Sunday, December 30, 2007

Thoughts on "My Brilliant Brain: Make me a Genius"

Spurred by Wormwood's post on the Susan Polgar segment of the three part series entitled "My Brilliant Brain", I decided to watch the documentary. The part in which Susan appears is called "Make me a Genius."

As I watched the presentation, I jotted down a few things that really caught my attention. There wasn't anything new I learned or haven't heard before, but it's just the fact that I was reminded of certain critical factors that are very important in life and chess.

Desire - Motivation - Drive

Whatever you want to call "it", "it" is absolutely essential in succeeding in life, chess and any other pursuit.

At 6:53 in the video, the narrator explains that Lazslo "was convinced he could train his daughter to be a genius at anything as long as she was a willing student." (emphasis added)

Later at 7:11, Susan says, "It's very important for a child to love the specific field, which in our case was chess and then the rest comes easy." (emphasis added)

On a slight tangent, I read an article in the Dallas Morning News about Chase Daniels ... the QB for Missouri. Early in Chase's childhood, his father Bill recognized Chase's abilities and decided to "make that boy an athlete."

The article continued,

When Bill laid out his plan to Chase, he promised to get the boy all the coaching and skills development he might need. Father asked for only one thing: that the boy commit to dedicate every fiber of his being to workouts and practices and games. There would be plenty of time to be one of the boys off the field. On the field, the boy would have to be a man.

Even before Bill could dangle Chase's beloved smoothies as a reward for successful practice sessions to come, Chase agreed to try. What boy wouldn't, he wondered.

"My dad wanted me to be the best I could be," Chase Daniel recalled. "I had a similar goal. I wanted to be the best."

A common thread can be seen ... a desire to suceed and a parent to help him or her along.

How do you instill this drive within yourself? Can "it" be instilled as an adult or does it have to be done in childhood? How do you plant "it" in your child? Can "it" be instilled and planted or does "it" just have to come naturally? I don't fully know the answers to these questions, but I want to look into it. Stay tuned for more on this in another post.


Around 30:30 the topic of intuition is broached. I noted that intuition was defined as trusting your experience and that chess players rely more on intuition than calculation.

Now this was a little new to me and somewhat of an epiphany. When I solve problems at ChessTempo and when I'm playing games, it feels as though my brain is churning ... chugging along trying to find and calculate tactics. However, I sometimes note what my first reaction is when I look at a position and then compare it to what the answer was. Sometimes I'm spot on while other times I'm way off. I'm curious to know how often my "gut" is right. I'm thinking about gathering some statistics from my time spent at ChessTempo ... how often is my initial response to the position correct? Again, more fodder for posting.

Susan defines intuition as "guessing intelligently basing it on prior games and experiences" (34:08). When I heard her explain intuition this way, a little light bulb went on in my head ... this is exactly why I need to play as many slow games and go over as many GM games as possible ... to get that "experience."

Now I can hear everyone collectively say, "Gee whiz Rocky, we've all known that for ages! Where have you been this whole time?" I know, I know ... I have a very thick skull and a lot of times the uptake isn't too quick with me. It takes several iterations for stuff to sink in. It's just the way it was explained to me in the video that made the light go on.

Pattern Recognition

Nothing really new here. But the video did talk a lot about pattern recognition. One of the points from the video was that pattern recognition separates the best from the rest. Susan studied and memorized so many important patterns over and over again, that it became second nature for her to make a move when she encountered one of those patterns. They became hard-wired into her brain.

I still like Dan Heisman's analogy the best. He compared learning tactics to memorizing the multiplication table. At first, it was difficult to memorize the table. But soon I was really quick about it. I remember we would have speed competitions in grade school to see who could finish the table the quickest. The same must be done with tactics and other patterns.

Overall, I really enjoyed the video. I'm going to find the other two segments and watch them too. I love NatGeo!

Have a Happy and Safe New Year!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

FICS SurveyBot

I don't see many opportunities for me to play OTB tournaments and establish a USCF anytime soon. Our kids are still fairly young and we are devoting a lot of our time to their interests. As such, I won't be able to play OTB very often.

Therefore, FICS will be the preferred venue for my play.

