Monday 3 August 2020

Applying the Wisdom of Chess Grandmaster Maurice Ashley to Taijiquan

Chess Grandmaster Maurice Ashley
Chess Grandmaster Maurice Ashley: "Keep a beginner's mind and look for the ever-more subtle details

The term “Taijiquan” can be broken down into two components: Taiji – is a philosophy drawn from the Yijing, China’s ancient “Book of Changes”. This text has heavily influenced Chinese thought for several thousand years. At heart it uses the idea of the relationship between the two poles or yin and yang to explain the way in which order and balance can be maintained within a constantly changing universe. Quan – can be translated to mean martial art or boxing system. Put together the term Taijiquan refers to a martial art that seeks balance as its core principle. What does this mean in practice?
 • On a physical level it means the coordination of every aspect - left/right sides, upper/lower body, breathing/movement etc. 

 • Energetically it seeks a state where the lower body has the sensation of being heavy and stable, the upper body is light and agile, the dantian is full and the whole body has the feeling of expanding outwards. 

 • Mentally it seeks a state of calmness, stillness and awareness. Looking inwards we pay attention to the position and sensation of the body. At the same time the eyes look outward so we are also aware of our environment. 

Philosophically we can say that training Taijiquan and working to maintain balance in all these aspects is akin to practicing a small “dao” (way). That is a kind of micro approach where we come to understand the wider principles of the universe through the study of some particular art. In the East many disciplines have been studied in this way – painting and calligraphy, the tea ceremony, swordsmanship etc. The other day I was listening to an interview with Maurice Ashley, the first African-American chess grandmaster on the Tim Ferriss podcast. His description of the way he was able to raise his level of performance through the wider integration of martial arts principles was fascinating. 

Ashley credited his introduction to Aikido and to the philosophy of the soft or internal martial arts with raising his game to the heights necessary to become a chess grandmaster. Not your stereotypical geekish chess player, he was raised in the tough Brownsville district of Brooklyn, New York where, he jokes, it was so rough Mike Tyson had to leave. It’s obvious looking at him that Ashley is a physically powerful individual. Top that with the fact that his brother was a kickboxing champion and his sister a boxing champion, so it’s easy to believe him when he says he was brought up in a highly competitive environment. 

Speaking of his approach to chess in his younger days, “I would say like I’m from Brooklyn. We had a school of chess that said you attack, that’s how you go. My friend Ronnie Sims used to say “ever forward, never backward.” He’s not backing up. When he’s coming after you you’re supposed to die! But you did that against the best players and somehow they would sidestep your attacks and bring their pieces inside the gaps that you left behind. And that’s exactly what Aikido and the soft martial arts are about – it’s finding the gaps and letting you [the opponent] get as much of your attack as you want off, but just getting off centre enough that you miss or you barely hit. But then the return coming at you is going to come with tremendous force… And when I was able to physicalise that, get it into my body and internalise it, and then transfer that into mental mapping onto the chess board my game went to a complete different level – and that really is what took me to becoming a grandmaster as far as I’m concerned. Because, being able to do that meant that you had to stand in the middle of the energy, the tornado coming at you, and just say “No, I’m fine, everything is okay. This attack is not going to work.” It was a whole different way of thinking that I hadn’t studied before and because of that I was able to change the way I played and improve as a player.”

Among the points highlighted by Ashley that have clear parallels within Taijiquan training were the need to: 

• “…centre yourself to recognise possible openings in an opponent’s position because they were too aggressive” – that is putting yourself in a position where you are able to capitalise when an opponent over-extends. 

• “…maintain balance and look for the soft point in an opponent’s attack” – in line with Taijiquan’s maxim to always attack the weak place and correspondingly never attack the strong place. 

• “Understand the primacy of controlling the centre, while at the same time focusing on your opponent” – this same idea is central to Taijiquan’s idea of “listening” to an opponent’s movements from a position of balance. 

• “Keep a beginner’s mind and look for the ever-more subtle details” –Yang Taijiquan master Yang Banhou wrote of the need to develop an ever-greater ability to discern the actions and intentions of an opponent: “When in your fighting skill you have obtained the sense of a foot, an inch, a tenth of an inch, and the width of a hair, you can then estimate the opponent.”

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