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Strategy and Tactics
Strategy and Tactics
by Niall Matthews
Strategy and Tactics

Go by A Davey
To win by strategy is no less the role of a general than to win by arms.

Julius Caesar

That is the way of youth and life in general: that we do not understand the strategy until after the campaign is over.

Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

I have heard that Otake of the Seventh Rank and Wu of the sixth rank once went to a clairvoyant and asked for advice on how to win. The proper method, said the man, was to lose all awareness of self while awaiting an adversary's play... While waiting for a play he would sit quietly with his eyes closed. He explained that he was ridding himself of the desire to win.

Yasunari Kawabata, The Master of Go

What brought them there so far from their home,

Cuchulain that fought night long with the foam,

What says the Clock in the Great Clock Tower?

Niamh that rode on it; lad and lass

That sat so still and played at the chess?

What but heroic wantonness?

W B Yeats, Alternative Song for the Severed Head

Do not think too soon about what your opponent can do; first get clear what you want to do.

Eugene A Znosko-Borovsky, How Not to Play Chess

And we shall play a game of chess,

Pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door.

T S Eliot, The Waste Land

Tactics is knowing what to do when there's something to do. Strategy is knowing what to do when there's nothing to do.

Sawielly Tartakower

Bun Bu Ryo Do - 文武両道. The way of the pen and the way of the sword - follow them both. The warrior class in Japan studied literary arts like calligraphy and poetry. That was Bun. They physically trained in the sword and other martial arts. They studied strategy from classic military treatises and played games of military strategy. That was Bu.

Go is a game of strategy. The aim is to surround and control and win territory. In Japanese go is called igo from the Chinese weiqi. It means surrounding game. In go there is a handicap system that allows players of different levels to play each other. The weaker player receives an advantage of a number of stones. Shogi - Japanese chess - means the general's board game. Shogi has the same roots as western chess so the aim of the game is the capture or symbolic death of the opponent's king. In shogi there is a special rule - the drop rule - that lets you suddenly use a captured piece as your own piece. Like a mercenary changing sides. It adds a random element. There is a handicap system in shogi also. Incidentally in western chess odds games with the stronger player playing without one piece were often played in the nineteenth century but now a stronger player will very rarely lose to a weaker player.

In western chess strategy is the overall plan and tactics are the technical ways of gaining an advantage. Sacrificing material for a positional advantage for example or setting a trap. So a lot of the advice in The Art of War is tactical rather than strategic. For example,

The art of war recognizes nine varieties of ground: (1) Dispersive ground; (2) facile ground; (3) contentious ground; (4) open ground; (5) ground of intersecting highways; (6) serious ground; (7) difficult ground; (8) hemmed-in ground; (9) desperate ground.
Sente or the initiative is a concept in go and in shogi as well as in the martial arts. In shogi the players are called sente black the player who moves first and gote white. In chess too the initiative is very important. If your opponents are forced to react to your moves there is no time for them to develop or execute their own plans.

In modern martial arts like judo, karate and kendo strategy becomes important in matches. I discussed this briefly in my comparison of judo and aikido.

Of course strategy is important in any sport with a concept of winning and losing. For example judoka plan to manouevre their opponents into positions where they can use their best techniques and where the opponents are not able to act or react effectively. In aikido mushin or empty mind is more important than strategy. There is no need to plan a strategy. So aikido is close to the kenjutsu of the samurai. Through our aikido training the body learns to move naturally with no hesitation.

This is one of the paradoxes of budo. If we have a deep awareness of strategy then the strategy itself becomes unimportant.

For practical advice read books on individual martial arts. Like Attacking Judo by Katsuhiko Kashiwazaki. For the underlying concepts read the classics of strategy. Like The Art of War by Sun Tzu. The Unfettered Mind by Takuan Soho. The Sword and the Mind by Yagyu Munenori. On War by Clausewitz. For modern budo The Tao of Jeet Kune Do by Bruce Lee. Strategy in Unarmed Combat by Paul Maslak analyzes strategy positionally.

O Sensei Morihei Ueshiba the founder of aikido played go. That's not a bad model to follow.

And if the climb up the promotion ranks in the martial arts ever seems to take a little too long you can take some comfort in the ranking system of go. When you're a beginner you start from 30 kyu…

White to move

Getting back to strategy and tactics. In the above diagram of the chess board it is white to move. If white can promote the pawn to a queen on g8 it will be a simple win. But black's defending bishop looks powerful and unassailable on a2. So is the game a draw? Or is there a plan for white that will get the win? Write a comment below or send me a message if you think you know.

And I will finish with another quote:

I know not how to defeat others. I only know how to win over myself.

Yagyu Tajima-no-kami Munenori, founder of the Yagyu Shinkage school of swordsmanship


The Art of War by Sun Tzu free e-book from project gutenberg


On War by General Carl von Clausewitz free e-book from project gutenberg


On War by General Carl von Clausewitz online




The Magic of Go, Daily Yomiuri column



photo: one of A Davey's interesting historical photos of Japan


Chess position taken from Chess Choice Challenge by Chris Ward and John Emms, Batsford 1998 | chess diagram by Winboard

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c niall matthews 2012
Niall Matthews lives with his family in Japan. He teaches aikibudo and community self-defence courses and has taught budo for twenty-five years. He was the senior deshi of Kinjo Asoh Sensei, 7 dan Aikikai. He was the exclusive uke of Sadateru Arikawa Sensei, 9 dan Aikikai, at the hombu dojo in Tokyo for thirteen years until Arikawa Sensei's death in 2003. He has trained in several other martial arts to complement his aikido training, including judo (he has 4 dan from the Kodokan in Tokyo), kenjutsu (for about ten years) and karate (for about three years). He originally went to Japan as a staff member of the EU almost thirty years ago. He received 5 dan from Arikawa Sensei in 1995. This 5 dan is the last aikido dan he will receive in his life. His dojo is called Aikibudo Kokkijuku 合気武道克輝塾. Arikawa Sensei personally gave him the character for ki in kokki. It is the same character as teru in Sadateru - not the normal spelling of kokki 克己. It means you make your life shining and clear yourself.
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