“Rat’s head and ox’s neck” (or: don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees)

To help keep my 11 year old from getting bored this summer, I am going to teach him how to play chess. He is very interested (and good at) turn-based, strategy games based on trading cards (Yugi-oh, Magic the Gathering) and I think the transition to chess is a natural one.

To get myself back up to speed in chess, lest I find myself too often embarrassed, I’ve been re-reading Samurai Chess by Michael Gelb and Raymond Keene. As the title of the book suggests, the book presents an Eastern warrior’s approach to chess. (In fact, both author’s are active, relatively high ranking students of Aikido.) A much quoted resource in the book is Miyamoto Musashi‘s classic guide to strategy, The Book of Five Rings.

A recent post over at Knowledge Jolt with Jack discussed the importance of keeping your eye on the big picture and not becoming consumed with any particular task. This is a lesson that can be learned from chess as well, and was described in The Book of Five Rings many, many years ago (as quoted in Samurai Chess:

“Rat’s head and ox’s neck” means that, when we are fighting with the enemy and both he and we have become occupied with small points in an entangled spirit, we must always think of the Way of strategy as being both a rat’s head and an ox’s neck. Whenever we have become preoccupied with small details, we must suddenly change into a large spirit, interchanging large with small.

Yes, it is important to pay attention to details, but it does no good to win the battle if you ultimately lose the war.

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