Why do so many of us stop learning new skills as adults? Are we afraid to be bad at something? Have we forgotten the sheer pleasure of beginning from the ground up? Inspired by his young daughter’s insatiable curiosity, Tom Vanderbilt embarks on a yearlong quest of learning—purely for the sake of learning. Rapturously singing Spice Girls songs in an amateur choir, losing games of chess to eight-year-olds, and dodging scorpions at a surf camp in Costa Rica, Vanderbilt tackles five main skills but learns so much more. Along the way, he interviews dozens of experts about the fascinating psychology and science behind the benefits of becoming an adult beginner and shows how anyone can get better at beginning again—and, more important, why they should take those first awkward steps. Funny, uplifting, and delightfully informative, Beginners is about how small acts of reinvention, at any age, can make life seem magical. 
 
“Vanderbilt elegantly and persuasively tackles one of the most pernicious of the lies we tells ourselves—that the pleasures of learning are reserved for the young.” —Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers
 
“An entertaining read. . . . Beginners provides a primer of sorts for re-engaging with life. . . . We could do worse than to find new pursuits to embrace with the open-minded zeal of a child; to rediscover the intrinsic wonders of the world through the eyes of a beginner.” —The New York Times

“This is Vanderbilt’s great revelation—that in a world where apps constantly rate us and measure our performance. . . . We should enjoy the process more and worry less about the product. . . . This book conveys that pleasure and is itself a pleasure to read.” —The Guardian
 
“Vanderbilt is a winning and insightful guide to the mechanics of mastery. But Beginners is ultimately about more than learning. It’s about the possibilities that reside in all of us.” —Daniel H. Pink, author of When

Vanderbilt is good on the specific joys and embarrassments of being a late-blooming novice, or “kook,” as surfers sometimes call gauche beginners. . . . I was entranced. . . . If learning like a child sounds a little airy-fairy, whatever the neuroscience research says, try recalling what it felt like to learn how to do something new when you didn’t really care what your performance of it said about your place in the world, when you didn’t know what you didn’t know. It might feel like a whole new beginning.” Margaret Talbot, The New Yorker
 
“[Vanderbilt] describes frankly (and humorously) the embarrassment that comes with repeated failures as well as quiet triumphs. . . . The joy is transcendent.” —Christian Science Monitor
 
“Accessible and highly informative, the book is a fast-paced exploration of the science of skill acquisition and a delightful account of journalist Vanderbilt’s personal adventures among fellow new learners. . . . Despite the inevitable setbacks, his is an empowering story that will have adventuresome readers eager to head off in search of some new challenge the moment they’ve put it down. An engaging perspective on the joys of embarking on the process of learning something new.” —Shelf Awareness
 
“Vanderbilt makes a compelling case that learning something new has myriad advantages, including promoting the brain’s ability to rewire itself, connecting you to new people and new communities, and reengaging our innate curiosity and open-mindedness.” —Outside

“Tom Vanderbilt takes up pursuits that are actually fun—surfing, chess, even juggling—and finds power in being a novice.” —Bloomberg
 
“Vanderbilt’s book is, above all, a call to action.” —CNN Health
 
“Tom Vanderbilt’s book explores how to learn completely new skills, how to change our world—even after we’re supposed to be done with schooling. This is a book about how to become a beginner again, and it makes you want to plunge in with both feet.” Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit and Smarter Faster Better
 
“A thoughtful and stirring look into the art and science of lifelong learning. Currently, I’m learning Gaelic, dressmaking and how to lay floors. Last year, it was knitting and coding. I’m 50, and not supposed to be a beginner any more—according to society’s conventions—but Tom Vanderbilt turns that flawed assumption on its head with the grace with which he learns to reach a high note or surf a wave.” Rose George, author of Ninety Percent of Everything

“A great book about the power of being a beginner.” —Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project

“Tom Vanderbilt shows us why it’s never too late to be a beginner, and that there should be no shame associated with the word ‘dilettante.’ Now I’m off to learn how to play the trombone, speak Portuguese and bake soufflés” —A.J. Jacobs, author of The Year of Living Biblically

“A wonderful and inspirational book. The only thing that will make you put it down is a burning desire to try something new. It’s full of the sort of encouragement and wisdom that bridges the small, tricky gulf between enthusiasm and action. A book that will launch thousands of journeys that might not otherwise have happened and prove life-changing for many who take those first steps.” —Tristan Gooley, author of The Natural Navigator

