Monday, January 25, 2010

Innate, acquired, or both?

The comments at my previous post were again excellent. Pretty much you guys are now writing my blog for me.

Anonymous said the following, which struck a nerve with me:
Some of us need to face the fact that we have no natural chess ability. From his rapid rating increase from the beginning it is obvious to me that MDLM had natural ability. Book smarts does not equate to natural ability in chess or else some of us would be Grandmasters.

I coached youth baseball for 15 years. Some kids had no natural ability at all and despite one-on-one instruction, showed no improvement at all over the course of their years on the diamond. They stuck with it for fun and to be with friends.

I look at it as two Gaussian distributions, one of innate talent, the other of time spent playing and trying to improve. I could beat someone who is way more talented than me, as long as they have only spent ten hours on the game in their entire life. However, there do seem to be those that are abnormally good, and when they work abnormally hard they destroy (e.g., Carlsen). These are the GMs. The rest of us with average talent who work really hard can probably reach around 2000.

Note also that "innate" talent Gaussian shifts markedly to the left as a function of onset of age of playing chess (I started at age 35). Hence, age, talent, and motivation/time all interact in interesting ways.

Unfortunately none of this is new, and all of it is obvious. You can't change your age or your innate talents. All you can do is train, play, and train some more. As I've said, chess improvement is like planting a flower. You can nourish it, do everything possible to have a healthy flower, but ultimately you can't force it and it will grow in its own way.

I certainly see the effects of "talent" in academia. There are kids I tried to teach formal logic, and they would go to office hours, do extra homework, and just couldn't seem to get the logic of the conditional, or indirect proofs. For some students, who never went to class, and were slackers, they just "got" it, and got the As, while many of the people who put in the hours would end up with crappy marks.

When it comes to chess practice, I often feel like those slow kids. I'm quick enough on the uptake when it comes to wordy explanations, the kind of crap that Rowson basically says is useless in practice. And he's right.


Blogger Temposchlucker said...

For a non-clubplayer somebody with a rating of 2000 looks extremely talented. If it wasn't for the presence of grandmasters everybody would think so.

1/25/2010 06:09:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To paraphrase Al Campanis, certain people (not ethnic groups) "may not have some of the necessities to be, let's say, an expert, or, perhaps, a master"

1/26/2010 12:59:00 AM  
Blogger Temposchlucker said...

Papa Polgar proved that it is not innate. Yet Susan and Judith believed that their sister Sophia has the most talent. The problem is she isn't interested in studying hard. So lazyness is innate at least:)

1/26/2010 03:10:00 AM  
Anonymous Kaan said...

I started at age 5, my first rating was somewhat 1500 when i was 11, 11.5 years passed since i now have 1540 or so.

What do i want to achieve ? Be master, preferedly GM one. Is it looking logical, or sensefull i don't think so.

But if i want to be a master why should i persuade myself to be expert ? Thats is senseless too.

Still i have 30-40 years i can play actively if i can survive so its still looking possible.

Problems i noticed in my chess are not weak endgame or blundering etc. Actually i have a weak longterm memory, some attention problems, stormy state of psycology (depression and that kind of stuff comes regularly) and not sure how to overcome yet.

1/26/2010 11:24:00 AM  
Blogger katar said...

are you following Corus 2010?? there is tons of free video at and Peter Svidler did a detailed commentary on Short-Nakamura and you can also watch/download Svidler's complete 4.5-hours live commentary on round 3. Svidler is witty and his english is flawless-- not to mention it's eye-opening to witness what 2700+ strength really looks like. Also DO NOT MISS Kramnik's press conference after crushing Nakamura's Dutch, to see what 2800 looks like.

1/26/2010 05:04:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tempo, we are talking about adult chess improvement here. The Polgars were drilled chess from childhood from an obsessed father. Some of us here (BDK and myself) did not start playing until we reached adulthood. I have no innate ability, as others possibly do, and don't think I will reach 1400 in my lifetime no matter how many circles, squares, triangles, or any other geometric shape of tactical excercises I do. MDLM had some degree of natural ability to achieve the success that he did.

1/26/2010 06:13:00 PM  
Blogger Polly said...

Kaan: The brain chemistry and psychological issues can not be discounted. One can have thorough understanding of the game, a keen eye for tactics, etc, etc. However games can be quickly tossed away by inattention at the wrong moment, or letting non-chess thoughts intrude during analysis.

Depression can also play a part in the assessment of a position. There are times where I have a perfectly reasonable position but because I'm feeling bad about myself I think my position sucks. If I think I'm losing it's more then likely I will lose. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. "I suck, therefor I'm lost."

1/27/2010 04:02:00 PM  
Blogger transformation said...

dear bdk, nice to see you again... after your gentle but insistent prodding, im back... here... to blogger.

your blog? you are one of the smartest guys around, and you are the one blog that i cannot ever depart from. its the top chess saloon round the horn.

thanks also for staying in touch via email, and i will be reading you more, again.

BTW, you know Mount Washington just lost its hallowed record of the planets highest wind speed? Australia now has it, from a hurricane...

also kind hellos to temposchlucker, polly, and all else.

warmly, dk

1/27/2010 05:27:00 PM  
Blogger katar said...

Environment is a big factor. If one has chess-playing friends it will speed up one's progress... Somehow internet friends do not seem to have this effect, as far as i can tell. But i'll tell you this: I met a few cool guys at the club, they happened to be mostly around 1600 or 1700s. We played blitz and analyzed games after the club meetings. Within a year I was also rated in the 1700s, where i stayed for 2 years. Then my buddy jumped to 1870. Somehow I almost instantly jumped up to about 2000. The hard part is finding decent players (geographically close) who are interesting and diverse people away from chess. Then you can develop real friendships and what starts mainly based on chess can later exist independent of chess. Which is just a board game for gods sake. ;)

1/27/2010 09:14:00 PM  
Blogger David Seruyange said...

