In The Art of Learning Josh Waitzkin tells how as a young chess master his strength was as a creative, offensive player. His style was among the likes of world champions Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov. To improve defensively, a coach made him study the great defensive players of the game, like Tigran Petrosian and Anatoly Karpov. But Waitzkin had another coach who pointed out that he could learn Karpov’s style by studying Kasparov.
As a world champion and arguably the greatest of all-time, Kasparov had to have a deep understanding of the defensive nuances of chess. Without this defensive ability, he could not have been the best in the world. So, by studying Kasparov’s defense he would be able to see this side of chess from the perspective of a player with similar tendencies as him. As Waitzkin puts it in his book: “Razuvaev believed that I was a gifted attacking player who should not be bullied away from my strength. There was no question that I needed to learn more about Karpov’s type of chess to make the next steps in my development, but Razuvaev pointed out that I could learn Karpov through Kasparov.”
Kasparov had already studied Karpov’s style, and distilled the essentials of his play on the board.
Waitzkin, speaking the language of attacking chess, was able to read it much more clearly than if he’d studied this in the language of defensive chess.
Two of my favorite authors, Tim Ferriss and Ryan Holiday, have raved at length about the benefits that stoicism has had on their lives. Yet, I have no desire at this point in my life to directly study stoicism. I’ve found that by reading Ferriss and Holiday, I’ve already obtained the distilled information in a modern context.
I’ve learned Seneca and Aurelius (stoic philosophers) through Ferriss and Holiday. Anytime someone says “you need to read this,” and then proceeds to tell you about the key takeaways and lessons learned, then they basically just read it for you. Of course, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read that book, or that I’m never going to read stoicism. It means that going directly to the source may not be the best learning approach, especially to start off. Start with a source that you relate to and understand, then dive deeper into the primary sources.
In Waitzkin’s case, he was pressured into trying to play like Karpov, which eventually alienated him from his deep love for chess. If he began by studying through Kasparov, then perhaps he would have went on to study Karpov directly to seek out more perfect positioning understanding. But, it’s important to begin through a mean that’s easier to understand and enjoy, and then build on that.
In the strength and conditioning world, Olympic lifting is regarded as one of the best ways to increase power in. But, Olympic lifts are very technical. They combine a host of skills that take kids time to learn. During this learning phase, we’re not developing power. They need to acquire the skill first so that later on they can do it safely. So, how can we begin to develop power without the skill of Olympic lifting? We teach basic plyometric progressions like box jumps, hurdle jumps, and squat jumps, as well as kettlebell swings. We learn power through other means with a lower barrier to technical proficiency. Then, we build on these skills when we teach the Olympic lifts. Just because hang cleans and hang snatches might be the best way to develop full-body power, doesn’t mean it’s the best place to start. For adults, we may never progress to cleans and snatches, because it’s not necessary for what their goals are. For them, we’ll stick with simpler methods.
As an athlete looking to improve an area of your game, consider watching players similar to your style.
When I was young, I didn’t watch Patrick Kane to get offensive ideas. The high skill style Kane plays was never the type of forward I was going to be, and I couldn’t relate to his gameplay. I watched a player like Martin St. Louis, who has a similar two-way style that I play. If you’re a high-scoring, small forward who needs to improve the defensive side of your game, don’t focus on the best defensemen or even the best defensive forwards. Watch how a guy like Johnny Gaudreau plays on the defensive side of the puck. Because although he’s known for his offense, he’s still found a way to be effective defensively in league with guys much bigger and stronger than him. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t be able to create offense like he does. Just as Waitzkin related more to Kasparov’s style, you will be able to relate more to the way Gaudreau plays in all areas.
The concept of learning Karpov through Kasparov is a reminder to question assumptions. It has made me carefully evaluate what resources will put me on the best learning path. Just because something has always been taught one way, does not mean it’s how we should continue to teach and learn it. Where in your life are you trying to learn through Karpov when it would be better to learn through Kasparov?