All The Wrong Moves: A Memoir About Chess, Love, and Ruining Everything
by Sasha Chapin
I liked and enjoyed reading this book immensely. Chess people who have sold Chess as some kind of panacea for helping children learn will loath this book because it contains the enemy of the fraudsters; the truth. I give it a wholehearted thumbs up. The author is a professional writer and the book flowed. The book was read in only a couple of days because it was riveting. As usual I have yet to read any review of the book but will upon completion of the review, which will be a non-traditional review in that more than one post will be written about the book. This post is part one of who knows how many posts will be written.
authored the very successful book Outliers
in which he popularized the now infamous “10,000 hour rule.” As Sasha puts it, “…if you’re really good at something, it’s because you’ve spent about ten thousand hours on it.”
The first time Gladwell’s theory was encountered made me laugh out loud. “What a crock,” was my initial thought. It brought to mind a former school mate, the tall and lanky Leon Henry. Leon was the slowest runner I have ever seen. He was far too slow to play for the school basketball team. When we were high school seniors it was decided to have a basketball game between the faculty and students, but only the students who had not played on the school team were eligible. Leon wanted to play on the team but the other members were against it. The only reason there was to be a game was because a new, young teacher and sportsman had become the Baseball coach. Prior to coach Jim Jackson arriving the football coach was also the Baseball coach, and he did little coaching of the Baseball team. Coach Jackson had been offered about ten grand by the New York Mets to play Baseball but had a wife and child and the woman talked him into becoming a teacher and coach. Basically, the teacher team consisted of four old, tired, and slow men and coach Jackson. The coach made those of us on the Baseball team who would be playing later that night run extra laps to, hopefully, wear us out.
Leon begged for a chance to play, so coach Jackson decided that Leon could play that night if, and only if, Leon could beat me in a foot race. Since Leon had no chance coach Jackson altered the usual rules for a race. All Leon had to do was run from one end of the basketball court to the other end before I could run down the court and return. When the whistle blew I had to run towards Leon, who would be running hard, then turn around and run back toward the finish line. I had to run twice as far as Leon. This was a piece of cake. Leon, and everyone else, knew he had no chance. There was much laughter when we began running.
Leon won the race.
“You pulled up, Bacon,” said coach Jackson.
“I think I pulled a hammy, coach,” I said in my defense. Coach Jackson guffawed. “Hell Mike, you could out run Leon with a TORN hamstring!”
With Leon on the court there was no fast break possible. Leon had to stay on only one side of the court, so we had him stay back on defense and “stick with coach Jackson like glue.” In addition, I would also stick with coach Jackson, so he was double-teamed, which was my plan all along, and the reason I “pulled up.”
Coach Jackson made a buzzer-beater shot to win the game, but I had a new best friend…
If Leon Henry ran every day until completing ten thousand hours he would never have been able to increase his speed because of genetics. I do not care if Leon ran ten million hours, he would never have been able to run fast. There are people with brains about as slow as Leon’s legs. One of them played regularly at the House of Pain (the Atlanta Chess & Game Center, not to be confused with GM Ben Finegold’s Atlanta Chess & Scholastic Center, which is located in Roswell, Georgia, the seventh largest city in the Great State of Georgia, making the name “Atlanta” a misnomer). The man had made it to class C even though he could not locate the square to which he was moving to or from on the board without first looking at the letter and then the number located on the side of the board. He did this every move, and he had been doing it for many years because his brain could not, for whatever reason, look at the board and see the square two rows in front of the king pawn as e4. If you do not have it all the time in the world will not give it to you no matter how much or hard you try.
Sasha Chapin blows Malcolm Gladwell out of the water when he writes, “Now obviously, nobody is silly enough to think that talent doesn’t exist, period. That’s not the debate here. The existence of talent is proven by the fact of people like Strinivasa Ramanujan
(http://www-groups.dcs.st-and.ac.uk/history/Biographies/Ramanujan.html)-the man who, without any formal training, became one of the greatest mathematicians who ever lived, effortlessly emitting utterly complicated theorems that astounded his colleagues. The debate here is about proportion. It’s about whether people like Ramanujan, the true freaks, are the only cases in which talent is a primary factor – whether talent is relevant only in the most extreme cases. Can we ordinary people blame talent for our lack of success? When we say that we don’t have talent, are we just coming up with a convenient excuse for our lack of diligence? To what extent can we transcend certain inborn aptitudes?
These are big questions. They don’t have simple answers or at least none that I’m qualified to provide. But if we limit the discussion to chess, the answer is clear. The data shows that talent matters. A lot.
Probably the most persuasive piece of evidence that talent is important in games in general is a meta-analysis conducted by Macnamara et al., published in Psychological Science in 2014. (https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0956797614535810) (I posted about this years ago @ https://xpertchesslessons.wordpress.com/2015/02/28/can-you-handle-the-truth/) After analyzing a combination of eighty eight studies of skill acquisition, the researchers concluded that, when it comes to games, only 25 percent of individual variance in skill level can be attributed to practice. Practice is valuable, but its importance is dominated by a combination of other factors, like working memory, general intelligence, and starting age. So the paper suggest that if you want to be a world-class player, you should start really, really young and be really, really lucky with your genetics. This was further corroborated by another meta-analysis conducted by the same researchers, pertaining specifically to chess players, which demonstrated the same conclusion.
Now, there’s an obvious objection here – can’t playing chess make you more intelligent, thus improving your raw talent in a roundabout way? Well, current evidence say no. According to another study published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, playing chess doesn’t improve your non-chess faculties significantly. (One interesting implication here is that a lot of the chess economy is built on a fraud: lots of parents send their children to expensive chess camps in an effort to make them smarter, in the same way that some other parents enhance their babies with Mozart,
but this effort seems futile, based on the data.)
This is not nearly all of the evidence for my side of the debate. There are a lot more factors that make the deliberate practice hypothesis look even more doomed. Like the fact that the ability to practice for hours is itself genetically influenced – it relies on traits like conscientiousness, which are highly heritable. The basic case is made: talent matters. Unless all of this research somehow fails to replicate, or is fundamentally flawed in non-obvious ways – which, of course, is possible – then Gladwell’s rule does not belong on the chessboard.”
So, then, exactly how big is the gulf between the talented player and the untalented player? Quite simply: it’s huge.”