An analogy would be if I told you to clap your hands when you heard the voice of a certain person. I then put you in a room with thirty people all talking over each other. Every couple of seconds someone new is speaking, but it’s all a cacophony and you can’t imagine being able to make heads or tails of anything. Now, I give you the same task in a totally silent room with only the one particular person in it. Total silence . . . then the person speaks. You would think, “This is so easy, how could anyone possibly fail at this task?” You’d then clap your hands at the right time without any trouble. That is exactly how the expert player sees that 1/60th of a second go by when he has total concentration on the moment and is able to filter out everything but the single relevant clue.
Another example. In Virtua Fighter 3, if Jeffry lands a “major counter” low kick on the opponent (meaning he knocks the opponent out of a move) then he can get a guaranteed throw on them. If the low kick doesn’t major counter, he can’t get a guaranteed throw. When I first asked other players how they know when they can get the throw, they told me, “Just listen for the sound of the major counter. If you hear it, then enter the throw command.” I thought they must be joking at first. It seemed too difficult to cut through all the chaos of a match and hear that one sound. But eventually, when I pressed the button to do the low kick, everything slowed down in anticipation of that one sound. When I heard it, I was so fully ready for it that entering the throw command in time was ridiculously easy.
The first thing to take away is that if you have command over seeing the moments in all sorts of situations that your opponents don’t, then you have a huge advantage. You’ll land your tricks on them all day, and you’ll start to believe that your tricks are good. When you finally meet an opponent who has the same Presence of Mind as you, he will think to himself “Who is this guy kidding with his obvious tricks?” You will feel a little silly, and your tricks might no longer work.
But there is a level of understanding even above that one. Once you meet the expert, can you no longer do your “Presence of Mind tricks?” I used to think that you basically couldn’t, and that you had to develop entirely different tactics. But then I noticed one player in particular who is unquestionably one of the best there is, and he often does things that are strictly terrible ideas in a textbook analysis. (His name is Alex Valle, and I’ll mention him again later.) He does sequence A when we all know that sequence B is strictly better. He does trick X when we all know that everyone decent can see trick X coming every time you do it, so it’s a waste of time to do it. But he does it, he hits with it, and he wins. Why?
Valle does not accept the notion that his opponent has a fixed, unchanging ability to see the moments. Valle does everything he can to fluster and confuse the opponent, reducing the opponent’s ability to see the moments. If something really weird happens in a game, the player can be caught in a moment of “what the hell was that?” and he’s momentarily blind to the passing moments. During this time, he might get hit by something he’d ordinarily see every time. Valle makes you lose focus and lose that sense of time slowing down.
It’s interesting to see how effective abandoning the textbook play really is for Valle. Not only is he able to sneak in things that should never work once the enemy is “blinded to the moments,” but in order to blind them in the first place, he has to do weird stuff that confuses and hypnotizes the enemy. If you analyzed his choices on paper, you would say “this move is unsafe, this other move does nothing, this sequence is totally inefficient compared to this other one that always does more damage.” His choices are often seemingly illogical and suboptimal, but he is the master and I am the student, not the other way around. When you are facing high level opponents who are more skilled at seeing the moments than anyone you have ever faced, it becomes that much more important to break out of the textbook mold and throw some figurative sand in their eyes. If you can blind them to the moments they would normally see, you then have access to the large repertoire of intermediate moves and tactics that you thought you couldn’t use on the experts.
Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.
—Sun Tzu, The Art of War