Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Write Stuff

My posting has been rather sporadic as of late.  I have been playing some chess in September and October with mixed results.  Some games have been pretty good, and other games just butt ass ugly!  I will confess a majority of the games have been played at the "cracktion" time control of G/30.  On a positive note there weren't many time pressure induced implosions.  On a not so positive note some the games I got smashed out of the opening or missed simple tactics early before time became a factor.  In those cases blaming the clock doesn't help.

I have been doing a great deal of writing for the past two months, but it hasn't been blog related.  As my regular readers know, I am testing for Black Belt in Tae Kwon Do in November.  At our school the requirements for becoming a Black Belt go beyond knowing the forms, breaking boards and sparring.  We have to do a fast, go on a group hike, read a book and write a book report on it, write an essay and do a 3 hour sitting meditation.  Yes, "Ms. Can't Sit Still During a Long Chess Game" actually sat still for 3 hours! I did have to change leg position sometimes because sitting cross legged for such a long time tends to hurt after awhile.  No I can't put my legs up on top each other like the very limber yoga types or even like Grandmaster Kim did for the meditation.

The essay we had to write was about our goals in Tae Kwon Do, and benefits we receive from Tae Kwon Do.  Being one of many words I wrote an eight page essay on the topic.  I wanted to share the benefits portion of the essay because I think a lot of what I've gained through Tae Kwon Do transfers over to chess.  In these last couple of months as my Tae Kwon Do training has intensified I've started to actually see that some of what I've gotten from the sport is transferring  to chess.  There are still technical elements that I need to work on in chess, but some of the psychological elements are falling into place.  If I can get back to the technical elements (tactics training, opening preparation and end game study) I believe I can perhaps get my rating back over 1800.

Black Belt Essay


"I would see ads in the newspaper for various martial arts schools.  Each ad would tout the benefits of martial arts for children with phrases such as “Develops self-discipline.” “Improves their behavior at home and school”, “Builds self –confidence”.  The marketing to adults was more on the line of physical fitness, self-defense and losing weight, with no mention of self-discipline or self-confidence.  I would look at these ads and think to myself “Couldn’t adults get some of the same benefits that were being marketed to kids?”  I knew I sure could use a dose of self-discipline and self-confidence to help me find some direction in my chaotic dyslexic ADHD driven life.

For a number of years on trips to Borders bookstore I sometimes would stop and look in the window of Grandmaster Kim’s and watch the kids doing class.  I think even one time I walked in and asked about adult classes, but got scared off by the time commitment and the cost.  At that time I wasn’t ready.  It was on one of those trips to Borders that I saw 6 adult women taking class during the day.  That was when I walked through the doors and signed up for a trial lesson, “and the rest is history”, or so they say.

The rest is not history.  It’s journey that started the day I took that trial lesson, and decided I wanted to learn Tae Kwon Do.  I’m sure Instructor Mitchell probably wasn’t convinced he would make a sale from that trial lesson.  I think one of the first questions I asked upon seeing him bring out a board with the paper work was, “You’re not going to have me break that?”  Yes he was going to have me break a board before our time was up.  I kept saying there was no way I could break that board.  Talk about needing self-confidence!   I did break a board in that lesson, just not the one he initially brought out.  I was so afraid of hurting my hand, he had me break a children's board instead.

The trial lesson convinced me that Tae Kwon Do was something I needed in my life.  I signed up for a one-year program and paid for the whole thing up front.  I figured that would be good motivation to get me going in a new direction.  I left the school that day with a crisp new dobak and a student handbook. 

After having read the student handbook several times, I decided it was time to fill in the Personal Goals section in the back of the book. 


Fill in three things you would like to improve or accomplish through Tae Kwon Do.

This is what I wrote at the time:

 Build up confidence and self-esteem.
Develop better focus and concentration.

Get stronger physically and mentally.

These were pretty general goals.  They weren’t as specific as what was quoted at the bottom of the page. “My Goal is to be a Black Belt, Instructor, Master and Grandmaster!”

At the time I didn’t have such ambitions.  After my first class my goal was to make through my second class without having another meltdown, and perhaps get past #2 of Kam Sa Hyung. The idea that I could become a Black Belt seemed absurd at the time.  In fact I had told myself before I even started taking classes that I wasn’t going to get wrapped up in this whole “belt thing.”  I just wanted to get a workout and see if I could learn to focus better.

It would take me 3 weeks to get my first patch.  I found it humiliating to come in week after week with this plain white uniform with no patches on it.  In my mind having a totally unadorned uniform screamed out “Total newbie!”  I felt like people were looking at me and thinking, “She is so hopeless, she’ll be gone in a month.”