“You don’t have to try all the activities that Tom Vanderbilt took on in his heroic, self-sacrificial effort to persuade us of the benefits of learning throughout life. After you read this invigorating book, you might want to take a nap. But then you’ll get up, refreshed, ready to learn a new skill. You’ll be ready to begin.” —Carol Tavris, Ph.D., co-author of Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)

“An uplifting, fascinating book about the value and addictive pleasure of returning to the status of a beginner. Vanderbilt is a fantastic writer. . . . Delightful.” Barbara Oakley, Ph.D, co-author of Uncommon Sense Teaching

“Witty, well-researched, myth-busting and curiously of the moment. Vanderbilt tells a compelling tale. Eighty pages in, I joined a choir.” —Robert Penn, author of It’s All About the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels

“It’s impossible to pick up a book by Tom Vanderbilt without learning something. An engaging and fascinating mix of the personal and the general. I never thought I’d read a book that could persuade me to take up juggling, but this one did it.” —Robert Colvile

“[Vanderbilt] composes lucid prose and explains concepts . . . with relative ease, and his thesis is practical and worthwhile. . . . Compelling. . . . A solid beginner’s guide to beginning.” —Kirkus
 
“[A] charming celebration of lifelong learning. . . . [Vanderbilt] makes a persuasive case for the benefits—cognitive, physical, emotional, and social—of being a beginner. This enjoyable reminder to embrace the ‘small acts of reinvention, at any age, that can make life seem magical’ will appeal to those who enjoyed Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” —Publishers Weekly
© Kevin Hatt
TOM VANDERBILT has written for many publications, including The New York Times Magazine, The Wall Street Journal Magazine, Popular Science, Financial Times, Smithsonian, and London Review of Books, among many others. He is a contributing editor of Wired UK, Outside, and Artforum. He is author of You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), and Survival City: Adventures Among the Ruins of Atomic America. He has appeared on a wide range of television and radio programs, from the Today show to the BBC's World Service to NPR's Fresh Air. He has been a visiting scholar at NYU's Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management, a research fellow at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, a fellow at the Design Trust for Public Space, and a winner of the Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant, among other honors. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. View titles by Tom Vanderbilt
PROLOGUE
 
THE OPENING GAMBIT
 
One Sunday morning in a crowded room in New York City, I sat down to a chessboard with my heartbeat elevated and my stomach on the boil.
 
My opponent and I shook hands, as is the custom. Apart from stating our names, which we duly jotted in our notation pads, we exchanged no words. While I set the time on the clock—twenty-
five minutes for each player—he methodically centered each piece on its square.
 
Nonchalantly, as if to appear faintly bored, I did the same. I tried to arrange my pieces even more symmetrically, as if seizing some minute advantage (a ploy undermined by momentary panic that I’d incorrectly placed the bishop and knight). An expectant hush fell about the room as we waited for the tournament director to give the start signal.
 
As we sat, I tried to size my opponent up. He idly rolled a pencil between his fingers. His eyes drifted to the neighboring tables. I peered at him with what I hoped looked like remorseless pity. I was trying to project as much feral menace as one could while sitting in a library chair. I wanted to channel a feeling that had been described to me by Dylan Loeb McClain, the former chess columnist for The New York Times, when, in 1995, he’d played the then world champion, Garry Kasparov, in an exhibition game.
 
“I didn’t feel like he wanted to beat me,” McClain said. “I felt like he wanted to reach across the board and strangle me.” He intuited that Kasparov, hunched like an angry bear and channeling “unbelievable psychic ferocity,” would not be happy gaining some minor positional advantage, or even simply winning. Something “more personal, more disturbing” seemed to be driving him.
 
This is a common sensation in the world of chess. “I like the moment when I break a man’s ego,” the mercurial champion Bobby Fischer once put it.
 
I looked again at my opponent. Could I, through tactical finesse and the withering power of my merciless gaze, slowly dismantle the core of his being?
 
Just then, a woman appeared at his side, bearing a small carton of chocolate milk. She kissed him on the head, said, “Good luck,” and flashed me an owlish smile. Ryan, my opponent, was eight years old. With admirable composure, and an occasional sniffle, he dispatched me somewhere after the thirtieth move. I congratulated him, and as I went to inform the tournament director of the result, I saw him in the hallway, ego intact, proudly relaying the news to his mother.
 
Ryan and I were among those gathered for a Sunday morning “Rated Beginner Open” at New York City’s Marshall Chess Club. Occupying several floors of a historic town house on one of Greenwich Village’s most handsome blocks, the Marshall is a delightful anachronism, a relic of the days when any number of chess teams, collegiate and otherwise, battled across the region, their exploits recorded in the sports sections of newspapers.
 
