How do people become successful in their field? Is it innate talent, hard work or perhaps destiny? Legendary chess player Judit Polgár and Dr Guillermo Campitelli, a world-leading researcher in the field of chess, shed light on the mystery
It was one of those ordinary days in cold Budapest. The children woke early and sat down to eat breakfast. The father, Laszlo Polgar, was already dressed. The mother, Clara, was in the kitchen, and Sophia and Judit, wearing pajamas, were running around all over the small apartment.
Zsuzsa (Susan), the eldest, sat down next to her father and began talking to him about their upcoming trip and the player who was supposed to face her in the chess competition. They spoke about his strengths and weaknesses and the father reassured her repeatedly that if she were to apply everything they had learned, she would surely defeat him. Sophia and Judit arrived panting at the table. "Are you still in your pajamas?" Clara asked. "Get dressed quickly, we've got work to do."
The three Polgars had never been to school in their lives. They practised chess for five to six hours every day, and in the remaining time they went to the big wall of the study, reaching for the dozens of small drawers that contained thousands of old games and articles, in order to memorise historical chess moves.
Even before Laszlo met his wife, and before the three daughters were born, he already knew that in the future he would raise genius children. He even started writing a book about it, using the knowledge he had gathered when studying the lives of famous geniuses.
Laszlo had reached a revolutionary conclusion for the time: In order to raise a genius child, you mustn’t send him to school; instead, you should homeschool the child and concentrate on one specific subject. What motivated him was a strong desire to prove that he can take any kid – no matter from which origin, gender or social status – and make him or her a genius through deliberate practice. “Any healthy child is a potential genius,” he used to say. Genetics and skills serve no hindrance.
The experiment had begun with his eldest daughter, Zsuzsa. Laszlo was seeking the right field of study for his daughter to focus on. The hint was received at three years of age, when she suddenly approached the chessboard at home, and asked to play. Laszlo and his wife then decided to quit their jobs and rebuild their lives around this experiment, giving their daughters every chance to prove his belief.
When Sophia was born, followed by Judit, the family was already practising around the clock, constantly solving logic problems and travelling to chess tournaments all over the world. Laszlo also believed physical fitness is important for intellectual success, so their leisure time was partially filled with table-tennis practice.
“My dad believed that his research is the best thing he can give to a child. That was his bottom line. My mother was very supportive, and that’s how they could do it for decades,” says Judit Polgar in an interview with Epoch Times.
And it was working. Within a short time, the three girls were recognised as prodigies, and the Polgars’ experiment became world-famous. Zsuzsa – or in her name today, Susan – was the first woman in the world to receive the chess Grandmaster title. At her peak, she was the world women chess champion. Later on, she left competitive play. Sophia reached chess master level, before quitting years ago.
But Judit, the little sister, proved to be an extraordinary prodigy. She reached Grandmaster level at age 14 in men competitions, and broke the rating record of Bobby Fischer, who is considered to be the best chess player of all time. A few years earlier, she has already competed against the best players in the world and defeated most, including Garry Kasparov (in a Blitz game). He wrote about his experience in his 2007 book: “[The] Polgars showed that there are no inherent limitations to their aptitude – an idea that many male players refused to accept until they had unceremoniously been crushed by a twelve-year-old with a ponytail.”
Judit Polgar, who achieved the highest rating for a woman in chess, not only changed the face of the game, which is considered to be dominated by males, but also helped Laszlo prove his belief – no matter who you are, and no matter your gender or ethnicity, you can become a specialised genius as long as you are being cultivated and worked with from an early age.
Following the experiment, Laszlo and his daughters stood in the spotlight of a major question and discussion within the psychological community: Does success come from innate ability, or the educational decisions taken at an early age? In other words, can hard work alone bring up a genius child?
It seemed the answer was “Yes” – until, in recent years, some influential psychologists began arguing that Laszlo’s theory is inherently wrong.