What I was feeling was not what was actually happening. I was not being made fun of, instead what I found was a group of very supportive people who were at various stages of their Tae Kwon Do journey.  Every single person whether he was a White Belt, or a seasoned Master said the same thing, “I started in the same place.”  These people were able to help encourage me, and explain things that I was having trouble understanding.

Benefits of Tae Kwon Do
Those early months as the most junior of belts were very humbling.  Anything that I had accomplished as an athlete in the past did not matter when I stepped into the dojang.  It didn’t matter how many medals and trophies I won as an accomplished age group triathlete.  It didn’t matter that I had represented the United States in the Triathlon Age Group World Championships.  These things weren’t going to make me into a Black Belt.  Only hard work, focus and patience would put me on the path to Black Belt.

I would have to say a benefit of Tae Kwon Do that is not touted in advertisements for martial arts schools is humility.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen an ad announce “Learn Tae Kwon Do to get humility!”  Most people don’t want to be told they need to become humble in order to succeed.  They want to be able to accomplish great things and let everyone know how great they are.  Being prideful and arrogant are major roadblocks on the Tae Kwon Do journey. In his book Tae Kwon Do Ancient Wisdom for the Modern Warrior, Master Doug Cook states "By allowing humility to become the medium in which discipline can germinate and prosper, the martial artist will harvest a newly found sense of self-esteem that will act as fortification against the enemy within.". Without humility it's very difficult to reap the other benefits of Tae Kwon Do. 

In many sports people are ranked by ability.  If someone joins a running or cycling club, he will be placed in a group that is appropriate for his ability.  It may be the first day he runs or rides with the club he might be in a group that’s either too slow or too fast.   After a meeting or two he’ll find the group that’s appropriate for his pace.  As he improves he’ll move to a faster group.  However there is not necessarily a step-by-step progression he takes to move to a faster group.  Not every single person in that club will have started in the beginner group.  Some people are naturally talented, and it doesn’t take much to progress from back of the pack to front of the pack.  Sometimes these very talented athletes don’t have an appreciation for what it takes to progress in their sport.

Every single person who comes into Grandmaster Kim’s dojang to learn Tae Kwon Do starts in the same place.  He or she starts in the back of the classroom in a brand new uniform with no patches and no belt.  It doesn’t matter if she’s the prettiest girl in her class, or the fastest runner in her school she will start her Tae Kwon Do journey the same way we all did.  Learning and showing proficiency in the basics will earn the patches and that White Belt that she’ll eventually will wear.  The basic requirements will be the foundation on which everything else is based.

It took time to adapt to the traditional ways of a martial artist. The etiquette was nothing I had learned before.  I was not used to bowing and greeting people as sir or ma’am, or having people greet me that way.  At first I felt awkward when I would come into the dojang and people would say “hello ma’am”.  It wasn’t something I was accustomed to, or even something felt I deserved.  I thought sir and ma’am were just for those senior to me.  I quickly learned that regardless of rank, students greet one another this way as a show of respect.  It took getting used to following instructions in manner that wasn’t natural to me.  At times it was difficult to accept the fact that it the master’s way, not my way.  It took time but I eventually learned what was meant by rule #7. Establish trust between teacher and student.

It may take some students longer then others to learn humility. Once learned then it gives each student a greater appreciation of what their seniors went through to get to where they are now.  It also helps them relate to their juniors who are facing the same challenges they dealt with at their stage of their development as a martial artist.  Grandmaster Kim continually reminds us to respect our seniors and love our juniors. It’s hard doing those things if we're so full of ourselves.  Personally I’ve found myself looking at people and things with a greater sense of appreciation.  The world I live in does not revolve around me.  I find myself spending more time looking at what I can contribute to others.

What is the very first set of movements we learn? Kam Sa Hyung. Those movements are the building blocks of the basic stances and punches.  It's also referred to as the Appreciation Form.  The understanding being, “The more knowledge we posses, the more we appreciate everything around us.”  It's a form that is common ground for every single student. It’s the first thing we do as a group after meditation and warm ups. Everyone from No Belt to Master performs Kam Sa Hyung every time she or he attends class.

With humility comes another benefit of Tae Kwon Do: Self-discipline.  Discipline starts from Day 1. In fact it started before Day 1. In my trial lesson I learned the proper way to bow, how to address instructors and masters, and how to enter and exit the dojang.  All of this I learned before I even signed up. There are no short cuts in Tae Kwon Do.  Every kick, block and punch must be practiced over and over again.  The 10 basic motions and poomse become ingrained in our minds with constant practice.  It takes self-discipline to continually practice in order to make our forms better.  It is too easy think "I know this. I don't need to practice anymore."  It's also easy to get discouraged when learning something new.  There were times when I would be learning a new form and felt like I would never be able to do it correctly. It was during those periods where I would have to force myself to keep trying.

