Learning about learning from a chess prodigy

by ChessBase
12/2/2007 – Josh Waitzkin – the name may sound familiar. Back in 1993 his father Fred wrote about the lad's early years as a chess prodigy, in a book entitled Searching for Bobby Fischer. That was subsequently turned into a successful Hollywood movie, and Josh into a media star. Now 31, Josh revisits that story in an extraordinary book, for which we have an extraordinary review by Carol Jarecki.

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The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin

Review by Carol Jarecki, International Arbiter

Complete silence in the small high school classroom in Bloomington, IL, the summer of 1995. Eight of the best and brightest US junior chess players were engrossed in studying their positions. Josh Waitzkin, short of time, was focused intently on his game. Boris, his opponent, came over to me and said, “Josh touched his knight. When he moves make sure he moves his knight.” I was a bit incredulous since Josh was sitting stone still with his hands under the table. As soon as he made his move – not the knight – Boris complained that Josh had to move the knight. Waitzkin looked up shocked. “What? Why should I move the knight?” Another of Boris’s unlimited dirty tricks. Claim denied, I give Waitzkin an extra couple of minutes for the disturbance and he sank back into concentration, eventually winning the game.

Another player a couple of rounds earlier was not so fortunate. In that case, Boris claimed a three-time repetition, also to the amazement and consternation of his unsuspecting opponent. We took the game out of the room to replay it but soon Boris retracted the claim. Dean, who of course had a better position, couldn’t get his concentration back and lost on time. Exactly what Boris was hoping would happen.

This scenario is offered here not only because it pertains to the same Boris described in Waitzkin’s book but also as an example of the value of learning to concentrate fully and deeply and, more important, having the ability to snap back into that mode after an acute, penetrating disruption.

The real thing: Josh Waitzkin as a boy chess prodigy

The Art of Learning is an amazing book, an autobiography, an introspection, an analysis of self, of the author’s riveting personal experiences and the development of his own learning process – what it meant to him and what it could mean to others in all walks of life and enterprises. In a most charming way, with no bravado, he takes us through his early infatuation with chess, informal and by chance, and how his inherent eagerness to learn propelled him through the complicated, demanding and convoluted world of scholastic tournament life. Heights of success, the thrill of winning, the misery of losing, the periods when one wonders if it’s all worth it, then the determination to keep going just for the love of it. Then, at a mature 20 taking up an entirely new life, we follow him into the world of competitive martial arts leading to the highest levels. The text flows comfortably between personal stories and insightful discussions, scientific presentations and the ever-present veins of mindset and mental development.

Kid in the park – later reconstructed in the 1993 movie 'Searching for Bobby Fischer'

Josh, of course, did not understand nor delve into the “learning process” at such a young age. He only knew that chess was enthralling, a mental challenge that reaped great rewards not only because of winning but also because of the exciting assimilation of information. Information that built upon itself, that fused itself together in his mind, which allowed him to be an inventor, a creator and a student all at the same time. When he eventually separated from chess he found the same inspiration from the study of Tai Chi Chuan, this time the intellectual, philosophical and psychological combining to produce a highly complex and extraordinarily fine-tuned physical product.

The movie, Searching for Bobby Fischer, made Josh a “film star”, with all the baggage of fans, interviews, appearances and pressure, at the same time as he was trying to focus on his personal goals and concentrate on learning. It’s easy to get sidetracked by popularity and idolization and the media can be relentless in its quest for a story. A handsome, intelligent, well-spoken, charming young man excelling in a mind sport, winning multiple national championships and the subject of a popular movie, is a perfect target. As much as we would like to popularize chess it is difficult for an individual to have a balanced life and gain a normal maturity under the glare of the spotlight.

Eleven-year-old Josh drawing in a simul against Garry Kasparov

Josh deservedly gives his parents an enormous amount of credit, but it is rare that a grown child can express his parental connection in such a fervent way. As he repeatedly observes, at times the world of scholastic tournament chess can be particularly cruel and demoralizing, although this is probably so in many children’s individual competitive endeavors such as, for instance, ice skating. Parental support and compassion and the guidance to develop a well-rounded life is essential. Bonnie and Fred helped him keep his head on straight and his soul intact.

A cross section of parents in the scholastic chess world reaches from the disinterested, disengaged and belittling to aggressive, demanding and torturous. I’ve seen fathers slap a child for not winning a game. When young Gata Kamsky first played in the US, in the New York Open, he was paired against Judith Polgar about mid-way through the tournament. Dead lost, in a resignable position, he sat and waited until his time ran out rather than face his father’s wrath.

Josh Waitzkin, his father Fred and coach Dan Caulfield

There are coaches and parents who even encourage their children to cheat, and teach them useful tricks in order to do so. Then there are those who are just the opposite. During one of the final games in the recent US National High School Championship in Kansas City a player was clearly winning, threatening a back rank mate. She left for the bathroom and returned to find her opponent's f2 pawn had been removed, giving his king an escape route. She questioned him unsuccessfully and was too shy or insecure to complain to the authorities. She lost. Shortly before the trophy award ceremony I found out about this from another arbiter who had been approached by the girl’s father. With the intention of changing the game result, which would effect the trophy distribution, I went to look for the f2 boy’s coach. It didn’t take long to find him as he and the boy’s father were waiting outside the office. They had come to the same conclusion – that the boy had blatantly cheated – and were appalled. They wanted his chess experiences to teach him honesty, hard work, humility and fairness. They did not want a higher team trophy based on his false result.

Father and son

Following the autobiographical tack Josh relates his deep love of the sea, boating, fishing, free diving and the family’s annual adventures in the Bahamas. His enthusiastic narrative proves that he is a born adventurer, a lover of the free spirit. He undoubtedly inherited this from at least his paternal grandmother, Stella, but the love was nurtured by both parents as they hauled him off every summer to a small house on Bimini and a month of fishing from their modest boat. Fred Waitzkin’s book The Last Marlin describes his own growing-up adventures in this venue and Josh absorbed it like a sponge.

To be continued...

Carol Jarecki, International Arbiter

The Art of Learning:
A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence

Hardcover: 288 pages
Publisher: Free Press (May 8, 2007)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0743277457
ISBN-13: 978-0743277457
Price: $16.50

Get the movie: Searching for Bobby Fischer


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