Sunday, November 22, 2015

Bringing Up Genius

Is every healthy child a potential prodigy?

Before Laszlo Polgár conceived his children, before he even met his wife, he knew he was going to raise geniuses. He’d started to write a book about it. He saw it moves ahead.

By their first meeting, a dinner and walk around Budapest in 1965, Laszlo told Klara, his future bride, how his kids’ education would go. He had studied the lives of geniuses and divined a pattern: an adult singularly focused on the child’s success. He’d raise the kids outside school, with intense devotion to a subject, though he wasn’t sure what. "Every healthy child," as he liked to say, "is a potential genius." Genetics and talent would be no obstacle. And he’d do it with great love.

Fifty years later in a leafy suburb of St. Louis, I met one of Laszlo’s daughters, Susan Polgár, the first woman ever to earn the title of chess grandmaster. For several years, Susan had led the chess team of Webster University — a small residential college with a large international and online footprint — to consecutive national titles. Their spring break had just begun, and for the next few days, in a brick-and-glass former religious library turned chess hall, the team would drill for a four-team tournament in New York City to defend the title.

The students, sporting blue-and-yellow windbreakers and polos, huddled around a checked board of white and black, a queen, rook, and pawn stacked in a row. They had started with the King’s Indian Defense, a well-mapped terrain. Now they were in the midgame. Polgár sat to the side, behind a laptop synced to the game, algorithms whirring. What should be the next move? she asked. "Be active and concrete."

Jocular debate broke out, accents betraying origins: Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Colombia, Brazil, Cuba, Vietnam, Hungary. "This is not human," one student said. "It looks magical," said another. Computers have long since outclassed humans in chess; they’re vital in training, but their recommended moves can seem quixotic. "No, it’s very human," Polgár assured them. The students, most of them grandmasters, grew quiet, searching the more than 100,000 positional situations they had ingrained over their lifetimes, exploring possible moves and the future problems they implied — moving down the decision tree. It’s the knot at the heart of chess: Each turn, you must move; when you move, a world of potential vanishes.

"Bishop G4?"

"Bishop G4," Polgár confirmed.

"That’s not a human move!"

"It’s a human move," she said. "It’s actually very pretty." The arrangement is close to a strategy she used before, against her sister. "I beat Judit on that."

The students murmured. This demanded respect. Susan Polgár may be the first woman ever to earn the grandmaster title, but her younger sister is the best female chess player of all time.

There are three Polgár sisters, Zsuzsa (Susan), Zsofia (Sofia), and Judit: all chess prodigies, raised by Laszlo and Klara in Budapest during the Cold War. Rearing them in modest conditions, where a walk to the stationery store was a great event, the Polgárs homeschooled their girls, defying a skeptical and chauvinist Communist system. They lived chess, often practicing for eight hours a day. By the end of the 1980s, the family had become a phenomenon: wealthy, stars in Hungary and, when they visited the United States, headline news.

The girls were not an experiment in any proper form. Laszlo knew that. There was no control. But soon enough, their story outgrew their lives. They became prime examples in a psychological debate that has existed for a century: Does success depend more on the accidents of genetics or the decisions of upbringing? Nature or nurture? In its most recent form, that debate has revolved around the position, advanced by K. Anders Ericsson, a psychologist at Florida State University, that intense practice is the most dominant variable in success. The Polgárs would seem to suggest: Yes.

You may have heard of Ericsson. His work was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his 2008 best seller, Outliers, which spawned the notion of 10,000 hours of practice, in particular, as a mythical threshold to success. It’s a cultural fixture. Turn on the radio and you’ll hear a musician talking about "getting his 10,000 hours" in. This popularization also caused a backlash — documented in David Epstein’s book The Sports Gene and elsewhere — of researchers arguing that genetics and other factors are as important as practice. It’s a value-laden struggle, with precious few facts. In a globalized world where returns concentrate to top performers, research showing the primacy of practice is a hopeful, democratic message. "The scientific formulation of the American dream," as one psychologist told me. The Polgárs embody that hope. Is it a false hope? (...)

Equipped with celebrity and influence, Susan is an excellent recruiter. Many of her students are ranked higher than her; three have topped even Judit. Yet despite their great individual skill, the team members enjoy camaraderie. They visit the gym together. They’ve absorbed the Polgár way.

"Life and chess, they are similar in some points," Andre Diamant, a Brazilian graduate student and the team’s longest-tenured player, said during a break from practice. "Chess players know they need to study. They need to work. They need to improve. And they do that. In life, they have this same thing."

You’re probably nodding your head. Few would dismiss the value of hard work. But if there’s a snag to the Polgár method of success, it might arise from a simple question: Susan and her sisters had similar childhoods. So why was Judit so much better?

by Paul Voosen, Chronicle of Higher Education |  Read more:
Image: Polly Becker