Theory of success in life applied to chess
By Peter Zhdanov
We often hear that some people are successful, while others aren’t. How
does one come to such a conclusion? What is “success”? Success
is an achievement that is considered by a certain reference group to be positive
It is important to note that the notion of “success” is subjective
and depends on the values shared by a reference group. A farm worker might not
be impressed by your PhD diploma. An entrepreneur might not care about your
ability to run 100m very quickly. You might not receive any respect from an
individualistic bachelor for having brought up six children.
The size of the reference group is important. It can range from trying to become
an international icon to another extreme – “as long as I am enjoying
myself, I don’t care what everyone else is thinking”. Most of us
tend to seek recognition from our inner circle - relatives, friends, colleagues
and, of course, ourselves.
When we call a person “successful”, we mean that success often
accompanies him, or that he has done something which has forever granted him
that status. For example, written a masterpiece; won a gold Olympic medal; made
an extraordinary scientific discovery.
Even within a given reference group success is not absolute. It can differentiate
in scale. For example, for some businessmen earning a million dollars can be
qualified as success. For others it is just a stepping stone. Depending on the
personal taste of the researcher, one can either stick to this perspective,
or specify the reference group (for example, allocate all the businessmen into
three or more groups depending on their companies’ income).
What are the factors of success?
Our success depends on the three following factors:
Talent: In other words, how good your genes are for a
certain type of activity.
Labor: How much and how productively you are prepared
Environment: Life circumstances. Hopefully, they should
be beneficial. Some of them can be influenced by us. For example, we can
affect our connections, financial opportunities, country of living, etc.
Nonetheless, most factors are out of our reach. A lot has been decided for
us. For example, if you were born in the 1950s, then you didn’t have
Internet access as a kid. You live on planet Earth, not Mars. It is the
XXI century, not XVI or XXIII. Your parents are the one and only. And so
[In popular literature we often see “luck” as the third
factor, but I believe this word is not deep enough and also misleading.
When dealing with the “environment”, we have certain chances
to change it. By relying on “luck”, we tend to passively wait
for something good to happen by itself.]
As it is easy to notice, so far we can’t really affect the first of the
three factors. The second factor is more or less up to us (although now always).
The third one is controlled by us only to some extent. Each person’s goal
is to decide what reference group he belongs to and take advantage of his factors
of success in the optimal way.
Pros and cons of the model
The advantages of the model are:
The drawbacks of the model:
There is no algorithm of attaining success, i.e., there is no precise
sequence of actions leading to success.
It is very hard to determine the level of “talent”, or at least
compare two individuals in terms of talent in a certain field.
The term «environment» is too vague. How is your success affected
by the fact that you have a more talented brother who is working in the
same field? And what about early marriage? How about the country you live
in? Such examples are numerous, and it is hard to tell which factors are
important and which are not.
It is often hard to evaluate productivity. In simple cases, for example,
manufacturing car components, if one worker can make 10 per hour and the
other 15, then worker #2 is more productive. The same can be said about
sales: if one sales manager sold $10,000 worth of goods and the other -
$20,000, then it’s easy to infer who is more productive. But what
about, let’s say, studying a foreign language or history? How can
one prove that one person has worked more productively than the other? In
these situations we have to resort to some sort of simplified models and
introduce certain KPIs (key performance indicators). For example, in the
case of studying foreign languages we can create tests which are supposed
to determine with some a high validity the proficiency of a student in that
language. Hence, we can just ask two subjects to take the tests and thus
find out who was more productive.
[Of course, a lot depends on the authors of the tests. Popular IQ tests
are often criticized for measuring how well a person is prepared for such
tests than “raw intellect”. Also, it would be interesting to
see more IQ tests developed by women and see how the results of the subjects
- We do not know the “weights” of the three components in the
final result. Some people say that without being gifted becoming successful
in a certain field is not possible. Others quote Thomas Edison: “Genius
is one percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration”. Another popular
belief is that “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”.
