Pawn Pawn

Robofriven interviews Josh Waitzkin

If you have a small interest in chess and haven't been living under a rock for the last 20 years then you've probably heard of Josh Waitzkin. He is the main character in not only the book but also the Hollywood movie Searching for Bobby Fischer, has won 8 National chess titles and has been the spokesperson for Chessmaster since 1997. In 1998 he wanted to start learning something new and moved on to Tai Chi Chuan and has had amazing success there as well. Winning 13 National Championships and is now a two time World Champion in the Thai Chi Chuan Push hands division. He's the author of the new book The Art of Learning and has been kind enough to sit down and answer some questions for me:

Q: What kind of pressure was put on you as a child being regarded as "The Next Bobby Fischer?"

JW: Well, I first started hearing those words when I was 6 years old playing in Washington Square Park. At that point it was fun, exhilarating, part of the swirl of duking it out over the board. I had no idea who Fischer was and was too innocent to be messed up by the burden. I think the attention just taught me to concentrate through distraction. By the time I was 7 and 8 and the top rated player for my age in the country, the pressure was on. I had to deal with all the other kids and coaches trying to tear me down, and that was intense...but a great training ground for life. I was lucky enough to have wonderful parents and a coach (Bruce Pandolfini) who focused on the love much more than the results.

Q: Do you feel that all of the attention you got because of Searching for Bobby Fischer took time away from your chess study?

JW: It didn't take time away but it had an impact on the quality of my work. Just to be clear, my dad's book Searching for Bobby Fischer came out when I was 11. It was raw, honest, without any Hollywood glitter, and it didn't have a negative impact on my game. I was flying high at that point, winning Nationals every year. My dad wrote about my tears, our ups and downs---he kept it very real. If anything, I would say that the book exposed my vulnerability which on a human and artistic level was healthy for me. The film came out when I was 16 and that was another story. Suddenly I was in the middle of the Hollywood spotlight. My passion was for the internal search for meaning through chess, through literature and philosophy, and now things were becoming externalized. There were groupies and tv shows and all sorts of temptations that made it difficult for a young man to maintain perspective. It is so important for a competitor to be resilient, to invest in loss, have a beginner's mind, use adversity, take on your weaknesses and turn them into strengths---but I was becoming brittle. I found myself playing to live up to other people's expectations instead of for my love of the game. Things got more materialistic, less soulful. When I graduated highschool a couple years later I left the country for a while, hitchhiking across eastern Europe, reading, meditating, escaping the cameras. I wrote about this period very honestly in The Art of Learning. It was a raw time in my life and in many ways wrestling with this crisis made me the person I am today.

Q: Was all of this attention or maybe people's such high expectations of you one of the reasons you stopped playing chess and focused on Tai Chi?

It wasn't the expectations but a sense of alienation from the game I loved. My channel for self exploration was becoming externalized and it broke my heart. I felt locked up as an artist, as a competitor, and as a human being. I remember the feeling of watching myself think from across the room instead of losing myself in thought. Buddhist and Taoist meditation and philosophy were very central to my regaining a sense of equilibrium. And when I began studying Tai Chi, the reality that I was just another beginner was a tremendous liberation...from myself more than from anybody else.

Q: Are you in fact now retired from chess, or do you plan on a comeback?

JW: I am retired and no comebacks on the horizon. Chess will always be a huge part of my life, it guides my everyday learning process, and my love for the game is very much intact. But I don't feel the need to jump back into the tournament scene. That was a wonderful 16 years of my life and I am on to different challenges.

Q: What is your greatest accomplishment -- Both in chess and in life?

JW: In life it was winning the 2004 Tai Chi Push Hands World Championships. That was the most brutal experience I have ever been through. If you had asked me beforehand if I knew what digging deep meant I would have said yes and I wouldn't have had a clue. I wrote about the tournament at the end of my book---it was a wild, life-changing scene rife with corruption, bad injuries, terrifying opponents, being pushed to my absolute limits. Chess thinking played a central role in my years of preparation and tournament strategy, by the way.

