Everyone has a Growth Mindset – until they get punched in the mouth

Is chess improvement one of your New Year Resolutions? Then what you need, more than anything else, is to acquire aGrowth Mindset.

That’s according to Professor of Psychology, Barry Hymer and England Junior Talent Manager GM, Peter Wells in their recently published book “Chess Improvement: it’s all in the mindset[1].

The Growth Mindset emphasizes long-term performance gains, repertoire expansion, potential for improvement in underexplored areas, and openness to the possibility of continuous (and unlimited) progression.

This concept is the latest addition to the vocabulary of sports psychologists, performance coaches, educationalists and personal development gurus.

It’s typically contrasted with its dark-side: the dreaded Fixed Mindset.  This emphasizes short-term results, eliminating errors, honing tried and trusted methods, and recognizing (and systematically mitigating) structural limitations.

Proponents of a Growth Mindset typically claim that it’s benefits are applicable to a wide range of practitioners: including athletes, performing artists, managers, students, entrepreneurs, inventors and scientists.  However, Hymer & Wells are the first authors, to my knowledge, to explicitly link this concept to the development of chess skills.

Interestingly, the authors are prepared to accept that a Growth Mindset is not 100% essential, admitting that “a few chess legends could….be exposed as having been in thrall to a fixed mindset” with Reshevsky and Capablanca outed as the exceptions which prove the rule.

Apparently, if you have an “inborn, intuitive feel for the game, and a remarkable capacity for rapid processing” you may just be able to overcome the inherent disadvantages of a Fixed Mindset to scale the heights of the World Championship.  Fancy that!

Actually, neither of the above icons would come immediately to mind when considering a player of World Championship calibre with a Fixed Mindset.  Top of my list would be Fischer.  Like Reshevsky, Fischer was a largely self-taught prodigy with a narrowly circumscribed opening repertoire. And like Capablanca, Fischer held the world title for just one championship match: showing (unlike Capablanca) almost zero interest in competitive chess having taken the world crown.

Sometimes is not about the journey: it’s the destination that counts.  Having reached the terminus, Fischer promptly tore up his season ticket.  Not too much evidence of a Growth Mindset on this trip.

Hymer and Wells draw a valid distinction between two separate learning strategies. But I prefer the symbology attributed to the Ancient Greek poet Archilochus[2] :

A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one important thing.

The fox has (and needs) a flexible, multi-faceted approach to problem solving.  Dispatching a hedgehog in full body armour is difficult enough.  So if one approach does not work, he simply needs to try another.  A fox is both predator and prey.  He can’t put so much focus on his hedgehog supper, that he ends up becoming lunch for some bigger and nastier beast.

The hedgehog, on the other hand, has such a great A-game when defending against medium-sized woodland omnivores, that he doesn’t need a B-game.  Indeed, the hedgehog would only imperil himself if he aimed for “career development” by adopting an alternative defensive strategy against Mr Fox.

Archilochus’s characterization enables us to see that neither strategy is unequivocally “better” than the other: it just depends upon the concrete situation and the characteristics of the protagonists.

Let’s apply this to a typical strategic learning dilemma facing a chess-player.

You’ve just lost 4 consecutive games when playing your (and Fischer’s) favourite Sicilian Najdorf.  How do you respond?

If you’re a Hedgehog, you’re instinctive reaction is that you simply need to do a lot more work on this opening: given the pedigree of practitioners, it simply inconceivable that it’s the line itself that is at fault.  Most likely you’ll download the latest book, and commit to an extensive re-analysis of your most recent 50 games in this variation.  Your next opponent who is tempted to test you in this line is certainly going to find you a lot better prepared.

If you’re a Fox, you’re intuition will be to cast around for alternative defenses to 1.e4 – as this one (whatever its intrinsic merits) clearly isn’t working for you right now.  Perhaps you were always interested in (say) the French Defense.  Maybe now is the time to explore this option.  Your next opponent who blithely assays 1.e4 will certainly find themselves in for a big surprise.

While both the above are reasonable responses to our strategic learning dilemma, there is a clear asymmetry between the potential outcomes.  If I double-down on my Najdorf theory,  I won’t need to wait too long to utilize my new ideas, and I’ll certainly feel more confident the next time I come to play this opening.  But how much does one really benefit from reading books on subjects on which one is already proficient?

Moreover, repeated choice of this opening will confirm me as a Najdorf specialist, meaning that any potential opponent expecting to play me will surely have something prepared against this.

On the other hand, the commitment to take up an alternative defence to 1.e4 to is a major step towards becoming the really dangerous type of player with deep knowledge of multiple openings.  If this plan comes off, it will certainly have been worthwhile: but how likely is this outcome?

The point at which the intention to expand one’s repertoire most frequently derails is in the initial phase.

Its easy enough to read a book on a new opening (and generally more interesting than a book about an opening one already knows).  But playing it in a serious game is another matter.

It is at this critical juncture that one risks, in Mike Tyson’s graphic phrase, receiving the metaphorical punch in the mouth [3].  In the first few games, one will lacks the “muscle-memory” of previous experience.  Finding the correct move is a matter of recollecting half-digested theory combined with a frantic application of first principles.   And all the time one is thinking: wouldn’t it have been so much easier to have stuck to the same-old routine?

The soft losses which are the inevitable tradeoff of the Growth Mindset don’t actually cause as much damage as Mike Tyson’s trademark right-hook: it just feels that way!

While reading “Chess Improvement” it’s important (as with any other self-help manual) to separate the erudite kidology from the kernel of home truths.  Here’s a couple:

Fact 1: whether you self-identify as a Fox or as a Hedgehog, if your aim in 2021 is to improve at chess, (rather than merely play more chess) you’ve signed up for a hard road.  Take your inspiration wherever you can get it.

Fact 2: if you believe that you can significantly improve without seriously leveraging the experiences of expert practitioners, without a substantial (and sometimes painful) study of your own games, then you’ve neither a Growth nor a Fixed Mindset: you’re just plain dumb!

Got that already? OK, well then maybe you don’t need any more New Year Resolutions!


(c) AP Lewis 2021


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