FICS has a survey bot that allows players to sumbit their USCF ratings. From there, regression analysis is completed to give us a fairly good comparasion between FICS ratings and USCF ratings.

Every time I update my rating status on my improvment plan page, I'll update this page with the latest analysis. I'll indicate where my FICS rating falls in the scale by highlighting it.

The command to get this report is "tell SurveyBot ratings USCF analyse"

December 19, 2007 Analysis
: ---------
: 1220 839
: 1240 873
: 1260 908
: 1280 942
: 1300 975
: 1320 1008
: 1340 1040
: 1360 1072
: 1380 1103
: 1400 1134
: 1420 1164
: 1440 1194
: 1460 1224
: 1480 1253
: 1500 1282
: 1520 1310
: 1540 1338
: 1560 1366
: 1580 1393
: 1600 1420
: 1620 1447 <---
: 1640 1473 <---
: 1660 1499
: 1680 1525
: 1700 1550
: 1720 1575
: 1740 1600
: 1760 1624
: 1780 1649
: 1800 1672
: 1820 1696
: 1840 1720
: 1860 1743
: 1880 1766
: 1900 1788
: 1920 1811
: 1940 1833
: 1960 1855
: 1980 1877
: 2000 1898
: 2020 1920
: 2040 1941
: 2060 1962
: 2080 1982
: 2100 2003
: 2120 2023
: 2140 2043
: 2160 2063
: 2180 2083
: 2200 2103
: 2220 2122
: 2240 2141
: 2260 2160
: 2280 2179
: 2300 2198
: 2320 2217
: 2340 2235
: 2360 2253
: 2380 2271
: 2400 2289
: ---------
SurveyBot(TD) tells you: A list of the estimated USCF ratings has been displayed above. The 164 submitted USCF ratings fit the best logarithmic curve given by formula USCF=a+b*ln(FICS), where a=-14397.65344145, b=2144.02597249 and coefficient of determination r^2=0.624.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

How to Beat a Grandmaster (or two)

Here's the challenge: At best you're an average chess player. You challenge the following group to a simul

GM John Emms
FM Nathan Alfred
GM Jonathan Levitt
Desmond Tan (Former England Jr. )
IM Paul Littlewood
FM Graham Lee
GM Julian Hodgson
GM Chris Ward
Robert Chan (Pres. of the Chess Society Kings College, London)

How do you come out on top? Watch to found out.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Chess Tempo

I created an account at Chess Tempo several weeks ago, but never revisted the site until today. I've been playing around there for a bit today and I really, really like what I've seen so far.

The biggest feature I love (so far) is the ability to choose either a blitz or standard tactic. If you choose blitz, it is just like CTS ... the quicker you correctly solve the problem, the better off you are ... time is a factor. But if you choose standard, the only thing that matters is if you correctly choose the sequence of moves ... time is not part of the equation.

It pains me that I've spent so much time and effort at CTS and will probably abandon the site. I'm only a few hundred problems away from 10,000 on CTS. Maybe once I hit the 10,000 mark, I'll quit CTS and exclusively focus on Chess Tempo.

Is there any reason to keep using CTS? Are the tactics comparable?

Friday, November 09, 2007

Chess Boxing World Champion

I know this is old news and probably has already been hashed around the chess blogosphere, but I wanted to make a few comments on this.

The BBC did a wonderful job summarizing the event. You can view the video at YouTube. The BBC article can be read here. I particularly liked how the BBC author described the sport: "A sort of Rocky ... with rooks."

In a nutshell, David "Double D" Depto from San Francisco lost to Frank "Anti-terror" Stoldt in the seventh round by checkmate.

Did you know that 1,200 people showed up to watch this event? ("Chessboxing heavyweight wins by checkmate") I don't think ESPN carried this event, but the suits over there should certainly look into showing these matches. I know they've done a report on it (see below)

This could legitimatly open up chess to "mainstream" America. I know I'd enjoy watching more events like the "Double D" vs. "Anti-terror" fight.

If you haven't already, go to YouTube and seach "chess boxing" to see videos of some fights (along with videos about some oriental show called "Mystery of Chess Boxing").