In chess, believe it or not, I would say my greatest accomplishment lay between age 8 and 9. After losing my first National Championship I came back, worked my butt off, internalized a healthy relationship to learning, found the love, and won the Nationals the following year. Everything fell into place for the 10 years after that win. Of course I worked hard, but that year was the ice breaker. In retrospect losing that first Nationals was probably the best thing that has ever happened to me.

Q: I know I personally have greatly enjoyed and benefited from your chess academy on the Chessmaster Series. What new lessons can we look forward to in the new Chessmaster Grandmaster Edition?

JW: Thanks---I'm so glad you've enjoyed it. The new Chessmaster features a course based on my book The Art of Learning. I also analyze, for the first time, the real-life climactic game from the film Searching for Bobby Fischer. Then I analyze some classic games through the prism of principles of learning from my book. I'm always trying to tie chess and life together through Chessmaster, and my material on this new version is a continuation of that vision.

Q: I especially like your "Psychology of Competition" series of lectures. Where did you get the idea for those?

JW: From my life. Chess and the martial arts have always been primarily metaphorical for me. They are a channel for internal growth. The lessons learned over the board or on the mats translate everywhere. And I have a lifelong fascination with competitive psychology. It might be the topic of my next book, actually.

Q: I've always wondered, in your story about the woman who almost gets hit by the bike, then gets hit by the car, is that a true story or a fictional analogy?

JW: It's an absolutely true story, just how I wrote it. There is nothing fictional in my book. It was a terrifying scene that taught me a very important lesson.

Q: With your book The Art of Learning out and selling well, do you have any more books in the works?

JW: I have a number of interesting ideas for books, but I spent so much time putting out information while writing TAOL, that I want to take some time to just soak life in. This next couple years will be a learning phase above all else.

Q: Do you play on line chess? And what do you consider to the be the role of technology in the future of chess?

JW: I don't play online---have always preferred someone sitting across from me. I use to rail against technology's role in chess, but for the past ten years, through Chessmaster, I have tried to use computers to bring out the human, artistic side of the game. We have to embrace and roll with technology, while staying in touch with the enigmatic beauty that is at the core of the art. It would be absurd to deny the inevitable---we might as well turn it to our advantage. Of course computers have accelerated the evolution of the game. Imagine Tal competing against these guys who have been working with the precise defense of computers for so many years now. Today, creativity has to spring out of a more stable, precise foundation.

Q: What was your training schedule like when you were competing the most?

JW: Let me answer that question in the context of the martial arts because I am a much higher level learner now than I was in the chess world. For the most part, I train 6 days a week, and twice a day as much as possible. I combine intense technical work with sparring. I believe very deeply in training with a similar concentration with which you will compete. Quality and consistency are everything. And in both chess and the martial arts, I think it's essential to cultivate a working relationship with your intuition---this involves throwing information from the conscious mind over to the unconscious, and allowing our natural strengths to lead the direction of our study. Of course I describe this process very precisely in my book.

Q: What would you consider your chess "style" to be?

JW: I haven't competed in a long time. It would be interesting to find out. In the martial arts I play in the transitions and in the mind.

Q: What do you think is a good training schedule for a current or potential tournament player? Is that any different then what you would suggest for a non competitive player?

JW: Study every day, for as long as the Quality is high. Always train with great focus. Study the endgame! Learn principles as opposed to memorizing moves. The why is much more important than the what.

In chess the best advice I can give is to study your games very deeply and look for patterns---where do themes of error repeat? And how are those themes crossing over to life? Take them on in both chess and life. The most important thing for a chess player is to bring out his or her natural shine over the board. Too many coaches insist on jamming their students into cookie cutter molds that ignore individual strengths. That happened to me and it was devastating. At the highest levels of any discipline, the ones who succeed are the ones who have closely observed their individual nuance of character and developed a game around it. Teachers should listen first, but unfortunately few do and so we are ultimately responsible for our own growth. I believe chess players should develop a highly tuned introspective ear, and then they should believe in it.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to say?

JW: It has been a pleasure, man.