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Ashley Teaches Teachers

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American GM, teacher, and organizer Maurice Ashley is the subject of the latest chess article on the homepage of the New York Times. That's three in a month, believe it or not. This one is a new class Ashley is teaching at City College in Harlem on using chess and chess metaphor to improve thinking and teaching methodology.

This is going to be an even bigger topic when Kasparov's When Life Imitates Chess comes out in the fall. Both chessplayers and non-players seem divided into two camps on such material. One says that it's contrived BS that could be done just as well with cycling or darts. The other says that since chess is itself a metaphor, and is a game of thinking and thinking about thinking, there are many useful parallels, especially in the business and teaching spheres.

I was somewhere in the middle for a while, but after working on speeches for business groups on chess and strategy, with asides on politics and the military, I realized there are many interesting and insightful analogies. Of course some of the examples are trite and others could be about anything, but concepts like material vs time, understanding your own weaknesses, the initiative, and strategy vs tactics are powerful in business contexts. Many aren't unique to chess, but the game provides a vivid metaphor with a rich history of examples and anecdotes, which makes for interesting listening and reading.


I hate to be negative (okay, maybe it's fun to vent once in a while) but do we have the slightest shred of evidence that chess players are better than the average at getting ahead in business, politics, relationships, or any other non-chess real world activity? I haven't seen any such evidence in my circle. IMNSHO, most success and happiness in life (after school) does not come from overuse of the left brain.

I don't think it's a question of being better in those fields, it's more of cross-pollination. They bring a different way of looking at problem solving and decision making. Analogies and examples are often the best way of learning new ways of doing things because they allow you to work out your own context instead of just being told what to think. This is why you had Sun Tzu becoming a business best-seller a few years ago and why people from disparate disciplines (athletics, politics, music) can write inspiring, even practical, books.

I don't think that chess ideas can translate to a broad audience easily, in a gut-level, experiential sense. Consider your (Mig's) example of material vs time. This is hard for a USCF-1800 player to grasp--when is a pawn worth an advantage in development, how to exploit?--and such a person has on average put more than a year into working on chess. And there are very few such people. So my first point is, I feel, rather obvious: You can't leverage intuitive chess comprehension into other applications for your typical audience member.

This leaves you with anecdotes and metaphors. Fair enough, and as you say it can be very interesting. But it begs the question of 'value to your consumer'. Arguably other abilities or skills (such as basic self-awareness) can be much more relevant than knowing the value of the initiative. All depends, right? Who's the audience? What are they trying to accomplish? The NYTimes article touches briefly on Ashley's themes: Retrograde thinking, respect, flexibility, pushing one's awareness. These are great tools, no kidding, but does the message work in translation or does it wind up being God forbid trite? We'd have to sit in to find out.

But how bout this: Not everyone can be Mr. Ashley, using chess as their basis for teaching teachers and thinking about thinking. Yet maybe there is still a type of chess-relevance that is more internal. For example I know that chess affects how I think, problem solve etcetera (even if I'm not USCF 1800!) and it's a very unconscious influence. And I teach some, as it happens. I think a really interesting question is: Can I promote [sic] my internal chess influences to a more conscious level that benefits the way I teach? Not by calling up a chess metaphor in the midst of a lesson on star formation... but maybe thinking about retrograde strategy in lesson planning, just as an example. The basic connection, the basic metaphor is definitely there because so much of teaching is improvisation. After the first couple moves.

Finally (whew this is prolix) I seem to be back at the original bind: Yes I benefit from chess, but only after playing for a long time in order to internalize things that translate. So where's the benefit to other people who don't have spare years to sit around in coffee shops? At least not when they could be playing DOOM-VI, let's not kid ourselves. I think Candide would suggest I just shut up and teach chess.

Considering the number of unmarried, poorly dressed, nearly homeless people at the local chess club I would tend to be of the opinion that chess might not be the best example of people making good decisions in life.

I like Primo Levi when he says: beware analogies.

"Should the educator take as his model the smith, who roughly pounds the iron and gives it shape and nobility, or the vintner, who achieves the same result with wine, separating himself from it and shutting it up in the darkness of a cellar? Is it better for the mother to imitate the pelican, who plucks out her feathers, stripping herself, to make the nest for her little ones soft, or the bear, who urges her cubs to climb to the top of the fir tree and then abandons them up there, going off without a backward glance? Is quenching a better didactic system than the tempering which follows it? Beware of analogies: for millenia they corrupted medecine, and it may be their fault that today's pedagogical systems are so numerous, and after three thousand years of argument wes till don't actually know which is best."

Mig, I know this is off topic, but when are the next 2 parts of your Kasparov interview to be posted? Thanks.

I've heard it said that pouring one's self into any art teaches someone, at the very least, "the art of mastery".

Perhaps so with chess as with many other activities, but I can say that as an avid amateur, as well as learning how to play chess, I am learning how to become more efficient at learning to play chess, a skill which can be transferred to learning to do anything. Even if chess itself offers nothing, the pursuit of it surely does.