That it exists here today, nestled amid some of the most expensive real estate in the country, is only thanks to a plot twist worthy of Dickens.
 
In 1931, at the height of the Depression, a group of wealthy benefactors, chess enthusiasts all, bought the building on behalf of the club’s namesake, Frank Marshall. A grandmaster and U.S. champion who’d once operated an oceanfront chess emporium in Atlantic City—where he sometimes played passersby for money—Marshall had for decades piloted his eponymous club through a number of iconic Manhattan locales, from Keens Chophouse to the Chelsea Hotel. The Marshall now had a home for life.
 
The place has lost a bit of its old-school luster—there are no longer jacketed waiters to serve coffee or tea—but playing chess at the Marshall today, you still feel you’re in some Gilded Age temple to the Game of Kings. History envelops you: busts of famous grandmasters; vintage photographs of team champions; the very table that Magnus Carlsen, the current world champion, sweated over as he defended his title against Sergey Karjakin in 2016.
 
The Marshall is no museum, though. Entering the place on a weekend, during a big tournament, is like walking into a human-powered data center: rows and rows of processors, silently calculating, thrumming with intensity, generating heat and a persistent tang of nervous perspiration.
 
The Sunday Beginners tournament was strictly small stakes, for players rated under 1200, or having no rating at all. Most grandmasters have ratings above 2500; I had the newbie rating of 100.
 
My day had started promisingly. Against my first opponent, John, a gray-haired
man with the look and quiet gravity of a scholar, I’d initially fallen behind on “material,” as pieces are called in chess. As the game drew on, he tried to press his advantage. And yet I kept fighting, finding inventive obstacles to his victory. To each of these he would respond with a small, tired sigh. I could feel his discomfort, and with each sigh I seemed to grow in strength.
 
Then, with my own king nearly surrounded, I spotted the chance for a checkmate. I just needed him to not see it. There is an old expression in chess that the winner is the player who makes the next-to-last mistake. And indeed, my opponent played offense when he needed to be playing defense, moving a pawn toward what he assumed was my demise. As I slid my rook into position, trapping his king along the “A file” (the first vertical row on a chessboard), a slow, queasy realization spread across his face.
 
My next opponent, Eric, was a serviceman on leave from Afghanistan, where he spent a lot of downtime playing online chess. He knew he’d be coming through New York on a visit stateside and had dedicated time for a Marshall pilgrimage. He looked a bit like the actor Woody Harrelson: buzz cut, grizzled, with a thousand-yard stare. Our match was tense and close fought, until he captured one of my rooks with a bishop pin. After I resigned, he looked relieved and said I had played much better than my rating would indicate—the first words he had uttered.
 
That morning’s grouping, everyone from U.S. Army Rangers to AARP members to fidgety kids, was typical of the Marshall’s Beginners tournament. The age range at the Marshall must have spanned six decades, but we were all, in the eyes of chess, beginners.
 
There is a wonderful purity to chess’s rating system, which renders distinctions like age largely irrelevant. Chess is one of the few skilled endeavors in which children can acquire a proficiency on par with adults—or above. There are twelve-year-olds who will innocently skin you alive.
 
There was one child in the Sunday tournament at the Marshall in whom I had a particular interest: my own daughter. We weren’t paired against each other—though that moment would come—and we took very different paths that morning. She placed near the top and collected a check for eighty-four dollars, money that was immediately plowed into Beanie Babies and glitter putty at the corner toy shop.
 
And as I heard her gleefully report to her grandparents on the phone, later that day, “My dad finished, like, fortieth.” Out of fifty-one.
 
What had I gotten myself into?
“An entertaining read. . . . Beginners provides a primer of sorts for re-engaging with life. . . . We could do worse than to find new pursuits to embrace with the open-minded zeal of a child; to rediscover the intrinsic wonders of the world through the eyes of a beginner.”
The New York Times

“This is Vanderbilt’s great revelation—that in a world where apps constantly rate us and measure our performance . . . we should enjoy the process more and worry less about the product. . . . This book conveys that pleasure and is itself a pleasure to read.”
The Guardian
 
“Vanderbilt is a winning and insightful guide to the mechanics of mastery. But Beginners is ultimately about more than learning. It’s about the possibilities that reside in all of us.”
—Daniel H. Pink, New York Times bestselling author of When

