ReThinking with Adam Grant
Chess grandmaster Maurice Ashley on why mistakes are our greatest teachers
December 19, 2023
[00:00:00] Adam Grant:
Hey everyone, it's Adam Grant. Welcome back to ReThinking, my podcast on the science of what makes us tick. I'm an organizational psychologist, and I'm taking you inside the minds of fascinating people to explore new thoughts and new ways of thinking. My guest today is Maurice Ashley. He's a chess grandmaster, the first African-American ever to earn that title.
He's a member of the US Chess Hall of Fame, and he's also a popular commentator and an extraordinary coach. He's the star of the opening of my book Hidden Potential, where I chronicled how he led an underdog middle school chess team to smash expectations and shatter stereotypes. Since the book came out, one of the most frequent requests I've gotten is for more Maurice, so here he is.
Maurice has a book coming out in April, Move by Move, about how to think like a chess player. Every time I talk with him, I end up rethinking some assumptions and this conversation is no exception.
[00:01:01] Maurice Ashley:
There goes the big A.G.
[00:01:01] Adam Grant:
[00:01:01] Maurice Ashley:
[00:01:04] Adam Grant:
Trying to, trying to.
[00:01:06] Maurice Ashley:
[00:01:07] Adam Grant:
It’s the hair. Are you, are you in a closet?
[00:01:10] Maurice Ashley:
If you want the real sound, you create a closet studio so…
[00:01:14] Adam Grant:
That you do sound really good. Let me start by asking you, I'd love to have you talk a little bit about your childhood. Your family is extraordinary, and I think it, it's hard for anybody to hear even a little bit about you and your siblings without being amazed and mesmerized. So, take me back to the beginning.
[00:01:32] Maurice Ashley:
Well, I’m originally from Jamaica, and I grew up in a household of high achievers. Uh, my brother is a three time world champion kickboxer, and my sister, the baby of the family is a six time world champion boxer, and she's also in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the oldest person, male or female, that won a boxing title, a world championship title. She did that at the tender age of 49.
So, we're a pretty competitive household. All three of us are in our respective hall of fames for our sport. This didn't happen until much later in life of course. As a child, my mother was not around because she left to come to the United States to prepare the way for us, to prepare, uh, a better life, or, as the typical immigrant story goes, for her children. She eventually was able to bring us up 10 years later. We were taken care of by our grandmother, who was 64 at the time my mother left and would soldier on for 10 years taking care of the three of us until all our papers were finally official.
And she raised seven children by herself first, and then raised the babies, the grandbabies, the children of her daughter. So it was quite a challenge growing up in Jamaica because we lived in a serious amount of poverty. The reason why my mother left when she had the opportunity in the first place was because of that. She just wanted greater opportunities for her children.
[00:03:05] Adam Grant:
That's, I mean, just extraordinary on so many levels. We've talked a lot about character skills and their importance in success and growth. Uh, what were the character skills that, that your grandmother in-instilled in you?
[00:03:18] Maurice Ashley:
She was quite the tenacious woman. She did not believe in self pity. She had gone through the tough times herself, and she knew that tough times make tough people, and, so, she always preached hard work. She always preached focus and desire for excellence, and one of the big things she taught me was focusing on what you want in life and giving it your all.
She actually used to say, “Jack of all trades, master of none,” and she would repeat it like a mantra to me. At some point, I thought she was cursing me, the way she just repeated it over and over, and almost castigating me for having too many interests. But her goal was to let me understand that focus was essential and a key to success, and that you had to be determined in order to get exactly what you wanted.
[00:04:12] Adam Grant:
Was there a moment where that lesson hit home?
[00:04:16] Maurice Ashley:
Absolutely. When I was 33 years old, the biggest day of my life as a chess professional. Because I was about to play a game against an international master, Adrian Negulescu from Romania, and if I won that game, I'd be given the title of Grandmaster, which was my biggest dream.