Applying the model of success to chess
First you have to choose the reference group (“chess players”)
and the scale of the success. Let’s say that you decide to choose “master
level” as a benchmark. How do you evaluate your chances? One of the possible
options is to pick a role model (a real master) and try to predict how high
your chances are of reaching his chess level. Naturally, you will face difficulties
on this very step. One player can be rated 2300 and perform at 2500 (“a
young underrated player”). Another one can be a retired master rated 2100,
whose real playing strength is like 2100. Technically speaking, both of them
are masters, but the difference in their “real” ratings is enormous
– 400 points. If you start comparing yourself to the veteran, the future
will probably look bright for you. If you go with the chess prodigy, you might
get disappointed. People who are aiming for the very top positions in the chess
hierarchy have an easier time: you have to beat pretty much everybody to become
a World Chess Champion. If you can become a better player than the #1 grandmaster
in the world, there is a very fair chance that you will attain a WCC status
too (although it is not granted).
Talent. If you are studying Math in school, you will soon
notice that some of your classmates do better in it, while the others are struggling.
With chess it’s not so obvious. Let’s say you are just making your
first steps, while a master has dedicated ten years to chess. It will be complicated
for either you or him to evaluate how great his talent was ten years ago as
compared to yours. For example, now he might have a better feel for the endgame;
superior calculations skills. But who knows whether he had those traits from
the very beginning? What if they were acquired later on? Unfortunately, in most
cases the question remains rhetorical. Nonetheless, one can get some sort of
an impression, make an intelligent guess. Another approach is to contact an
expert who knows both of you. Of course, people tend to look at things differently
as time passes. Maybe ten years ago the expert (master’s coach) was more
excited about life, so he was under the belief that the master was more talented
at that time than you are now, even if it is not really so.
Russian trainer and writer Alexander Roshal on Anatoly Karpov and talent
Moreover, even the most distinguished experts make mistakes. Mikhail Botvinnik,
a legendary chess champion, coach and methodologist of chess, was quite skeptical
about Anatoly Karpov’s prospects and didn’t see a World Champion’s
potential in him; criticized Vladimir Kramnik (“fat, smokes and drinks
alcohol”), but was very enthusiastic about the young Vladimir Akopian
and stated that he might become a World Champion with due work. If the Patriarch
of the Soviet Chess was sometimes offbeat in his conclusions, then what can
you expect from the average coach – their qualification is lower, and
some of them are also quite devious. We all know coaches who are trying to convince
parents that their children are at least as gifted as Garry Kasparov in order
to milk money from them and just shake their heads a few years later: “Sorry,
something went wrong”.
Another extreme – underestimating a person’s talent – is
also widespread. For example, in July 2012 ex-Russian Team’s chess coach
GM Sergey Dolmatov shared his opinion about women’s chess in an interview
to the website of the Russian Chess Federation: “Regarding girls, I think
that it generally doesn’t make any sense to try to teach them to play
chess”. Naturally, such a misogynistic commentary from a rather high-ranked
chess official can demotivate parents and potential female chess players from
Labor. How do your competitors train? Are they efficiently
working on eliminating their weaknesses? And what about you? If you are aiming
for a relatively modest level, everything is simple. There are books which one
can study diligently and, given some practice, become a first category (usually
1800-2000 FIDE) player. And how about becoming one of the world’s strongest
grandmasters? The world keeps moving, so you can’t rely on simply copying
someone else’s training routine. The technologies are becoming more and
more advanced; the playing level is increasing. You will have to take the experience
of your predecessors into account and create a new, revolutionary training method.
Only this will allow you to become a leader. A little disclaimer: of course,
in some cases even the old method will suffice as long as you are more talented,
hard-working and live in a better environment than everyone else.
The role of a coach is especially critical, because he is supposed to help
you with evaluating objectively the level of your talent and choosing the right
direction of studying chess. The devil is often in the details, so we need a
view from outside. You might be thinking you are bad in tactics, while the real
problem is that you are so afraid of your opponent that you aren’t even
looking for continuations leading to an advantage. Blaming your strategic thinking,
while the real problem is that you haven’t had your lunch, hence your
head grew heavy during the game. Some of us think they are studying the opening,
while what they are doing is just memorizing lines without really understanding
the ideas behind them. A good coach will prevent such problems from occurring.
