Secret Weapons

A few weeks ago my son won a couple of games with the £$%^&! (sorry, I can’t say what it is) opening, something that has become a firm favorite of his. It’s a kind of secret weapon.

There’s a lot to be said for having such weapons, but with certain reservations. On the one hand they can help summon up enthusiasm for games and studying its wrinkles. On the other hand a fixation on one particular line of play can take attention away from general improvement and a broader sweep of ideas.

The legendary Japanese swordsman Miyamoto Musashi had something to say on this matter in his work on military strategy, A Book Of Five Rings (‘Go Rin No Sho’), suggesting familiarity with one’s weaponry but without going to extremes. And this seems to be a very sensible approach:

You should not have a favorite weapon. To become over-familiar with one weapon is as much a fault as not knowing it sufficiently well. You should not copy others, but use weapons which you can handle properly. It is bad for commanders and troopers to have likes and dislikes. These are things you must learn thoroughly.

Musashi also put these ideas and more into practice, for example in his famous duel against Sasaki Kojiro (at least in the version of events depicted in the the epic films on Musashi The Samurai Trilogy). Unfortunately I couldn’t find this scene from the original film, but here it is from a modern remake:

Kojiro not only had a favorite weapon, he actually went as far as to give his long sword the pet name of Monohoshizao (‘The Laundry-Drying Pole’). Musashi on the other hand fought with an oversized wooden sword that was freshly carved from one of his boat’s spare oars.

What are the lessons here, beyond the fact that the ‘favorite weapon’ did not win? First of all that improvising a weapon for a particular occasion can also be an effective strategy and secondly in the choice of a wooden weapon. How so?

Well on the first count chess Grandmasters often prepare for their opponents ‘on the fly’, taking a look at what and how they play and then coming up with something that may cause them problems. And as for Musashi’s choice of a wooden weapon rather than one made of metal, it was simply a question of reliability. In those days metal swords could easily break in the midst of combat because metallurgy was not that advanced.

Musashi seems like a good example to follow, not least because he fought for his life rather than points on a cross table. Reliability in one’s weaponry should come before everything, and an extra dimension can be added by adapting things to the game of particular opponents. Favorite weapons, on the other hand, carry certain inbuilt weaknesses in that they can’t easily be adapted (a ‘favorite weapon’ will usually be highly specialized) and leave their exponents with a somewhat blinkered attitude.

So all in all I’m glad that my son is showing an interest in lines other than his dreaded £$%^&!, and I’ll certainly be encouraging this. Meanwhile there’s much to be gained from his practice with this opening as it teaches a number of key ideas.

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About NigelD

Nigel Davies is an International Chess Grandmaster living in Southport in the UK. The winner of 15 international tournaments he is also a former British U21 and British Open Quickplay Champion and has represented both England and Wales on several occasions. These days he works as a chess teacher, his students including his 11 year old son Sam.