8) Critical Points

There are often “critical moments” in a game, moments when the outcome of the game is really decided, or at least moments that hugely shift momentum and advantages. You might be carefully eking out small advantages over the course of 90% of a game, but a critical moment can blow the game wide open and cause fortunes to change.

After ten hands of low bets in a game of no limit poker, it can all come down to that one big bet your opponent makes—and how you react to it. In a fighting game, you can slowly build yourself a healthy lead, but one misjudged move that leaves you open can allow that huge combo your opponent needs to even things up. In chess, lots of careful moves that develop and support your pieces don’t count for much if you are caught off guard by a bold brilliancy that steals your mate. And in StarCraft, that army of units that took twenty minutes to amass can be wiped out in a mere second if you were distracted right when those enemy Templars psi-stormed everything.

I put this chapter near the end of the “Art of War” section because it cuts across so many topics already covered. If the entire outcome of a game can be determined by just one or two key moments, then deception becomes all the more powerful. Perhaps you can hide from your opponent when those moments arise. Discipline in execution and mental toughness also come to the forefront. Sure you can execute moves well, but can you come through at the critical moment when it counts? These moments can occur late in a game when your concentration is waning, possibly after you’re already fatigued from playing matches all day in a tournament. Your mental alertness and tenacity resources are tapped, but do you have the discipline to maintain your mental toughness when the critical moment presents itself? Have you studied the details of the enemy to guess how he might react in this game-defining moment? And most of all, through whatever divination powers you possess, can you yomi what your enemy will do during this critical moment, so that you can dictate its outcome?

Critical moments are what you need to create and take advantage of when you’re losing. They are what you need to suppress and avoid when you are winning. When you’re winning, the last thing you need to do is entangle yourself in a situation where if you guess wrong, you lose your lead. You need to create safe situations that allow you to keep that lead, and force the enemy to take bad risks (which you are waiting for) in a vain attempt to get back into the game.

For example, consider “knock downs” in fighting games. When you knock your opponent down in pretty much any fighting game, he gains many protections (often total invulnerability) until he gets back up. Even with these protections, the attacker always has the advantage because at that critical first moment when the defender is fully standing up, the attacker can force a guessing game he controls. The defender might get up inside a move that must be blocked high or low, or in Street Fighter a “crossup attack” that might have to be blocked left or right. The attacker can do nothing at all, hoping the defender will attack at that critical moment—and be countered. The attacker calls the shots, and the attacker has the advantage. But this is a guessing game. It’s possible that the defender will guess right or get lucky and hit the attacker with a combo or super move or whatever. Most of the time, you should play the odds and force that guessing game since there’s more upside to you than downside when you force it. But what if you are winning? Even the most aggressive players know that aggressive play is about attacking safely and taking calculated risks. At the beginning of a round, creating that critical moment is what they want to do to gain the lead and rattle the enemy. But what if you are already winning by a large margin? It is possible that the calculated risk is worth it and that yomi fairy on your shoulder is telling you exactly how the enemy is going to act, but it’s usually not worth it. If you simply back off, you have a 100% chance of not creating that critical moment the enemy needs.

The art of the “set up” is the art of seizing the critical moment. When you feel that critical moment is upon you, and you don’t want to be in it, try every way possible to negate the entire situation rather than play the guessing game. In Street Fighter, a critical moment can occur right after your opponent just did some devastating thing to you, and you now have an opportunity to act. Most players are flustered in this situation and tend to do stupid or transparent things, and the clever attacker is waiting for this. Let the moment pass. Attacking at the very first moment you possibly can is a common, predictable thing to do. It’s often smart (and the “textbook” thing to do), but it creates a moment your opponent can count on. He knows it’s very likely you will do something during that moment. What if, instead, you do nothing for two seconds? In a fighting game, two seconds is a fistful of moments. If you didn’t attack during that first moment, will you attack just after it? Or just after that? Doing nothing can defuse the situation and bury the moment. It’s very hard for your opponent to do a split-second move (like a parry or a counter or a super) out of the blue; he is relying on predictable moments. If you’re winning, don’t let him have any.

On the other hand, if you are losing, you often need to spur the enemy into action so you can engage him. Hopefully you can create a messy, chaotic situation because at least that will give you a chance to come back from behind. In war games, it can mean “attacking by fire” to force an enemy out of his defensive position and into an engagement with you. Maybe you’ll lose that engagement, but at least you now have a shot. In poker, it can be threatening with your “all in” bet of everything you have. Does your opponent really want to take the chance that you have a good hand? If he’s wrong on that one guess, the entire momentum of the game could shift.

Although winning with the sheathed sword is always best, harnessing the power of the critical moment is the culmination of so many of these concepts. With everything from deception to yomi in play, the whole of winning and losing can come down to the blink of an eye: the critical moment.