Theory of success in life applied to chess

by Peter Zhdanov
8/27/2012 – What are the factors that define success? How does one become successful in life in general and in chess in particular? Peter Zhdanov explains KPIs (key performance indicators) used to measure success and seeks to apply them to the game we all love. By objectively evaluating all the components described in his article, you can create your own plan of becoming a successful person.

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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 and significant.

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 to work.

  • 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 on.

    [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:

  • Applicable to any activity.

  • Allows one to understand (at least to some extent) on what to work.

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 would change.]

  • 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 even trying.

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 happening.

[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!

Copyright Zhdanov/ChessBase


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.

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Peter Zhdanov is an IT project manager, expert and author of two books on parliamentary debate
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