Thursday, September 6, 2007

Case Study: How to Be a Student

Some time ago I posted a passage from Bob Dylan's Chronicles where he describes his thought processes as he went about studying the music of Robert Johnson. I was reminded of that passage this evening as I was reading from the book by Josh Waitzkin I wrote about earlier today. At this point Waitzkin was living in Europe in a "gap year" after graduating from high school and before entering college. ("The one-two punch of a fame I wasn't really prepared for [following the release of Searching for Bobby Fischer] and a building sense of alienation from the art I loved had me hungering for escape.") Here he walks us through the study ritual that he created for himself in his new environment:

At this point in my career, despite my issues, I was still a strong chess player competing against world-class rivals. Each tournament game was riddled with intricate complications and hour upon hour of mounting tension. My opponents and I created increasingly subtle problems for the other to solve, building the pressure in the position until the chessboard and the mind itself felt like a fault line, trembling, on the verge of explosion. Sometimes technical superiority proved decisive, but more often somebody cracked, as if a tiny weakness deep in the being erupted onto the board.

These moments, where the technical and psychological collide, are where I directed my study of the game. In the course of a nine-round chess tournament, I'd arrive at around four or five critical positions that I didn't quite understand or in which I made an error. Immediately after each of my games, I quickly entered the moves into my computer, noting my thought process and how I felt emotionally at various stages of the battle. Then after the tournament, armed with these fresh impressions, I went back to Vrholvje and studied the critical moments.

...Usually long study sessions went like this: I began with the critical position from one of my games, where my intuitive understanding had not been up to the challenge. At first my mind was like a runner on a cold winter morning—stiff, unhappy about the coming jog, dreary. Then I began to move, recalling my attacking ideas in the struggle and how nothing had fully connected. I tried to pick apart my opponent's position and discovered new layers of his defensive resources, all the while my mind thawing, integrating the evolving structural dynamics it had not understood before. Over time my blood started flowing, sweat came, I settled into the rhythm of analysis, soaked in countless patterns of evolving sophistication as I pored over what a computer would consider billions of variations. Like a runner in stride, my thinking became unhindered, free-flowing, faster and faster as I lost myself in the position. Sometimes the study would take six hours in one sitting, sometimes thirty hours over a week. I felt like I was living, breathing, sleeping in that maze, and then, as if from nowhere, all the complications dissolved and I understood.

When I looked at the critical position from my tournament game, what had stumped me a few days or hours before now seemed perfectly apparent. I saw the best move, felt the correct plan, understood the evaluation of the position. I couldn't explain this new knowledge with variations or words. It felt more elemental, like rippling water or a light breeze. My chess intuition had deepened... (73-4)

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