The Magic Number
The common opinion that the key to our success in life is in our own hands is strengthened by Anders Ericsson’s research, a psychologist from Florida State University, who claims that intensive practice is the reason for a person’s success, just as the Polgar experiment attempted to prove.
Ericsson found fame when journalist and writer Malcolm Gladwell wrote about him in his 2008 bestseller, ‘Outliers’: “Ten thousand hours (of practice) is the magic number of greatness.” Since then, many people, especially in American society, have tried to apply the ten thousand rule on themselves.
To prove his theory, Ericsson surveyed top musicians in the Music Academy of West Berlin. He asked each musician how many hours of practice they have had, and compared the talented and less talented to that number. He reached the conclusion that every one of the best musicians had practised in average 10,000 hours before the age of 20. A similar pattern was discovered in chess, which also requires years of practice and memorisation.
Ericsson's research influenced many, especially psychologists who promote the ‘behaviourist’ approach, which founds its origin in psychologist John B. Watson, who famously said: “Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I'll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select.”
In a 1994 article, Ericsson concludes that parental education is far more important than innate abilities, and that there are many examples to support it. One of them, is in the house of the Polgars.
Susan Polgar, the eldest sister, had been playing in a chess club by the age of four. At five years old, she beat 10-year-olds. In a past interview, she said: “Hard work creates results. Results enhance motivation. And, all around, when you’re motivated, working is more enjoyable and fun.”
In contrast to the Communist regime in Hungary at the time, the atmosphere at home was one of love and joy. The parents dedicated themselves to the girls. They bought any chess book they could afford, and collected 100,000 recorded game moves. As the daughters grew in their achievements, the family’s reputation increased. They had won people’s sympathy and praise, and Laszlo published his book ‘Bring Up Genius!’.
Ever since Ericsson’s research and the Polgars’ experiment, media companies, mentors, and self-help books communicate to the public the idea that with a strong enough desire, high motivation and the right professional tools, you can be whoever you have dreamed of becoming – not only in the chess world, but in your career as well.
Self-help books tell us that we can do it. We can succeed and be the best. Everything is possible. Whoever is not successful hasn’t tried hard enough and is not fulfilling his potential. “If in the past an unsuccessful person was considered luckless, today he’s considered a loser,” explains British philosopher Alain de Botton. “In the past we believed a divine force rules everything; today we believe it is all in our own hands.”
Many people have decided to live their lives according to Polgar’s model of excellence through training. Grown-up people have quit their jobs to specialise in photography, golf or other subjects owing to the belief that the vast amount of training hours will pay off to make them geniuses.
The American Dream Is Withering
Many psychologists who are joining the discussion in recent years, however, are not persuaded by Ericsson’s and Polgar’s findings. They claim that training alone is not enough for a person to become outstanding. According to them, that theory overly simplifies the human condition, disregarding innate factors that influence a person’s ability to reach high levels in different fields. Cognitive scientist and psychologist Fernand Gobet, and Dr Guillermo Campitelli, a Swiss psychologist and world-leading researcher in the field of chess who is a senior lecturer at Edith Cowan University, are both unpersuaded by this theory.
“I think the training hours Ericsson talks about are a genuinely important component to really specialise in a certain field, but it’s not enough,” – Dr Campitelli
For his doctoral studies, Dr Campitelli researched the abilities of Argentine chess players and made an interesting discovery: For one chess player, it took 3,000 hours to reach chessmaster level, while for another it took 23,000 hours. Still others, even after practising for more than 25,000 hours, could not reach that level. The meaning was clear: One must practise if one wants to reach a certain level, but even with practice, one will not necessarily succeed.
Fernand Gobet said in previous interviews that when he published his research together with Dr Campitelli, the press didn’t want to hear of their study after being optimistically convinced by Ericsson’s ideas.
“I think the training hours Ericsson talks about are a genuinely important component to really specialise in a certain field, but it’s not enough,” explains Dr Campitelli in an interview with the Epoch Times.
