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1) Deception

All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when far away, we must make him believe we are near. Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him. If he is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him. If your opponent is of choleric temper, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that way he may grow arrogant. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, separate them. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.
—Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Our actions—both inside and outside the game—give our opponents information. We must recognize what information we are giving away, and replace as much of it as possible with false information. Outside the game, a player’s mannerisms or “tells” can give him away when he’s bluffing in a game with hidden information such as poker. Before the game even starts, your body language can tell your opponent if you expect to win or not. If he senses that you are intimidated, he knows to play aggressively, forcing you to play reactively.

Poker players have a variety of ways of masking their tells. The classic image of the poker player is the stoic, blank-faced fellow. Never show emotion and there is nothing to read. For most people, this is far too difficult to pull off. I’ve even seen a pro poker player play with his shirt pulled up over his nose, his hat pulled down to his eyebrows, and sunglasses over his eyes! You can’t read a man you can’t see! Then there’s the other side of the spectrum: the life of the party. If you’re always animated and excited, there’s so much to read that it’s hard for other players to catch the signals in your noise.

While this mostly applies during a game, it certainly has its uses before a game, too. You might intimidate a player before the game, or falsely project your own insecurities, or let him talk too much and reveal something he shouldn’t about his play. I have never really done much of this, as I wonder how much it’s all worth in the end versus just being a genuine and friendly person to your opponents. You’ll have plenty of time to deceive them during the game. Nevertheless, if you are “playing to hustle,” I’m sure these are valuable techniques.

There is much more opportunity to use “outside of the game” deception in games of hidden information that are played face-to-face. Let’s look at two examples from the card game Magic: The Gathering that combine deception from both inside and outside the game: (1) the possible Counterspell, and (2) the apparently suicidal “alpha strike.”

The Possible Counterspell

“Counterspell” is an important card in Magic that is able to cancel out virtually any card the opponent would play, after he reveals what his card is but before he gets to use it. This is a one-shot effect, though; if you play your Counterspell, you’ll need to draw another copy of the card from your deck before you can do it again, and you are only allowed four copies (though there are other cards with similar effects).

You must seem to have a hand full of Counterspells when you have none, and you must seem to have none when you have many. The opponent does not know for sure if you have this card in your hand (that’s hidden information only you know), but you can use techniques inside and outside of the game to shape his beliefs. When he plays a card, you can use your acting skills to ponder whether you should use that (nonexistent) Counterspell in your hand—then finally decide not to. Of course, you’ll have to keep enough of your resources available that you could feasibly play the Counterspell because all players know the state of your resources (your “money” in the game). It’s called keeping “two islands untapped,” since it takes two Island cards to play a Counterspell.

Inside the game, you can make moves such as not spending your resources on things you obviously could spend them on, representing that you need those Islands to pay for your (again, nonexistent) Counterspell. Outside the game, you can fiddle with those Island cards on the table to bring attention to them. You can arrange them in a way that makes sure everyone knows they are there, or more deviously, pretend not to care about them so the opponent thinks you are luring them into a trap. You can talk to the opponent about his options, verbally jabbing him about the humiliation he might face in this or that situation should he guess wrong. You can go to great, Academy Award-winning lengths to act like you have (or do not have!) that Counterspell. Also note that you could use the question of whether you have the Counterspell as misdirection for some other, far more important aspect of the game at hand.

All of this puts the opponent in a tough situation. If he knows you are faking, he should play his strongest threats right away while he has the chance. If he believes you have the counter, he should probably play his threats in the reverse order—weakest to strongest—forcing you to counter his weaker threats, but leaving you with no answers to his stronger threats later. If he guesses wrong, then he will either lose his strongest threat (in the case where he thought you had no counter but you really did) or play meekly and fearfully, not playing powerful cards that could give him the win, giving you more time to actually draw a real Counterspell later.

The Apparently Suicidal Alpha Strike

In Magic: The Gathering, “alpha strike” is a slang term meaning “attack with all your creatures.” When you do this, you will not be able to use any of your creatures to block the opponent’s attack on the next turn. Normally, you do an alpha strike in a situation where the amount of damage all of your creatures would deal will win the game immediately, so there is no next turn where the opponent can attack you back.

Let’s imagine a situation where both you and your opponent have a bunch of creatures out, but that he has more than you. You see that if your opponent just attacks with all his creatures next turn (his alpha strike), then you’ll only be able to block some of them, and the rest will make it through, dealing enough damage to win the game. That’s no good!

You consider doing your own alpha strike this turn. Your opponent will be able to decide whether he should block your creatures with his or not. You see that if your opponent doesn’t block your creatures, you still won’t deal enough damage to win. Furthermore, when he alpha strikes you next turn, you’ll have no creatures left to block (creatures aren’t allowed to block right after they attack). This possibility leaves you much worse off than if you just did nothing at all.

