The Guy Who Raised Three Daughters to Chess

I’m in middle of a debate with some friends over whether there’s such a thing as an innate talent for math (in specific) and innate talent for anything (in general).

I remember reading that back in the day when women were considered of too weak an intellect to play chess, a guy raised three daughters to be chess masters by stewing them in chess practically from birth.

Has anyone heard this story, and do you know his name and anywhere online where I can find the particulars of the story?


László Polgár?

His name is László Polgár and you can google him to find out more. That isn’t directly relevant to the question though because this is a complex topic on many levels. The main reason that you see so many males at the very high end of accomplishment in areas like chess and math is because the male distribution for various intelligence measures are much wider than females in both the extreme low and high ends of the normal curve. It is certainly possible to have a female, or even a family of them appear at the far end of the spectrum but less likely and having a parent that is a great coach and is passionate about the subject helps a great deal as well. Little of this applies to normal people however. Most females can learn math and play chess just fine but there are always a few freak of nature males around that make it harder for even the talented ones to compete at the highest levels.

Since some mammals can play chess and some can’t I’m pretty sure the ability to play chess is innate (genetic).

Since some humans can be taught calculus and some can’t I’m pretty sure even within humans, a subset of genes controls the maximum potential for nurture to layer phenotypic ability upon nature.

So yes, the maximum potential to play chess is not determined by nurture layered upon a blank slate of equal potential for all humans. It’s layered upon an innate potential which is determined by genes. Ditto for every other expressed “talent.”

That’s why I gave up becoming Tiger Woods even before he was born. I don’t have the genes for it. László’s success teaching children who inherit his own genes is hardly proof that nurture alone creates talent. Wish he woulda tried the same trick with my girls…

See here for a decent overview of Laszlo Polgar’s work with his three daughters. Currently, Sofia Polgar is ranked 1440th, Zsuzsa Polgar is ranked 308th, and Judit Polgar is ranked 49th (1st among female chess players). I believe only Judit is really an active player at present.

By all accounts, Laszlo Polgar is not a particularly good chess player.

Which of course by no means precludes the possibility that he possesses excellent chess genes.

Not impossible, but what are the chances that the one mediocre chess player who attempts this experiment happens to also have the “excellent chess gene”? Could be, of course, but if nothing else, it suggests “the excellent chess gene” is pretty wide spread. If it was in large proportion to the number of people who actually become top ranked chess players, then the chances of Laszlo (or his wife) happening to pass it on to her kids would be fairly astronomical.

Somewhat more amazing is that, at the time (1991), Judit Polgar became the youngest ever person, male or female, to achieve a grandmaster rating, and she climbed as high as number 8 in the world.

I should also add, Zsuzsa and Zsofia Polgar were no lightweights, either. The former was the first woman to achieve a grandmaster rating and was the female number one for some time, and the latter was an international master who had an amazing showing beating some grandmasters at the age of 14 at a competition in Rome. I used to subscribe to Chess Life as a kid, and these girls were my heroes.

edit: Actually, the Wikipedia page says Zsuzsa was the first woman to achieve a grandmaster rating “in regular competition,” but I’m not exactly sure what that means.

It’s fairly clear that he has a gift for chess theory, if not for the playing of it. Possibly it’s some defect in concentration or another simple shortcoming that prevents his otherwise superior chess ability from showing itself in competition.

Nona Gaprindashvili was awarded the GM title earlier, but didn’t technically meet the requirements for the title. This action wasn’t without precedent, since male chess players also had been awarded the GM title under similar circumstances. Such an example was provided by then future world champion Mikhail Tal.

I met Susan Polgar when she came to give a talk at the UW. She is a rather intelligent woman, though one does not get the impression that she’s a true genius.

Laszlo was a smart man. Like many fairly naive intellectuals, he downplayed the role of talent (innate ability) in success. He had three relatively bright daughters. He homeschooled them and drilled them in chess from the time they were very little. Of course they would grow up to become good chess players - even a kid with an IQ of 90 would become decent at chess if you drilled him/her really intensely from an early age (though he/she would not be nearly as good as the Polgars). But if you combine solid overall intelligence with extremely rigorous training, you’re going to get some great chess players. All three Polgar sisters are over 2400 elo. A lot of people may think that that’s not really that hard to achieve, but if you’ve ever played chess against someone who is over 2000 you know that it’s really hard to even achieve a 2000 rating.

