The Specific 006: Playing Chess with Yoda
I was reminded of something I read before in the book “The Art of Learning”, when somebody asked me recently what’s the niche for my newsletter.
That something turned out to be this following passage in the book.
… one of the most critical factors in the transition to becoming a conscious high performer is the degree to which your relationship to your pursuit stays in harmony with your unique disposition. There will inevitably be times when we need to try new ideas, release our current knowledge to take in new information—but it is critical to integrate this new information in a manner that does not violate who we are. By taking away our natural voice, we leave ourselves without a center of gravity to balance us as we navigate the countless obstacles along our way.
Waitzkin, Josh. The Art of Learning: A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence (p. 80). Free Press. Kindle Edition.
By the way, I’ll be quoting quite liberally from this book and all emphases are mine.
Let’s delve deeper into this point through Josh Waitzkin’s story about his two Russian chess trainers.
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Mark Dvoretsky and Yuri Razuvaev
Josh Waitzkin, an American chess prodigy when young and then a world champion in Tai Chi Chuan as an adult, wrote the Art of Learning, a book about learning. The book is based on his experience reaching the highest echelon in two completely different arenas — chess and martial arts.
He had two Russian chess trainers during his childhood years — Mark Dvoretsky and Yuri Razuvaev.
While both were equally renowned chess trainers, they had diametrically opposite approaches when it came to tutoring young chess players.
Let me share some key quotes by Waitzkin on both trainers.
… the most important author for chess professionals in the world. His books are extensive training programs for world-class players and are studied religiously by strong International Masters and Grandmasters. “Reading” a Dvoretsky book takes many months of hard work, because they are so densely packed with ideas…
… laboring my way through Dvoretsky’s chapters, my brain pushed to the limit, emerging from every study session utterly exhausted, but infused with a slightly more nuanced understanding of the outer reaches of chessic potential. On the page, the man is a genius.
Dvoretsky loves to watch gifted chess minds struggle with his problems. He basks in his power while young champions are slowly drained of their audacious creativity.
… has created a comprehensive training system that he believes all students should fit into. His method when working with a pupil is to break the student down rather brutally and then stuff him or her into the cookie-cutter mold of his training system. In my opinion this approach can have profoundly negative consequences for spirited young students.
Waitzkin, Josh. The Art of Learning: A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence (p. 81-83). Free Press. Kindle Edition.
Oof, sounds like a real taskmaster, huh?
And now, Waitzkin’s description of Razuvaev.
When you meet Yuri Razuvaev, you feel calmed. He has the humble, peaceful air of a Buddhist monk and a sweet, slightly ironic smile. If making a decision, for example about where to eat, he will shrug and gently imply that both possibilities would find him quite content. His language is similarly abstract.
… Analyzing with Razuvaev, I consistently felt as though he was penetrating the deepest wrinkles in my mind through my every chess move. After just a few hours of work with him, I had the impression he understood me more truly than almost anybody in my life. It was like playing chess with Yoda.
… Razuvaev’s method depends upon a keen appreciation for each student’s personality and chessic predispositions. Yuri has an amazing psychological acumen, and his instructional style begins with a close study of his student’s chess games. In remarkably short order, he discovers the core of the player’s style and the obstructions that are blocking pure self-expression. Then he devises an individualized training program that systematically deepens the student’s knowledge of chess while nurturing his or her natural gifts.
Waitzkin, Josh. The Art of Learning: A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence (p. 81-83). Free Press. Kindle Edition.
This Razuvaev was an entirely different character from Dvoretsky.
But, I felt their differences were the most obvious when Waitzkin needed to add new skills to his repertoire.
Learning Counterpunching as an Attacking Player
Both trainers gave different advice when Waitzkin needed to learn “prophylaxis, the art of playing chess like an anaconda.”
Dvoretsky recommended learning the art of prophylaxis from the best exponents of this form.
.. like Karpov and Petrosian, seem to sense their opponent’s intention. They systematically cinch down the pressure, squeezing every last breath of life out of their prey while preventing any aggressive attempt before it even begins to materialize. They are counterpunchers by nature and they tend to be quiet, calculating, rather introverted personalities.
Waitzkin, Josh. The Art of Learning: A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence (p. 83). Free Press. Kindle Edition.