Environment. Does your family support your interest in chess?
Can you afford coaching and traveling to international tournaments? Do you have
the connections and the reputation to receive luring invitations? Try to get
a competitive edge wherever possible.
From theory to practice
Some readers might say that this article is pretty much trivial and banal.
This is true to some extent. The trick is that quite often we are misleading
ourselves and not ready to accept the obvious. Our opponents can be more talented,
have a better environment, work harder and smarter, yet we still secretly hope
that in the end we will win. Maybe it is a product of egocentricity and a belief,
quite popular among educated western people, that we are in some way special.
Or maybe it is affected by books and movies where David prevails over Goliath,
even if the odds are not in his favor. Many of us are secretly relying on luck
and waiting for the fairy-tale to come to life, but time goes on and it is not
[In his thought-provoking best-selling book “The Black Swan”
Nassim Taleb mentions that people often become victims of asymmetry in terms
of the perception of random events. According to him, people tend to attribute
their successes to their mastery, and failures – to uncontrollable factors,
namely, chance. They hold themselves responsible only for the good, but not
for the bad. This makes people think they are better than the others. For example,
94% of Swedes think that they belong to the top-50% of the best Swedish drivers;
84% of the Frenchmen believe that their sexual proficiency qualifies for being
in the top-50% of the French lovers.]
By objectively evaluating all the components described in this article, you
can create your own plan of becoming a successful person. Excuse me for the
cheap pun, but I am not sure whether you will succeed or not. Life is interesting,
because it is very diverse and unpredictable. If we could just input all the
data into a formula and find out whether our future will be bright or not (“to
be, or not to be”), then living wouldn’t make much sense. Fortunately,
your own fate is mainly in your own hands. Go for it!
Peter Zhdanov is an IT project manager; expert and author
of two books on parliamentary debate; BSc in Applied Mathematics and Computer
Science and final year PhD student in Sociology. In chess he is a Russian candidate
master, author, husband and manager of grandmaster Natalia Pogonina. You can
read more of his articles at the Pogonina web
site, which he edits.
||Is chess not for everybody? – Feedback from our readers
05.07.2012 – Boris Gelfand said he thought
that chess was not for everyone, Peter Zhdanov wrote a piece saying it
was. Chess must be presented to the general public for what it is: a sport,
an art and science. Many readers agree: "Let us make a Smörgåsbord and
have everyone decide what is tasty for them," writes one, and another
says we should emulate the
mentalist Derren Brown.
Is chess not for everybody?
04.07.2012 – Recently Boris Gelfand said
he thought that chess was not for everyone. "Chess is for people who
want to make an intellectual effort, who have respect for the game,
and we shouldn't make the game more simple so that more people would
enjoy it,” said the world championship challenger. Do you think this
is true? Peter Zhdanov, IT project manager and debate expert, begs
||Do Women Have a Chance against Men in Chess?
08.03.2012 – As we know all too well: most
of the strongest players in the world are male. In the past we have speculated
on the reasons for this gender discrepancy, with vigorous
reader participation. On International Women's Day Peter Zhdanov,
who is married to a very strong female player, provides us with some valuable
statistics, comparing men and women on a country-by-country basis. Eye-opening.
||Do men and women have different brains?
30.06.2009 – In a recent thought-provoking
article WGM Natalia Pogonina and Peter Zhdanov presented their views
on the topic of why women are worse at chess than men. A number of our
readers were unconviced: they think that efforts at "explaining" differences
between the sexes only from environmental factors are doomed at the outset.
Recent studies seem to support this. Feedback
||Women and men in chess – smashing the stereotypes
20.06.2009 – On June 5, 2009
WGM Natalia Pogonina and Peter Zhdanov got
married – she a Women's Grandmaster, he a successful IT-specialist
and debate expert. Peter is also Natalia’s manager, together they are
writing a book called "Chess Kamasutra". Today they share with us their
views on the perennial topic why women are worse at chess than men, and
take a look at the future
of women’s chess.