Vanderbilt is good on the specific joys and embarrassments of being a late-blooming novice, or “kook,” as surfers sometimes call gauche beginners. . . . I was entranced. . . . If learning like a child sounds a little airy-fairy, whatever the neuroscience research says, try recalling what it felt like to learn how to do something new when you didn’t really care what your performance of it said about your place in the world, when you didn’t know what you didn’t know. It might feel like a whole new beginning.”
Margaret Talbot, The New Yorker
 
“[Vanderbilt] describes frankly (and humorously) the embarrassment that comes with repeated failures as well as quiet triumphs. . . . The joy is transcendent.”
—Christian Science Monitor
 
“Accessible and highly informative, the book is a fast-paced exploration of the science of skill acquisition and a delightful account of journalist Vanderbilt’s personal adventures among fellow new learners. . . . Despite the inevitable setbacks, his is an empowering story that will have adventuresome readers eager to head off in search of some new challenge the moment they’ve put it down.  An engaging perspective on the joys of embarking on the process of learning something new.” Shelf Awareness
 
“Vanderbilt makes a compelling case that learning something new has myriad advantages, including promoting the brain’s ability to rewire itself, connecting you to new people and new communities, and reengaging our innate curiosity and open-mindedness.”
—Outside

“Tom Vanderbilt takes up pursuits that are actually fun—surfing, chess, even juggling—and finds power in being a novice.” 
—Bloomberg
 
“Vanderbilt’s book is, above all, a call to action.”
—CNN Health

 
Beginners belongs with David Epstein’s Range on the list of books that have changed the way I understand my own limitations.”
—Malcolm Gladwell, bestselling author of Outliers
 
“Tom Vanderbilt’s book explores how to learn completely new skills, how to change our world – even after we’re supposed to be done with schooling. This is a book about how to become a beginner again, and it makes you want to plunge in with both feet.” 
Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit and Smarter Faster Better
 
“A thoughtful and stirring look into the art and science of lifelong learning. Currently, I’m learning Gaelic, dressmaking and how to lay floors. Last year, it was knitting and coding. I’m 50, and not supposed to be a beginner any more—according to society’s conventions—but Tom Vanderbilt turns that flawed assumption on its head with the grace with which he learns to reach a high note or surf a wave.”
Rose George, author of Ninety Percent of Everything

“A great book about the power of being a beginner.”
—Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project

“Tom Vanderbilt shows us why it’s never too late to be a beginner, and that there should be no shame associated with the word ‘dilettante.’ Now I’m off to learn how to play the trombone, speak Portuguese and bake soufflés”
—A.J. Jacobs, bestselling author of The Year of Living Biblically

“A wonderful and inspirational book. The only thing that will make you put it down is a burning desire to try something new. It’s full of the sort of encouragement and wisdom that bridges the small, tricky gulf between enthusiasm and action. A book that will launch thousands of journeys that might not otherwise have happened and prove life-changing for many who take those first steps.”
—Tristan Gooley, author of The Natural Navigator

“You don’t have to try all the activities that Tom Vanderbilt took on in his heroic, self-sacrificial effort to persuade us of the benefits of learning throughout life. After you read this invigorating book, you might want to take a nap. But then you’ll get up, refreshed, ready to learn a new skill. You’ll be ready to begin.”
—Carol Tavris, Ph.D., co-author of Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)

“An uplifting, fascinating book about the value and addictive pleasure of returning to the status of a beginner. Vanderbilt is a fantastic writer. . . . Delightful.”
Barbara Oakley, Ph.D, co-author of Uncommon Sense Teaching

“Witty, well-researched, myth-busting and curiously of the moment. Vanderbilt tells a compelling tale. Eighty pages in, I joined a choir.” 
—Robert Penn, author of It’s All About the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels

“It’s impossible to pick up a book by Tom Vanderbilt without learning something. An engaging and fascinating mix of the personal and the general. I never thought I’d read a book that could persuade me to take up juggling, but this one did it.”
—Robert Colvile

“[Vanderbilt] composes lucid prose and explains concepts . . . with relative ease, and his thesis is practical and worthwhile. . . . Compelling. . . . A solid beginner’s guide to beginning.”
Kirkus
 
“[A] charming celebration of lifelong learning. . . . [Vanderbilt] makes a persuasive case for the benefits—cognitive, physical, emotional, and social—of being a beginner. This enjoyable reminder to embrace the ‘small acts of reinvention, at any age, that can make life seem magical’ will appeal to those who enjoyed Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”
Publishers Weekly