And on a final note, I found this quaint video advertising some chess club.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Need for Consistency

My wife and I went to Hawaii the first week of October. We just got back. Before our trip, she sent me to Half-Priced Books to get her some reading material for the plane and beach. I needed to buy a book to read too. As always, I checked the chess section first to see if they had any books on my "to buy" list. I was pleased to find that they had Patrick Wolff's "Idiot's" book. I remember Dan Heisman recomending this book. So I bought it and took it with me to Hawaii. My wife just laughed at me. She couldn't believe I was going to read a chess book to relax.

I got through all the tactical section and part way into the positional section. I really bought the book to begin learning about positional strategy. I got about half way through the book by the time we had to leave. I'm still reading through it at night.

While we were gone, I didn't get a chance to log into CTS. So when I got back, I logged on and started working the problems .... I stunk it up! With tactics, you really do need to keep at it every day to keep your tactical vision sharp (or at least not dull). After a week of struggling, I am finally back up to where I was before our vacation. Like I told Blue Devil Knight (who finished the circles by the way) ... you have to keep at it.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Milestones on CTS

I hit two milestones on CTS tonight.

I've now completed 5000 tactical problems and I reached a new high of 1489. My previous high was 1484.

This new high was a long time coming. I've been really struggling with the tactics on CTS the last couple of weeks. But the last few days ... I've been on fire.

It feels so good to break another barrier after pounding against it for so long!

Friday, September 14, 2007

Dilbert Chess

Scott Adams is genius.

Today on his blog, he imagined his characters as chess pieces.

He describes each character/piece:

Alice = Queen. The most powerful and capable piece.

Boss = King. He’s in charge, but largely helpless.

Dilbert = Rook. He moves in a straight path. Dilbert’s head shape and bumpy hairline even resemble a rook.

Bishop = Wally. He always has an angle, and he has a little bald head.

Dogbert = Knight. It’s the sneakiest chess piece. You never see it coming. And it’s the only animal.

Pawn = Asok the interns. He’s small and powerless and expendable.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Another Reason I Play Chess

I got a kick out of Chessloser's post a few weeks ago about the possibility of being thrown in the slammer and having all that spare time to play chess. In a sense, a lot of senior citizen who are physically disabled experience a form of prison.

I've always figured that once I've exhausted all my physical strength and and am old and sitting around in my son's home or a "retirement home" that I'd play chess all the time.

Today I came accross an article about a man who is taking chess to senior citizens who are disabled. Obviously he loves chess and now that he can no longer work because of his own physical disability, he is focusing on helping others.
After reading the article, it dawned on me that this gentleman (Patrick Ellis) has hit upon a great idea. As kids, my Mom would force us to sing at Retirement Homes during the holidays. I knew it helped these older people feel some joy in their lives, but I personally didn't enjoy visiting these crypts. Through the years, I began to realize just how much these elder folks appreciated and loved receiving visits ... any form of interaction made them wag their tails. They are a lot like little kids and beg for attention.
Anyway, I guess the point I'm trying to make is that for me or any of you chess bloggers out there who may come accross this post ... consider visiting a Retirement Home this year (especially around the holidays). And when you go to visit, don't forget to take your chess set (or even your checkers).
For more information about this subject, visit Patrick Ellis' website

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Shakespearean Knight Tour

I read this over at Futulity Closet.

The knight's tour is a recreation familiar to chessplayers: Move a knight about an empty chessboard so as to visit each square exactly once.

On this board, each square contains a syllable. Collect them in the right order and you'll compose a six-line quotation from Shakespeare.

What is it? (hint ... start at e4)

With a little help from Google, I was able to complete the task.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

CTS Update

I bottomed out a few days ago, but I've rebounded nicely. I don't know if CTS is throwing easy problems at me or if I'm getting better, but I've been very consistent and accurate. My accuracy is up at 71.1% as of today. I'd like to continue my streak, but I have to go to bed in order to get up at 4:30am tomorrow.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Extreme Knockdown Chess via n8ux

Found this video over at Out of the Ether (which is a great blog by the way).

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

CTS Update

I've been fairly consistent at working on tactics on CTS. In the last week, I've only dropped below 1400 once. Before, I would continually drop below 1400 and then gradually climb back up only to drop back below 1400 again. It was a roller coaster.

