Jiro dreams of tactics

Learn about mastery from one of the best sushi chefs in the world

I would see ideas in dreams. My mind was bursting with ideas.
I would wake up in the middle of the night. In dreams, I would have visions of sushi.
Jiro Ono

Displays of mastery are powerfully attractive. For better or worse we have immense admiration for the best athletes, artists, chess players and overall masters of their craft. Is there a better way to learn mastery than directly from them? In the case of chess, the learning curve happens very early in childhood; so it is difficult for amateurs to learn lessons from their journey.
Likewise, athletes have wonderful physical abilities and a very large training volume that seems out of reach. There is a wonderful example for us: one of the best sushi chefs in the world, Jiro Ono. He was featured in the documentary ‘Jiro dreams of sushi’.
I would recommend you to watch/rent/buy the documentary on your streaming platform of choice, but it’s not necessary to have seen it to continue reading.

Jiro and his son Hoshikazu photo credits: wikipedia

Jiro Ono

Once you decide on your occupation … you must immerse yourself in your work.
You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That’s the secret of success…

Jiro was neglected by his parents and as a teenager soon had to provide for himself. As a young man, he became an apprentice sushi chef and threw himself completely into his craft. Very long days, no holidays. A lot of work to master a dish in apparent simplicity: rice and fish.

The techniques we use are no big secret. It’s just about making the effort and repeating it every day.

Jiro focuses on making small incremental improvements to his craft. Every meal has to be better than the last time. This is done via a lot of feedback via tasting throughout the process.

All I want to do is to make better sushi.
I do the same thing over and over, improving bit by bit.

A sushi meal can be made fairly fast, the base ingredients are simple. But cooking the rice to highest standards can always be perfected, choosing and preparing the fish as well. Add to this the art of composing a whole meal together and paying attention to the patrons.

The way of the Shokunin

Shokunin is the Japanese word for a craftsman. Relentless pursuit of the basics – the cleanliness, the quality of the ingredients. The making of the sushi. Always improve the process. Jiro is the archetypal Shokunin.

In another profession, let’s hear football player Robin Van Persie talking about his Netherlands and Arsenal teammate Dennis Bergkamp.

“It was a 45-minute session and there wasn’t one pass that Dennis gave that wasn’t perfect. He did everything 100%, to the max, shooting as hard as possible, controlling, playing, direct passing…That was so beautiful! To me, it was plainly art. […] He had such a total focus. I found myself thinking, okay wait a minute, I can play football well enough, but I’ve still got an enormous step to take to reach that level. That’s when I realised that if I wanted to become really good I had to be able to do that, too. From that moment on I started to do every exercise with total commitment. For every simple pass or kicking practice, I did everything at 100% just so I wouldn’t make mistakes. When I made mistakes I was angry because I wanted to be like Bergkamp.”

This echoes so many other stories of players that look absolutely masterful but it is grounded in the repetition of the absolute basics, not the training of the fancy skills. Zinedine Zidane also stayed after training time to do extra practice on basics such as passes and controlling the ball. And there are many other examples in the world of sports.

All the masters have perfect basics, and are not ashamed or bored of training them daily.

The way of the shokunin chess player

What an inspiration. Just choose your game (okay, if you’re here, probably that’s chess). Fall in love with it. Immerse yourself in it. Just get better every day. Be relentless in working on basics. Do some mate-in-ones. Do some mate-in-twos (thankfully, the Lichess tactics portal can let you easily choose any type of these games). Analyse a position from a game as if this was the only thing that matters. The whole universe has brought you here today, the atoms in your body have been created in the big bang (for the light ones) or in the heart of a star. You have this beautiful, dizzying gift of life. What are you going to do? As the saying goes, ‘how you do anything is how you do everything’. Dive into the position in front of you. Nothing else exists. Try to uncover the beauty and sharpen your analytical and calculation skills. A little bit better every day.

The Steph Curry chess practice

As a college player, professional basketball player Steph Curry would not end practice unless he ‘swooshed’ (when the ball cleanly falls into the basket) five free three-point shots in a row. Now he’s one of the best throwers ever. Now he’s one of the best throwers ever

Here is a chess practice that I call ‘the Steph Curry’. End your chess practice with it.

  1. Go to the Lichess training tactics per opening https://lichess.org/training/openings
  2. Choose your main black opening (against e4 or d4 doesn’t matter)
  3. Start solving and don’t stop until you get 5 in a row correct.

I am nothing special. Why bother with all of this?

