Judit polgar 03.08.2008

Those unfamiliar with the chess industry as often surprised when they realise quite how large it is. Not only are there a handful of professional players, but there are also others that earn their living within the industry, such as journalists, publishing houses and coaches. Those familiar with the tradition of playing chess in New York’s public parks will also know that chess ‘hustlers’ play there.

Having played in countless tournaments, I have a strong understanding of how the chess world works. One question of interest is that, given I have a significantly deeper level of expertise in chess than most, to what extent should I teach chess to my children? Let’s take a look at some examples of how leading chess players were taught.

13th World Champion and Russian Grandmaster Garry Kasparov is often considered the greatest player of all time, maintaining his world number 1 ranking almost continuously from 1986 to 2005. In an interview with ChessBase in 2010, Kasparov argued that if no real interest is shown by a child, then the parent should not push their offspring. As such Kasparov will not push his son into the game, despite having had time to coach high-profile players in the meantime. This is a deliberate democratic parenting choice.

Nevertheless, Kasparov acknowledges that chess builds key skills and is a healthy addition to a child’s education. He taught his son the rules to the game at the age of 5 or 6. This follows tradition, as most future world champions of the game were taught at or before the age of 6. On the other hand, Kasparov’s daughter Aida has shown a lot of inquisitiveness to the game and may be the one to carry on the legacy.

An example quite different to Kasparov’s son is that of the three Polgár sisters. The two elder sisters were Zsuzsa “Susan” (1969-) and Sofia (1974-), both prodigies in their own right, and later earning the grandmaster and international master titles respectively. The youngest sister, Judit Polgár (1976-) is widely considered the strongest female chess player of all time. She broke the records for the youngest grandmaster and the youngest player to break into the top 100 rankings. At her peak, she was the world number 8 and, without forgetting that gender imbalance is rife in chess, she is one of only three female players to ever enter the top 100 rankings.

Chess, as in music, mathematics and a handful of other areas, has shown to be an area where child prodigies can match experienced adults. The current world number 1 in chess was aged 19 when he first attained the ranking. Youth domination is not new, as Kasparov became the World Chess Champion in 1985 at age 22.

All three of the Polgár sisters were trained from a very early age in the ‘specialist subject’ of chess in accordance to a parenting approach honed by their father, László Polgár. In fact, László Polgár wrote a book called Bring Up Genius! before he had any offspring. The Polgár sisters were home-schooled by their father.

It wasn’t all about chess though – the daughters were taught the international language Esperanto and were playing table tennis at a very high level. In fact, according to Judit Polgár, after 1986, she and her sisters competed in table tennis and, in 1988, she was able to achieve the ranking of number 32 in the Hungarian under 12’s. Judit thoroughly enjoyed playing table tennis, but gave it up in order to dedicate time to chess. While László Polgár was himself a chess coach and no doubt spent most of his time teaching his daughters, at least three other international master or grandmaster coaches were employed to train the Polgár sisters.

One interesting question is whether a child has the potential to reach the world’s elite (e.g. the top 10, which Judit Polgár was able to achieve) in any field if they do not show an initial natural interest or if they do not ‘develop’ a natural interest after a small number of hours of exposure. This is related to the nature and nurture argument of whether someone enjoys something after they reach a certain level or proficiency (i.e. you become ‘good’ at something, then you enjoy it) or whether initial enjoyment allows one to excel to a strong level of proficiency.

The main alternative parenting strategy in my mind is simply to expose children to as many areas as practically possible, such as sports, martial arts, music, acting, writing, science and financial concepts. Presumably a certain (small) number of hours of initial exposure to the field is recommended because it may take time for a child to develop a liking to something.

Providing a highly varied childhood allows a young person to make an informed decision on which area to pursue as a career or profession since they know that they have taken most mainstream options into account. Of course, ‘career-hopping’ is common practice these days too.

Under this method, I believe a parent should teach chess to their child sometime in their early childhood. There has been a clear movement by many governments to introduce chess into schools, while many schools already feature optional chess clubs at various levels of education. It is thought that chess teaches young children many critical skills such as patience and the power of learning from mistakes.

Viswanathan Anand, the World Champion from 2007 to 2013, opted to obtain a bachelor’s degree in Commerce from Loyola College, Chennai, before committing to a career in chess. He stated that: “I felt somehow I wanted to go to college simply because I didn’t want to miss that part of life, I didn’t want to have never gone to college.” Some past World Chess Champions even had doctorate degrees, such as Lasker, Botvinnik and Euwe. These days, however, chess information has expanded to the extent that most professional players no longer undertake tertiary study.

Overall, these were some thoughts and opinions on chess prodigies. I didn’t want to make too many conclusions as I do not have a background in psychology.


Written: 3rd of June, 2013

Major edit: 31st of May, 2016


See Also

Interview with Garry Kasparov Part 1 (2010) – talks about his son briefly

Interview with Garry Kasparov Part 3 (2010) – talks about his daughter briefly

Interview with Judit Polgár (2012) – discusses table tennis, among other things

Interview with Viswanathan Anand (2009) – Vishy talks about his life

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