And I remember distinctly being home, ironing my shirt to go to the game because the game took place in New York City where I then lived. And the iron was hanging in my hand when I thought of her words, and I realized for the first time, as a grown man, it took me all those years to understand, that she never meant those words maliciously, that she meant them out of love, that she meant for me to use them as a warning so that I could be as focused as needed to be, to be successful.
And when I realized that, I dropped the iron and started crying because I realized my grandmother was a woman that, that cared so much about me, and I had treated those words resentfully, that somehow I had just seen her in a negative light for saying those words to me. And I let it all out. And it was at that moment that I gained the strength to then go and play the game, and I won the game and finally achieved my dream of becoming a grandmaster.
[00:05:36] Adam Grant:
When I think about the meaning of that phrase, from everything I know about you and your life, it sounds to me like what she was telling you was, "Look, you have the potential to be very good at a lot of things, and you might actually limit your ultimate accomplishments if you try to do them all.”
[00:05:55] Maurice Ashley:
I think that's absolutely right, but that's not the kind of insight that an 8-year-old or a 10-year-old truly understands, right? Unless it's fully explained to you. You get it through the prism of this infantile minor or this childlike mind, and that's how I interpreted it. But, she understood quite deeply that excellence comes with focus. You could be great at a lot of things. You could have a high IQ, you could be wonderful in many subjects in school, but you need to take one subject at a time if you're going to master it. And in my case, grandmaster it.
[00:06:30] Adam Grant:
I've never heard that verbed before.
[00:06:33] Maurice Ashley:
Uh-huh. Yeah, she, she did not know that I would eventually become a chess player. I did not play much chess in Jamaica, but whatever it is that I would do in life, she knew that it would take that kind of dedication and focus.
[00:06:47] Adam Grant:
I think a lot of people struggle with making that choice. There are a lot of things I'm interested in. I could see myself getting really passionate about a bunch of them. How do I pick? How did you know chess was gonna be your game?
[00:06:59] Maurice Ashley:
I think that chess picked me. I, I didn't have a clue that chess would become my obsession the way it did, but once it sort of infected me like a virus, that was it. It was over. I could not do anything but play chess. I didn't want to do anything other than playing chess.
And usually what I exhort people in life is if it's a thing that you can't help doing, that's the thing. If you have to stop and think about it and meditate on it, and “I could do this, I could do that,” then you probably haven't found the thing. Because those who become great at something usually do not want to do anything else.
It's what's on their mind. They wake up to it, they dream about it. I remember having dreams of chess games where I would normally lose, by the way, in my own dream. That really pissed me off. That I would lose. Why couldn't I at least be winning these games in my own dreams? But the fact is it does become all consuming. And if you haven't found that thing just yet, then you probably need to wait some more because the universe isn't telling you what you need to know.
[00:08:10] Adam Grant:
I, I, I wholeheartedly agree with you, but I think where people sometimes stumble is it's hard to like something you're bad at. There's research on this showing that as people's skill improves, their intrinsic motivation rises.
And I think you dealt with that early on. You were terrible at chess when you started, and you really didn't like at least the outcome of losing. We've talked about that a little bit. I think you even told me you hated losing. So how did you find the motivation to keep going?
[00:08:35] Maurice Ashley:
Well, I love chess, but I was extremely competitive. I. I'm from a competitive family and I couldn't tolerate the idea that somebody could whip me at something that easily. And my friends in school, particularly my friend Clotaire Kolis, who everybody calls Tico, and also my friend Vincent Monroe, who everybody calls Leon, those two would just school me at chess.
And I was fascinated by the game, but I really couldn't stand losing that easily, especially that easily. They would just crush me. It was embarrassing. Leon took a rook off the board. You know t—when you take a rook off the board, that's like spotting somebody 30, 40 points in basketball and saying, “No worries. I'm still gonna whip you. Like, I'm gonna score so much on you. You don't stand a chance.” And I think that that competitive side, that desire to win, that feeling that I could actually become better if I worked at it and become better really fast. Those things motivated me, and I think that was really all it was.