Razuvaev, on the other hand, recommended
.. continue to nurture my natural voice as a chess player. Razuvaev believed that I was a gifted attacking player who should not be bullied away from my strengths. There was no question that I needed to learn more about Karpov’s type of chess to make the next steps in my development, but Razuvaev pointed out that I could learn Karpov from Kasparov.
Waitzkin, Josh. The Art of Learning: A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence (pp. 83-84). Free Press. Kindle Edition.
Like a Rock Guitarist Learning Classical
Waitzkin then gave a beautiful analogy, expanding on Razuvaev’s point of learning Karpov from Kasparov. Think about a lifelong rock guitarist who now wants to learn classical music. And he has two possible teachers:
an esoteric classical composer who has never thought much of the “vulgarity of rock and roll”.
a fellow rocker “who fell in love with classical music years ago and decided to dedicate his life to this different genre of music”
Waitzkin would have chosen the fellow rocker who fell in love with classical because he “needed to learn Karpov through a musician whose blood boiled just like mine.”
A Conveyor Belt Going From One Dvoretsky to Another
As an Asian, there’s a lot of emphasis on “hard work” and “diligence”. I grew up in the Singapore education system. A common complaint levied at it, is that students are not so much educated but trained. In a one-size-fits-all way.
So, while I’m not familiar with chess, Waitzkin, or the two Russian trainers, I feel I have known Dvoretsky my whole life. Because my entire education journey is a conveyor belt of me going from one Dvoretsky to the next.
I’m a successfulproduct of the system, and yet my heart goes to Waitzkin and his preference for Razuvaev.
Just like Waitzkin was grateful for what he had learned under Dvoretsky, I am also grateful for what I have acquired from the system. But a lifetime of Dvoretsky is not the way for me now that I’m an adult.
Be Okay With Experimenting
Going back to the original question of what’s my niche for my newsletter, let’s take a look at the 6 issues since the reboot of this Substack account including this one.
First issue where I wrote about experimenting with Ship 30 - a writing program.
Second issue I wrote getting feedback early and often for writing.
Third issue I wrote about four types of luck from an academic paper I read.
Fourth issue I used my own body transformation journey as a way to talk about making progress under uncertainty.
Fifth issue was my perspective on how to make remote work successful.
And now, this issue about not losing our own unique voice while learning new things by way of Josh Waitzkin’s story of learning from two very different chess trainers.
There’s no one consistent thread that ties them all together other than they were things I wanted to talk about at that point in time.
This is not a defense of my meandering from topic to topic on each issue. This is me genuinely reflecting on my experiment to write 10 issues for 10 straight weeks.
To the sergeant-major, or the rational systems person, my choice of topics appears totally chaotic
To the Zen monk, or the meta-rational systems person, what I’m doing makes perfect sense to my nature.
I like to explore. At the same time, I do plan to settle down into a specific niche. Given my experience through the Singapore system, the Dvoretsky way is more familiar. And that familiarity seems more of a sure thing.
Faith is Important When Choosing a More Uncertain Path
And yet, I will resist this near second-nature of always seeking certainty and quick fixes. A second nature beaten into me by the system I was brought up on.
Resisting giving into quick fixes and certainty requires I choose faith.
Not necessarily faith that I will eventually discover my niche. Or I will definitely succeed. Too many half-abandoned pursuits, hobbies, and broken dreams in my history has taught me to be more of a realist now.
But, being a realist need not exclude faith completely. The faith I choose is faith that I will be ok, regardless of the actual results.
If I failed to make my newsletter a success with 10k followers and so on, I’m ok.
If I succeed in getting my newsletter 10k followers, I’m no more or less ok than if I had failed.
If I get more than 10k followers, I’m equally ok as the other two outcomes.
This may sound trite or trivial, but is a big leap for me. Me being somebody who’s been brow-beaten by the many Dvoretsky’s and failures in life. And also an older adult with even less time to waste in unfruitful pursuits.
It would be perfectly rational if I adopt wholeheartedly many of the principles, multi-step recipes, and quick fixes abundant on the internet.
But as Razuvaev taught Waitzkin, it’s important to integrate new information without violating our unique disposition.
I have no actual Razuvaev in my life and all around me are well-meaning Dvoretsky’s amongst friends and family. Given I have no Razuvaev, I need to be my own Razuvaev. For that, I need faith.
