The Virtue of Sitzfleisch

Improving at chess is all about engraining neural patterns, which means lots of repetition, which means (for most of us earthbound mortals) it’s a long-term project. It will probably be a long, hard slog. So you had better be motivated, not only to start but also to keep going, especially when you encounter setbacks, which you will. Oh, yes indeed. You will.

In this connection, I have a confession to make. I am not temperamentally equipped for long, hard slogs. Rather my natural style is to work very, very hard for short, spirited bursts, followed by much longer periods of quiescence, inactivity, resting, recovery, regeneration, hibernation, sloth, a marked reluctance to rise from my couch and engage the foe—call it what you will.

To use an analogy that will be familiar to runners, I have an abundance of mental fast-twitch fibers, but maybe not quite so many slow-twitch fibers. So this project of chess improvement, which demands patience and a steady output of intellectual energy over the long haul, does not exactly play to my strengths. I have always found consistency to be the hardest thing in the world for me.

If your flame tends to waver in the slightest breath of air, like mine, I don’t know what to say, except you may find chess improvement a challenge that is beyond you. Not because you aren’t smart enough (whatever that means), but for reasons of temperament.

I don’t really think it’s a moral issue, because chess improvement for almost everyone is an optional activity. We engage ourselves in optional activities as much as we are inclined, no more. If you are not inclined to sit down at your chessboard (or nowadays, as often as not, your computer) every day for an hour or more, it doesn’t mean you are a bad person. But it does mean you probably won’t improve at chess as much as someone else who has perhaps less native genius than you but more sitzfleisch.

If you haven’t heard it before, sitzfleisch is the old term, whether German or Yiddish I’m not sure, for the capacity to win chess games by outsitting your opponent rather than outplaying him: “Winning at chess by use of the gluteal muscles,” or more politely, “The ability to endure or persist in an endeavor through sedentary determination.”

Sitzfleisch was more important in chess before clocks were introduced as a needed reform: it is said that Louis Paulsen’s slow play reduced the great Morphy almost to tears. But stolid unwavering focus still has value in chess, and especially in chess improvement.

Tim Hanke