And there was an ego also. I'll add that in there. Losing, it wasn't just the pain of losing, but the arrogance that told me I should be able to do this really well, and I don't care what you do. I'm coming back. Like, I'm gonna learn and I'm coming back to take you down. And luckily, I was reading chess books and I learned really fast, and it didn't take me that long to start beating my friends.
[00:10:06] Adam Grant:
You're known to the outside world as a chess grandmaster, but I think of you as a learning grandmaster. Your speed and discipline of getting good at something, um, is something we can all learn from, whether we're playing chess or trying to master any skill. So I, I'd love to talk to you about that a little bit, and I, I, there are a bunch of different ways to formulate this question, but let me start with what do people get wrong when they're trying to accelerate their progress in a game like chess?
[00:10:30] Maurice Ashley:
That's a fabulous question. People tend to believe two things that are fallacious. One, that memorizing is the most important thing. You learn facts. You learn tactics or ideas, openings. You learn these set ways of playing and that's going to make you good, and that's just absurd. Okay, you need to learn certain things, certain patterns that exist and those will be important, but it's not the patterns only that help you, it's the ideas.
It's the overall universal applicability of those patterns that give you the raw power to break down any position. And that's a challenge for people because they rely so much on this crutch of memorization, but the truth is you have it backwards. What you have to study in chess is the end game. You start at the end, and by knowing what you're aiming for, you can better navigate the present to the middle game to the finish.
And that's what people normally get wrong. They try to learn quickly by memorizing openings, by memorizing set winning plays from the beginning instead of taking it backwards and dissecting the ideas, the principles that are universally applicable throughout any phase of the game.
[00:11:56] Adam Grant:
That was one of my favorite aha moments when I was writing Hidden Potential, courtesy of you. Aha, the idea that you know, not only is it easier to learn the game by starting with the end, it's also more motivating for a kid to, like, not have to worry about, “Wait, what does a knight do again?” Like, “When can a pawn do an en passant?” But rather to say, “I've just got a couple pieces on the board, like, how do I checkmate the king?”
[00:12:17] Maurice Ashley:
There are so many golden nuggets and truths in simplicity. And even that, people will get wrong. They'll take an endgame and think they have to memorize the end game, but the eternal truths hidden in these simple positions have nothing to do with memorizing, but rather again, extracting those meta-concepts that are applicable throughout any phase of the game.
Whether it's ideas like Zugzwang, which is when if it's your turn to move, you lose because it's your turn to move. I mean, think about that. We are such active people. And if I tell you, “But if you do something, you will fail, you will lose,” who, who thinks about an idea like that? But it happens all the time in chess.
To get an idea like that one, seeing what the opponent wants, understanding how to curtail exactly what they're trying to do so that you can execute what you want to do. Those are principles, not just for chess, but for life. And those are the principles I try to instill in my students. I will show them chess, but at the same time, I'll make sure that they're thinking more broadly about the applicability of these core concepts and how they can apply them on the chess board, of course, but also in their daily lives.
[00:13:35] Adam Grant:
Well, this goes to the book you have coming out, Move By Move. Uh, you've written about the life lessons from chess and you are chock full of those. You spend, I know a bunch of time teaching us how to think like a chess player, not just to become better chess players, but to become better thinkers. What are some of your favorite principles?
[00:13:54] Maurice Ashley:
One of the things I talked about: respecting your opponent more than you respect yourself. You must study every single aspect of your opponent. How do they react under pressure? You wanna know everything because that's how you craft a winning plan against a very difficult, devious, devilish, aggressive opponent.
I also talk about sacrifice and risk. And many people, they're afraid to sacrifice anything, that is give away a pawn or a piece because they're afraid they're gonna lose the game. And what's the level of risk? How do you mitigate against risk? But yet, the reality is that risk is part of the game. You have to take a chance if you're gonna be successful.
