19 November 2011

The Kung Fu of Chess

Kung Fu literally translated from the Chinese means "energy-time" and in fact is best translated as "skill", since it refers to any capability that requires time and effort to master.  Outside of China, Kung Fu is commonly used to refer only to Chinese martial arts (of which there are in fact many disciplines).  But playing an instrument is also kung fu.  Dance is kung fu.  Chess is Kung Fu.

Examining chess through the prism of Kung Fu lets us apply its time-tested training philosophies to our own mental martial art.  The concept of martial morality (wude in Chinese) is fundamental to Kung Fu training and performance.  While the popular image of Kung Fu is largely limited to acrobatic displays of physical power, the internal aspect of the art is at least as important, even more so for those disciplines such as Taijiquan (Tai Chi Chuan) where mental techniques and soft body mechanics are used to defeat hard force.  The classic saying is that "a force of four ounces deflects a thousand pounds" - here is the full quote from the Taijiquan classics, which I believe is relevant to any mental martial art:

"There are many fighting arts. Although they use different forms, for the most part they do not go beyond the strong dominating the weak, and the slow resigning to the swift. The strong defeating the weak and the slow hands ceding to the swift hands are all the results of natural abilities and not of well-trained techniques. From the sentence 'A force of four ounces deflects a thousand pounds' we know that the technique is not accomplished with strength. The spectacle of an old person defeating a group of young people, how can it be due to swiftness?"

The significance for the improving chess player is that natural ability will only take you so far and must be supplemented by technique.  Superior technique, achieved through deep understanding and training, will in turn defeat those who only rely on untrained strength.  Natural ability of course varies greatly, as some players may even attain Expert strength without much study, while many others will at first achieve around Class D strength.  In either case, true mastery can only be achieved through sustained study, practice and understanding of the art/game/skill we call chess.

As chess is a martial art of the mind, I will close by presenting the martial morality of mind. A fuller discussion of the concepts and practice of martial morality can be found here.
  • Will is reflected in a sincere, deep commitment to a goal. You will not turn aside.
  • Endurance, Perseverance, Patience are all necessary to achieve mastery, which is never easy or quick.
  • Courage is required to accept challenges, with the full understanding that you may lose, which in turn is necessary to win.
For other, world-class players' views of the parallels and synergies between chess and martial arts practices, one can refer to IM Josh Waitzkin's Art of Learning or GM Nigel Davies' The Chess Improver.


  1. Hey Chessadmin:

    The Waitzkin book is awesome! I loved that book. I have also found many analogies between the learning of music and the learning of chess...especially improvised music.

    In both chess and improvised music you need to learn vocabulary and basic principles but to PERFORM them both correctly your mind has to be on the immediate situation at hand.

  2. That's another excellent comparison. Among other things, it is another example of an art where there are a wide variety of styles and learning mechanisms possible, but the fundamentals are essentially the same across the board. In all cases, serious commitment and investment of time and energy are required to make real progress and achieve higher levels of performance.


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