There is also the discipline that is demanded of each of us during class.  Proper discipline requires us to give our complete attention to the masters and instructors.  When we hear Cha Ryut that's the command to come to attention. No looking around the room or adjusting of uniforms. Mind and body together.  This attention to discipline has helped me focus better. The focus and discipline not only helps in class, but also in other things that require a lot of focus and concentration. Staying focused has always been a challenge for me. I was the kid who was bouncing from one thing to another and not paying attention in class.  I was ADHD long before anyone knew what it was. It's something that has continued to be a struggle for me even as an adult.  The self-discipline I've had to develop to make progress as a martial artist has been helpful in other areas of my life.

 This self-discipline has helped me in making better food choices and lifestyle changes. With these changes I'm finally getting my weight back to where it was when I was in racing condition. I'm not quite there yet, but it's a goal that I'm very close to reaching. Reaching and maintaining a healthy weight will play a big part in being able to achieve my long-term Tae Kwon Do goals.
As I have developed discipline I have derived another benefit from Tae Kwon Do. Self-confidence. Self-confidence can seem contrary to the humility that we gain in our training.  However there is a big difference between self-confidence generated by belief in yourself and your knowledge and the over-confidence that comes from false bravado and cockiness. Grandmaster Kim encourages us to believe in ourselves. He tempers that belief in ourselves by asking us to be honest with ourselves. If he asks, "did you do your best?" it's up to us to answer the question honestly. There are times where I've lacked focus and really didn't do a very good job. If I raise my hand to say I did my best then I'm not being honest with Grandmaster Kim or myself.

Having the confidence in myself makes it a lot easier to be honest in evaluating myself.  I can tell myself "I can do better." When faced with new challenges I can tell myself "I can do this."  Staying positive and being confident makes it easier to deal with difficult situations.  The self-confidence I’ve developed in class helps me in real life situations.  Something may prove to be very difficult, and I might not be successful at first. However having self –confidence gives me the determination to keep working at it.  I often will think to myself “Yes I can!” when I need a little encouragement to get over whatever hurdle I’m facing.

In Master Cook's book Tae Kwon Do Ancient Wisdom for the Modern Warrior, he devotes an entire chapter to "The Enemy Within". This is an area of my life I've spent much time thinking about and working on. With my learning issues and ADHD I've had many problems with discipline and self-esteem through out my life.  It's been difficult to be confident in myself when through out much of my life I've been criticized for being lazy, unfocused and disorganized. As a child I was teased a lot about my funny speech and the way I acted. Even as an adult I've struggled with insensitive people who ask me about the way I talk. I’ve struggled with organization and then have beat myself up when I can’t find something or miss an appointment.  I truly have been my worst enemy in terms of emotional growth.

In the chapter, “The Enemy Within”, Master Cook states, "....the image we perceive is a reflection of the person we've created in our mind.  Our persona is (in addition to a multitude of other psychological and physical factors) a product of the manner in which we were raised, our physical appearance, the criticism we receive from others, and our successes and failures. is difficult, if not impossible, for us to remain genuinely objective regarding our self-image. To dwell too long on this topic can result in either conceit or despair. ...given the wide spectrum of emotional possibilities we are capable of,  we should not be overly critical of ourselves. Rather, we should concentrate on developing our strengths while transforming, fortifying and eliminating our weaknesses."

Master Cook pretty much summarizes what has been the biggest obstacle in my Tae Kwon Do journey. For me it took a long time to build up confidence in myself.  As I slowly progressed through the color belt ranks, I was extremely hard on myself.  It was too easy to blame age, my learning issues and poor coordination on my lack of progress.  It probably was around Blue or Purple Belt that I realized that I really was becoming a martial artist, and that my past history should not be a hindrance to becoming a Black Belt.  It was at that point I could really start believing "a Black Belt is a No Belt who never quit."

Each promotion test is measure of progress that helps remind me of just how far I've come. To progress from the 53-year-old woman who cried her first night of class to the woman who is on the verge of becoming a Black Belt has been a life-changing event. I feel as though I've had an emotional breakthrough as I've overcome both mental and physical challenges to reach the point I'm at right now.  This is the first time in many years that I have undertaken something brand new, and stayed with it.  Traveling this road towards Black Belt makes me realize that I have it within me to try new things and make changes that will have a positive affect on my life."