Another possibility is that your opponent might block some of your creatures. If he does that, the creatures will fight each other. It looks like your opponent would lose so many creatures in this fight that he wouldn’t have enough left to alpha strike you for the win next turn. It sure would be nice if your opponent chose this response, but this entire situation is clear to him as well, so he would have to be a fool to block your creatures.

Or would he? Suppose you actually do launch your apparently suicidal alpha strike. Since your opponent will of course know not to block, it looks like your move puts you in an even worse predicament than you were already in. Your move appears to be a horrible, game-losing move—unless you have some trick up your sleeve. So naturally, the opponent will know you have a trick. Remember this is a game with hidden information and you have several cards in your hand unknown to the opponent.

What trick might you have? There are many, but most straightforwardly, you might have a way to increase the amount of damage one or more of your creatures deals so that your alpha strike does deal enough damage to win. So your opponent knows you have something like this going on. He can’t sit idly by and let your obvious trick beat him. What can he do? He can use his creatures to block your creatures and lose several of them in the process. He won’t be able to defeat you next turn with his alpha strike anymore, but at least he won’t lose the game to your silly parlor trick. Your move is so bad that it signals to him you must be up to something.

Tu Mu relates a stratagem of Chu-ko Liang, who in 149 BC, when occupying Yang-p’ing and about to be attacked by Ssu-ma I, suddenly struck his colors, stopped the beating of the drums, and flung open the city gates, showing only a few men engaged in sweeping and sprinkling the ground. This unexpected proceeding had the intended effect; for Ssu-ma I, suspecting an ambush, actually drew off his army and retreated.
—Editorial note by Lionel Giles, The Art of War

So the bluff is that you have no trick at all. Inside the game, you’ve made a move that implies you have a trick, and outside the game you are surely acting up a storm about how eager you are to play your surprise card. In reality what you’ve done is trick your opponent into blocking and losing some of his creatures. By all sensible accounts, he should have won next turn, but now you’ve bought some more time to get back into the game.

Concealing Position

Don’t let the opponent know where you actually are or where exactly you are trying to be. If he does not know these things, he will not be able to attack you easily, and he will not know from where your attacks will come.

Real-time strategy games such as StarCraft and Warcraft have a feature called the “fog of war” which prevents the opponent from seeing the positions of your units unless his units are nearby. If you need to establish a new base to harvest more resources, for heaven’s sake don’t let the opponent know that. You must keep everything about that base secret, including when and where you build it, and even whether you build it at all. In some cases, it’s even feasible to set up a fake expansion base as a misdirection away from your real expansion base. Start building the fake base in a place you know the opponent will find it, and hopefully he’ll think he stopped your expansion plans. This can give the real base time to set up defenses, it can waste the opponent’s time, and it gives you information. His attack on your decoy tells you the position and composition of many of his units, but he still knows nothing about what you’re really up to. Building an entire fake expansion base is a little extreme, though, and more often you’ll focus on distracting the enemy with unimportant hit-and-run attacks designed to focus his attention on his own base, rather than on yours.

Even in a game of complete information such as a fighting game, you can conceal your current and intended positions. In these games, there is usually a “sweet spot” range, a range where the moves of your character work the best but the moves of the opponent are ineffective. For example, in all five versions of Street Fighter 2, when Ken and Ryu fight, there is a sweet spot of positioning just beyond the reach of the opponent’s low roundhouse sweep. If Ryu stands at this distance without blocking (this makes him smaller than if he were crouching), Ken’s low roundhouse sweep will miss him. If Ken’s sweep misses, Ryu can easily sweep Ken in retaliation or even throw him. Also from this distance, Ryu can easily block Ken’s projectile on reaction, and he can easily counter Ken’s jump attack with a dragon punch. In short, a wide variety of Ken’s most common moves are not effective at this very specific range. The exact location of this sweet spot, of course, varies by character matchup and by game.

The best players are well aware of this nuance of positioning and fight hard to position themselves favorably. The weaker player, though also “fighting hard” in some sense, probably doesn’t even know he should be fighting for this exact distancing, so the expert player is easily able to occupy it. And from this catbird seat, the expert is in control.

Commonly, the expert will conceal the very existence of this sweet spot. He’ll do a variety of safe moves in quick succession. He’ll maneuver back and forth across the sweet spot in an elaborate dance designed to hide the true advantage he holds. Mysteriously, whenever the weaker player tries to attack, he’s always barely out of range and gets hit back for his attempt. In frustration, he makes even bigger mistakes and soon falls completely apart. He is not unlike a deaf person trying to read the lips of someone doing an impression of a poorly dubbed Kung Fu movie; the real movements are too masked by the false movements to make sense of any of it.

The expert player is also aided by the “fear aura” around him. If, during his elaborate dance, he does a certain move or series with great intensity and purpose, the enemy cannot help but believe the tactic is valid. Often, it’s just an illusion—a diversion—to waste time until the weaker player takes the bait and falls into the positional trap.

