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Education Bookcast

Sep 28, 2017

Josh Waitzkin was the international under-18 chess champion at age 18, only to quit chess at age 22 and pursue Tai-chi Push Hands, the martial application of Tai Chi. He became world champion in this martial art at age 28, and won the title several more times since then.

As an accomplished competitor in two fields - one mental, one mostly physical - a book written by him about how he learns is obviously going to contain some interesting ideas. The main themes of what he writes about are two: learning by focusing on principles and deeply understanding the fundamentals; and how to increase concentration and overcome distraction.

Interestingly, many of the things that Waitzkin writes in his own personal way square with a lot of findings of cognitive science, many of which we already talked about in other episodes of the podcast. Ideas such as the role of the subconscious, chunking, and expert blindness all appear in his writing, but he usually refers to these by other names.

Two quotes from the book didn't make it into the recording, but are worth sharing, and so I will share them below.

On losing: "There is something particularly painful about being beaten in a chess game. In the course of a battle, each player puts every ounce of his or her tactical, strategical, emotional, physical, and spiritual being into the struggle. The brain is pushed through terrible trials; we stretch every fibre of our mental capacity; the whole body aches from exhaustion after hours of rapt concentration. In the course of a dynamic chess fight, there will be shifts in momentum, near misses, narrow escapes, innovative creations, and precise refutations. When your position teeters on the brink of disaster, it feels like your life is on the line. When you win, you survive another day. When you lose, it is as if someone has torn out your heart and stepped on it. No exaggeration. Losing is brutal."

On competition: "From one perspective the opponent is the enemy. On the other hand there is no one who knows you more intimately, no one who challenges you so profoundly or pushes you to excellence and growth so relentlessly."

Enjoy the episode.

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