I'm still working on how to transfer the focusing and self-discipline piece to chess.  I'm encouraged by the fact that I've managed to not toss away winning positions by losing focus, and getting distracted by external factors.  Every time I've gotten a winning position recently, I've reminded myself that it's not a win until checkmate, the opponent's flag falls or he resigns.  It's true I had a close call last week when I went for an insane attack.  However that was not overconfidence, it was overlooking one line.  I'd rather miss a line then throw it way because I thought it was a win.

Stay tuned as I will resume analyzing some of my recent games.


Richard W said...

Fascinating post, a great read. I think it is important for us all to learn to be humble and generate our self confidence in the correct manner that you described. Not only will that help us develop at whatever activity we are aiming it towards it help us become better people. I also think it is important to constantly be stretching our horizons as there are lessons we can learn from so many places that are applicable in all our activities and life.

I read this blog as a (hopefully) improving chess player but enjoyed this diversion into tae kwon doe (an area I know nothing about) immensely.

Thanks you very much for sharing this with us.

Polly said...

Richard: I'm glad you're enjoying my blog. Though this blog is mostly about chess I do other things that I feel carry over to chess Tae Kwon Do definitely is one of those things that truly crosses over.

If you haven't read Josh Waitzkin's book "The Art of Learning" I highly recommend it. He discusses a lot of the crossover affects of chess and martial arts. In his case it's Tai Chi. I've been meaning to re-read it to reinforce what I got from it the first time. The first time I read it, I had not started Tae Kwon Do.

LinuxGuy said...

Great post, speaks for itself.

I listened to some of Josh's chess video instruction that was in a chess software program once.

Very helpful pointers. This was back in the 90's and even then his understanding of how to interpret and handle a chess position seemed very yin-yang-ish.

Like one suggestion was how to speed up the opponents attack before they are prepared to strike. IOW, you sort of force them to do it before they are ready by giving them a concession, but forcing them to commit one way or the other.

LinuxGuy said...

The flip side of the coin, regarding the "Searching for Bobby Fischer" phenomenon, was that it sort of overlooked how talented that Jeff Sarwer was (his opponent in that final game):

Polly said...

Linux: There is a lot of pressure on these young talented kids. Some of them end out dropping out of chess and doing other things with their lives. Some stay with chess, but often combine it with something else.

Jeff Sarwer was interviewed on CLO back in January. He's been playing poker, and he does have his own website

Many talented players end out doing something lese because there's not enough money in doing chess fulltime unless you're a guy like Carlson or Nakamua.

LinuxGuy said...

Poor Jeff, should have won that game against Josh.

Just found this link:

Was watching that video of their game and immediately noticed that Ke5 (preventing ..e5) instead of Kc5 is winning for White. e.g., Ke5 Na5, b5 Nc4, Kd5 Nb7, and White easily makes safe progress - can probably advance those pawns and even eat the pawns on the other side with the bishop.

Should he have made that move, there may never have been a movie! lol. I think going from Chess to Poker would have made a better book than going from chess to "push-hands" ;-p.

I had seen Jeff on one of those Poker shows on TV once and didn't even realize who he formerly was.

I guess the question then is mostly, what does one do with that talent when they reach adulthood(?)

Polly said...

GM Ken Rogoff who was one of the young guns from the late 70s retired from chess and is a highly esteemed mathematics and economics whiz. He's written a number of papers on the subject. I think he's doing a lot better in those areas then he would have ever done in chess.

Hikaru's older brother was actually the first chess player in the family. Hikaru would tag along but didn't have much interest in the game to begin. Asuka won something like 14 national titles as a scholastic player. His last tournament was the National HS Championship in 2004.

Once he went on to college he stopped playing chess. He's doing quite well working in the financial field.

There are numerous other young players who went on to college and have been very successful in their non-chess professions. I guess the age old question is does success in chess make one successful in finance or other mathematical fields, or being good with numbers and having success in those fields make someone naturally good at chess?

chesstiger said...

Looks like Maurice Ashley has visited this blog. :-)

Anonymous said...

Marvelous stuff. And in a funny way it's as much about chess -- the deeper game of chess -- as any other post here...!

My daughter is studying kung fu; she 14, and one huge boost she's getting out of it is self-knowledge -- about her body and its capabilities -- that gives her some self-assurance, at a time in her life when too many young women are losing the confidence they had as children.

And as far as ranking/belts etc.: several students who've joined the class after she did have advanced faster and higher than she. I asked her if this bothered her; she said no. "I'd rather know to my own satisfaction that I'm really ready for the next belt, that I've really mastered the skills," she said. "There's no point in having it just to have it."

Words to live by. Thanks for sharing your story!
- - - - - - -
chess sets and more