On Chess and How to Think

One of the better blog posts I have seen on the subject. Key passage:

Most of us probably think that Spiegel was teaching the kids chess. Of course she often passed along specific chess knowledge: how to weigh the comparative value of moves, etc. “But most of the time,” Tough writes, “it struck me whenever I watched (Elizabeth Spiegel) at work, what she was really doing was far simpler, and also far more complicated: she was teaching her students a new way to think.”

Two of the most important executive functions are cognitive flexibility and cognitive self-control. Cognitive flexibility is the ability to see alternative solutions to problems, to think outside the box, to negotiate unfamiliar situations. Cognitive self-control is the ability to inhibit an instinctive or habitual response and substitute a more effective, less obvious one. Both skills are central to the training Spiegel gives to her students. To prevail at chess, she says, you need a heightened ability to see new and different ideas: Which especially creative winning move have you overlooked? And which potentially lethal move of your opponent’s are you blindly ignoring? She also teaches them to resist the temptation to pursue an immediately attractive move, since that type of move (as Sebastian Garcia found out) often leads to trouble down the road. “Teaching chess is really about teaching the habits that go along with thinking,” Spiegel explained to me one morning when I visited her classroom. “Like how to understand your mistakes and how to be more aware of your thought processes.”

Before she was a a full-time chess teacher, Spiegel taught an eighth-grade honors English class. She taught them the same way she taught Sebastian: ruthlessly analyzing everything.

When students turned in writing assignments, she went through each assignment sentence by sentence with each student, asking, Well, are you sure that’s the best way to say what you want to say? “They looked at me like I was insane,” she told me. “I would write them these long letters about what they’d written. It would take me the whole evening to do six or seven of them.”

Although her teaching style might not have been the right fit for English, this helped her better understand how to teach chess. Rather than follow a set curriculum, she decided to construct her calendar as she went, focusing “entirely on what her students knew and, more important, on what they didn’t know.”

For instance, she would take her students to a weekend tournament and notice that many of them were hanging pieces , meaning they were leaving pieces undefended, which made them easy targets. The following Monday, she would organize the whole class around how not to hang pieces, reconstructing the students’ flawed games on the green felt practice boards hung on hooks at the front of her classroom. Again and again, she would go over her students’ games, both individually and as a class, analyzing exactly where a player had gone wrong, what he could have done differently, what might have happened if he had made the better move, and playing out these counterfactual scenarios for several moves before returning to the moment of error.

Sensible though this process might sound, it’s actually a pretty unusual way to teach chess, or to learn it. “It’s uncomfortable to focus so intensely on what you’re bad at,” Spiegel told me. “So the way people usually study chess is they read a book about chess, which can be fun and often intellectually amusing, but it doesn’t actually translate into skill. If you really want to get better at chess, you have to look at your games and figure out what you’re doing wrong.”

(Via Ethan Treviño, via social media.)


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