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Mikhail Botvinnik and the Invention of Modern Chess Training

March 15th, 2020 · 9 comments

Former world chess champion Mikhail Botvinnik helped build the Soviet’s dominant chess system. His pupils included Anatoly Karpov, Garry Kasparov and Vladimir Kramnik: all world champions as well.

According to Wikipedia, perhaps Botvinnik’s biggest contribution was figuring out the right way to train people to get better at chess:

“Botvinnik’s example and teaching established the modern approach to preparing for competitive chess: regular but moderate physical exercise; analysing very thoroughly a relatively narrow repertoire of openings; annotating one’s own games, those of past great players and those of competitors; publishing one’s annotations so that others can point out any errors; studying strong opponents to discover their strengths and weaknesses; ruthless objectivity about one’s own strengths and weaknesses.”

This quote came to my attention when a reader pointed me toward a tweet about Botvinnik from Washington Post reporter Harry Stevens, who added the following commentary: “seems like a generally smart way to get good at just about anything.”

I agree. More to the point, this got me wondering how many modern endeavors, especially within the rapidly developing knowledge sector, are still waiting for their own Botvinnik to help figure out how to get serious about getting better.

9 thoughts on “Mikhail Botvinnik and the Invention of Modern Chess Training

  1. Andres says:

    Cal, what do you think about David Epstein’s book “Range”? He says that golf and chess are part of a “kind learning environment” where patterns repeat over and over, and feedback is extremely accurate and usually very rapid. On the other hand, he argues that most activities that interest humans are part of a “wicked learning environment” where there are ill-defined challenges and few rigid rules and because of that you can’t apply the same approach.

    1. Andres, read Anders Ericsson’s book Peak. He talks about how businesses can utilize puroseful practice to achieve some of the same learning goals of the deliberate practice techniques chess players use.

      1. Andres says:

        Also, i would like to add that “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” and “Range” agree when it comes to passion and work. I loved the quote from Herminia Ibarra that Epstein shared: “we learn who we are in practice, not in theory”. When it comes to career capital, in people with range (generalists) the skills that are rare and valuable comes from different pursuits that accumulates and give you a fresh and unique perspective.

    2. Mike says:

      Range was my first thought as well. I think deliberate practice clearly has a role even in wicked learning environments, but insights from chess mastery can only take us so far.

    3. Andres says:

      Thanks, Mike. I already have the book on Kindle so i will start soon. Considering that this is one of my favourite blogs and the topics are related, i wanted to read here about Epstein’s argument because it seems to contradict, in a very compelling way, some things about “deliberate practice”, specifically when it comes to “wicked learning environments” which he says comprenhends the majority of activities in which humans are interested.

  2. Charles says:

    I don’t live with anyone who plays chess or who may not even have an interest. How do you feel about playing chess using a gaming app? I found one that’s pretty interesting.

  3. Ken Adair says:

    Josh Waitzkin’s book “The Art of Learning” is good too.

  4. Seems like everything is concentrated to an very hard feedback loop. As if you do everything in your power to get feedback from everyone who can provide it. You need a strong moral courage for that.

    My Chess skills are in a very beginner mode, so i can not appraise it, but i think i can adopt it to a lot of skills.

  5. Evan says:

    I believe “ruthless objectivity about one’s own strengths and weaknesses” is probably the most challenging here. Truly ruthless objectivity about one’s own strengths and weaknesses is not an easy path. Not at all. Especially if sought alone (hence why coaches, teachers are probably so effective).

    It seems every time I make progress in anything my ego starts to build up around my newly learned skills. But to improve and get better, one has to be willing at every turn to abandon all progress they’ve made in favor of learning. Almost like a kid experimenting, “hey, what if I tried this move on this open even though it’s not called for?”

    It’s like an infinite loop of try the rule, learn the rule, break the rule.

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