SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISCHER
by Theo Slade
I was recently given a book by WIM Jen Hansen called The Art of Learning (TAoL). Her husband, GM Lars Bo Hansen, is my coach, but I also get a lot of help from Jen on psychological aspects of chess as not only is she a very strong chess player in her own right, she is also an educational psychologist.
TAoL is a book by Josh Waitzkin. Does that name sound familiar? You may have heard of him because he was the protagonist in the book and film Searching for Bobby Fischer. The book was written by Josh's father, but the film uses artistic license (as do many chess films), particularly overstating his success.
Americans love winners — recently I played in a tournament in the US, and I played really well. I went into Sunday on 3/3, drew as Black against the top seed in round four, and finally, in the last round I needed a draw to tie for first place, and as it turned out a draw would have won me the tournament on tiebreaks. I had what seemed to me an overwhelming advantage, and was not content to merely share first place if I drew, so naturally I pushed for the win. However, at one point the position got extremely complicated and although there was a winning continuation, I blundered and lost. However, what was even more frustrating for me was that after that game it was almost as if I had not played in the tournament at all. It was all about my final round opponent who beat me to win the tournament. This is nothing against him – we are friends – but I found it incredibly annoying that no one even consoled me after the tournament; all anyone wanted to do was take pictures of the winner with the trophy, and I was a mere afterthought.
Anyway, going back to TAoL, although it is true that Josh was an eight-time US Junior Chess Champion, he was not as successful on the world stage. In fact, he never even made GM (his peak rating was 2480), but this did not come across at all in his book. However, in 1994, he did come very close to becoming World U18 Champion. “Entering the final round I was tied for first place with the Russian champion, Peter Svidler. He was an immensely powerful player and is now one of the top Grandmasters in the world, but going into this game I was very confident. He must have felt that, because Svidler offered me a draw after just an hour of play.” Unfortunately, I do not know how late “just an hour of play” is into the game in terms of moves, but I would imagine that it is somewhere in the opening, where White is better simply because Svidler employed the Pirc in this game. “All I had to do was shake hands to share the world title – it was unclear who would win on tiebreaks. Shake hands! But in my inimitable leave-it-on-the-field style that has won and lost me many a battle, I declined, pushed for a win, and ended up losing an absolute heartbreaker.”
However, Josh did manage to become World Champion eventually ... in Tai Chi Chuan Push Hands! On the face of it, chess and Tai Chi are totally different. However, Josh discovered that his chess education helped him enormously in his Tai Chi pursuits. Without wanting to write a boring book review, I will give you a flavour of it instead. Once you get into the book, it is actually very useful and entertaining.
The first thing that struck me is a concept that Waitzkin likes to call The Soft Zone. Josh writes in his book that when he was younger he used to get distracted when playing chess and do all in his power to eliminate the distraction. However, as he learned more about distraction, he realized that he could never fully eliminate it. He talks about this in the Making Sandals chapter. He writes, “to walk a thorny road, we may cover its every inch with leather or we can make sandals.” This is what The Soft Zone is. He learned to use the distractions to his advantage to drive him into a heightened state of awareness. The final step of this learning process was to create the distractions internally to put himself in the best possible state, without there being any need for external distraction.
Later, he elaborates on this point even more: “It has been my observation that the greatest performers convert their passions into fuel with tremendous consistency. There are examples in every discipline. For basketball fans, think about the Reggie Miller/Spike Lee saga. Lee is New York’s No. 1 Knicks fan. Reggie Miller was the star of the Indiana Pacers from 1987 to 2005. Throughout the 1990s, the Knicks and Pacers repeatedly met in the playoffs and Lee would be sitting in his courtside seat in Madison Square Garden for every home game. Time and again he would heckle Miller until Miller started to respond. At first this looked like a good situation to Knicks fans. Spike was distracting Reggie from the game. Sometimes it seemed that Reggie was paying more attention to Spike than to the Knicks. But then it became apparent that Miller was using Lee as fuel for his fire. Over and over, Reggie would banter with Spike while torching the Knicks with unbelievable shooting. After a while Knicks fans just hoped Spike would shut up. The lesson had been learned — don’t piss off Reggie.”
Overall, I really enjoyed reading Josh’s book, which demonstrates his remarkable ability to reinvent himself from a top chess player, to a Tai Chi Chuan Push Hands World Champion, to an author and motivational speaker, but was he the next Bobby Fischer...? Over forty years since Fischer was World Champion and eight years since his death, it seems we are still Searching for Bobby Fischer...