About

Why do so many of us stop learning new skills as adults? Are we afraid to be bad at something? Have we forgotten the sheer pleasure of beginning from the ground up? Inspired by his young daughter’s insatiable curiosity, Tom Vanderbilt embarks on a yearlong quest of learning—purely for the sake of learning. Rapturously singing Spice Girls songs in an amateur choir, losing games of chess to eight-year-olds, and dodging scorpions at a surf camp in Costa Rica, Vanderbilt tackles five main skills but learns so much more. Along the way, he interviews dozens of experts about the fascinating psychology and science behind the benefits of becoming an adult beginner and shows how anyone can get better at beginning again—and, more important, why they should take those first awkward steps. Funny, uplifting, and delightfully informative, Beginners is about how small acts of reinvention, at any age, can make life seem magical. 
 
“Vanderbilt elegantly and persuasively tackles one of the most pernicious of the lies we tells ourselves—that the pleasures of learning are reserved for the young.” —Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers
 
“An entertaining read. . . . Beginners provides a primer of sorts for re-engaging with life. . . . We could do worse than to find new pursuits to embrace with the open-minded zeal of a child; to rediscover the intrinsic wonders of the world through the eyes of a beginner.” —The New York Times

“This is Vanderbilt’s great revelation—that in a world where apps constantly rate us and measure our performance. . . . We should enjoy the process more and worry less about the product. . . . This book conveys that pleasure and is itself a pleasure to read.” —The Guardian
 
“Vanderbilt is a winning and insightful guide to the mechanics of mastery. But Beginners is ultimately about more than learning. It’s about the possibilities that reside in all of us.” —Daniel H. Pink, author of When

Vanderbilt is good on the specific joys and embarrassments of being a late-blooming novice, or “kook,” as surfers sometimes call gauche beginners. . . . I was entranced. . . . If learning like a child sounds a little airy-fairy, whatever the neuroscience research says, try recalling what it felt like to learn how to do something new when you didn’t really care what your performance of it said about your place in the world, when you didn’t know what you didn’t know. It might feel like a whole new beginning.” Margaret Talbot, The New Yorker
 
“[Vanderbilt] describes frankly (and humorously) the embarrassment that comes with repeated failures as well as quiet triumphs. . . . The joy is transcendent.” —Christian Science Monitor
 
“Accessible and highly informative, the book is a fast-paced exploration of the science of skill acquisition and a delightful account of journalist Vanderbilt’s personal adventures among fellow new learners. . . . Despite the inevitable setbacks, his is an empowering story that will have adventuresome readers eager to head off in search of some new challenge the moment they’ve put it down. An engaging perspective on the joys of embarking on the process of learning something new.” —Shelf Awareness
 
“Vanderbilt makes a compelling case that learning something new has myriad advantages, including promoting the brain’s ability to rewire itself, connecting you to new people and new communities, and reengaging our innate curiosity and open-mindedness.” —Outside

“Tom Vanderbilt takes up pursuits that are actually fun—surfing, chess, even juggling—and finds power in being a novice.” —Bloomberg
 
“Vanderbilt’s book is, above all, a call to action.” —CNN Health
 
“Tom Vanderbilt’s book explores how to learn completely new skills, how to change our world—even after we’re supposed to be done with schooling. This is a book about how to become a beginner again, and it makes you want to plunge in with both feet.” Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit and Smarter Faster Better
 
“A thoughtful and stirring look into the art and science of lifelong learning. Currently, I’m learning Gaelic, dressmaking and how to lay floors. Last year, it was knitting and coding. I’m 50, and not supposed to be a beginner any more—according to society’s conventions—but Tom Vanderbilt turns that flawed assumption on its head with the grace with which he learns to reach a high note or surf a wave.” Rose George, author of Ninety Percent of Everything

“A great book about the power of being a beginner.” —Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project

“Tom Vanderbilt shows us why it’s never too late to be a beginner, and that there should be no shame associated with the word ‘dilettante.’ Now I’m off to learn how to play the trombone, speak Portuguese and bake soufflés” —A.J. Jacobs, author of The Year of Living Biblically

“A wonderful and inspirational book. The only thing that will make you put it down is a burning desire to try something new. It’s full of the sort of encouragement and wisdom that bridges the small, tricky gulf between enthusiasm and action. A book that will launch thousands of journeys that might not otherwise have happened and prove life-changing for many who take those first steps.” —Tristan Gooley, author of The Natural Navigator