I think Kasparov would disagree with you. An excerpt from a recent book review (see below for link to full review):

"The ability to work hard for days on end without losing focus is talent. The ability to keep absorbing new information after many hours of study is talent."

I often berate myself for getting destroyed on a weekly basis at the local chess club but the raw truth is that I don't spend as much time studying as I should. I can chalk it up to a bunch of things: being married, work, other recreation, but the bottom line is that unless I'm willing to properly train then playing people who are not only better to begin with but whose lives consist (daily) of hours upon hours of chess, will always be the foregone conclusion of loss.

To me a big question is whether chess is something that can be done in a recreational way or whether it's like lifting weights: if you do it only once a week, you're wasting everyone's time - a thing that you either "do" or "not do." Perhaps you have thoughts on that. I'm 34, so playing extremely serious chess (tournaments etc) is out of the question but at the same time I enjoy playing and relating my struggles on the board with my life in general. Am I wasting my time if I can't spend a few hours each day doing serious study?

Kasparov's review (which has more to do with AI vs chess) can be found here:

1/28/2010 11:02:00 AM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

DK great to see you back!

Katar: that is an absolutely great point I should hang out more with the locals. Seriously, that seems quite overlooked, people talking with each other, moving pieces around, making fun of each other, playing chess. It can have a big effect. Since the World Open I'm just been demoralized about interacting with real people vis a vis chess.

David: I largely agree, but age and "chess talent" have to be important. Take a group of four year olds and a group of fifty year olds and teach them a new language. Who will be better in a year, given the same amount of time?

At one extreme, someone with gross neural problems (e.g., someone with Down's Syndrome) will probably not have the same potential as someone who is not impaired. No matter how hard they work. There has to be some variability in what I'm calling innate chess talent. The key is that it is probably not the major factor. Studies have consistently shown that time spent playing chess is the best predictor of rating.

Unfortunately such studies haven't looked at the age question, which we know is important.

1/28/2010 12:51:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I took weekly lessons from a NM (who is a full time chess instructor) for a year. I played weekly at the local chess club and at monthly tournaments. I read books, studied Chess Mentor, TASC, tactics software and anything else I could get my hands on. I am not stupid. I have a masters degree and professional certification. I, however, suck at chess and my only explanation is my lack of natural talent.

1/28/2010 02:48:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Anon: I bet you would kick my ass.

We could have fights about who has less innate chess talent :)

1/28/2010 04:18:00 PM  
Blogger transformation said...

anon: i used to do cross training at a local gym, more as adumbrative to a full running routine, than as desire to be the 'total gym rat'.

but when i was there, since i worked out on a pay per visit basis, using a punch card, i learned to get all i could get in ever five days. yes, i did the math, and was certain that eight dollars every five days was cheaper than 'a cost effective monthly membership', certain in the endless opportunity for ready access to a full set of nautilus machines, certain NOT to work out... six visits in 30 days was $48, instead of 60 or 65 etc.

it forced me to use the time. i did circuit training. three hour sessions, full body. it took days to recover from, but sufficient. abs, legs, arms, the works. i did it NEVER stopping. a routine, very engineered. not in oxygen debt, not relaxed, but just up to taxation but sustainable.

what does this have to do with chess. is it possible, you have and do all the right stuff, but dont use it in the right way?

do you have a repertoire? do you know the major endings? do you review losses? do you use chessBase to view classics? do you do iterative tactics that are not too advanced like CT-Art4.0(new vision is out) or chessTempo, but like CTS (chess tactical server) that throw seemed 'easy tactics' but not so easy again, and again, and again, at five to twelve seconds apiece, so that you get drilled in scanning the board for threats, tactics, pins, back rank, weak squares AGAINST the clock?

lastly, at that same gym, i saw this mid-aged who was quite a specimen... asked him how he did it:

not arrogant, but like a scientist: 'Most of those people you see here dont know how to do it, the right way of training. i focus my awareness in each move. i dont spent too many hours here (i.e. didnt get to his level by going for hours a day) but focus my awareness IN the muscle, on the muscle as i do it', showing me his arm. again, not with vanity, but basic such as this is what i have done and here is how i do it.

are you systematic? do you have a plan? not just a text, but a routine, an algorythm?

love to all beings. its good to be back,

warmest, david korn
Videos, various subjects, incl one 'funny

AKA 'dk' here.....

1/30/2010 05:22:00 PM  
Blogger Temposchlucker said...

The derived question is:
can an adult become grandmaster? Imo the right answer is "I don't know, maybe with the right training method".

If your answer is "I suck at chess and always will because I am heritable laden" I'm sure you will find a way to proof it.

1/31/2010 03:33:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm late to this discussion, but I emphatically disagree with the "talent is overrated, it's all in the training" crowd. Papa Polgar proved absolutely nothing. He could just as well have gotten lucky in the genetic lottery. If instead he had gotten similar results with 40 people selected at random, then he'd have something. But there's still a survivorship bias. If the sisters had turned out to be just average, then there would have been no story in the first place. (If you don't comprehend that point, then you're not qualified to debate this matter at all.) I, too, spent 20+ years teaching. There are about 7 or 8 observable standard deviations of spread in measurable ability in my subject area (college mathematics). There aren't even remotely enough hours in a lifetime to explain the difference in terms of training alone.

2/13/2010 11:33:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Anon: I think most people here agree with you. Clearly both talent and effort/training are important. However, if you look at studies of chess "prodigies" what they all have in common is very intensive training from a young age, with professional coaches. Even I would beat Kasparov if it were his fifth game of chess he ever played in his life.

2/14/2010 10:10:00 AM  

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