The Art of Learning By Josh Waitzkin. 265 pp. Free Press. $25.
After the release of the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer in 1993, Josh Waitzkin was sixteen years old and the most famous chess master in America—except for Bobby Fischer himself. Fischer, however, was moving around Eastern Europe, unable to return to the U.S. without risking arrest after violating the sanctions against Yugoslavia the previous year by playing a match there with Boris Spassky.
Waitzkin was the “Next Great Hope” of American chess. As the movie (based on the book of the same title by his father, Fred Waitzkin) describes, after Fischer’s spectacular victory in the “Match of the Century” over Spassky in 1972 and subsequent retirement, American chess organizations and players longed for a new homegrown challenger for the supreme title. Josh Waitzkin’s results until Searching for Bobby Fischer showed the potential to enter the elite of world chess, perhaps even become World Champion.
As he explains in his new book, The Art of Learning, the movie changed the whole direction of his life:
While I adjusted to the glare of the media spotlight, my relationship to chess was slowly becoming less organic. I found myself playing to live up to Hollywood expectations instead of for love of the game.
In October 1998 Waitzkin walked into a Tai Chi class in Manhattan. Within months he had left competitive chess and in November 2000, after just two years of Tai Chi study, he won an American National Championship in Push Hands, the competitive form of Tai Chi. In 2002 he won a bronze medal at the World Championships in Taiwan, and in 2004 he reached the pinnacle of the sport with two World Championships.
When a man performs at a world level in not one, but two forms of competition, he gains the right to have his ideas on learning, training and performance psychology given careful consideration. The problem is that some champions are either unable or unwilling to communicate their methods and techniques to others.
Thankfully, Josh Waitzkin has both the ability and willingness to share what he has learned and developed during his life and competitive pursuits. The result is The Art of Learning, a superb book that can help anyone who reads it and acts on its recommendation to compete, succeed, and more importantly, enjoy life to the fullest.
The book is an almost seamless blend of autobiography and training and performance insight and technique. Starting with the day that a six-year-old boy played his first game of chess in New York’s Washington Square Park, we move sequentially with Waitzkin through the years of his chess career and his subsequent pursuit of excellence in Tai Chi and Push Hands competition.
While there is nothing startling or completely original about the book’s insights into sports, the mind and the pursuit of excellence, it manages to both entertain and instruct in a wonderful, upbeat way. Most other books on sports psychology and mental training are dull and didactic by comparison. When Waitzkin, for example, explains and demystifies how use an opponent’s blink to gain the advantage, make a move and drop him to the ground, one realizes how much hooey many books on the martial arts contain.
For this reviewer the most personally rewarding insight in the book was how to use opponent’s attempts to intimidate you or downright break the rules and cheat to your own advantage, turning the natural outrage one feels in this situation into energy and will to win. This mindset will serve you well at work, in sports, even on the daily commute!
The climax of the book is Waitzkin’s trip to Taiwan in 2004, where he encounters last-minute rule changes, blatant failure to award points that he’s won and even not ending a round on time because he’s ahead. Fortunately, he’d encountered this at previous Championships and had planned and trained to use these things to power him toward the performance of his life.
In the final analysis no training technique or sports psychology principle results in real performance gains if not consistently, diligently applied over a long period of time. Waitzkin’s great gift to the reader in this book is to emphasize that reality of hard, sustained effort, while sharing a sense of joy in the process of becoming the best that one is capable of—a process that continues every day of our lives.
The Art of Learning delivers even more than the title promises, and I highly recommend it.
(Cross-posted at Eternity Road and Illumination, Inc.)