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It's all in the mindset

I first heard about Barry Hymer and Peter Wells on the perpetual chess podcast where they were interviewed about their new book on chess improvement. I was intrigued by the ideas they presented, so I decided to get the book. And I was not disappointed. In this review, I will tell you why I like this book and why you should probably read it too.

Let me begin by making one point very clear. The subtitle of this book  ("it's all in the mindset") has a very specific connection to the psychological theory of mindset. It should not be confused with statements such as "you can get whatever you want if you just ask the universe for it". And it is not a quick fix. With that disclaimer out of the way, let's dig in!

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What can you expect from this book?

The concept of mindset was first presented in 2006 by Stanford professor Carol Dweck in her seminal book Mindset: The new psychology of success. The core idea is actually quite simple. Dweck presents two main types of mindset. On the one hand, people with a fixed mindset believe that abilities are fixed, and that your skill level will be determined by things like "natural talent". On the other hand, people with a growth mindset believe that skills and abilities can be developed with proper training.

The distinction between these two types of mindset is quite simple in itself. But the big point is that your mindset will have a wide range of consequences for how you approach learning of various kinds - for instance chess improvement. And this is the basic premise of Hymer and Wells' book, and what is indicated by the subtitle "it's all in the mindset".

So how does mindset relate to chess? Here are some signs that you might have a fixed mindset:
  • Your rating is part of your identity. Losing points feels like losing a part of your body.
  • You'd rather win than improve. You'd rather play a weaker opponent and maximize your chance of winning instead of playing someone stronger and have a tough game that you might lose.
  • You are convinced that your playing strength has an upper limit. Once you have reached a certain level, you cannot improve any further. 
As you might imagine, a growth mindset is a sort of mirror image of the points above. A person with a growth mindset will welcome hard challenges and seize every opportunity to learn something new - even if that means losing a game and a few rating points. Such a person will focus is on long-term improvement rather than short term glory.

This distinction is obviously greatly simplified, but it will hopefully give you an idea about the main ideas. In my opinion, the authors summarize the main message quite well at the beginning of the book (p. 6):
Players who believe they are capable of making continuous progress are more likely to commit to serious study (which may not always be enjoyable) and are less likely to be put off by the inevitable failures associated with strong competition.
As you probably have realized already, Chess improvement is not your typical chess book. One of the authors (Peter Wells) is a GM, which is quite normal among chess authors. But the other author (Barry Hymer) is an amateur player, and an emeritus (retired) professor of psychology. And the book reflects the author profiles quite well: Each chapter contains a theoretical part (psychology, not opening theory) followed by examples of how this applies to actual chess games. This "recipe" is repeated throughout the seven chapters of the book. 

In addition to the theoretical research behind the book, the authors have also interviewed many prominent players (mainly British players) about their respective chess development journeys and the experiences that they have made along the way. Drawing on these interviews, they present advice for parents and coaches on how to handle certain aspects of the learning process. These points relate to the main topics of the book: motivation; challenge and feedback; practice; failure; metacognition (thinking about thinking); and cooperation.

One thing that I find slightly off about the book is that it is based on the experience of elite players, but the content is largely directed towards parents and coaches of children. Of course, the elite players have also been children at some point, but their experiences do not necessarily reflect the conditions and needs of the average 12-year old beginner. All young chess players do not share the same level of dedication (or fanaticism) that GMs seem to have in common. This being said, it's a quite minor detail that I am sure you'll be able to look past. At least, I was able to.

I have read several chess books that contains quasi-scientific claims about psychology and other matters not directly related to chess. But this is the first time that I have seen a book with actual references to actual studies and a proper theoretical discussion that rests on solid research. So from this point of view, this is a unique book.

Of course, there is quite a bit of chess in the book as well. However, the chess games presented in the book are mainly for illustrative purposes, and the annotations are aimed at the mindset and thinking processes of the players. This is another unique feature of this book: The chess isn't the most important thing in the book! This also means that it is possible to read the book (and get something out of it) without even understanding much of the game itself.

My main takeaway from this book is that it can be very useful to reflect on your mindset related to chess. Maybe you assign too much weight to your rating? Maybe you are too afraid to lose? Or maybe you simply don't accept that you need to work hard if you want to get better? There are many questions such as these that may help you pinpoint areas where your thinking - or thinking about thinking (metacognition) - could use some attention. In that sense, this book is a good complement to more traditional chess books.

Although this is a quite new book, there are already more than 60 reviews on Amazon, most of which are overwhelmingly positive. The quality of such reviews is, of course, quite uneven. For a more detailed account, I can recommend the review written by Richard James of British Chess News. And if you want to learn even more about the book, have a listen to Ben Johnson's interview with the authors on the perpetual chess podcast. You can also find a short excerpt on the publisher's webpage.

Who should read this book?

As mentioned above, the advice presented in the book is largely aimed at parents and coaches of children. However, I would argue that this is equally relevant for adult players - regardless of whether they have a coach or not. I think the book offers some profound suggestions on how to work on chess. In my opinion, Chess improvement is a great book for adult players who are aiming to improve their game, as well as for coaches and parents that want to help their students/children to achieve the same thing. I wholeheartedly recommend the book to anyone interested in chess improvement, or even personal improvement.

About this book

Author:Barry Hymer & Peter Wells
Title:Chess improvement - It's all in the mindset
Type of book:Miscellaneous, Chess improvement
Level:Any

Comments

  1. Richard LeffingwellJuly 21, 2022 at 6:29 PM

    I am about two-thirds through the book and think your review is spot on. I am an adult mediocre chess player. This book is helping me to focus on trying to understand chess rather than focusing just on winning. This mindset makes chess an enjoyable past time and gives me an enjoyable unreachable goal, understanding chess.

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