Scientific American: The Expert Mind

8/14/2006 – Once again (after a report on Deep Blue) chess has made it to the cover of the periodical Scientific American. An article written by Phil Ross, a 2053 USCF player, describes the research that has gone into explaining such extraordinary cognitive feats of the human mind as grandmasterly play. Not a lot of new material for the expert, but a good summary for a general audience. Read the online version.

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There follows a discussion of the László Polgár experiment. The Hungarian educator homeschooled his three daughters in chess, assigning as much as six hours of work a day. The result was one international master and two grandmasters – the strongest chess-playing siblings in history. László Polgár proved two things: that grandmasters can be reared and that women can be grandmasters.

One conclusion of the article we do not quite agree with is that "the preponderance of psychological evidence indicates that experts are made, not born." We know too many great chess prodigies who popped out of nowhere, becoming vastly superior to anyone in their surroundings without receiving any special training. A typical example, and certainly not the only one, is Nigel Short. His older brother was the one receiving instructions from their father, any the infant Nigel (so to speak) was told to stop bothering them and wait until he was old enough to play himself. But in the shortest span of time he was stronger than either of them, and then went on to beat everyone in the neighbourhood, the local chess club, the town, and ultimately the country.

On the other hand we know of Alan Turing, the congenial mathematician, visionary, code breaker, one of the greatest analytical minds in history. Turing loved chess passionately, he played it regularly, he worked on his skills in the game and even took a grandmaster trainer. The result was a mediocre level of play, nowhere close to master strength. Apparently there are innate and inborn factors without which extraordinary chess skill is extraordinarily difficult to achieve; and which, if they are present, blossom automatically, given that the owners are expediently exposed to the game.

On the final hand (for all those who have three) we do need to explain how the Hungarian sisters could all become such strong players, and what László Polgár has proven with his preannounced experiment. It is unreasonable to suppose that all three sisters were born with the very special chess talent that is normally the prerequisite for true excellence in the game. A lot of thinking needs to be done before final conclusions can be drawn in this

We leave you to read the full article either in the printed magazine, which you will want to buy for archive purposes, or in the online version, for which we have given a link below. The printed version has a number of informative sidebars that are not given in the online version.

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