A world champion, Magnus Carlsen, actually, he’s quoted as saying that it's a risky strategy not to take risks. In fact, that's the challenge. Another world champion, Tigran Petrosian, said about sacrifice that people, when they sacrifice something, right, it's like an investment. You invested it, be patient, act as though you took that chance, you invested with the opportunity for it to come back and not expecting an immediate return.
[00:15:04] Adam Grant:
Maurice, uh, let me jump in there for a second 'cause, uh, that's totally fascinating. There was a psychologist, Clyde Coombs, who wrote about risk portfolios and the idea that, that people would think about risk in the different domains of their life similar to a stock portfolio where, you know, if I'm gonna take a social risk and maybe put myself in an uncomfortable situation that might embarrass me, then I'm gonna become extra cautious when it comes to physical risk and look nine times before crossing the street and, it, kind of balance out the budget that way. And I think what, what you're saying here is that if you take all the decisions in, in your life and you take a zero risks, that is risky because you don't have a balanced portfolio.
[00:15:42] Maurice Ashley:
That's a beautiful way of putting it. And I think that's related to the next principle; that is the power of mistakes. We so eschew mistakes in life. We avoid them like the plague. And chess players understand that mistakes are our greatest teachers. We embrace our mistakes. We want to know what exactly is the nature of the error that I made, and why is it that I made it? What is it in me that I don't understand that I seem to repeat over and over again?
What's that pattern that can teach me to use this error and be, have it be a springboard for future growth and success? And in this way, your mistake is your greatest teacher. And I think just most people don't realize, like for us as chess players, we're recording all our games so we can see the mistakes. We can stack games against each other and go, okay, I keep doing this over and over again. And that's huge.
[00:16:45] Adam Grant:
I think a lot of people struggle with, with emotion regulation in that situation. They catch a mistake, especially if they made it multiple times or if it seems like a really dumb error, and they start to feel embarrassed, they're disappointed, they're wallowing in regret.
They might even be ashamed of themselves. It's so easy as a psychologist to say, but, like, there’s a functional theory of emotions that says we evolve to feel these things, to get us to pay attention and learn so we do better next time. That's your teachable moment. So as soon as you've extracted the lesson, the emotion is irrelevant, but the emotion just doesn't go away for a lot of people. So how, how do you manage that?
[00:17:19] Maurice Ashley:
A lot of chess players, especially very gifted ones who were prodigies when they were young, who the game came easily to them, no worries if we just start beating kids and their parents started saying all these great things. “Oh, my child is so gifted at chess,” and you hear all this positive feedback that makes you feel so good.
Well, sooner or later, those extremely gifted children start meeting other extremely gifted children. And when they do battle, it's not so easy anymore. You start losing games when you usually were winning all the time. And those kids are not good, many of them at emotional regulation. Now they have to deal with for the first time, the frustration, uh, the embarrassment, the shame.
And mommy and daddy not saying, “Oh, you're so good.” Now they’re saying, “Oh, it's okay. You'll win the next time.” It really is resiliency. It's what it's about. It's recognizing that it's not the end of the world. And for some that it doesn't come as easily to, somebody like myself who got my head handed to me when I was a kid at, at chess.
I was a good thing because I didn't have this necessarily big view of myself as a chess player. I had an ego as, as a thinker, and a, and a student, but as a chess player, I understood that, okay, I’m not that good, but I'm gonna get better. And as I got better, the feedback was, oh, look at this. I sucked at first, but now I'm getting better around beating people that I wasn't able to beat before. This seems like a thing I can do. And at every single level I would do that. Any friend who beat me, I said, “Okay, thanks for the information. I'll be back.”
[00:19:10] Adam Grant:
I've got a bunch of rapid fire questions for you. You're a pro at these. I actually, I, I created a longer than usual list just for you, so are you ready?
[00:19:19] Maurice Ashley:
[00:19:20] Adam Grant:
All right. What is the biggest misconception that people have about what it takes to be a great chess player?
