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One On 1: Former Child Chess Champ Josh Waitzkin Takes On Life After Fame

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A New Yorker who became known to the world thanks to his mastery of a game and then gave it up. Josh Waitzkin is the subject of this week’s One on 1 with Budd Mishkin.

Josh Waitzkin has an unusual dilemma. Almost everyone he meets has a preconceived notion about him thanks to a movie.



He’s a son, a brother, a former chess champion and a martial arts champion.



But for many of us, what we know about Waitzkin is what we saw in "Searching for Bobby Fischer."

"The effect of the movie on my life was very disturbing,” says Waitzkin. “Obviously it’s opened up certain doors for me, but it was a large factor in my movement away from chess, which was my first love. The first time I saw the movie I hated it."

But with time, his feelings about the film have become more nuanced.

“I actually think the movie is a beautiful movie,” says Waitzkin. “I think Steven Zallian wrote a beautiful screenplay and directed wonderful film and if I could hit a button and have the movie go away I wouldn't do it."

Whatever Waitzkin does, he does it passionately. Once it was chess; now the martial arts.



He won a world championship in tai chi in 2004, and currently practices three to four hours a day on another form, Brazilian jujitsu.



He talks about it with a Zen-like quality, using words like “flow.” But not all the moments are quite so spiritual.

“I've had guys in the martial arts who are gonna take out my knees, target the groin, the eyes, my neck, head-butting in the nose, everything illegal — it’s what you have to deal with when pressure is on in a big world class tournament,” says Waitzkin.

"I've always had an attraction to the edge,” he continues. “I love pushing myself to my limits. That's kind of where I find life to be interesting, to be honest with you. Whether it was in chess or the martial arts or free diving or swimming with sharks."

Swimming with sharks?

The Waitzkin family has long had a fascination with fish. It's but one piece of the puzzle in his life and his family's apartment in the Village.



"This is the great microcosm of the way things work in my family. You have chess, and abstract expressionism, and fish, and martial arts trophies and everything, and it’s kind of swirling and together,” says Waitzkin.

Waitzkin says he's wary of the self help industry, and people who espouse one path to success. And yet he uses his life experiences and study of philosophy and religion in his book "The Art of Learning: A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence."

But would the book have even been published if Waitzkin wasn’t that kid from “Searching for Bobby Fischer?”

“The way I can honestly answer that question is, it depends on, I think that I might still be a chess player if it wasn't for the film,” says Waitzkin. "I had a lot of pressure on me for a long time to write a celebrity story, my story, and I didn't want to do that. The ideas are what inspired me to write the book."

About ten years ago, to escape the phenomenon of, "Hey, you're the ÎSearching for Bobby Fischer’ guy!" he spent a year living in Slovenia and traveling around Europe.



And he came to a realization.



"Transitional moments were affecting me in chess and in life. And when I took them on in one, it helped me with the other,” said Waitzkin. “And so that became my manner of studying of chess, which was to look at my psychological being was manifesting itself over the board. So that kind of led to this way of thinking about chess, life, tai chi, the martial arts, in a manner which was basically looking for thematic interconnections, as opposed to looking at one art at a time.”

Waitzkin clearly a deep thinker.

And initially, not every concept is easily understood by everyone — like me, for example.

"It’s really simple,” says Waitzkin. “We all learn in different ways. Some people learn kinesthetically, where they feel things; some people learn visually, where they have to see things; some people like to hear things. So the first question is think about how you learn. Are you a feeler, a seer, are you a hearer? How do you go about things and then OK that's the way my mind naturally integrates information most effectively is that way."

Waitzkin grew up in a small Greenwich Village apartment, but he really grew up in Washington Square Park.

“You're trying to play chess and focus and they’re talking to you, they’re smashing pieces and talking to the squirrels. I mean things would get very chaotic here and crowds would gather around,” says Waitzkin. “So that was where I kind of gained my foundation — working with distraction."



The lessons Waitzkin had to learn in Washington Square Park extended beyond the chess board.



The Lawrence Fishbourne character in "Searching for Bobby Fischer" was based, in part, on a friend of Waitzkin's named Jerry. Waitzkin says Jerry tutored him in chess, and Josh tutored Jerry in math.

"He had gotten a job, he was working his way up and it was such a great thing and he was so excited and then two days later he came in, a few days later — he had been all beaten up and his toolbox was gone and some guys had taken it and then it was pretty clear that he was intending on doing something about that and then we never saw him again,” says Waitzkin. “Then we heard that he died. And it was brutal."

"I didn't grow up learning chess or competing in a protected environment,” says Waitzkin. “I grew up kind of in a raw environment and that's been kind of central to my life in all these things, because life as a competitor is brutal."

While he was an internationally recognized player, Waitzkin taught chess at P.S. 116 in Manhattan. But he didn’t teach kids to play chess at all costs.



He says he advised the parents of his best player, a kindergartner, to take him out of competition.

"I didn't feel like he could handle the ups and downs of competitive chess. And his parents wanted him to do it all the way, they were pushing him into it,” says Waitzkin. “I thought it would destroy him."


For this story, Waitzkin walked through the chess part of Washington Square Park at our request, not his.

"My friends actually make fun of me because I always walk that way or that way,” says Waitzkin, indicating routes that avoid the chess area of the park. “I don’t ever walk through the chess side of the park. Very rarely, unless it's empty. Actually, a number of times after I stopped playing chess, I would come through and guys would gather around trying to ask me to play and this big scene and I just didn't want to have a scene."

He says chess was a channel for self exploration. But he was 16 when the movie came out, and the trappings of fame led him out of the park and eventually out of the game.

"It caught up to me, and I started to become externalized through the chess, which was very sad, very sad,” says Waitzkin. "When you’re defined by something from the age of six on, the idea of letting that go and redefining yourself completely, it’s naked and raw and terrifying.”

But the transition was eased when the Columbia University graduate discovered tai chi, and his new passion resulted in an international championship in 2004.



Now his goal is to use these two parts of his life to create a multi-disciplinary learning center for kids.

"So, for example you'd be studying chess and the martial arts, and music in a given week through one of the two principles and you would be seeing the manifestation of that principle through those different arts,” says Waitzkin. “You'd be learning how to find these interconnections. So you basically will be teaching children how to discover thematic connectedness in the learning process."

It all started when he noticed a game being played in Washington Square Park.

"Chess gave me great joy and the fact that the end of my chess career was a difficult time for me, had nothing to do with chess per se,” he says. “It just had to do with learning and growing up, as a boy learning how to handle the complexities of life."

— Budd Mishkin

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