Stoned Chess

The Stone, “a forum for contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless,” is a section of the Opinionator, “Exclusive Online Commentary From The New York Times.” ( The article in the Monday, June 10, 2013 online edition is, The Myth of ‘Just Do It,’ by Barbara Gail Montero. She writes, “…thinking about what you are doing,as you are doing it, interferes with performance.” Then she asks, “But why not?” Why not, indeed.
“Although novice athletes need to think about what they are doing, experts in normal situations, we are told by the University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock in her recent book “Choke,” ought not to since, as she puts it, “careful consideration can get them in trouble.” Based on experiments she and her colleagues have performed, she concludes that high-pressure situations lead experts to think in action and that such thinking tends to cause choking, or “paralysis by analysis.” To prevent this, she advises, you need to “play outside your head.”
Or, as a 13-time winner on the Professional Golfers Association Tour, Dave Hill, put it: “Golf is like sex. You can’t be thinking about the mechanics of the act while you are performing.” I played golf in my younger days, and I watch golf now. I am here to tell you that golf is definitely NOT like sex! Dave may have meant you should not think about it, but just do it. It seems, though, that to do it requires one to cogitate about it first, at least a little.
By now you are probably asking yourself what this has to do with chess. Please, bear with me. While reading the part about choking I conjured up the picture of GM Magnus Carlsen playing GM Peter Svidler in the last round of the recent London Candidates tournament. Magnus usually sits there calmly, giving the impression he is above it all, as he grinds down another top tier GM. Yet during this game, which he felt was a must win situation, he was on his knees, up in his chair with his arms on the table as his head hovered over the board, while his time dwindled. He looked like any twelve year old boy in a junior tournament. The impression given was of someone trying too hard in lieu of letting it happen. As I continued to read my thoughts drifted back to something Big Al Hamilton said to the love of my life, Gail Childs, at a chess tournament, the 1980 US Open in Atlanta, Georgia, decades ago. She mentioned later Al told her I was “Trying too hard.”
Realizing I had continued reading while my thoughts drifted to another time and place I made myself focus in order to stay in the “now.” This paragraph came next: “Though the University of California at Berkeley philosopher Hubert Dreyfus takes his inspiration more from Merleau-Ponty and Martin Heidegger than from empirical studies, the conclusions he arrives at resonate with Beilock’s. Dreyfus has long argued that “the enemy of expertise is thought” and that the apogee of human performance is exemplified in seamless, unreflective actions in which the self disappears. In a debate with the University of Pittsburgh philosopher John McDowell, published in the journal Inquiry, Dreyfus tells us that whenever Homer describes his heroes at a feast, instead of having them deliberately reach for bread in baskets or bowls brimful to drink, “their arms shot out to the food lying ready before them.” Similarly, says Dreyfus, the grandmaster chess player might find “his arm going out and making a move before he can take in the board position.” As with the master archer in Eugen Herrigel’s perennially popular “Zen in the Art of Archery,” neither Odysseus feasting at a banquet nor the grandmaster playing chess moves his arm; rather “it shoots.”
This reminded me of the famous quote by GM Miguel Najdorf about World Champion Bobby Fischer, “Bobby just drops the pieces and they fall on the right squares.” I do not believe one Grandmaster has ever given another a better compliment.
The articles continues, “It may very well be that our ordinary actions, like eating — especially when famished after a battle — do in some sense just happen to us. Yet what are we to say about the grandmaster as he closes the mating net? According to Dreyfus, Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger teach us that “what we are directly open to is not rational or even conceptual … [rather,] it is the affordance’s solicitation — such as the attraction of an apple when I’m hungry.” The problem with this picture for chess, however, is that the attractive apple is often poisoned. In such cases, leaving reason behind leads you right into your opponent’s trap.”
Having taken far too many bites out of a poisoned apple all I can say is that I have been there and done that a few too many times!
Near the end Barbara writes, “Perhaps golf is like sex, not because, as Dave Hill claimed, attention to performance interferes with expert action, but rather because both the sex drive and the expert’s drive to excel can be all-encompassing.”
I will drink to that!


One thought on “Stoned Chess

  1. Philip Feeley says:

    So, ” Move first, think later” ?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s