Friday, August 12, 2016

Innovation: The Third Stage to Mastering Chess

Insight into Wisdom

In some ways a genius is nothing more than a person who is unwilling to quit when he is discouraged by frequent failures and unwilling to settle when he is universally affirmed.  
--Michael Minkoff 
It is with some difficulty that I write this final installment of the stages toward mastery. In the first stage, Imitation, we accumulate knowledge. In the second stage, Integration, this knowledge coalesces into a personal worldview - in this case, of chess.

In this final stage, we understand the knowledge and concepts of the first two stages at such a level, that we can combine and create them into something new. This is the stage of Innovation.

I don't consider myself to have reached this stage, so I am pleased to supplement my thoughts with a few generous insights provided for this article from friend and grandmaster Nigel Davies of (You can also read an interesting interview I conducted with him).

Redefining Genius

Artist: Jeremy Adams
Part of progressing toward the Innovation stage is realizing that it isn't something mystical that you are born with. It would be naive to underestimate or ignore the role that innate talent or ability may play in the development of skill in any art including chess, However, we must also appreciate the role that consistent and prolonged effort play toward our improvement.

In his book Talent is Overrated, Geoffrey Colvin asserts that it is the immense amount of deliberate practice conducted over years that creates world-class levels of skill. Colvin cites the story of the Polgar sisters (well known to us chess fans), and how their father developed methods of training for them which took all of them to high levels of chess proficiency - in particular Judit, who had spent many years as one of the top then players in the world.

In the article that inspired this series, author Michael Minkoff discusses this interaction between innate talent and work fairly clearly:

Genius is both innate and learned. If Mozart had not been a “performing monkey” in his very early toddler years, he would not have had the skills necessary to execute his genius. It is hard to say whether his genius already existed in his younger years, simply because at that time it evidenced itself as a proclivity, not an already-established body of new ideas.
I think many people (chess player or not) thinks that mastery is something your born with, not something you can create. However, examples such as Mozart - whose father was a professional musician who drove him to practice and perform from a very young age - or the Polgar sisters - whose father also drove them to work hard towards learning chess from a young age - demonstrate that it takes not only talent but also hard focused work to create "genius" level skill.

Innovation is not necessarily a statethat one reaches after crossing some mythical threshold. Perhaps it is a culmination of accumulated knowledge and skills accumulated over time - e.g. passing through the Imitation and Integration stages.

I asked Nigel about any specific processes that he used to reach his level of mastery of chess. His response helps to illustrate the importance of this attainment of knowledge and subsequent understanding:

Overall I'd say it was a cumulative process over many years. But one thing I did that I think helped me a lot was just to play around with certain ideas on a pocket set. It wasn't so much formal study as experimentation.
He brings up another very good point here, in that besides a lot of study and hard work, Innovation requires independent thinking and experimentation - which means putting your own thoughts and ideas on the line.

Independent Thinking and Experimentation

A key ingredient to reaching the stage is the be able to think independently as well as experiment. In a previous interview with me, National Master Jim West who attributes his progress from expert level to master level on his ability to think independently.

Although one of the premises of this article is that Innovation builds upon the knowledge and experience accumulated during the Imitation and Innovation stages, thinking critically and experimenting can start early in development, as GM Davies shared with me:
For me thinking up my own ideas has been an essential part of the development process. Actually I did it from very early on, though my first experiments just weren't very good.

Of course, experimentation often works best when you are grounded in the foundations of the art. As mentioned in the previous installments, both for visual artists such as painters as well as chess players, having studied the classic masters for both arts are critical stepping stones for future mastery.

A characteristic of masters (and future masters) to apply independent thinking and experimentation is the ability to endure failure. This takes humility as well as courage.

Compelling Incentive

Pushing oneself toward mastery take a lot of hard work as well as the courage and humility to experiment despite potential failure. One other element that it takes is the motivation and determination to push past obstacles and not quit.

For chess players, there are many motivations. For some, it is the satisfaction derived from creating something aesthetically pleasing. For others, it is a competition and they want to see how far up the ladder they can climb. And maybe for some like myself, it is a path towards self-awareness and personal development. Understanding your "Why" is just as important as the "How" and the "What" of becoming a chess master.