“You don’t have to try all the activities that Tom Vanderbilt took on in his heroic, self-sacrificial effort to persuade us of the benefits of learning throughout life. After you read this invigorating book, you might want to take a nap. But then you’ll get up, refreshed, ready to learn a new skill. You’ll be ready to begin.” —Carol Tavris, Ph.D., co-author of Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)

“An uplifting, fascinating book about the value and addictive pleasure of returning to the status of a beginner. Vanderbilt is a fantastic writer. . . . Delightful.” Barbara Oakley, Ph.D, co-author of Uncommon Sense Teaching

“Witty, well-researched, myth-busting and curiously of the moment. Vanderbilt tells a compelling tale. Eighty pages in, I joined a choir.” —Robert Penn, author of It’s All About the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels

“It’s impossible to pick up a book by Tom Vanderbilt without learning something. An engaging and fascinating mix of the personal and the general. I never thought I’d read a book that could persuade me to take up juggling, but this one did it.” —Robert Colvile

“[Vanderbilt] composes lucid prose and explains concepts . . . with relative ease, and his thesis is practical and worthwhile. . . . Compelling. . . . A solid beginner’s guide to beginning.” —Kirkus
 
“[A] charming celebration of lifelong learning. . . . [Vanderbilt] makes a persuasive case for the benefits—cognitive, physical, emotional, and social—of being a beginner. This enjoyable reminder to embrace the ‘small acts of reinvention, at any age, that can make life seem magical’ will appeal to those who enjoyed Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” —Publishers Weekly

Author

© Kevin Hatt
TOM VANDERBILT has written for many publications, including The New York Times Magazine, The Wall Street Journal Magazine, Popular Science, Financial Times, Smithsonian, and London Review of Books, among many others. He is a contributing editor of Wired UK, Outside, and Artforum. He is author of You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), and Survival City: Adventures Among the Ruins of Atomic America. He has appeared on a wide range of television and radio programs, from the Today show to the BBC's World Service to NPR's Fresh Air. He has been a visiting scholar at NYU's Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management, a research fellow at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, a fellow at the Design Trust for Public Space, and a winner of the Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant, among other honors. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. View titles by Tom Vanderbilt

Excerpt

PROLOGUE
 
THE OPENING GAMBIT
 
One Sunday morning in a crowded room in New York City, I sat down to a chessboard with my heartbeat elevated and my stomach on the boil.
 
My opponent and I shook hands, as is the custom. Apart from stating our names, which we duly jotted in our notation pads, we exchanged no words. While I set the time on the clock—twenty-
five minutes for each player—he methodically centered each piece on its square.
 
Nonchalantly, as if to appear faintly bored, I did the same. I tried to arrange my pieces even more symmetrically, as if seizing some minute advantage (a ploy undermined by momentary panic that I’d incorrectly placed the bishop and knight). An expectant hush fell about the room as we waited for the tournament director to give the start signal.
 
As we sat, I tried to size my opponent up. He idly rolled a pencil between his fingers. His eyes drifted to the neighboring tables. I peered at him with what I hoped looked like remorseless pity. I was trying to project as much feral menace as one could while sitting in a library chair. I wanted to channel a feeling that had been described to me by Dylan Loeb McClain, the former chess columnist for The New York Times, when, in 1995, he’d played the then world champion, Garry Kasparov, in an exhibition game.
 
“I didn’t feel like he wanted to beat me,” McClain said. “I felt like he wanted to reach across the board and strangle me.” He intuited that Kasparov, hunched like an angry bear and channeling “unbelievable psychic ferocity,” would not be happy gaining some minor positional advantage, or even simply winning. Something “more personal, more disturbing” seemed to be driving him.
 
This is a common sensation in the world of chess. “I like the moment when I break a man’s ego,” the mercurial champion Bobby Fischer once put it.
 
I looked again at my opponent. Could I, through tactical finesse and the withering power of my merciless gaze, slowly dismantle the core of his being?
 
Just then, a woman appeared at his side, bearing a small carton of chocolate milk. She kissed him on the head, said, “Good luck,” and flashed me an owlish smile. Ryan, my opponent, was eight years old. With admirable composure, and an occasional sniffle, he dispatched me somewhere after the thirtieth move. I congratulated him, and as I went to inform the tournament director of the result, I saw him in the hallway, ego intact, proudly relaying the news to his mother.
 
Ryan and I were among those gathered for a Sunday morning “Rated Beginner Open” at New York City’s Marshall Chess Club. Occupying several floors of a historic town house on one of Greenwich Village’s most handsome blocks, the Marshall is a delightful anachronism, a relic of the days when any number of chess teams, collegiate and otherwise, battled across the region, their exploits recorded in the sports sections of newspapers.
 
