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Saturday, August 9, 2014

Chess Prodigies

    I guess everybody has heard of the 10,000 hour theory which originated with Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 bestseller Outliers which opined that the difference between the elite and the rest of us is that the former have spent more than 10,000 hours practicing and the latter have not. This reaffirmed previous research that said deliberate practice accounted for 80 percent of the difference between the very best in a field—whether it’s music or sports or chess or math—and the rest.
     But then a new paper found that the 10,000 hour rule is bogus. (Read Business Week article). This research indicates it might be, in part, related to when one begins to learn a skill…to become truly fluent in chess or math for example one has to start at an early age. Also, it doesn’t hurt to be intelligent and have natural ability. They observed that while practice is important, all the practice in the world isn’t going to turn you into a grandmaster or a concert pianist or a golf pro.
     Samuel Reshevsky learned chess when he was 4 years old and was as a child prodigy, playing simultaneous games against adults when he was six. José Capablanca learned to play chess by watching his father play. At the age of four, while observing a series of games between his father and General Lono (both officers of the Spanish Army), well, let Capa tell it…
     “During the second game that my father played, I noticed that he had moved one of his Knights not in the prescribed way—a move that was overlooked by his opponent. I maintained a dutiful silence till the close of the game, when I called my father’s attention to what he had done. At first he was inclined to dismiss my statement with characteristic tolerance of a father who hears something foolish issue from the mouth of his offspring. My earnest protestations, arising from the exultation of having acquired some new and interesting knowledge, and the doubtful look of his opponent, caused him to believe that he might, after all, have been guilty of deceiving the other player. He knew, however, that I had never seen a game of chess before, and he felt safe in informing very politely that he doubted very much whether I knew anything of what I was saying. My reply was to challenge him to a game of chess.”
     Here’s a video of Magnus Carlsen explaining his chess ability…WATCH. Chessbase Has a list of child prodigies HERE. Visit Edward Winter’s site for an article on prodigies HERE. You can read a complete transcript on child prodigies HERE. According to this research, prodigies all have exceptional memories and most appear in art, music, mathematics or chess. Strangely...or not...autism was not uncommon.
     Prodigies practice a lot, are self-motivated, have an obsessive interest in their talent, but one observation was they reach a higher level with less practice than the rest of us. One surprising point of interest was that IQ ranges from normal to high…prodigies are not always smarter than the rest of us, they are just better in their area of expertise.
     The there is something called working memory. Working memory is, for example, the ability to, after seeing a list of anything, be able to repeat back a relevant portion of it. The example used was you are shown a random list of states in different colors and are then asked to repeat only the ones that were yellow then the red ones. What this involves is not just repeating the list but taking the information, manipulating it and remembering it so you can put it in the desired order. That sounds a lot like pattern recognition in chess. GM’s have thousands of positions, or chunks of positions, in memory that they can recall and apply to the current situation. I have done several posts on this subject which you can read by searching this blog using the term “pattern recognition.” But that doesn't explain everything.  How could a Capa or Reshevsky have thousands of positions in memory at 4 years old?
     The researcher believed it is possible for us to improve our working memory but pointed out that memorizing by itself does not work; a trick like mnemonics might help but even then, do not expect to your memory to work like a prodigies.


  1. Hey what do you like to be called? My friends call me Pete.
    Calling you Tartajubow is a bit of a mouthful.

    Having got that out the way, thanks for the Carlsen link, it has now been added to my collection of chess links, on http://dollyknot.com/chess.html

  2. One thing that child prodigies seem to need is, a stable family background. Sadly it was not something I had, I was not bought up, I was dragged up. I had an abusive stepmother.