I get you. I’m not a world-class three-point shooter or tactics solver either. Just because you’re not world-level in a given field, it doesn’t mean that you can’t have an attitude of continuous improvement. This could be in the way you care for your family. In the kindness of your random interactions with strangers. Call your mom and be nicer and more caring than last time. Do you write computer code? Aim at knowing the programming language every day a little better. Writing code is craftsmanship. I get that you might have other hobbies than playing chess. But if you try to focus on your chess, while you train, do it with a heart of intent. And nail these basics. Let the universe unfold through you, via the shining beauty of mastered basics.

Don’t be in it for the title

That’s it. It’s not about making GM, IM or NM or 2000 rating or whatever arbitrary target. Apprentices at Jiro’s restaurant are taught for free. But very few are sticking with it and many don’t even come for a second day.

When you first sit down at Jiro’s, they give you a hand-squeezed hot towel. An apprentice must first be able to properly hand squeeze a towel. Until you can adequately squeeze a towel they won’t let you touch the fish.

That’s the only thing a new apprentice does. Handling burning hot towels with bare hands.
If all you want is to be a celebrity chef with Michelin stars (Jiro has three stars, of course, which is like a super GM title), you just won’t make it. At some point in the practice, there’s something that will really be unpleasant. Learning some line by heart, some endgame technique you find boring, or anything. If all you want is a title, you won’t make it. You have to come from a place of love for the craft. Only then you can understand that mastery of the unpleasant material is necessary for you to move forward and enjoy all the aspects of the work.

Stop switching openings.

After about ten years, they let you cook the eggs. I had been practising making the egg sushi for a long time. I thought I would be good at it. But when it came to making the real thing… I kept messing up. I was making up to four a day. But they kept saying: No good, no good, no good.” I felt like it was impossible to satisfy them. After three or four months, I had made over 200 that were all rejected. When I finally did make a good one… Jiro said,

“Now this is how it should be done.”

It took the senior apprentice 200 tries to get the grilled egg perfect. Yes, some players think that the Najdorf (or the KID or any opening) is not for them after two or three losses in a tournament! Getting good at mastering something difficult is … hard. Don’t give up. Expect the harsh judgement of your results and of your coaches. Keep up the practice.

Grilled egg – Tamagoyaki. Photo Max Griss for unsplash

Pay attention to details

Jiro pays utmost attention to details when serving customers. He memorises the seating arrangement. Smaller people get a slightly smaller piece of sushi so that people finish at the same time.

If Jiro notices a guest using his left hand… the next piece of sushi will be placed on the left side. So, you adjust accordingly to that guest.

At the Chennai Chess Olympiad, I was fortunate to be in the playing hall with the English Open Team for a few rounds – the acting ‘captain’ doesn’t have any chess input anymore. I would see some GMs spend their time chatting in the coffee area, leaving their players to their own devices. One told me with great indignation: “I am a GM, and all I do is bring tea!!”. I did take pride and care in bringing coffee and snacks to my players. With inspiration from Jiro, I noticed that Gawain liked his coffee on the right side of his board and Luke liked it on his left side. So I just naturally brought them coffee where they naturally placed it. Why not? The smallest job and attention, so they don’t even have to do a superfluous movement. Sometimes you don’t think your actions and attention to detail have any impact. I can very much tell you the people around you notice any effort. It sometimes doesn’t take a lot to be the best version of yourself, just a little bit of attention to detail goes a long way and puts you in the right frame of mind.

The dark side of Jiro.

Is everything fine and dandy? No, of course not, there is a lot of underlying toxicity.
First of all, Jiro advocates extreme hard work, to the exclusion of any sort of self-care. I would definitely advise against such an extreme. Pursuit of excellence: Yes. Pursuit of excellence while neglecting your family and your health: NO. Plain and simple. His attitude toward his sons is pretty toxic in appearance. His elder son Yoshikazu in particular is very much in the shadow of a cult toward his father. If you have a finely tuned emotional antenna while watching the documentary, you will see all the family dynamics play out in a bittersweet way.

However, I do believe it is very much doable to still pursue the _way of the shokunin_ and to do it from a place of self-compassion. If you don’t have a balanced and grounded life, how can you pursue excellence to the best of your abilities anyway?

Lessons from Jiro

Here is how his son Yoshikazu summarises what he learned from Jiro:

Always look beyond and above yourself
Always try to improve yourself
Always strive to elevate your craft
That’s what he taught me.

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