The kind of faith that gives me equanimity and calm.
The kind of faith that says, somehow, all the things I need to learn, I will figure it out.
Elsewhere on the web
Speaking of figuring it out, I have not read the book, but I love the title of Everything is Figureoutable, by Marie Forleo.
It’s a good mantra and for me, specifically, I’m treating the issue of making this newsletter work as figureoutable. Even when I don’t have all the answers right now.
To treat anything as figureoutable, that’s a form of faith.
I did notice one thing in the synopsis:
It starts with “While most self-help books offer quick fixes, Everything is Figureoutable will retrain your brain to think more creatively and positively in the face of setbacks”, and then it ends with
In this revised and updated edition, you’ll learn:
The habit that makes it 42% more likely you’ll achieve your goals.
How to overcome a lack of time and money.
How to deal with criticism and imposter syndrome.
As a species, we are so unable to let go of our addictions to prescriptions and quick-fixes after all. 🤷🏻♂️
I want to thank Chris Wong, Jen Widerberg, and Alvin T for reviewing drafts of this.
Also, Alvin asked an interesting question during the review, “Do you think today's kids deserve more Dvoretsky or Razuvaev?”
I will post my thoughts in the comments. Let me know yours too.
The definition of success can be highly subjective when defining it. I mean this in the conventional sense. My parents are near illiterate. They work using pure manual labor as shopkeepers. They never finish above a primary 2 level and they’ve never known English, the lingua franca of the working world. I am a university graduate who writes software and works from home. On my mother's side, she has 3 siblings, I am the first university graduate of the clan. On my father’s side where he has 8 siblings, the third. That kind of success.
This is where I'll give my thoughts to Alvin T's question "Do you think today's kids deserve more Dvoretsky or Razuvaev?"
Feel free to jump in with your thoughts too
My thoughts are:
1. Actually I think Razuvaev approach can accommodate Dvoretsky way.
The other way round is probably not true.
This is a point I am not confident enough of an author to make so I didn’t.
Meaning to say, I can totally imagine a Razuvaev will at the right time based on the student's disposition impose a more rigid framework to get the student to learn a specific lesson.
True flexibility allows the right amount of rigor at the right time.
True flexibility is not anti-rigor.
2. There's a piece of writing by David Chapman who applies Robert Kegan developmental theory to the understanding of rational systems.
I'll put the link here: https://metarationality.com/stem-fluidity-bridge#:~:text=Building%20a%20bridge%20to%20stage%205%20may%20be%20critical%20to%20keeping%20the%20bridge%20to%20stage%204%20open.%20Because%20the%20postmodern%20critique%20is%20correct%2C%20it%E2%80%99s%20intellectually%20indefensible%20to%20insist%20on%20rationality%20as%20The%20Way%20and%20The%20Truth%20and%20The%20Light
Chapman maps Kegan's stage 3 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constructive_developmental_framework#:~:text=childhood%20to%20adolescence).-,Stage%203,-%3A%20The%20person%27s%20sense) where a person's sense of self is socially determined to be similar to how a person is "pre-rational"
He maps Kegan's stage 4 where the person now determines their own sense of self and values to adopting "rational systems"
Finally, he maps Kegan's stage 5 where the sense of self is no longer tethered to any aspect of history or lives to "post-rational or meta-rational"
Coming back to this question of Razuvaev and Dvoretsky, I see Dvoretsky as a stage 4 or rational systems stage and Razuvaev as a stage 5 meta-rational, meta-systems stage.
To a person in stage 4, Razuvaev's way sounds like a pre-rational or anti-rational person at a stage 3 of development.
To a person in stage 3, the very same Razuvaev way can sound like a stage 4.
So a Razuvaev is not so much opposed to Dvoretsky so much as a Razuvaev also "contains" Dvoretsky. Just as a "meta-rational, meta-systems" approach also "contains" rational systems approach.
It's not ANTI-systems nor ANTI-rational.
Children are still developing so they are where they are. It's the educators who we want ideally to be at a stage 5 Razuvaev who can adjust on a moment by moment basis, case by case basis what to do or say to guide our children.
So, for me it's not a case of choosing one over the other.
When you can have a Razuvaev, they will know when to turn Dvoretsky at the right time.
Unfortunately, if Kegan is right, there are very few stage 4 people let alone stage 5.