[00:19:25] Maurice Ashley:
You have to be super freaking smart, and in fact, there’s so many chess players who are not that bright, I hate to say, but…
[00:19:34] Adam Grant:
That’s reassuring to the rest of us. You've been known to hustle people in the park. Uh, you can win multiple chess matches blindfolded at the same time. Is that a skill or is it a parlor trick?
[00:19:44] Maurice Ashley:
It's definitely a skill and you develop it by working your tail off, over and over again at chess, and sooner or later, the board is just a, a feature locked in your brain.
[00:19:58] Adam Grant:
That immediately makes me think about the Queen's Gambit. What did you think of it?
[00:20:03] Maurice Ashley:
The book itself was very well written, Walter Tevis's book, and they had two prominent players who were always looking for every single detail, making sure was on point. Garry Kasparov and Bruce Pandolfini. In their hands, the chess was fabulous. Usually chess in movies have basic errors that drive us crazy, make me wanna pull my hair out, and I have none left. So they did it. They did a great job and the story was absolutely fantastic.
[00:20:34] Adam Grant:
Uh, what's the most underrated character skill for chess?
[00:20:37] Maurice Ashley:
Uh, intuition. Just raw intuition. How much we just flow. The move just comes to your mind. You don't calculate. You don't look 20 moves ahead. You just know what to do right now and you go with it.
[00:20:56] Adam Grant:
I have to do a quick follow up on that one because it surprised me at first and then all, all of a sudden it hit me. Chess is a stable game, and that's where we know intuition is reliable.
When I think about the science of intuition, I, you can't trust intuition if you're a stockbroker because the market is constantly changing. You can trust it if you're a firefighter because there's a limited number of ways that a building can burn, and you've built up all those patterns in your mind, and chess is like that, right? You can rely on the patterns of the past to predict the future, and your subconscious is probably both more sophisticated and faster at recognizing those patterns than your, your conscious reflection is.
[00:21:33] Maurice Ashley:
You said it perfectly, this kind of decision making allows us to play chess at really fast speeds. The stability you're talking about where we'll play blitz chess, which is five minutes per side, or my favorite, which is bullet chess, which is one minute to play the entire game. I mean, one minute on the clock, 60 seconds to play the entire game, and you're watching pieces just zip across the board at light speed, and, I, the best players could make 80 moves, eight zero in 60 seconds. And think about that. That’s—
[00:22:04] Adam Grant:
[00:22:04] Maurice Ashley:
Insane. Just absolutely absurd. But that requires a super refined intuition within a space, of course, of stability, as you described.
[00:22:15] Adam Grant:
You have a children's book coming out on the life changing magic of chess. What do you want parents to take away about how to get their kids excited about the game?
[00:22:24] Maurice Ashley:
That the game is really a wonderland, where these magical pieces, knights and bishops, kings and queens, rooks and pawns. The pieces have a special look to them. Uh, they’re armies going off to war. It's this battleground. But at the same time, it's a fairy tale. Every single time a new story gets told with a different ending, and kids just love it.
And so we should not be so concerned about the child winning at the game as much as them just enjoying the process of playing and learning more and more about how to think, how to approach problems, how to lose, how to win gracefully as well. It's has this really transformative effect on the young mind, and that's my main purpose and message for this book.
[00:23:22] Adam Grant:
Few other lightning questions. One is what's the worst advice you've ever gotten?
[00:23:27] Maurice Ashley:
I was told by a hustler in the park that I should keep my rating low intentionally so that I could play in lower rated events and win them and win the money that was available, the prize that was available. This is a technique we call sandbagging, and I remember hearing this advice and instantly thinking, “I'm trying to become a grandmaster, and you're asking me to depress my rating so that I could win money.” And my quick response was just a hard, “Get out my face.” People want to win and think they value winning and the rewards from winning so much that the entire process of becoming better, the journey towards excellence, it doesn't excite them, or they realize that there's so much loss involved that why do that when you can, in the meantime, uh, pick up some bucks and, and win some tournaments. I just embrace the process of trying to get better and recognizing that part of it is losing, and for me losing is learning.
