Posted by: B Gourley | July 22, 2008

Strategy at the Speed of Instinct

Strategy is a term defined in many different ways depending upon the interests and perspective of the user. Traditionally, the military use of the word defines planning at a certain level of analysis, and its point of reference is tactics and, in some cases, operations. In other words, strategy from this perspective is a set of plans and high level intermediary goals intended to achieve victory in a war (or some other grandiose level of engagement.) On the other hand, tactics are concerned with battles, or other lesser forms of engagement. (Operations, when the term is used as it was by the Soviet Army, describes a level in between tactics and strategy.) In an academic environment, strategy is defined as a “game” or interaction in which the decision-making of more than one “player” determines the outcomes achieved. This is the game theoretic approach to strategy. Game Theorists distinguish “games of strategy” from “games of skill” in which the optimal outcome is attained by doing an action the best in absolute terms (i.e. one needn’t concern oneself with the opposition’s actions just with doing the action the best one can), and “games of chance” in which probability has a hand. A foot race is a game of skill. One merely needs to be concerned with running as fast as one can, and not with what the opposition is doing (I know track and field athletes will balk at this simplification.) [A fair game of] Roulette is a game of pure chance. In other words, the outcome achieved depends upon a probability distribution. Chess is a game of strategy in that there is no optimal game for one player devoid of knowledge about what the other player is doing.

Combat is a game of strategy carried out at the speed of instinct. Whereas chess, even played against the clock, is a game of thoroughly conscious thought; we know that conscious thought is like the deadweight of a chain and anchor around one’s neck in a fight. The question at hand is how one carries out a game of strategy at the speed of instinct?

I believe that first and foremost this involves developing a good intuition with respect to recognize critical distances for a variety of opponent body types and against a variety of types of weapons. The first layer of strategy then becomes dominating the distance to one’s advantage. The only way do develop this intuition is to train against a range of different opponents and to do so both against unarmed opponents and those with weapons. This must be done until there is no need to think about or consciously gauge distance.

There are a variety of strategies that are embodied in kata (practice techniques) that can be drilled the point of becoming instinctual. One is creating a false impression of an opening. One fools the opponent into attacking in a manner that does not really serve them well by facilitating a belief that one is vulnerable. A second is to repeat the same action a number of times to lure the opponent into an inappropriate anticipatory act. The first time an attack is done, the opponent has no reason to anticipate what might come next, but after the second similar attack (an over-thinking opponent) may begin to think he knows something – for example, that another attack will come next as an opponent would never do the same thing a third time or, conversely, that it will be the same attack. By the time the third attack done in the same manner comes around, the opponent may begin to think he has seen the sum total of one’s bag of tricks, and, at that time, be drawn into wrongly anticipating the next attack. It is important to note that stratagems based on deceit can be too obvious to work. It is true that, with limited reaction times, an opponent may fall for something they wouldn’t if they had had the ability to contemplate the situation more thoroughly, but a skilled opponent will have developed the instincts to avoid falling into glaring traps.

The bottom line seems to be the need to engage in a lot of both kata and randori (free form) training, and to do them both with a high level of awareness and recognition of the importance of the mind. One does what one drills, and so it is important to engrain sound principles into one’s movement. However, it is also important ensure one can apply principles in uncertain circumstance. It may be best to apply these two types of training in a progressively increasing ratio of randori to kata (i.e. starting with little or no randori and steadily increasing the proportion of free form training over one’s training lifetime.)

For the most part, the modern study of strategy, which is embodied in game theory, has little to offer by way of relevant lessons for a martial artist. After all, the domain of game theory is advanced mathematics, and it is supremely cerebral. John Nash, who many of you may know as the crazy guy Russell Crowe played in “A Beautiful Mind” and others may know as the man who extended Von Neumann’s concept of equilibria to non-zero-sum games, once said that [paraphrasing] ‘Game theory is like string theory, a mathematically elegant theory in search of empirical support.’ Also, I think Thomas Schelling, another Nobel Prize-winning Game Theorist who is considered the architect of Mutual Assured Destruction, said that the problem with eloquent mathematical solutions is that if the other player(s) is/are unable or unwilling to do the math, then the result one finds to be optimal may not be realized. However, there are concepts from game theory that are worth contemplation. One of these concepts is that it is often the case that both sides may end up with outcomes that are less than optimal simply because of imperfect information. One classic example of this is the prisoner’s dilemma in which two conspiring suspects could both get off Scott-free if they only had confidence that the other would keep his mouth shut. Because they can’t, they roll over on each other and end up with the worst possible joint outcome. While this may be of little value in combat, it may be of value before combat.

As I have now rambled inexcusably off topic, I will quit here for the day.


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