is also complex enough that although it is a 'perfect knowledge' game (both players get to know everything) in which luck plays no part, the large number of possible moves at any stage of the game makes it currently impossible to solve.

[aside: 'solve' here has a specific meaning, in that it considers whether the outcome can be predicted with certainty if all players act rationally and in their best interest at all times. connect 4 has been solved (you can win if you go first); tic tac toe has been solved by essentially everyone who plays for long enough (the game is drawn; a win only occurs if one player makes a mistake). this is the central theme of the classic/cult film wargames, where the computer joshua would prefer to play chess instead of 'global thermonuclear war'. this has the odd corollary of suggesting that chess is more complex than global thermonuclear war, since joshua solves the latter at the last moment.]

i don't play chess any more. in the last ten years i've maybe played five games, usually on discovering that a laptop has a chess program or the like, and i've lost easily. ability to play chess is like all skills, without practice they drift away (see precept 11 of the niju kun). but i am happy to let chess slide; at some point i developed a distaste for the game that goes beyond frustration of losing, or an unwillingness to devote enough practice to improving my ability (both of which i happily admit to). i am still fascinated by the game in an intellectual sense (for a good chess film, try the luzhin defence, or for a rabbit-hole of chess opening statistics, try this link), but i choose not play any more, and i wonder if karate has had an influence on that. specifically, the shobu ippon system of scoring karate kumite competitions.

most likely, no

since every true scientist must repeat to themselves the mantra 'correlation is not causation' every morning or have their 'rational thinker' membership revoked, i'm going to say that shobu ippon kumite has probably not caused me to go off playing chess. but the two things may yet be related, and i will elaborate.

the karate club i attended throughout university was big on competition, and we would regularly enter as many as five or six in the year. these were predominantly KUGB events, and were fought using shobu ippon, but we were bound by the university to compete in the 'BUSA' (now BUCS) british universities competition. this was generally an awful event, mainly on account of the poor organisation, but also because it was an open event for different styles that meant your kata performance was often judged by people who didn't know the kata, which left lots of room for questionable decisions. oh, and they didn't fight shobu ippon.

a large amount of competition kumite uses what i will refer to generally as the WKF rules, though there are small variations. the key difference between these rules are that instead of fighting to one point to win, usually through two waza-ari but potentially using a single decisive technique, WKF rules are first fighter to 8 full points clear, or with more points at the end of the match. techniques are scored differentially, with kicks and jodan targets scoring more (eg jodan kick = 3 full points; chudan punch = 1 full point).

the upshot of this, and undoubtedly the point in the first place, is to make fights more 'spectacular', or dare i say it television-friendly. flashier head kicks and throws are rewarded with more points, and so the top fighters inevitably fight this way. and they are extremely good, too! but this will always be the case; the best fighters will always be excellent, whatever the rules are, and they will always maximise their ability to win within those rules. and what we (the audience) get is a fight that contains lots of exciting moments, and the tension of knowing that even a substantial lead can be clawed back. and so we get what we paid for; the rules even go as far as punishing fighters for not attacking, such is the demand to create fights that operate and look a certain way.

in fairness, it is also true that KUGB rules for shobu ippon allow for a half-point deficit to be clawed back, and this certainly happens, but there is a crucial difference in that the match can be won outright at any time, whereas WKF rules require at least three (and usually more) separate scoring techniques before a match can be won. what this leads to in WKF is an attitude of willingness to gamble on attacks, going for the high scoring techniques, because if you lose the encounter you are still in the match. in shobu ippon, you cannot afford to be casual at any time, because if you make a bad attack and you lose the encounter, the match could well be over. there is exactly no room for complacency or casualness.

i am getting back to chess in a minute

it seems to me that if a fighter can beat me in shobu ippon, they will similarly be able to beat me in the WKF rules. in the all-or-nothing circumstance of one point wins, that first strike demonstrates my opponent's superiority over me. after that, what purpose do any more points serve? the answer, i find increasingly, is punishment. a beating for its own sake.

in the case of lethal weapons, one successful strike does literally mean the fight is over. in the case of unarmed combat this does not quite apply, but a successful strike is one that causes damage to the opponent and thus decreases their ability to continue. essentially, each successful strike tips the balance of the fight, making the outcome more assured for the successful striker. the more successful strikes one fighter lands, the more assured their victory. now, competition kumite attempts to limit the damage caused by strikes, but anyone who has fought in competition even for a while knows that even strikes that are 'controlled' within the rules can still cause damage, pain, and can rattle composure. the same principles are at work; if i give you a strong dig to score my first technique, even without causing damage i have increased my chances of scoring a second technique, and the effect is cumulative. it really is all about that first one.

[aside: i'm a researcher, so i went to youtube, searched for 'wkf kumite final', and looked through the first twenty videos. out of twenty, there were three automatic wins due to disqualification, one draw (from a team kumite match), and one video that was not of the whole match. from the remaining fifteen matches, twelve were won by the fighter who scored first. the chance of that happening if there were no link between first score and winning is less than one in twenty. it would be interesting to know if this held more widely.]

it is my contention, therefore, that shobu ippon better simulates the context and consequences of combat, because it places much higher value on the first strike, and thus becomes a more strategic and intelligent battle. significantly, i don't think the outcome of matches would really vary from one rule set to the other. but in shobu ippon, everything can be lost in a single moment, and so the match is about everything that leads up to the first point, everything that is good about karate: reading the opponent, positioning, distancing, and opportunity. the spectacle is the skill in acquiring the strike, not in witnessing the beatdown that commonly follows.


the weakest part of my chess playing was always the endgame. throughout university i was fortunate enough to enjoy playing chess against a friend, simon, who was very much my equal, although our styles varied greatly. i would choose to exchange queens quickly and look for an intricate early mate, whereas simon would happily play out a game of attrition and would always look for a two-rook mate at the back ranks. we won and lost in equal measure, and nothing would frustrate me more than losing an early-won advantage when simon would draw out the game into a stalemate, never giving up and outplaying me past the point i was steadfast he should have already resigned. and if i were a better player i would have never let that happen, i would have continued pressing my initial advantage, taking more of his pieces, punishing him, beating him down. if i were a better player, or if i were happy to play that kind of game.

and mate

shobu ippon is the early mate, the strategic duel. it is elegant. it contains all of the best elements of karate, and does not require more to be done than demonstration of superiority through skill, awareness, speed, and control. gaining that upper hand is the whole match, and is neither leverage nor leave to administer punishment to an outclassed opponent. if you're better than me, i don't need to be repeatedly punched or kicked for you to prove it. that happened at ippon. because karate is not a fight to the death, it is a fight to escape the fight, and i believe that competition is better held to that standard.

- neil jerome, 2015

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