Melonhead and neanderthal, chess edition

This book is a good introduction to the inner monologue of melonheads in general, but this passage in particular jumped out at me:

Mark Dvoretsky and Yuri Razuvaev are the pillars of the Russian school of chess. Considered by many to be the two greatest chess trainers in the world, these two men have devoted their lives to carving talented young chess masters into world-class competitors. They are both armed with an enormous repertoire of original educational material for top-caliber players and you would be hard-pressed to find a Grandmaster out there who was not seriously influenced by one of them. Between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one, I had the opportunity to work extensively with both of these legendary coaches and I believe the implications of their diametrically opposed pedagogical styles are critical for students of all endeavors. They were certainly critical for me.

When you meet Yuri Razuvaev, you feel calmed. He has the humble, peaceful air of a Buddhist monk and a sweet, slightly ironic smile. If making a decision, for example about where to eat, he will shrug and gently imply that both possibilities would find him quite content. His language is similarly abstract. His mildest comments feel like natural koans, and in conversation it is all too easy to let gems slip through your mind like a breeze. When the chessboard comes out, Razuvaev’s face settles into a relaxed focus, his eyes become piercing, and a razor-sharp mind comes to bear. Analyzing with Razuvaev, I consistently felt as though he was penetrating the deepest wrinkles in my mind through my every chess move. After just a few hours of work with him, I had the impression he understood me more truly than almost anybody in my life. It was like playing chess with Yoda.

Mark Dvoretsky is a very different type of personality. I believe he is the most important author for chess professionals in the world. His books are extensive training programs for world-class players and are studied religiously by strong International Masters and Grandmasters. “Reading” a Dvoretsky book takes many months of hard work, because they are so densely packed with ideas about some of the more esoteric elements of serious chess thinking. It’s amazing how many hundreds of hours I spent laboring my way through Dvoretsky’s chapters, my brain pushed to the limit, emerging from every study session utterly exhausted, but infused with a slightly more nuanced understanding of the outer reaches of chessic potential. On the page, the man is a genius.

In life, Dvoretsky is a tall, heavyset man who wears thick glasses and rarely showers or changes his clothes. He is socially awkward and when not talking about or playing chess, he seems like a big fish flopping on sand. I met Dvoretsky at the first Kasparov-Karpov World Championship match in Moscow when I was seven years old, and we studied together sporadically throughout my teens. He would occasionally live in my family’s home for four or five days at a time when he visited America. During these periods, it seemed that every concern but chess was an intrusive irrelevance. When we were not studying, he would sit in his room, staring at chess positions on his computer. At meals, he would mumble while dropping food on the floor, and in conversation thick saliva collected at the corners of his mouth and often shot out like streams of glue. If you have read Nabokov’s wonderful novel The Defense, about the eccentric chess genius Luzhin—well, that is Dvoretsky.

When seated at a chessboard, Dvoretsky comes to life. His thick fingers somehow manipulate the pieces with elegance. He is extremely confident, arrogant in fact. He is most at home across the table from a talented pupil, and immediately begins setting up enormously complex chess compositions for the student to solve. His repertoire of abstruse material seems limitless, and it keeps on coming hour after hour in relentless interrogation. Dvoretsky loves to watch gifted chess minds struggle with his problems. He basks in his power while young champions are slowly drained of their audacious creativity. As a student, I found these sessions to be resonant of Orwell’s prison scenes in 1984, where independently minded thinkers were ruthlessly broken down until all that was left was a shell of a person.

Training with Yuri Razuvaev feels much more like a spiritual retreat than an Orwellian nightmare. Razuvaev’s method depends upon a keen appreciation for each student’s personality and chessic predispositions. Yuri has an amazing psychological acumen, and his instructional style begins with a close study of his student’s chess games. In remarkably short order, he discovers the core of the player’s style and the obstructions that are blocking pure self-expression. Then he devises an individualized training program that systematically deepens the student’s knowledge of chess while nurturing his or her natural gifts.

Mark Dvoretsky, on the other hand, has created a comprehensive training system that he believes all students should fit into. His method when working with a pupil is to break the student down rather brutally and then stuff him or her into the cookie-cutter mold of his training system. In my opinion this approach can have profoundly negative consequences for spirited young students.

During the critical period of my chess career following the release of the film Searching for Bobby Fischer, there was a disagreement about what direction my study should take. On one side was Dvoretsky and his protégé, my full time coach, who believed I should immerse myself in the study of prophylaxis, the art of playing chess like an anaconda. Great prophylactic players, like Karpov and Petrosian, seem to sense their opponent’s intention. They systematically cinch down the pressure, squeezing every last breath of life out of their prey while preventing any aggressive attempt before it even begins to materialize. They are counterpunchers by nature and they tend to be quiet, calculating, rather introverted personalities. On the other side of the argument was Yuri Razuvaev, who insisted that I should continue to nurture my natural voice as a chess player. Razuvaev believed that I was a gifted attacking player who should not be bullied away from my strengths. 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 from Kasparov.

-Josh Waitzkin, “The Art of Learning”, ch. 8

This depiction lends a bit more humanity to the coneheads than the classical Edenism model:

There’s an intriguing dynamic where melonheads are more sympathetic figures the closer they are to you and neanderthals are more sympathetic figures the further away from you they are. On the other hand, you definitely want to get caught up in the wake of the neanderthal’s passing, but woe to anyone who has fallen outside the melonhead’s most recent vision quest. More to the point, melonheads tend to raise the carrying capacity of their friend group’s environment at the cost of lowering the overall environment’s carrying capacity, whereas neanderthals tend to do the opposite.

About Aeoli Pera

Maybe do this later?
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2 Responses to Melonhead and neanderthal, chess edition

  1. aiaslives says:

    I don’t see why you call these depictions “Melon”.

    To quote The Place You Refuse To Join, “Aeoli searches for reasons to love the melonhead”

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