September 25, 2014

The Paradox of work

Progressing in chess is not the easiest thing in the world to achieve. You have to really work hard for it. In this informative and personalized article, one of India's best Junior players, IM Srinath Narayanan discusses the way he used to work on chess and also on how one can become a better player by having the right approach towards it!

"It is when we act freely, for the sake of action itself rather than for ulterior motives, we learn to become more than what we were" - Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
"Run behind excellence, don't run behind success" - Ranchodas Shyamaldas Chanchad

A few weeks ago, an Indian Grandmaster casually enquired, if I had any suggestions on how to stay disciplined and not get distracted when working on chess.  GM Viktor Bologan expressed in his autobiography, "
The hardest thing in sports is to force yourself to work - to discipline yourself". Thus, the question of how to motivate oneself to work, has been something that has plagued players of all levels,from the beginner to the grandmaster.

This made me ponder and reflect upon my work ethic at various stages of my career. I would like to offer the readers an alternate perspective to the concept of 'work' and 'how we look at work'.  Let's take a ride through my pensieve[1]

My 6 year old self (Year - 2000)
Being at an age of innocent and excitement, and only recently introduced to chess, my everyday routine consisted of going to school from eight in the morning to three thirty in the evening, come home, eat something and spend the entire evening on chess and school home works.  The week ends were reserved for various category rapid events, of which are in abundance in Chennai.   Interestingly, what would be described as 'work' today was seen as sheer fun and enjoyment in those years.  Overall, I felt good and happy, and there was no place I would've rather else been.

My 14 year old self (Year - 2008)

This was a time when I was fortunate to have some sponsors. My routine involved waking up, working at home for a couple of hours, having lunch and then working with GM R.B.Ramesh from two in the afternoon to eight at night. I had just begun to work with the coach of the historic bronze winning Indian Olympiad team. He is a fantastic chess coach and clearly the times spent working with him were some of the more enjoyable times of my life.  In a 6 month interval, my rating shot up from 2203 to 2412, jumping ahead of a few thousand chess players.

My 16 year old self (Year - 2010)

With the sponsorship ceasing to continue due to economic recession in 2008, and with effectively no coaching, this was a time when somehow I had forgotten many of the good habits and good things learned over the past.  One thing that remained with me was 'work long hours and results will come'.
While I tried to adhere to this wisdom that seems to be as common as the stairs that mount the capitol, there did seem to be a difference.  What once flowed, was now forced.  This approach towards work also coincided(or is it?) with some of the impoverished times of my life.  Impoverished not in an economic sense, but in every other sense, experiences, rating and the 'feel good factor'.

Based on the above 3 samples, we can note certain consistencies:-
1.Enjoyment during work seems to correlate with good results. 
2.Forcing oneself to work either by self or through an external source, not just in chess, but in other spheres as well, seems to lead to a drop in efficiency and thereby productivity.
Thus, we eventually arrive to the point where I can pose the questions I wanted to pose from the beginning:-
If we enjoy the game so much why is it so difficult to spend time on something we enjoy so much? And why has work acquired such a bad reputation?
The answer to this question seems to largely based on psychology.  One possible hypothesis could be that, the cultural stereotype that 'work is boring' is so deeply rooted in some of our minds that, it could possibly supersede the fact that we actually feel good when indulging in goal directed work.  For example, the experiences described by our chessace author IM Sagar Shah, on 'chogging' can be found here.  Do you think we got more happiness and fulfillment from this or from the activities indulged during leisure?
"Tired and exhausted yet happy after my first successful attempt at Chogging"
The second possible hypothesis is that, many chess players don't compartmentalize thoughts from various areas and let themselves form a lot of 'mental traffic' with harmful thoughts about past losses, their performances, and how others are performing.  This mental ailment seems to affect many chess players, and I myself have been a victim of this many times.  These depressing thoughts might perhaps have a role in people becoming frustrated, and thereby affecting their enjoyment process.  With so many such distractions, it's impossible to focus on something or think clearly.
Isn't it easier and happier to simply enjoy the present?

Should work on chess be done following a rigid schedule or should it be a more laissez faire process?

The answer to this question seems to be more in grey, rather than black and white.  While the usefulness and importance of discipline cannot be underestimated, work is also much more efficient and productive when the desires comes from within, with intrinsic goals rather than extrinsic goals.  While Gary Kasparov came out of a very systematic and disciplined school, Magnus Carlsen's approach see
ms to be lean more towards the laissez faire approach, although I don't really believe the World Champion works on chess only 2 hours a day :) it's of course possible that his perspective of 'work' is completely different from ours.
Magnus Carlsen:I learned an enormous amount, but there came a point where I found there was too much stress. It was no fun any more. Outside of the chessboard I avoid conflict, so I thought this wasn’t worth it. (on training sessions with Kasparov)
To give you an example of how the perspective of work can differ among people, I would like to give you an example: I was having an informal conversation with GM Van Kampen around July 2012, and GM Anish Giri had recently won the Dutch-Championship with a score of 6/7 and a phenomenal rating performance of 2898.  I was in awe at his meteoric rise, and asked Van Kampen about the tournament, in which he had lost his sixth round against Giri.  While expressing no doubt about what a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (well, I guess it's just not Joey who uses a thesaurus to appear smart :P) player he is, he also told me he had a bit of luck going his way. For example, before their game there was a rest day, and Giri had revised this line in Catalan because he was 'bored'(guess what variation Giri defeated Van Kampen in, in that tournament?)  I remember being very surprised at this, as at that time, I don't think this would be the way I would've spent my rest day, and I am pretty sure I wouldn't have revised Catalan when I was bored. 
GM Anish Giri #12 in the world with much more to come
Conclusion: After a lot of thought and retrospection, it seems to me that finding the right attitude towards work might well be one of the major differences between people who progress rapidly and those who seem to stagnate.  I feel that the happiest moments in our lives were experienced when we undertook some voluntary effort that stretched us, either physically or mentally, rather than when relaxing at some leisurely state of mind. 

To conclude, if we can find a way to go back to that state of mind when we completely enjoyed doing anything related to chess, without letting ourselves brainwashed by any cultural stereotype or distracted by mental disturbances, I think this will pave the path to not only progress in skill, but also towards happiness and good being.  I hope this article will serve as a reminder to never forget about the 'fun' aspect of working on chess.  

Have you been through such phases? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section below...

About the Author
Narayanan Srinath is an International Master with two GM norms from India and has a rating of 2443. He has been playing chess since the age of five and has numerous achievements to his credit, the most prominent being the world under-12 champion in 2005. He is a critical thinkers and thinks deeply not only about the game of chess but life itself.