J.A.: being unmarried, poorly dressed, and poor does not necessarily mean having made the wrong decisions. It can be a sign, sure...

Mig: What ABOUT those Kasparov interview segments? =)

I wonder if the business and life lessons one draws from the game of go might be wiser than those drawn from chess. In chess you have a single goal, checkmating the king, and it's fine to disregard all costs if you can reach it. That's a bit scary as a business plan or life plan!

I've heard that in Japan, go metaphors are common in discussions of business strategy, and that expertise in go is sometimes even a consideration in promotion. A quick google search found the book _The way of Go: 8 Ancient Strategy Secrets for success in Business and Life_ by Troy Anderson (ISBN: 0743258142) I don't know if it's any good, but it might be worth a look, if you're interested in this sort of thing.

What does being unmarried have to do with making poor decisions? Seems to me poor decisions can result in marriage. :-)

Seriously fellas, I don't think that chess can really help us out in our daily lives. It's too much of a recreation. Chess is mainly a game played by introvert and shy personalities like myself. Most of the teachers involved in Ashley's sessions are Maths teachers and I think that's because there tends to be a fixed stereotypification that children who are good at Maths are normally adept at chess and I seriously believed that this judgement is flawed. You know, Siegbert Tarrasch, albeit a medical doctor and a keen scholar, is very incapable at maths, maybe that slight shortcoming is the factor leading to his trouncing at the hands of Lasker, a Maths PhD. The only top-ranked players I know who are good at Maths and capable of saying that children good at Maths are able to apply their calculative skills to the chessboard is probably Kasparov. Finally, I've just got to say that my friends who are very good at Maths lost their intrust for chess after losing their games repeated to me. Possibly I'm to blame for their loss in interest. :(

oops, it's 'interest' in last 3rd line and 'repeatedly' in the 2nd last line. (that's what happens when you forgot typed too fast. ;) ) The other top-ranked players good at Maths I forgot to mention are Lasker (of course!!) and Karpov. Also, I forgot to mention that Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman, the two renowned physcists, both world-renowned scinetists as well as mathematicians, are pretty horrendous at chess, although both of them are very passionate about the game and they even played some games with each other. (I wonder what the scores were!) Einstein was a loyal enthusiast of chess throughout his life and he once lived with Lasker and played some offhand games with him in the 1930s. He also once wrote a thesis or a novella on his appreciation of the beauty that he finds in chess. I don't know how many of you guys know that but this information was imparted by my maths-crazed and physics-freaked friends.

Did anyone read Bruce Pandolfini's book on chess and business? I really wanted to like the book, but thought it ended up being a series of utterly worthless platitudes and anecdotes--informative to neither the chess nor the business worlds.

I recall at least one currency trading firm seeking chessplayers' resumes many years ago, after noticing that some of their better traders were chessplayers. I don't know how the experiment worked out.

I don't personally think that chess skills translate into any special insights off the board. Indeed, the compulsive personality component that spurs one on to chess improvement seems to generally exclude the possibility of success in other fields.

It would be interesting to list strong chessplayers who have succeeded simultaneously in other fields. I can think of:

Simon Agdestein (Soccer)
Robert Hubner (Papyrology)

There must be others.

Chess has nothing specific to offer the world of business that hasn't already been offered in a thousand management books. And while there might be "vivid metaphor with a rich history" inherent in chess, most businessmen are not chess players...and I doubt that those of us who *are* will get much additional from the book anyway.

I do, however, find that chess players are taller, handsomer, wittier, and have that certain je ne sais quois with women. Or maybe I'm just speaking from personal experience.

Well, according to the title of the course given in the NY Times piece, GM Ashley's course is fairly limited: Teaching Logical Thinking through Chess. Sounds reasonable to me. Most chess problems include some kind of goal and one approach to solving them could involve a chain of logical deduction, identifying the difficulties and how to overcome or bypass them.

Of course another approach could involve semilogical "thinking" along the lines of "I go bang, he goes boom, I go bing, check, he moves the Rook, I take" etc. And of course skill at Chess doesn't imply skill at any other human endeavor, let alone any degree of what's generally known as "intelligence."
But one could say the same about any other two skills or groups of skills: skill at boxing doesn't imply skill at high finance; skill at games doesn't imply skill at sports and so forth.

But there are undoubtably lessons from life that can be applied to Chess and vice versa. My favorite du jour is the extensive commentary and analysis from GM Josh Waitzkin on Chessmaster 8000 that links Chess and Zen . . . yield and prevail . . . let the moves be moves . . . what is the sound of one piece hanging . . . does a passed Rook Pawn have Buddha-nature?

Mig you are absolutely killing me with those Kasparov interviews just do it already it is not fair!

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    This page contains a single entry by Mig published on April 12, 2005 3:49 PM.

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