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Jennifer on the Art of Learning Print E-mail
Jennifer's Blog
By Jennifer Shahade   
May 14, 2007

I wasn't sure what to expect from Josh Waitzkin's "The Art of Learning" but within a few pages, Josh's lucid prose, honesty and most of all, his modesty, impressed me. It's not easy, after all, to be so modest, being a former chess champion with movie star clout, then a World martial arts champion and also a Columbia graduate. Oh yeah, and he just happens to also be a fantastic writer. If I was a guy, I'd totally hate him.

Josh Waitzkin's new book, The Art of Learning was released on May 8.

 Josh was just leaving chess as I began to delve into it, but I knew it was too bad for chess that he was leaving the game. It made me sad to read the reasons for his departure from competitive chess, which he tackles immediately (on page three) of the Art of Learning. He experienced dissonance when playing in major events, as he felt his celebrity was larger than his chess accomplishments merited:

" I recall one tournament in Las Vegas: I was a young International Master in a field of a thousand competitors including twenty-six strong Grandmasters from around the world. As an up-and-coming player, I had huge respect for the great sages around me…I was seated at my board, deep in though about my opening preparation, when the public address system announced that the subject of Searching for Bobby Fischer was at the event… Immediately a sea of fans surged around… young girls gave me their phone number and asked me to autograph their stomachs or legs… This might sound like a dream for a seventeen-year-old boy and I won't deny enjoying the attention, but professionally it was a nightmare."

Josh goes on to describe how he began to catch himself "thinking about how I looked thinking instead of losing myself in thought." When I read this my sympathy briefly evaporated into sarcastic thoughts since young female players of any level are constantly watched at chess tournaments. In general, it's harder for women to live as directly as men because it's so hard to escape watching ourselves do stuff instead of doing stuff. That's one reason why I think chess can help women even more than it can help men- chess eventually erases the world and forces you to focus on it alone.

Josh had trouble ejecting his negative feelings toward the game while embracing his passion for it. He reveals feeling trapped between two training systems: one, headed by Mark Dvoretsky, that wanted to break down his weaknesses, focus on them, and create a new player almost from scratch. His favorite trainer, Yuri Razuvaev, wanted him to embrace his love for chaos on the board, and build on that. In retrospect, Josh realizes that he should have followed the second training method. The best training program for a super-serious player probably combines aspects of both methods, but for the average Chess Life Online reader, I'd definitely advocate studying what you love. I also agree that it's a crippling fallacy to approach chess with the idea that we should train ourselves to be "no-mistakes" machines. This depressing, self-punishing approach can just cause you to quit chess, or at least to impose negative feelings for it that may never be totally erased, regardless of how deep your love for the game is. Yes, I do feel like this last sentence describes too closely my own relationship with chess. If your first thought when you analyze one of your own mistakes (not a checkmate in one type mistake, but a perfectly run of the mill error in calculation or judgment) is to viciously insult yourself, you've probably gone too far along the path of self-punishment as a scheme for improvement. I advise you to backtrack immediately. Being more tender with yourself may make it easier to unravel the real reasons for your error.

Josh describes his switch from chess to Tai Chi with a lyrical sense of inevitability. I wonder if this is a bit overstated. Chess is wonderful, but it's hardly shocking to me that a talented and driven man would want to explore other fields in his 20s and 30s. He ended up getting so deeply involved in Tai Chi that he did give up competitive chess completely. His decision worked out well, as he now has two World Championships to his credit, and a book published by Simon Schuster's Free Press with glowing recommendations from intellectual superstars such as Robert Pirsig (author of The Art of Motorcylcle Maintenance) and Deepak Chopra.

The book is very useful for any competitor serious about improving their game. One of the best lessons for the adult reader is how gracefully Josh embraced his status as a beginner in Tai Chi. The ability to feel comfortable looking stupid is key to learning new things as an adult. When I was studying Russian in college, I was usually too nervous to practice with the many Russians I knew from chess without a glass of wine. Because I rarely drink, this was totally crippling to my ability to learn Russian.

Josh was flexible in his approach to Tai Chi, even as he started to spar and win matches, morphing from a beginner to a serious student of the martial art. He was constantly looking to improve, rather than locking himself up in competent but ultimately crippling patterns. In chess, a perfect corollary is finding openings and positional maneuvers that are easy to remember and simple to play. Learning typical patterns and honing your instincts in your openings can be immensely valuable. But on the other hand, I've seen myself and other players get attached to a certain type of maneuver (For instance, against fianchettos, Be3, Qd2, Bh6 or in the Ruy Lopez, Nd2-f1-g3-f5) because it allows us to play both lazily and purposefully. The most devastating effect of lazy play like this is getting used to not thinking too hard-then thinking hard becomes unfathomable, like lifting twice as much weight as you're used to.

When I went to his book party last week, I realized that what I admired most about Josh was how happy he seemed. Josh was hailed as a child prodigy, a word that he hates. He prefers to focus and compliment the process and hard work of champions rather than their innate genius. Then Josh rose to quick fame that he did not feel was completely deserved. The whole package was a recipe for outward glamour and inward misery. That Josh so quickly realized the danger, got out and got happy is even more impressive to me than his major book contract and his two world championships.

Josh Waitzkin will be signing The Art of Learning in New York on May.15, 2007 at the Astor Place Barnes and Noble (6th Avenue and 8th St.) He will also be in San Francisco on May 19 promoting and signing his book at an exciting event hosted by the Hip Hop Chess Federation called, "Hip Hop Chess and Life Strategies II." CLO will tell you more about the Hip Hop Chess Federation and the May 19 event soon.