[00:24:31] Adam Grant:
Do you have a book recommendation for us?
[00:24:33] Maurice Ashley:
You know what's a really good book? Just for the joy of it, the fun of reading and the world that it inhabits is a book called The Turk.
[00:24:42] Adam Grant:
Don’t know it.
[00:24:43] Maurice Ashley:
It’s a book about this automaton that was created by Wolfgang von Kempelen in the 1750s, 1760s, and he basically was a hoax. The thing was not actually playing chess, but it had a human inside the machine. But it's such a brilliant—
[00:25:04] Adam Grant:
Oh, was this the original Mechanical Turk?
[00:25:04] Maurice Ashley:
The mechanical Turk, exactly. It is so amazingly written, and you get a sense of just how amazing the world was in the late 1700s, the early 1800s at the time in the Industrial Age, and the relationship to the mechanization at that time that terrified people about how the world would change as a result of these machines and really, essentially, presaged our time this time when now AI is about to take over. It is so well written, so brilliant. That, that's a, a book that I most recently enjoyed of the many books that I am always reading.
[00:25:45] Adam Grant:
What’s a question you have for me?
[00:25:47] Maurice Ashley:
This was asked by, by Neil deGrasse Tyson when he interviewed me. And I got this one spectacularly wrong. I had the opportunity to ask a brilliant question and I acted reflexively just like you're asking me to do right now. And, and so that's one of the things that I do. When something happens to me, I reflect back on my mistake and I say, “If I get that second chance, I will pause.”
[00:26:11] Adam Grant:
I respect and support that decision. It, you know, it's interesting, it, it dovetails a little bit with something you said earlier about, uh, the struggles that prodigies have as they level up, which is you are very quick on your feet and I think that, that makes it easy for you to, to respond with something that sounds compelling to the audience. Um, but to your point, may not be your best effort.
[00:26:33] Maurice Ashley:
What you're basically saying is that I B.S. well.
[00:26:37] Adam Grant:
No, that's not what I said.
[00:26:38] Maurice Ashley:
I mean, you know, and it's true. It's true. I can just have so fast on my feet. You're right. But it may not be my best effort, so I want to save that one. I am sorry.
[00:26:49] Adam Grant:
[00:26:49] Maurice Ashley:
I wanna save that one, so that I ask you a great question.
[00:26:54] Adam Grant:
Saved, we'll land on it. I definitely want to talk about AI, and obviously, I think chess probably foreshadowed a lot of where we are now in a way that, that few other domains did. Um, you've been right at the center of that for decades. Uh, I know you even called some of the, the epic man versus machine matches. Maybe to set the stage a little bit for what I'm most curious about. I think one of my takeaways from watching what DeepBlue, am I remembering correctly?
[00:27:20] Maurice Ashley:
Yes, that's correct.
[00:27:22] Adam Grant:
Seeing that IBM could build a computer that could beat a human, it was really depressing to me. But then I found hope in seeing that the human-computer team could beat either alone, and I bet there's a lot that we can learn from that about effective co-piloting now that all of us have access to generative AI tools that could potentially make us smarter. So we'd love to just hear you riff a little bit about what are, what are the lessons from computers mastering chess and humans learning to work with computers that, that apply to all of us.
[00:27:53] Maurice Ashley:
People were genuinely terrified when they were considering this match and thinking about a match between a human and a machine given that humans dominated machines at chess for so long. In fact, the headline for Newsweek at the time was “The Brain’s Last Stand”, literally this epic battle. No pressure Garry Kasparov, but you are the defender of humanity at this moment in time. And it turns out that it was possible to program computers to play chess quite effectively.
Not just through the calculating speed and raw power that they had, but also because the humans were also able to teach it and give it ideas that humans had mastered over so many years. And that information just got grafted onto its phenomenal calculating capability. So we should have seen the writing on the wall instead of pretending that we were just gonna be the smartest chess playing entities in the universe forever.
