When you find that you are becoming respected and honoured, that’s the time to leave’
One Indian teacher, echoing his whole tradition, used to say: ‘When you find that you are becoming respected and honoured, that’s the time to leave’. Echoing this view, the Chinese tell an account of the Taoist master who has a very promising pupil who finally attains enlightenment. The enlightened pupil becomes a teacher, and a very famous one: often on the veranda outside the entrance to his house there are many shoes to be seen deposited by pupils. One day his own old teacher happens ‑to pass that way and he sees all the shoes. He waits, and when they have all gone he goes in to visit his pupil. He tells him: ‘Get away at once; don’t hang about here a moment longer.’ Well, this is one tradition; it may not be the same in all traditions but it is worth remembering. Do what you are to do, and then go ‑ don’t hang about.
A chess champion in this part of the world isn’t regarded as a particularly remarkable human being, but thought of only as extremely good at chess. But in the Far East the training tries to cultivate a sort of inner balance, courage, and inspiration. Some famous masters have written best sellers on this inner training. It is not just working out chess combinations. In Japan I was permitted to go in and watch one champion, Kimura, playing in a big tournament. They don’t play championships in public, but play in a private room; however it is recorded on a huge board in a neighbouring hall where the public can see it and ask questions of a commentator master. They think it is ridiculous to have, as we do, hundreds of people watching two men playing chess. Is there any game with less visible action to watch than chess?
During the tournament that I sat watching there was only one move that Kimura could make. But he didn’t make it, he just sat there. I thought, ‘has he fallen asleep?’ He was playing against a much younger man who had a brilliant future before him. Kimura had only one possible move. His opponent was fanning himself, drinking tea, going to the toilet, coming back and settling himself carefully on the cushion, and fidgeting generally. After about ten minutes Kimura made this move which he had to make. His opponent responded in a flash. Then Kimura entranced again … and he won. He won, because in his impatience to move the game on, the young man made a blunder.
Afterwards I met Kimura to talk to, and to my astonishment he wasn’t like that at all, he was a fast‑talking wise‑cracking Tokyo cockney. I said to him: ‘How is it that your chess personality is so different from your ordinary personality?’ He said:
When I was young, I played many games against an old master who did what you saw me doing. Although sometimes there was only one move to make, he didn’t make it, but he would just sit there. I used to get so impatient and felt ‑’ oh ‑ anything to speed things up. So as he played slower and slower, I was making moves quicker and quicker. I would reply instantly and in my impatience I would make a blunder. I realized, that although I was better than he was, I was always going to lose to him.
Many of us can recognize this problem in some form in our own lives. In the West, when chess masters are impatient (and some of them are) an they are told is to sit on their hands so as not to make a quick impulsive move. But this is just a make‑shift solution; Kimura found something quite different. He said:
I realized I would always lose so next day I took out a chess board, an empty chess board and put it in front of me, and sat in front of it for an hour without moving. I did this for a few days, and then I sat in front of it for two hours without moving: no pieces on it. I just sat there. For a good time I was just seething inwardly, watching the clock. But suddenly in the second week I felt a sort of calm. Now I can sit here; and now I can out‑sit any of them.
I watched Oyama, a later champion, in one of his big games. He had Black which meant that he had the opening move. In our chess we’ve always decided what our opening move is going to be and we make it immediately because there is a time limit. But when the time keeper said ‘begin’ Oyama simply sat, and he sat for what seemed like ten minutes, and then he played. I asked him afterwards, ‘Why do you sit before there are any moves made at all?’ He told me:
When you go to play chess or anything else you have an idea of how you are going to win. When I sit there I give that up entirely ‑ how I’m going to win. I give up those thoughts and I sit there without thoughts and hopes and fears. And then I begin to feel what he is feeling and thinking. There’s a current across the board, and if I have cleared my mind of my personal ideas of attack and how I’m going to attack and defend, then I begin to feel how he is: whether he’s nervous, whether he’s confident, whether he’s energetic that day, whether he’s dull that day; this I can begin to feel and then I can adapt my game.
Another thing he said was: ‘One of the difficult things is to win a “won” game.’ In shogi and chess and at many times in life you get into a position where you’ve got such a big advantage that you can definitely win, so why should this be difficult? Shogi or chess or any other such endeavour often leads up to a crisis whereby one side turns out to have the advantage; at which point it’s a question of driving home that advantage. Yet once you realize you’ve won the game you are no longer that same person putting in all the effort to win, instead complacency sets in as you prematurely assume the robes of honour or place the laurels of victory on your head: your efforts are impeded and your judgements affected. Because you are in a position of superiority, complete effort is no longer required ‑ which tends to lower or impede ‘What could be achieved; it is difficult to forget the coming victory and think with force, judgement and clear‑sightedness: the coming victory in which we crown ourselves hampers our movement.
© Trevor Leggett