Concealing Weaknesses

If the opponent does not know when you are vulnerable and when you are safe, you can run circles around him. In fighting games, a “trap” is a great example of this, as nearly all traps have weak points; the trick is concealing them.

A trap is a sequence of moves that prevents the opponent from acting. A trap might be throwing one projectile after the next at the opponent, and when he jumps out, there always seems to be some sort of anti-air attack waiting. A trap can also be one or more tightly spaced moves (no gaps between them) followed by a move that allows the attacker to advance close enough to repeat the trap again. (When the enemy blocks or is hit by the moves, he’s knocked back out of range, so an advancing move is needed to repeat the set).

Traps are hardly ever as solid as they seem to be in Street Fighter. Rarely can the attacker complete three, two, or even one repetition safely without leaving gaps. The effective trapper, though, is a master of deceit. Although gaps exist, there appear to be none, and the gaps that are visible are often used as bait.

Let’s take a specific example of a trap to illustrate this. I’ll take Ryu’s fireball trap in Hyper Fighting Street Fighter, which is basically the same as most fireball traps in any version. Ryu has his opponent knocked down and in the “corner,” which means the edge of the playfield. The opponent cannot back up any farther. The game is two dimensional, so there is no way “around” the fireballs other than jumping over them at Ryu. The key to the fireball trap is the slow speed fireball followed immediately by the fast fireball. When the opponent blocks the slow fireball, the fast fireball will hit him basically every time if he tries to jump between the fireballs at Ryu. So the “trap” here is really only two moves long! Not much of trap, yet through illusion, the trap can go as long as thirty fireballs or more!

First, Ryu can start with a “meaty” or “early” slow fireball against his knocked down opponent. This means the fireball is right on top of the opponent as he rises from the ground, so he’s forced to block. If timed correctly, the very tail end of the fireball will make contact (rather than the front). This means Ryu has had time to finish the recovery phase of his first fireball in time to throw another one. The mechanics here are not important to the discussion, so just take my word for it that “meaty” slow fireball, another slow fireball, then a fast fireball form a three-move trap. The opponent will not (easily) be able to jump at Ryu until that series is over.

So now you have your poor opponent knocked down in the corner. He might try to jump before the three-series is over, in which case he’ll get hit and probably give Ryu the chance to reset the series. Eventually, he’ll wait for the third fireball (the fast one) after which there can be no more true trap. This is the gap. This is when he can jump. Of course, this is exactly what Ryu expects and that’s why he didn’t throw a fourth fireball, but instead waited for the jump and did an anti-air dragon punch to knock the opponent on the ground, in the corner again. The trap is reset. Now the enemy is shaken. This trap seems to be unbreakable. Ryu has created the illusion and can now use it to his advantage.

At this point, Ryu might throw a “meaty” slow fireball, then another slow fireball (that’s a real trap), then another slow fireball. Now, that is not a true trap. The enemy could have jumped over the third slow fireball, but he’s probably too afraid to try. Ryu could then throw a fast fireball, since “slow to fast” is a trap. Or Ryu might even sneak in three non-trap slow fireballs in a row then complete the trap with a fast fireball. Everyone knows you can jump after the fast fireball, but Ryu must surely know that too so—bam!—another slow fireball, trap reset. Shouldn’t have hesitated. The Ryu player is using his “fear aura” to do moves that aren’t even a real trap (many slow fireballs in a row) and to reset the trap secretly (by going back to a slow fireball after the fast one). Though the Ryu player’s intense, purposeful execution of these moves might make them appear to be a real trap, it’s all just an illusion. It’s an elaborate dance designed to conceal where the trap begins and ends.

The gaps are the key aspect of the traps. Because of deception, the defender is not able to detect which gaps are real and which ones are merely bait. Sometimes after a real gap, the attacker will simply wait for the defender to stupidly attack. The defender thought he was being pretty clever since he weathered the storm, then attacked at his first opportunity. Of course, this is such an obvious thing to do that the expert fully expects it.

I remember doing difficult reversal attacks at “clever” times during one opponent’s traps, only to be countered every single time. I finally realized I was as clever as the man who runs from his pursuer into a room totally empty save for a large chair. It may seem “clever” to hide behind the chair, but the lack of all other alternatives makes the “clever” move wholly obvious to the opponent.

Thus one who is skillful at keeping the enemy on the move maintains deceitful appearances, according to which the enemy will act. He sacrifices something that the enemy may snatch at it. By holding out baits, he keeps him on the march; then with a body of picked men he lies in wait for him.
—Sun Tzu, The Art of War

The top fighting game players are able to conceal their strengths (sweet spot positioning) and weaknesses (gaps in traps) while simultaneously putting on mesmerizing dances designed to harass and confuse the opponent into hesitation, irritation, or worst of all—second guessing himself.