In several books, including Unlimited ChallengeFormer World Champion Garry Kasparov talks about the "need" for Anatoly Karpov in reaching his greatest creative levels. Without someone on Karpov's level to push him to his limits, he would not be able to have achieved what he did. Indeed, he lamented that it was a shame that Fischer never faced Karpov in a World Championship match, as he postulated that it would have pushed Fischer's own creative production to an even higher peak.

This is one reason why it is important to play stronger players than yourself. I have written about this elsewhere (and I dedicated an article to it). This would include playing in higher sections at tournaments as well as seeking out competitive situations that will stretch your limits.

"Getting There"

One thing I noticed when discussing this issue with GM Davies as well as studying the process and acquisition of mastery in general is that those who reach it understand that they are at a certain level, but most continue to strive for more. 

In fact, when I first approached Nigel with the concept of innovation and mastery, he noted that it felt it would be difficult for him and other masters to answer some of these questions, because for him it appears to be a constant journey. 

I asked him what it felt like to be at a level of mastery:

I feel it now sometimes, when I'm analyzing with other people and we both know that I'm operating on a higher level to them. There again players stronger than myself make me feel as if I'm working things out too slowly.
This response belied both an acknowledgement of reaching a certain level, but also a recognition that perhaps it was a continuum. Knowing Nigel, there is also a sense of humility in his response, as I have found with many of the highest performers in many fields.

Nigel generously shared a game in which he felt a sense of mastery. The overall sense for me was that of GM Davies calmly placing his pieces where they need to be at the appropriate moment, responding to the threats of his opponent (himself a FIDE master) without undue haste or force. There is a sense of ease as the wave of aggression from Black dissipates, leaving him lost and surrendering as White's own counter-wave is about to rise.

The comments to the game are from GM Davies, with the exception of one observation of mine indicated towards the end of the game.

Unending Journey

As we come upon the conclusion of the current discussion, I hope you have noted that the Innovation stage and the "attainment" of mastery isn't a single destination, like landing at a destination after a long flight. Instead, it is like a point on a long journey.

Indeed, from observing masters in chess and other fields like art, sports, and business, I notice masters or high level performers always going back to early stages of development. Chess masters continually seek out new ideas not only on their own, but by studying the games of other players. As mentioned before, they do not let their ego stop them from using an idea that was discovered by someone else.

As the master continually jumps back to the Imitation and Integration stages, this provides them with a broader and deeper understanding from which to continue to Innovate. 

We as humble non-masters, should seek to imitate their example.


I hope you found our discussion on the process of mastery both enjoyable and useful. To conclude our conversation, I wanted to give you a few takeaways from this article as well as a final clarification on the Innovation stage of the process of becoming a master.

Some practical advice:

  • When your own curiosity leads you to question the opinion of authority, pursue your curiosity. Whether your research ends in a new discovery or in confirmation of the previous view, it will be profitable for your development.
  • Learn to embrace failure and set-backs in your training and development as a necessary part of progress.
  • Don't worry about what you perceive to be your "potential" or "talent" - study and train as if you had no limits - don't give up!
  • Seek out challenges that will drive you to work hard and expand your horizons - occasionally play up a class in tournaments or seek higher rated players when playing on the internet.
  • Recognize that mastery is not a destination, but a journey. Be patient with yourself and strive to make continual progress on a daily and weekly basis. 
Finally, I wanted to make a clarification. Innovating is not just about coming up with theoretical novelties or new systems of thought to chess. It's about insight which can be used to meet the needs with the tools and constraints that one has. For an artist or writer, it is about meeting the needs of one's audience using the tools of medium (for visual artists) and words (for writers). 

For the chess player, it is using the 64 squares and pieces and pawns on the board to meet the needs of a particular position. Sometimes it requires a new treatment - resulting in a theoretical novelty - while sometimes the tried and true really is the best method. It takes the knowledge and experience as well as the courage and humility to understand the difference. This is mastery.

To conclude I share Minkoff's words:
To summarize, the spirit of imitation pursues how. The spirit of integration pursues why. The spirit of innovation pursues what, when, and where.

Your Turn

Did you find this article helpful? Tell me where you think you are in this process and tell me what you are up to. Also, if you enjoyed this article, please share it.

Until next time, good luck and Better Chess.

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