Occasionally, children say the most extraordinary things. Sometimes they even understand what they say.
But when a child does extraordinary things, it’s fascinating to listen to what gets said.
We use words like prodigy, talented, genius, to describe things that we find a little hard to understand. After all, how is it that the child could do that!?
And so it was interesting, even a little amazing when, in 1973, 4 year old Susan* Polgar hit a perfect 10-0 to win the Budapest Chess Championship for Girls aged under 11. At four.
At this age many kids can’t read, write, spell, do simple addition and subtraction, ride a bike, catch, or do pretty much of anything, let alone do it better than your average 10 year old.
What a prodigy! Such talent! A genius even!
In the brutal world of chess, this was no mean feat.
Then it got really interesting when, seven years later in 1980, a little 5 year old girl won the Hungarian Girl’s Under-11 championship.
Between them, Susan and Sofia started racking up a formidable cabinet of trophies. Open events, speed chess, boy’s tournaments, international tournaments, blindfolded tournaments. #1 ranked women’s player.
They were an extraordinary pair.
And so it got even more interesting when, 6 years after Sofia, in 1986, a serious looking 9 year old won the unrated section of the New York Open Chess tournament. Unrated is another way of saying open to anyone.
This became great news when, three years later she became the #1 ranked women’s player in the world. Merely three years after that, at the age of 15 years and a few short months, she became the youngest grandmaster in the history of chess.
The great Bobby Fischer hadn’t managed it as young as her and, but for the sake of a drawn match a few months earlier she would have done it at 14. The New York Times ran the story. Media shouted about it.
She is recognized as the greatest women’s player ever seen. She has beaten Kasparov, Karpov and Viswanathan.
What a prodigy! Such talent! A genius even!
So how did one family manage to turn out three prodigies of such genius and talent?
Laszlo Polgar was determined.
In his mind, he had a course of action that, he believed, would prove a thesis he held dear. He had a plan to raise children to greatness. Problem was, he was single. And so began his hunt for a wife to bear his children and share his dreams.
In his search, writing letters over Europe, he met Klara, a teacher from the Ukraine, who was convinced both by the man, and by his ideas. Before long they were married, and their first child, Susan, followed soon after.
Stumbling on a chess set in 1973, just turned 4, Susan was enchanted by the strange figures. That night, when Laszlo sat down to teach his child this new game called chess, history began. He taught her chess, and unfolded his vision that they would achieve exceptional things if they were focused on a specialist subject from an early age.
For Laszlo, chess was perfect. It required focus, dedication and effort. You could not fluke chess and, across the world, it was (and still is) rigorously scored. Results were objective, and ability, not luck, would push you up the rankings.
And so, just 6 months later, Susan met her first rival at the local club. As an adult, imagine what this is like. This kid has nothing to lose. If you win as an adult against a kid, what did you prove? If she wins? Well, imagine that.
She won. By five, she was beating her father too.
The under 11 Budapest championship followed. Then Sofia. Then Judit.
They have dominated women’s chess for years.
While there are exceptions to the rule, it probably comes as no surprise that starting early with a skill confers advantages. In addition to this though, the Polgars breathed chess. Chess books lay one atop another, bookshelves groaned and chess images dotted the walls.
Hours went into practice, some at Laszlo’s insistence, but many at the girls’ own direction. Late one night Laszlo found Sophia in the bathroom, pieces balanced carefully on the board across her knees. Exasperated, Laszlo told her to leave the pieces alone. Equally exasperated, she replied that the pieces wouldn’t leave her alone!
The younger children learned from the older. They constantly sought tougher opponents, Laszlo famously rejecting female competition in favor of the tougher male competitors.
But it wasn’t just competition that helped them, for repetition by itself is limited. It was focused practice – continually adjusting to overcome deficiencies in their game, constantly honing and refining, that improved their chess.
Time, practice, refinement, adjustment.
So here’s the take home bit
Could your child be a grandmaster? Perhaps a better question is: do you want your child to be a grandmaster? In order to achieve this amount of time at a skill, other things must suffer. (Not that it was all chess with the Polgars. The sisters are all multilingual and academically qualified and now, not socially awkward, competent in other arenas, mothers, partners and businesswomen.)
But there is no substitute for time on a task, in order for us to continually fire our neural circuits and so build the brains that the skill requires. And once the spark is lit, it must then be continually fanned. First, you’ll do it as the parent. Later, your child will be driven to fan it themselves. But someone must support it by driving to competitions, buying gear and resources, sacrificing other things, perhaps by putting this child’s needs ahead of others in the family.
While our children may be capable of being grandmasters, could you devote the time needed for your child to achieve this. If you’re like me, the answer might be no.
So, what do we do now? We’ll talk about this next post.
Oh, and by the way, just last month, Hou Yifan outdid her hero Bobby Fischer and Judit Polgar to become the new, youngest ever grandmaster.
Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat
Susan Polgar, Sofia Polgar, Judit Polgar,
What do you think?
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* The English variant of her name. Same rule applied throughout.