I am actually more likely than the average person to speak of the importance of practice and hard work. But I also get really annoyed when people use examples like the Polgar sisters to suggest that there just is no such thing as innate talent.

Those who have been observing top-level chess (read: one ten thousandth of the US population, perhaps?) have been observing Magnus Carlsen reach dominance. He is now eighteen years old and rated over 2800. He is the highest-rated player in the world. He just won Nanjing with an amazing score, scored +2 at the Tal Memorial (though Kramnik won), and is now leading at the World Blitz Championship, ahead of even Anand.

Maybe it’s just me, but I think anyone who denies that someone like Magnus Carlsen (or Bobby Fischer, or Vishy Anand) was born with something that most people lack is out of his mind. While Magnus Carlsen has worked very hard, I know somebody who has studied chess just as much and is rated 600 points lower. The same sort of idea goes for many other activities. Terence Tao, Stephen Wolfram, and Barry Mazur all earned PhDs before they were 22. Hard work pays off - so does being dealt a genetic hand of four aces.

I think a variety of psychological biases and quirks combine to produce the desire to deny the existence of innate talent, but I won’t delve into them here. The source and nature of the biases depends on the person and his/her goals and personal experiences.

Holy crap. I haven’t followed chess for quite some time now, but that is simply incredible. And a cool name, to boot.

How about a good father?

If my father made me live my childhood in nothing but chess, chess, chess, several hours per day, day in and day out, I’d be a tad resentful.

He taught them other things too, you know. He gave them a solid education.

Even though I would not do it, training your kids strongly in chess is not really that bad on the paternal scale of things. Some parents force their kids with no musical talent or interest to go to piano lessons that they hate. From what I understand, none of his children hate chess, and two of them quite obviously love it - only Zsofia is currently inactive in the chess world.

He’d be better than my father. My father gladly taught me how to play chess when I was in first grade… but when I beat him for the first time (I was in second grade t hen), that was the last game we ever played together.
But, to reply to the OP:

There’s no one single GQ answer to this - the nature/nurture question isn’t going to be settled anytime soon. However, I think the consensus is that both factors are important. There is clearly a genetic component that permits someone to reach excellence and genetic components that can make it impossible. Not only do you have to have the capacity, but the motivation. I suspect that motivation itself is also driven by the nature/nurture issue.

So I generally see the issue as having four independent variables: innate/acquired capability and innate/acquired motivation. The very best people in any one subject have all four - an innate motivation and capability as well as an acquired/learned motivation and capability. Most professionals in any given field probably have three of the factors and most amateurs probably have two.

In the case of the guy teaching his daughters, He’s at least provided two of the four - acquired motivation and acquired capability. But they’d never be able to be grandmasters without some innate capability and they’d never stick with it long enough without some innate motivation.

And even there, it’s not like she gave up on chess and rebelled against her upbringing or anything. She’s currently working as a chess teacher (and artist and freelance designer, according to her website. You can also find family pictures on that website, which include pictures of Laszlo and Klara [dad and mom] and the Sisters Polgar.)

Just to offer some perspective to non chess players, the Polgar family is very, very famous in the chess community. Anyone with a passing knowledge of top-level chess knows at least about Judit (hot, btw :cool: ) being the top female. Her name is probably in the top 10 most familiar names in chess.

Surely, it’s higher than 1/10,000, right? I sure hope so.

Strangely, I had a dream about him last night. I was playing in the cafeteria of Pitt when I got paired on board one against a guy with a 3500 rating. The name wasn’t listed for some reason, and I was staring at the board for the whole game. I got crushed and got angry until I looked up to see that I was playing Carlsen, live and in person. I was star-struck and honored. Now he shows up in a Dope thread. Maybe it’s a premonition that he’ll kick some ass very soon?

I do believe there’s more to it than practice. A personal motivation is obviously necessary, but that can be provided by nurture as well. And yes, there’s a genetic something or another… but is it talent? Or is it IQ? Surely someone with a high IQ and good critical thinking skills can catch on faster and learn better than someone with a lower IQ. Is there any way to isolate “talent” so you can point to it and say “That’s the reason!”

Tiger Woods was also trained from toddlerhood, and I don’t think either he or his father consider him “talented.”

Chess talent undeniably overlaps with intelligence. Go to some high school chess tournaments and you’ll meet tons of obviously bright kids.