Presence of Mind is the ability to see all the moments of a short-lived situation as they go by, often accompanied by the sensation that time has slowed down. This is possible when the situation has grown familiar to you and your brain is able to filter out all the unnecessary elements leaving only a few simple cues.
When you step into a new, unfamiliar game, critical moments will pass you by in the blink of an eye. At first, you won’t even know that these moments mattered, that you were supposed to be paying attention during them. Even when you do know, a feeling of being overwhelmed by the millions of things that might occur can cause that moment to flicker by and you won’t have that feeling of total awareness. The change comes when your mind is fully ready to accept the moments ahead. You know they are coming (because you recognize the pattern of events leading to them), you know that only a very few things could possibly happen during them, and you are able to filter out everything except the one or two cues that you’re waiting for.
Let’s take the fighting game Guilty Gear XX as an example, using my character Chipp. I run at you and force you to block my attack sequence (you’ll block it crouching). One trick I can use is to sneak in an “overhead” kick that you’ll have to stand up to block. If you are unfamiliar with Chipp, then my whole attack sequence will go by in a flash. You will be waiting for it to be over so you can do something again, and you don’t even realize that a decision is required of you before my sequence ends.
Now let’s say I show you this so-called overhead kick beforehand so you know exactly what it looks like. Anytime you see it, I tell you to block high. We practice this and you are able to do it. Now we play a real game, and I can probably still hit you with it. It’s quite a task for you to sort through the chaos of a real match and actually see that kick. For all you know, it could come at any moment, which makes it difficult to mentally prepare for it. I think you probably could block this without trouble if you have good reaction times, but fighting games (and most competitive games) are not ultimately about reaction times, contrary to popular belief. One time they do come in handy, though, is when you are put in a situation where any of a thousand things could happen, and you have to detect a certain one and react to it instantly. Yomi is useful here (if you have some basis to predict which of the thousand things the opponent might do), but lacking that, you are left with reaction times.
Now I will tell you the crucial information you need to block the overhead kick. I cannot do it any time I want; there are only two ways I can do the kick. When I run at you, I will start with a few moves such as f+p, slash, slash, heavy slash. You don’t need to care about these, really, and if they seem to go by in a blur, that’s fine. At this point, my options become much more limited, and one of the few things I can do is my “fire punch” series. It starts off with a distinctive looking, well, “fire punch.” After that I have the option to do the overhead kick. If I don’t, I can instead do a low kick. After the low kick, I have another chance to do the overhead kick. Those are the only two times I can ever do the overhead kick.
Now you can develop your Presence of Mind in this situation. I run at you and do some punches you don’t really have to scrutinize. But you know that I usually do a fire punch after that. You are totally ready to see that fire punch and you already know it’s likely you’ll have to make a decision about blocking high or low soon. Ahh, there’s the fire punch, right on schedule. Now you know I have my first chance to do the overhead kick. For all practical purposes, I have only two options. Your mind isn’t spinning with the multitude of options you’re faced with. You are totally focused on this one upcoming moment. You’re waiting for it. You’re tuning out all the extraneous information on the screen. Forget our health meters. Forget our super meters. Forget the sound effects. Forget the fancy graphics of our characters, and the pretty backgrounds behind them. The only thing you need to see is the start of that overhead kick. In time, this situation becomes so familiar, and your ability to filter out the extraneous stimuli becomes so good that you can’t even imagine getting hit by this kick. The moment will seem to go by in slow motion, and it will even be amusing to you that the opponent could ever think he’d hit you with this move. Meanwhile, the beginner saw this moment go by in a flash and is oblivious to all these moments.
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