Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Hungarian Education III: Mastering the Core Teachings of the Budapestians

Laszlo Polgar studied intelligence in university, and decided he had discovered the basic principles behind raising any child to be a genius. He wrote a book called Bring Up Genius and recruited an interested woman to marry him so they could test his philosophy by raising children together. He said a bunch of stuff on how ‘natural talent’ was meaningless and so any child could become a prodigy with the right upbringing.

This is normally the point where I’d start making fun of him. Except that when he trained his three daughters in chess, they became the 1st, 2nd, and 6th best female chess players in the world, gaining honors like “youngest grandmaster ever” and “greatest female chess player of all time”. Also they spoke seven languages, including Esperanto.

Their immense success suggests that education can have a major effect even on such traditional genius-requiring domains as chess ability. How can we reconcile that with the rest of our picture of the world, and how obsessed should we be with getting a copy of Laszlo Polgar’s book?

Let’s get this out of the way first: the Polgar sisters were probably genetically really smart. The whole family was Hungarian Jews, a group with a great track record. Their mother and father were both well-educated teachers interested in stuff like developmental psychology. They had every possible biological advantage and I’m sure that helped.

J Levitt proposes an equation to estimate a chess player’s IQ from their chess score. It suggests that chess grandmasters probably have IQs above 160. Plugging the Polgar sisters’ chess scores into his equation, I get IQs in the range of 150, 160, and 170 for the three sisters.

[EDIT: Thanks to a few people who pointed out some problems with my math here (1, 2, 3). I still think that having three supergenius-IQ kids when you and your spouse show no signs of being a supergenius yourself (Laszlo Polgar’s daughters could beat him at chess by the time they were 8) is pretty unlikely, but I admit not impossible. I still think arguing about this is unnecessary thanks to the points below.]

On the other hand, I’m not sure Levitt’s right. Chess champion Gary Kasparov actually sat and took an IQ test for the magazine Der Spiegel, and his IQ was 135. That’s not bad – it’s top 1% of the population – but it’s not amazing either.

This is what we should expect given the correlation of about r = 0.24 between IQ and chess ability (see also this analysis, although I disagree with the details). And the contrary claims – like the one that Bobby Fischer’s IQ was in the 180s – are less well-sourced (although Fischer was the son of a Hungarian-Jewish mathematician, so who knows?).

If it were possible to be a chess world champion with an IQ of 135, then maybe it’s possible to be a “mere” grandmaster with IQs in the high 120s and low 130s. And it’s just barely plausible that some sufficiently smart people might have three kids who all have IQs in the high 120s and low 130s.

But this just passes the buck on the mystery. 2% of people have IQs in the high 120s or low 130s, but 2% of people aren’t the top-ranked female chess player in the world. The Polgar sisters’ IQs might have been a permissive factor in allowing them to excel, but it didn’t necessitate it. So what’s going on there?

“Practice” seems like an obvious part of the picture. Malcolm Gladwell uses the Polgars as poster children for his famous ‘10,000 hours of practice makes you an expert at anything’ rule. The Polgars had 50,000 hours of chess practice each by the time they were adults, presumably enough to make them quintuple-experts.

Robert Howard has a paper Does High-Level Performance Depend On Practice Alone? Debunking The Polgar Sisters Case in which he argues against the strong version of Gladwell’s thesis. He points out that there are many chess masters who have practiced much less than the Polgar sisters but are better than they are. He also points out that even though the sisters themselves have all practiced similar amounts, youngest sister Judit is clearly better than the other two in a way that practice alone cannot explain.

I don’t know if the case he’s arguing against – that practice is literally everything and it’s impossible for anything else to factor in – is a straw man or not. But it seems more important to consider a less silly argument – that practice is one of many factors, and that enough of it can make up for a lack of the others. This seems potentially true. This study showing that amount of practice only explains 12% of the variance in skill level at various tasks, and is often summarized as “practice doesn’t matter much”. But it finds practice matters more (25% of the variance) in unchanging games with clear fixed rules, and uses chess as an example.

So suppose that the Polgar sisters are genetically smart, but maybe not as high up there as some other chess masters. We would expect them to need much more practice to achieve a level of proficiency similar to those chess masters, and indeed that seems like what happens.

(all of this is confounded by them being women and almost all the other equally-good chess masters being men. It’s unclear if the Polgars deserve extra points for overcoming whatever factor usually keeps women out of the highest levels of chess.)

But I’m actually still not sure this suffices as an explanation. According to Wikipedia:
Polg├ír began teaching his eldest daughter, Susan, to play chess when she was four years old. Six months later, Susan toddled into Budapest’s smoke-filled chess club,” which was crowded with elderly men, and proceeded to beat the veteran players.
The study linked above suggests that Susan practiced 48 hours a week. During those six months, she would have accumulated about 1200 hours of practice. Suppose the elderly Budapest chess players practiced only one hour a week, but had been doing so for the last twenty-five years. They would have more practice than Susan – plus the advantage of having older, more developed brains. So why did she beat them so easily?

Maybe there’s a time-decay factor for practice? That is, maybe Susan had been practicing intensively, so she got a lot of chances to link it all together as she was learning, and also it was fresh in her mind when she went to the club to go play? I’m not sure. If some of those veterans had been playing more than one hour a week (and surely the sort of people who frequent Budapest chess clubs do) then her advantage seems too implausible to be due to freshness-of-material alone.

That leaves two possibilities.

by Scott Alexander, Slate Star Codex |  Read more: