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Saturday, March 21, 2009

Computer Chess, Private Heckner, and Thoughts on Self-Defense

Not too long ago, it dawned on me that on most Monday nights, it's just me, the seven-year-old, and the two-year-old 'til about 10 o'clock. That would be the perfect time, I thought, to have a friend over for some iced tea and a couple of games of chess. All I had to do was spruce up the house a bit, and spruce up my chess game, uh, a lot. So I went looking, and found a free computer chess program (NagaSkaki, if you're interested).

I was fully prepared for the program to kick my butt, and it did. In addition, it affected my style of play. I am not a very sophisticated player. I have always just tried to dominate the center of the board and briefly check to see if my move will leave any of my pieces exposed to attack.

The computer almost instantly calculates the move that will do me the most damage. The effect is that the computer goes for the throat with every move. It is a startling effect until you get used to it. I found that I often skipped my second step--checking for potential counterattacks--and consequently made more than my usual number of mindless blunders. The machine's sheer aggressiveness disrupted my normal plans and destroyed my game.


For some reason, I recently found myself thinking about my brief encounter with Private Heckner. When I was in Marine Corps boot camp--24 years ago, more or less--Heckner was platoon guide for another platoon in our series. All I remember about him was that he was big--a full head taller than I am, at least--and that nobody in our platoon liked him, though I couldn't tell you why.

We were learning the basics of bayonet fighting, and had reached the point where we were being pitted against one another in pugil stick matches. I lost my first match. We had been told that the match would stop when one of us landed a "killing blow," and when I landed the "blade" end of my stick squarely in my opponent's chest several times and the match wasn't halted, I dropped my guard and looked at the official, whereupon (of course!) my opponent clocked me. Then the match was stopped, and I said, "Oh. They just want to see recruits beat the snot out of each other."

My next opponent was Private Heckner. I knocked him out very quickly. I struck toward his head with the blade end of my pugil stick. Instead of parrying with one end of his stick, he raised both ends of his stick, which left it horizontal and in front of his face. It did stop my blade end, but left everything below his forehead open.

At the time I went into boot camp, I ranked--I have been using Japanese terms so long, I have forgotten the Korean, I'm afraid--ikkyu in taekwon-do (For those who don't know what that means, my next promotion would have been to first degree black belt). The taekwon-do taught in this area at that time was basically Koreanized Shotokan. If we didn't know how to do anything else, we knew how to generate power by trunk and hip rotation, and that is what I did to Private Heckner; I moved in on him, and as my weight settled and I snapped my hips forward, I hit him with the butt end of my pugil stick. I'm sure that it felt like almost my whole body weight had suddenly arrived under his chin. Witnesses said that I hit him so hard that the blow actually lifted his feet off the ground, and when he hit the ground, he was out cold; I don't know for how long. Probably a minute or less.

This really surprised people. Later, when one of the assistant Drill Instructors who hadn't been there at the time heard the story, his reaction was one of shock. Private Heckner was really so much larger than I was--than most people were--that the idea that I had knocked him out seemed like something out of pulp fiction.


Thinking about these two incidents provoked some thoughts on self-defense. Here they are, for what they're worth.

1) Many times, it's not the technical sophistication of an attack or defense that determines the outcome. It's not that technical sophistication isn't valuable; it is. But many times, the determining factor is surprise or the sheer, confident aggressiveness of an attack or defense.

2) Most of the time, a self-defense situation doesn't involve expertise on the part of your assailant. He might have surprise, or muscle, or size in his favor. He might have composure-rattling aggression on his side. But very often, if those don't work, if you are prepared for them, he is all out of "bullets," so to speak, and very simple, well-executed techniques directed at vulnerable portions of his anatomy can be fight-stoppers. It's not like you're playing chess with the grandmaster. Usually, you're countering simple (often outright bad) techniques, executed aggressively, from a common thug.

3) Despite the negative things I've sometimes said about taekwon-do and certain other forms of modern karate, the reality is that a decent instructor in those systems can teach you to hit darn hard--and if you will take the the trouble to learn the vulnerable points on the human body from one of the many books and videos available, a further reality is that the ability to deliver a big payload to a vulnerable target at high speed just might be all the self-defense you will ever need. That, and the ability to escape from some simple grabs. This is good news for those who live somewhere where the only martial arts instruction available is from a taekwon-do nidan who teaches through the local parks and recreation department. Some training, in some system, even though it might not be what you really dream of, is probably better than no training.

4) It never occurred to me to try kicking Private Heckner. Instead, I instinctively applied an appropriate technique to the available opening. This, to my mind, suggests that concerns that knowing too many techniques might result in being frozen into inaction are overblown. You may not consciously select a technique, but some part of your mind will, with enough training, make an excellent selection for you on the spot.

Just some random thoughts on the subject, worth about what you paid for them.

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