That it exists here today, nestled amid some of the most expensive real estate in the country, is only thanks to a plot twist worthy of Dickens.
 
In 1931, at the height of the Depression, a group of wealthy benefactors, chess enthusiasts all, bought the building on behalf of the club’s namesake, Frank Marshall. A grandmaster and U.S. champion who’d once operated an oceanfront chess emporium in Atlantic City—where he sometimes played passersby for money—Marshall had for decades piloted his eponymous club through a number of iconic Manhattan locales, from Keens Chophouse to the Chelsea Hotel. The Marshall now had a home for life.
 
The place has lost a bit of its old-school luster—there are no longer jacketed waiters to serve coffee or tea—but playing chess at the Marshall today, you still feel you’re in some Gilded Age temple to the Game of Kings. History envelops you: busts of famous grandmasters; vintage photographs of team champions; the very table that Magnus Carlsen, the current world champion, sweated over as he defended his title against Sergey Karjakin in 2016.
 
The Marshall is no museum, though. Entering the place on a weekend, during a big tournament, is like walking into a human-powered data center: rows and rows of processors, silently calculating, thrumming with intensity, generating heat and a persistent tang of nervous perspiration.
 
The Sunday Beginners tournament was strictly small stakes, for players rated under 1200, or having no rating at all. Most grandmasters have ratings above 2500; I had the newbie rating of 100.
 
My day had started promisingly. Against my first opponent, John, a gray-haired
man with the look and quiet gravity of a scholar, I’d initially fallen behind on “material,” as pieces are called in chess. As the game drew on, he tried to press his advantage. And yet I kept fighting, finding inventive obstacles to his victory. To each of these he would respond with a small, tired sigh. I could feel his discomfort, and with each sigh I seemed to grow in strength.
 
Then, with my own king nearly surrounded, I spotted the chance for a checkmate. I just needed him to not see it. There is an old expression in chess that the winner is the player who makes the next-to-last mistake. And indeed, my opponent played offense when he needed to be playing defense, moving a pawn toward what he assumed was my demise. As I slid my rook into position, trapping his king along the “A file” (the first vertical row on a chessboard), a slow, queasy realization spread across his face.
 
My next opponent, Eric, was a serviceman on leave from Afghanistan, where he spent a lot of downtime playing online chess. He knew he’d be coming through New York on a visit stateside and had dedicated time for a Marshall pilgrimage. He looked a bit like the actor Woody Harrelson: buzz cut, grizzled, with a thousand-yard stare. Our match was tense and close fought, until he captured one of my rooks with a bishop pin. After I resigned, he looked relieved and said I had played much better than my rating would indicate—the first words he had uttered.
 
That morning’s grouping, everyone from U.S. Army Rangers to AARP members to fidgety kids, was typical of the Marshall’s Beginners tournament. The age range at the Marshall must have spanned six decades, but we were all, in the eyes of chess, beginners.
 
There is a wonderful purity to chess’s rating system, which renders distinctions like age largely irrelevant. Chess is one of the few skilled endeavors in which children can acquire a proficiency on par with adults—or above. There are twelve-year-olds who will innocently skin you alive.
 
There was one child in the Sunday tournament at the Marshall in whom I had a particular interest: my own daughter. We weren’t paired against each other—though that moment would come—and we took very different paths that morning. She placed near the top and collected a check for eighty-four dollars, money that was immediately plowed into Beanie Babies and glitter putty at the corner toy shop.
 
And as I heard her gleefully report to her grandparents on the phone, later that day, “My dad finished, like, fortieth.” Out of fifty-one.
 
What had I gotten myself into?

Praise

“An entertaining read. . . . Beginners provides a primer of sorts for re-engaging with life. . . . We could do worse than to find new pursuits to embrace with the open-minded zeal of a child; to rediscover the intrinsic wonders of the world through the eyes of a beginner.”
The New York Times

“This is Vanderbilt’s great revelation—that in a world where apps constantly rate us and measure our performance . . . we should enjoy the process more and worry less about the product. . . . This book conveys that pleasure and is itself a pleasure to read.”
The Guardian
 
“Vanderbilt is a winning and insightful guide to the mechanics of mastery. But Beginners is ultimately about more than learning. It’s about the possibilities that reside in all of us.”
—Daniel H. Pink, New York Times bestselling author of When