I had an argument with a grandmaster, Raymond Keene, about this after Garry Kasparov lost, and he thought that this kind of engine competition, computers playing against each other, would become the norm.That chess fans wanted to see perfect chess, and as such, we would now rely on the computers to do it.
And I was looking at him like he had three eyes, like, what are you talking about? Because I knew that humans wanna crush other humans. We wanna trash talk our friends. We don't care if the chest moves are perfect. Sure there can be mistakes. It's okay. We just wanna win against another human. And history has played that out.
We know the kinds of things that, that we need to operate in our space that the AI does not as yet. I say as yet because they're fast in coming. But for now we can co-pilot, we can show it, or maybe we can use it to give us great ideas, to generate great ideas, but it is up to us to decide which ones will be the most effective.
[00:30:03] Adam Grant:
Yes, I, I love the way you put that. Well, one of the things I've noticed so far is that AI is terrible at coaching. Terrible. Like you, you ask for advice on anything. And so far tools like Claude and ChatGPT give you the most banal, trite suggestions you could possibly think of. And I think this is where there's still a great human advantage.
In addition to being a grandmaster chess player, you are also a world-class coach, and I want to close our conversation today by maybe bringing some of your coaching genius to the table. One of the things I, I was so impressed by about your coaching approach, and I imagine this has been your parenting approach too, is, is the way that you scaffold. You do the initial instruction and then you take the support away so that you know, kids, players, get to learn their own independent sense of responsibility and skill. How do you gauge when it's time to take the support away and kind of let them go on their own?
[00:31:01] Maurice Ashley:
I think that it really comes down to life experience, paying careful attention to each child, treating each child as an individual. There's no formula for when one child will grow, one child is ready. It's just having lived long enough, and I've lived long enough now and coached enough and made enough mistakes in coaching to know that every child is different, Every child is special, every person is unique, and you have to look slowly and think about them first. Always think about them first. Not what is the magic for you, but what is the, the key to unlocking their greatest potential. And as long as you are very mindful of the other, and you let yourself get out the way, as best you can, you'll have the best chance to be a good coach.
[00:31:55] Adam Grant:
I think what most people would ex-expect intuitively happened in reverse for you. So, I think a lot of people would say, you become a chess grandmaster and then you're ready to be a great coach and take a group of kids who are undertrained and under experience to a national championship.
You did it backward. You became a world class coach on your way to becoming a grandmaster, and I have come to believe that that's actually a better strategy, that you should teach what you wanna learn, that you should coach what you wanna refine. I'm curious to hear your reaction to that and what impact coaching had on your own development as a player.
[00:32:35] Maurice Ashley:
That's an interesting point. I might push back in terms of necessarily having this as the formula. That you, you start with teaching first. I think it very much depends on the person. Part of what was good for me was that I was not that good at chess right away. If I was a phenomenal prodigy, then I probably would be chasing the grandmaster title and not think about coaching, but because I wasn't that good, I had to go through the process of learning to get better, and I had to work at it, and I had to study as many books as I could, and I didn't have a coach that was guiding me. So it took years for me to really know what was garbage to look at versus what was the best books to read, to really distill the best advice from everything that I was reading and hearing and experiencing.
And so I think that because I wasn't a prodigy, and because I started chess at 14, it helped further accelerate my understanding and my ability to explain to others what it takes to get better at chess. And it then so happened that it helped me too, along the way. But I think that someone who is a prodigy, after they've become a grandma, they'll see a lot of insights as well. And if they just get out of their own way, then they can share these insights with others.
[00:33:59] Adam Grant:
I like it. I like it. I think that's a nice middle ground. It's consistent with the systems dynamics ideas of equifinality and multifinality, many paths to one end. Also, the same path can take you to multiple ends.