“I believe, and the data show that as well, that there are people who can reach a very high level very quickly with little training, which others take a long time to reach. It suggests that there should be other factors to success, not just training.”
Dr Campitelli elaborates on his theory in an interview with the Epoch Times:
Epoch Times: What you’re basically saying is that for some people, no matter how much they try, they’re simply limited by other factors and won’t succeed.
Dr Campitelli: Yes, precisely. And in the same way, others can easily reach a high level if they only practise. But it’s very hard to discover what those other factors are. That’s why Ericsson said: “I’m open to proving me wrong, but so far nobody has found anything.” We show that it’s not possible for practice to be the only cause for success.
As a matter of fact, Ericsson hasn’t specified any element that holds a person back from achieving what he wants, save for physical traits, for example height, which is a requirement in basketball.
Ericsson talks about an idea of equality, so of course if everyone is equal, those who put in more effort, advance further. People want to believe it, but unfortunately, that’s not how things work.
Epoch Times: That’s basically the ‘American Dream’ perception, or seen from the other side, the communist idea that everyone is equal.
Dr Campitelli: That’s right, you can see a similar idea in different political systems.
Gobet and Campitelli mention in one of their articles a research paper by the Australian psychologist Robert Howard, regarding the Polgar sisters: “The sisters began their training from a very young age, tutored by their father, as well as various grandmasters. However, the rating they had achieved differed greatly, and so did the amount of training they had to go through to reach the same rating level. For example, one sister reached her highest rating [of] 2735 within an estimated 59,904 hours of practice, while another sister reached a rating of 2577 within an estimated time of 79,248 hours. He also discovered that the two sisters who had reached grandmaster level had more training than eight other grandmasters.”
Then, how could Judit – who practised less than Susan, and was seven years younger – manage to surpass her and become the most successful female chess player in the world?
Character, Age and IQ
Chess lovers the-world-over still vividly remember an incident that happened during the chess match between Kasparov and Polgar from 1994. Judit Polgar played Garry Kasparov (then world champion), and it was a tight game. At a certain point, Kasparov touched the knight to make a move, and left the piece for a fraction of a second, but then changed his mind, and moved it to another location. According to chess rules, such a move is a violation, but Polgar hadn’t mentioned the violation during the game. Afterwards, everyone ignored it. If he had made that move, that blunder could have cost him the game. Years later, she beat him in a chess blitz game (a very short time-limited game).
In an interview with the Epoch Times, Polgar says: “When I played Garry Kasparov for the first time, I felt he wants to eat me up alive. He had such a strong halo and extraordinary charisma. Some people are more combative, and some are less, and their motivation is different. Kasparov always wanted to win, and wanted to be the best. Whether he developed this character intentionally or if it’s inborn, I do not know, perhaps both.”
Judit Polgar also believes a person’s character is “naturally” an important element for victory, saying: “I think something about my character always made me look for new challenges, and when I won at a young age, it pushed me to improve and be the best that I can. If something didn’t work out as I wanted, the problems served as motivation, instead of as obstacles.”
So what other factors can lead to success? I ask Dr Campitelli.
“One of the factors we had found was the age you start studying your field,” he answers. “The earlier you start, the better are the chances to improve. In an experiment I conducted with Argentine chess players, I found a connection between the age they started playing and their rating. Ericsson interpreted the results, saying: ‘Of course, if they started earlier, they had more time to practise.’ So I compared players with the same accumulated practice time, and found a significant correlation between the age they started and their rating.
“Some interpret the findings in a physical sense: the brain is more flexible and adaptable at a young age. You learn faster when you are younger. In addition, they claim (that because) knowledge and skills take up space in the brain, learning a new skill when you’re older may compete with ‘fixed’ abilities that had already developed in the brain. A related interpretation is that previous knowledge interferes with acquiring new knowledge (unlearning).”