Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Second Wind, a book review of "BOUNCE" by an expert level chess player...

Okay it has been a LOOOOONNNNNNGGGGG time since I last posted. Being busy is no excuse though!

With my time off I have played in some chess events, started up another chess club and begun to get my Semester in order. Setting up chess lessons - group and private - and of course chess camps. With ten possible clubs coming online for this Semester I have a lot of work looming up in front of me - but it is fun work! So I do not have a second to waste!

Books I have read recently? Books on "Bobby" are big right now and Frank Brady has a new one coming out - "ENDGAME" so I will look forward to that read - once it falls into my hands. Right now I am reading "BOUNCE" by Matthew Syed. Also working on the collected works of H.P. Lovecraft. Yes, I know, I know - only "BOUNCE" has anything to do with chess at all. So here is what I have to say about this book.

"BOUNCE" is the latest book to weigh in on the grand debate of Nature vs Nurture. Basically the thesis of this book is that given 10 years - with 1,000 hours of solid and top notch practice per year - that anyone can master anything. He cites chess quite a bit. That is where the problems start.

I know a lot about chess - not as much as some but a lot more than most. So when he makes the claim that DEEP BLUE had mastered the game of chess by the time it played Kasparov in their final historic match I really do take exception to that. His claim is false and here is where his argument falls flat. Kasparov blundered the last game away - are we really going to judge the entire match on that alone? Are we also going to also ignore the fact that the opening book that was used against Kasparov was selected by GMs working for the Deep Blue team - between games even! I guess the machine did not really select it's own strategy against Kasparov. Okay I could go on about that match as I have covered this before so I will set that aside for right now.

He also talks about chess as if there were no difference between how people interpret the board and how we play. I guess all of the expert and master class chess players out there are only imagining the difference between the styles of a Kasparov or a Karpov. Must have been a figment of our collective imaginations I guess. Or Matthew Syed doesn't know what he is talking about.

Matthew Syed likes to draw up parallels between chess and physical sport - another area where his argument begins to flounder a bit. He likes to use the argument about how more experienced players recognize patterns quicker than less experienced players and this is essentially the meat of his argument in this regard. Federer is the best at tennis because he has accumulated thousands upon thousands of hours of practice - so when he sees an opponent begin to serve he can anticipate where the ball will go - based upon their trunk movements etc., - thus making it seem like he is even faster than others or in the right place at the right time - as if by some miracle. There is something to this argument but once again if this were merely the case why aren't their millions of Federer's in the world? People all in a pack - first among equals and a different winner for every Major? Clearly there is more at play than just Mr. Federer's practice time spent before the big event. Did he get there by not practicing though? No - most certainly not. To exercise you potential you have to push yourself and that always requires work.

Mr. Syed also talks about chess mastery as if it requires only a certain kind of knowledge or perhaps a couple of major skill sets. So does mastery take only one skill set or many? He seems unclear on this issue at various points during his narrative.

He chalks up discernible differences in displayed skill levels to the amount of practice time. Working with children - teaching them how to play chess - I have seen a lot of different ways in which youngsters learn the game. And most definitely their are youngsters out there that have faster processors than other children. Most certainly faster thinkers than me! I even have one student who plays like an adult and prefers to only play only long time control games. Chess requires many different skills and each player tackles the problems presented to them during a game based upon their individual understanding of chess. Chess has many facets... I feel that Mr. Sayed gives chess short shrift in this regard. To improve requires work - I agree with him in that regard. But if you put the time in will you become a World Champion? That is something altogether entirely different.

I am not an expert on Tennis or music or for that matter any of the other areas of human endeavor where people have excelled that Mr. Syed cites throughout his book. I cannot judge his statements on those areas of human endeavor as some expert on that particular sport or activity could - but knowing how off the mark he is about chess I have this uneasy feeling that things are not merely as simple as he presents them. How could they be?

I do agree with his point that if you work hard then you will develop your game. Yes, you can even master an activity. But are you really going to be the next Karpov, Fischer or Kasparov just because you put your time in and have the "right" kind of training? Is mastery just one level - that is the same for everyone who attains it? That is where his argument falls down quite a bit. The reality is that there is a balance between our genetic endowment and what we learn and how we process what we have learned. I believe in hard work - all the talent in the world will not get you anywhere at all without a work ethic. There can be no progress without a talent for working hard. That is just given. Nature and Nurture - the two are intertwined.

While I find this book to be excellent food for thought and while I am very much impressed with the level of the author's researches into this topic I have to say that I have found quite a few of his chess examples to be lacking in the substance he would have us all believe that they are endowed with. All of his arguments just do not hold up under expert scrutiny of the specifics - at least as far as chess is concerned. Some of his arguments are correct - but what he is tackling is a far bigger subject than can be dissected between any two covers of any one book. I find myself in a general sense to be very much in agreement with him - while at odds with his thesis in terms of the different ranges of human potential that any one person can and does fall in between or that we could hope to even be able to express given a perfect world scenario.

- Time to bounce! Make it a great day!!