Dennis M's Chess Site

This is a blog for chess fans by a chess fan. I enjoy winning as much as anyone else, and I've had a reasonable amount of success as a competitor, but what keeps me coming back to the game is its beauty. And that, primarily, is what this site will be about! All material copyrighted.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Want to Play Worse? Teach!

After not playing in tournaments for several years, I made a small comeback in 1997, and enjoyed some success, too. However, when I told New York legend Asa Hoffman that I was also starting to teach chess, he warned me that it would harm my play, offering two or three examples of other reasonably strong players whose ratings took a bit of a plunge shortly after starting to teach. (Call the claim that teaching is bad for one's chess "Asa's thesis".)

On the other hand, it is a well-established bit of teaching lore that teachers learn more than their students; that teaching, done right, is a positive thing for student and teacher alike. So what's the truth of the matter?

I hadn't thought about the matter for a long time, but this morning I was doing a little pre-Super Bowl reading on and came across an interesting interview with Malcolm Gladwell. He's plugging a new book, entitled Blink; here's an excerpt from that interview relevant to the discussion above:

JM: Talk a little about tennis coach Vic Braden, the subject of one of your anecdotes. He says, "We haven't found a single (tennis) player who is consistent in knowing and explaining exactly what he does."

MG: Braden's experience is really interesting. He would ask, say, a world-class tennis player to describe precisely how they would hit a topspin forehand, and they would invariably say that they rolled their wrist at the moment of impact with the ball. And then he'd do a digital analysis of videotape of them actually hitting a topspin forehand and find out that at the moment of impact with the ball their wrist was rock solid. They didn't roll it at all. The expertise of a world-class tennis player, in other words, is instinctive, which means that the knowledge behind their actions is buried in the corners of their brain. They hit a ball unconsciously.

JM: Is that why, quite often, great players don't make such great coaches?

Yes, that's precisely why top athletes so often make bad coaches or general managers. They often don't really know why they were as good as they were. They can't describe it, which means that they can't teach it and they quickly become frustrated at their inability to lift others up to their own level. Mediocre players -- or non-athletes -- tend to make better coaches because their knowledge isn't unconscious. It's the same thing with writing. I know very little about science. But I think I write about science more clearly than many scientists, because I have to go over every step, carefully and deliberately.

Gladwell's argument would suggest that (many) strong players may have a tough time becoming teachers, but I suspect that Gladwell's claim may support and help explain Asa's thesis. My thought is this: because the way the strong player evaluates a position is intuitive, based on experience rather than any sort of reference to the kinds of general rules one might find in a treatise on positional play, he won't be of much use to his chess students. Or rather, he won't be until he starts speaking in what we might call methodese - translating his decisions into the language of textbook positional rules. As the teacher develops the habit of thinking in methodese, that may undermine the natural and automatic nature of his own style, with the inevitable result that his competitive results suffer.

I don't claim that this has to happen, or that the cognitive awkwardness, if real, needs to be permanent. Perhaps the teacher can switch from one thinking style to another without lingering effects, perhaps he will become "bilingual," and maybe he can somehow develop a thinking style that is in some way a synthesis of the two approaches.

Any thoughts from the chess teachers out there?


  • At 12:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    You make an interesting point, Dennis. While teaching CADD I have found myself knowing the solution to a problem presented, instantly. The students have been amazed but it's been impossible to tell them how I do it. The answer was simply 'in my head.' This may be simplistic, but I wonder if intuition doesn’t come from having so much experience at what ever one is teaching. Of course one can counter with the question, “Why, then, does one person of two have more intuition when the two seem to have the same life or career experience?” (Indeed [one of your favorite words], the philosophical discussions could go on and on…) How do we KNOW they both have exactly the same life experience, etc… (I better get off of this before I have a melt down).

    For me, one of the key issues in teaching Voc Ed has been the importance of keeping one's hands in one's field of expertise while continuing in the teaching profession.

    It may be that the game diminishes simply because time given over to teaching and preparation necessary to deliver a good lecture is drawn from the time pool previously used for competition.


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