Vanderbilt is good on the specific joys and embarrassments of being a late-blooming novice, or “kook,” as surfers sometimes call gauche beginners. . . . I was entranced. . . . If learning like a child sounds a little airy-fairy, whatever the neuroscience research says, try recalling what it felt like to learn how to do something new when you didn’t really care what your performance of it said about your place in the world, when you didn’t know what you didn’t know. It might feel like a whole new beginning.”
Margaret Talbot, The New Yorker
 
“[Vanderbilt] describes frankly (and humorously) the embarrassment that comes with repeated failures as well as quiet triumphs. . . . The joy is transcendent.”
—Christian Science Monitor
 
“Accessible and highly informative, the book is a fast-paced exploration of the science of skill acquisition and a delightful account of journalist Vanderbilt’s personal adventures among fellow new learners. . . . Despite the inevitable setbacks, his is an empowering story that will have adventuresome readers eager to head off in search of some new challenge the moment they’ve put it down.  An engaging perspective on the joys of embarking on the process of learning something new.” Shelf Awareness
 
“Vanderbilt makes a compelling case that learning something new has myriad advantages, including promoting the brain’s ability to rewire itself, connecting you to new people and new communities, and reengaging our innate curiosity and open-mindedness.”
—Outside

“Tom Vanderbilt takes up pursuits that are actually fun—surfing, chess, even juggling—and finds power in being a novice.” 
—Bloomberg
 
“Vanderbilt’s book is, above all, a call to action.”
—CNN Health

 
Beginners belongs with David Epstein’s Range on the list of books that have changed the way I understand my own limitations.”
—Malcolm Gladwell, bestselling author of Outliers
 
“Tom Vanderbilt’s book explores how to learn completely new skills, how to change our world – even after we’re supposed to be done with schooling. This is a book about how to become a beginner again, and it makes you want to plunge in with both feet.” 
Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit and Smarter Faster Better
 
“A thoughtful and stirring look into the art and science of lifelong learning. Currently, I’m learning Gaelic, dressmaking and how to lay floors. Last year, it was knitting and coding. I’m 50, and not supposed to be a beginner any more—according to society’s conventions—but Tom Vanderbilt turns that flawed assumption on its head with the grace with which he learns to reach a high note or surf a wave.”
Rose George, author of Ninety Percent of Everything

“A great book about the power of being a beginner.”
—Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project

“Tom Vanderbilt shows us why it’s never too late to be a beginner, and that there should be no shame associated with the word ‘dilettante.’ Now I’m off to learn how to play the trombone, speak Portuguese and bake soufflés”
—A.J. Jacobs, bestselling author of The Year of Living Biblically

“A wonderful and inspirational book. The only thing that will make you put it down is a burning desire to try something new. It’s full of the sort of encouragement and wisdom that bridges the small, tricky gulf between enthusiasm and action. A book that will launch thousands of journeys that might not otherwise have happened and prove life-changing for many who take those first steps.”
—Tristan Gooley, author of The Natural Navigator

“You don’t have to try all the activities that Tom Vanderbilt took on in his heroic, self-sacrificial effort to persuade us of the benefits of learning throughout life. After you read this invigorating book, you might want to take a nap. But then you’ll get up, refreshed, ready to learn a new skill. You’ll be ready to begin.”
—Carol Tavris, Ph.D., co-author of Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)

“An uplifting, fascinating book about the value and addictive pleasure of returning to the status of a beginner. Vanderbilt is a fantastic writer. . . . Delightful.”
Barbara Oakley, Ph.D, co-author of Uncommon Sense Teaching

“Witty, well-researched, myth-busting and curiously of the moment. Vanderbilt tells a compelling tale. Eighty pages in, I joined a choir.” 
—Robert Penn, author of It’s All About the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels

“It’s impossible to pick up a book by Tom Vanderbilt without learning something. An engaging and fascinating mix of the personal and the general. I never thought I’d read a book that could persuade me to take up juggling, but this one did it.”
—Robert Colvile

“[Vanderbilt] composes lucid prose and explains concepts . . . with relative ease, and his thesis is practical and worthwhile. . . . Compelling. . . . A solid beginner’s guide to beginning.”
Kirkus
 
“[A] charming celebration of lifelong learning. . . . [Vanderbilt] makes a persuasive case for the benefits—cognitive, physical, emotional, and social—of being a beginner. This enjoyable reminder to embrace the ‘small acts of reinvention, at any age, that can make life seem magical’ will appeal to those who enjoyed Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”
Publishers Weekly

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