Sunday, January 29, 2023 09:13

Chess Success… Work or Talent?

Over at the USCF Forums, Bill Brock makes reference to an opinion piece at the New York Times: Sweating Your Way to Success. The premise of the piece is that it is hard work that makes excellence, and not innate talent. The last half uses chess as a context for discussion.

Much has been made of the “work vs. talent” issue in chess. Most articles I’ve read on the subject suggest, as Peter Orszag does, that talent is a myth and enough practice and dedication controls one’s mastery of a subject. If one dedicates oneself to the honing of their chess, the theory goes, one can eventually achieve mastery of it.

On the other hand, I have read accounts of players attempting to raise their ratings who fail to do so despite much work and dedication to their chess. And I know of parents who feel that if their kids only study as faithfully as the Polgar girls were schooled, that their kid will become a Grandmaster-or-better. I believe very few in the scholastic community would seem to openly disagree with that. My suspicion is that this is both because we don’t really know where the next GM will come from, combined with a fear that deflating such lofty ambitions will reduce said child’s participation.

Orszag does comment that persons who are excellent at a subject tend to be able to be able to chunk groups of data better. He cites that Masters can recall actual game positions better in memory tests than us patzers, but that when then pieces are randomized into non-game positions all of a sudden the memory recall becomes even. The working hypothesis is that masters have better recall at game positions because they “chunk” the position into subsets which can be remembered as gestalt blocks.

Gestalt theory is important to me when it comes to discussions of excellence, for a couple of reasons. First, I tend to think (as some of the opinion commenters do,) that there is a mix of factors involved in the occurrence of excellence (or genius, as I’d prefer to think of it.) One can work at one’s golf swing every day for years and probably reach the PGA. It doesn’t make one Tiger Woods – though that may not be as much a superlative as it was a couple of years ago. Personally, I believe as a matter of faith that there is an upper limit to what any particular human is capable of in a particular endeavor. Without hard work one cannot rise to excellence, but there is more to genius than working hard.

(Interlude… I also frequently think that those who study genius frequently put too many eggs in one basket. Bill Gates does not necessarily have what it takes to be John Paul II, and what Madonna can bring to a chessboard has yet to be seen… though we’ve seen the result of Garry Kasparov vs. Sting. ;) )

Secondly, one thing frequently omitted by those who consider excellence is the value of the team that brings a person to that level. “Self-made” is something of an illusion to me; greatness results from the group of people surrounding a person’s efforts. Also, in chess excellence is only demonstrated by applying one’s efforts against someone else who is in the same plane of excellence. There is no appreciation of Fischer, Kasparov, and Anand without having a Spassky, Karpov, or Topalov playing against them.

From there, consider that each of those individuals has had excellent coaching, managers, opportunities for play, and in this day and age software support. (Fischer might be considered by some as the exception to this rule. However, those who do so should first research Carmine Nigro, John W. Collins, William Lombardy, Arnold Denker, Fred Cramer, Don Schultz, and other people I won’t mention now…)

Bringing it down closer to Earth… I have subjectively experienced most excellent games of chess by playing those close to my level. Are they objectively excellent games of chess? Perhaps not. But I have felt better about some of my losses than some of my wins, Most recently was at the Bradley tournament – I can say I liked the game of my fourth round loss far more than my third round win.

The one other thing I’ll mention before closing this post out… There can be some value in studying excellence and genius, examining what others have done to reach that level and then emulating those steps. And it’s a fun subject to head-trip on and survey. As you’ve probably recognized, the broad subject of genius is one of my pet subjects of enjoyment. But, as a chessplayer, one must consider first and foremost the point of chess to oneself. Aim high, play the best you can and learn all that you’re capable of soaking up, but I think the supreme genius of Caissa is that before all else personal excellence best shines through when you

Enjoy your Chess!

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