Chess & Tai Chi

Lines of force.


When you study a martial art such as Tai Chi these are terms you are likely to hear. What is interesting is that these terms are also used by grandmasters of chess.

It is a common assumption that if you learn from a master of Tai Chi from a famous lineage you are likely to succeed in mastering Tai Chi. Well, I hate to say it but this assumption is wrong. In many cases learning from a famous master does not always lead to mastery.

Instead, chances are high it will lead to a situation where the student is trapped in the cult-like culture erected by some of these masters to milk their fame. However, for the serious student all is not lost. You can master Tai Chi if you know how to learn it. This is a critical factor because studies into the areas of expertise of a wide range of experts have shown that success in mastering a subject is a function of knowing what to learn, how to learn and putting in correct practice.

In this respect the old adage about 10 years of experience being about 10 years of learning different things versus 10 years of learning the same thing holds water. If you spend enough time talking to some masters you would realize that there is a limit to what they know because after a while they keep repeating the same old, same old. The better masters are those who seem to have so much knowledge you find yourself drowning trying to keep track of everything they are telling you.

This gives rise to two topics of concern – how to master an area of expertise which in our case is Tai Chi and the other is how to ensure we do not end up being a master of 1 year experience X 10 years.

One thing I tell students is that the past masters are not stupid. Just because what we are looking at today seems to fall short it does not mean that what the masters knew fell short. This is because somewhere along the line something got lost.

Let me offer an example of this. Below are three pictures.


The picture in the middle depicts a pole movement that is different from the pictures on the extreme right and extreme left. From looking at the pictures and without additional information we can conclude that the person on the extreme right is demonstrating the same pole movement as the person on the extreme left.

You might be surprised that the person in the middle is also demonstrating the same movement as the other two pictures!


How can that be given that the way the pole is held by the person in the middle is different from that of the other two?

So for the learner if he had learned one or the other position he may not think hard and just keep doing it that way. However, a look at the pole movement following this movement is indicative that the way demonstrated by the person in the middle is more correct.

But how do we verify this? Can we just go with our gut feel and change to this way if we had learned to hold the pole as the other two persons earlier?

Fortunately, the master who created this pole form wrote a book. The drawing of this posture in the book together with the description of how to perform the movement can clarify once and for all which of the two positions is correct.

And the answer is…………


Yes, the person in the middle photo is performing the movement in the same way as that shown in the master’s book. Though, this pole form is not very old we can see how within a generation of being passed down there are already deviations. This is important because if this movement is not done correctly it will affect your control of the position and power generation in the following movement.

The moral here is not to learn a form blindly. Instead, you must learn it with the proper details so that you can understand properly what the form is trying to teach you in terms of techniques, strategies, power, lines of force, changes – in short the Unique Selling Proposition that made this form practical.

In this respect, you might be interested to know that chess grandmasters too learn “forms” in their journey towards mastery. An expert who studies experts found that chess grandmasters study games of past masters. These games are our equivalent of forms and teach mental representations. Thus, whilst it is common for Tai Chi students to think of a form as doing movement this is actually not correct.

As with chess games a Tai Chi form teaches mental representations – this is why students who learn my form get instructions such as a mental punch is coming, albeit in slow motion – this is a mental representation of a line of force. What they do next to respond to this line of power, how to divert it, get into position to issue their power is learned mentally and actualized.

When the student can do it properly then I will show him the changes that are possible. I refer to such a position as a hub from which changes can be effected. This is exactly why a chess grandmaster studies chess “katas” because as noted by a foremost expert in the studies on expertise :-

…the representations also allow the master to zero in on individual pieces and mentally move them around the board to see how such moves would change the patterns. So the master can quickly examine strings of possible moves and countermoves in great detail, looking for the particular move that will offer the best chance of winning. In short, while the mental representations give masters a view of the forest that novices lack, they also allow masters to zero in on the trees when necessary.

From the above passage you can see why it is important to learn a form properly. They are not just for coordination or to know how to do a technique. A form is much more than that. So if you pay cursory attention to learning it and even lesser time to practicing it then do not expect your practice to pay off.

In Tai Chi we have an additional study tool to understand what we are learning in forms – push hands. Our push hands is taught in the manner of playing a game with changes within changes so that we can see the forest rather than be fixated on the trees. Granted, it is not an easy topic and many a student have a hard time grasping it at first but then nothing worthwhile learning is ever easy to learn.



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