[00:34:10] Maurice Ashley:
Okay, I, I'll trust you. Since I have no idea what you just said. It’s said—
[00:34:14] Adam Grant:
A-ha. We’ll probably edit that out. So, okay. Last question. I've been thinking a lot about what teachers and coaches can learn from you if they're not in chess. It’s not always easy to think about how do I teach the end game if you know, if I'm teaching geometry, or how do I coach the endgame if I am working with a debate team, like how, how would you think about re-imagining education based on what you've learned as a chess expert?
[00:34:40] Maurice Ashley:
I think it is easy to do that actually, because a lot of times kids don't understand why they're learning things. Why am I learning algebra? There seems to be no reason to learn about these sine waves. And if you're learning trigonometry, and A squared plus B squared equals C squared, who cares? What is, what is the significance of any of this? Right? And so because we learn them abstractly, we don't understand, or the child doesn't come to understand the applicability of this knowledge. And that was the great thing about chess is that everything you learn could be applied.
Everything. There's not a single wasted bit of knowledge. I have a niece who was taking a physics class and she got a 41 on the first test and a 41 on the second test, and the midterm was on the way, and she said, “Uncle, I need to pass this test.” We were driving in the car, and she had all these formulas, y’know, on, uh, acceleration and distance and, and mass and the whole nine, velocity, and she had to graph things.
And when we were in the car driving, I said okay. She had her graph paper in her hand and I said… It was raining. And I said, “Graph the rain.” And I said, we're gonna start three stories high, so let's call it 30 meters. And she had the distance 30 meters. And then she realized that acceleration was the acceleration of gravity.
So she had her 9.8 meters per second squared, if I remember my acceleration numbers correct. And, and so suddenly she saw that in the world around her, t hese concepts that she was learning could be applied. And we did that. We did it with passing cars. We did it with cars that weren't passing. They were just going at our speed.
So she understood that acceleration was zero relative to us. And the light went off in her mind, and would you believe it? She came back on her midterm and got an 82.
[00:36:42] Adam Grant:
[00:36:43] Maurice Ashley:
Exactly 41 plus 41 that she had gotten from the first two exams. And then she told me all her friends wanted me to teach them physics. So the point is that everything we learn has some kind of correlative value in life. And for me, education should be that. Always just find these connections.
[00:37:05] Adam Grant:
Well, Maurice, this has, this has been such a treat. I always learn so much from you and I can't wait for an excuse to do it again. Thank you.
[00:37:12] Maurice Ashley:
It's always a pleasure. Thanks Adam.
[00:37:16] Adam Grant:
Maurice is one of the quickest thinkers I've ever met, which is why it's so important to hear him say, “You know what? I wanna pause and think about that.” My most important takeaway is that we spend too much time thinking fast and shallow and too little time thinking slow and deep. We end up sounding smart at the expense of being wise. Instead of rushing to give rapid answers, we should be more willing to say, This deserves more than a quick reaction. Let me give it some thought.”
ReThinking is hosted by me, Adam Grant, and produced by TED with Cosmic Standard. Our team includes Colin Helms, Eliza Smith, Jacob Winik, Aja Simpson, Samiah Adams, Michelle Quint, Banban Cheng, Hannah Kingsley-Ma, Julia Dickerson, and Whitney Pennington Rodgers.
This episode was produced and mixed by Cosmic Standard. Our fact checker is Paul Durbin, original music by Hansdale Hsu and Allison Leyton-Brown.
Now as a, as a, you know, average casual chess player, um, if, if I have unlimited time and a grand has 60 seconds total for moves, do I have a shot or are you still gonna crush me?
[00:38:22] Maurice Ashley:
You're gonna lose.
[00:38:25] Adam Grant:
I figured as much.
[00:38:25] Maurice Ashley:
You're just gonna lose because again, the, the pattern recognition, the intuitive speed of response will, you'll see fabulous moves get played, that you could sit for as long as you want. And you think, “How come I didn't see that?” Because the, the patterns just instantly jump to the grandmaster's mind.
[00:38:48] Adam Grant:
Uh, I, I look forward to losing that one when we finally meet in person.