But this past week, I've stuck to it pretty religiously and I've been able to maintain some consistency. The last backslide I had pushed me to just above 1400. But I've recovered nicely and am now keeping it pretty steady around 1420-1430. I don't know how long I'll be able to keep my rating at this level.

I'm a pretty average tactician in the CTS community.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Think, but don't Think

There is something about this article that bugs me.

Each “Chess Tuesdays” in the park begins with a rap session to get the participating kids fired up because not only are they going to play chess, they will play fast, making decisions in seconds. Organizer Orrin Hudson says it causes the kids to think and react quickly and realize they have to live with the results of their decisions.

I've underlined the parts that, to me, seem incongruent. I can see what the organizer is trying to do, but I don't agree with the tactics, I guess. How can you truly think when you're playing fast? I guess it'll make it easier for him to point out the kids' errors so he can then make the metaphor "you have to live with that conseqence." If I were one of those kids, I'd probably respond to his metaphor with something along the lines of, "If I need to think before I make a decision, then I need some time and some quiet. Why the hell are you forcing me to rap and make split-second decisions?!"

Well, I'm sure the organizer has good intentions. I'm sure he's having some positive influence on some kids' lives.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Red Hot Pawn

I've tossed my hat into the correspondence chess world. I signed up at Red Hot Pawn tonight and started my first game. I'm hoping this will force me to work out a thought process without the time pressures of an on-line game. Plus, I don't always have enough time to play a 60 5 game during the week.

Feel free to start up a game with me at RHP if you use that site.

I've added my RHP profile link to the sidebar.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

"Aim for small advantages"

I'm continuing to read Logical Chess Move by Move and while reading over game 7 (Spielmann v. Wahle) I read a quote which seemed to hit home with me since I tend to want to strike early and hard in a game.

In the beginning of the game ignore the search for combinations, abstain from violent moves. Aim for small advantages, accumulate them, and only after having attained these ends search for the combination - and then with all the power of will and intellect, because then the combination must exist, however deeply hidden.

Of course if there is a combination early, I think I'd take it, but the point is well taken ... get all your men ready for battle and then strike. Don't attack blindly or without preparation.

"The Expert Mind"

I stumbled accross this article today.

July 24, 2006

The Expert Mind

Studies of the mental processes of chess grandmasters have revealed clues to how people become experts in other fields as well

By Philip E. Ross

A man walks along the inside of a circle of chess tables, glancing at each for two or three seconds before making his move. On the outer rim, dozens of amateurs sit pondering their replies until he completes the circuit. The year is 1909, the man is Jose Raul Capablanca of Cuba, and the result is a whitewash: 28 wins in as many games. The exhibition was part of a tour in which Capablanca won 168 games in a row.

How did he play so well, so quickly? And how far ahead could he calculate under such constraints? "I see only one move ahead," Capablanca is said to have answered, "but it is always the correct one."

He thus put in a nutshell what a century of psychological research has subsequently established: much of the chess master's advantage over the novice derives from the first few seconds of thought. This rapid, knowledge-guided perception, sometimes called apperception, can be seen in experts in other fields as well. Just as a master can recall all the moves in a game he has played, so can an accomplished musician often reconstruct the score to a sonata heard just once. And just as the chess master often finds the best move in a flash, an expert physician can sometimes make an accurate diagnosis within moments of laying eyes on a patient.

But how do the experts in these various subjects acquire their extraordinary skills? How much can be credited to innate talent and how much to intensive training? Psychologists have sought answers in studies of chess masters. The collected results of a century of such research have led to new theories explaining how the mind organizes and retrieves information. What is more, this research may have important implications for educators. Perhaps the same techniques used by chess players to hone their skills could be applied in the classroom to teach reading, writing and arithmetic.

The Drosophila of Cognitive Science The history of human expertise begins with hunting, a skill that was crucial to the survival of our early ancestors. The mature hunter knows not only where the lion has been; he can also infer where it will go. Tracking skill increases, as repeated studies show, from childhood onward, rising in "a linear relationship, all the way out to the mid-30s, when it tops out," says John Bock, an anthropologist at California State University, Fullerton. It takes less time to train a brain surgeon.

The preponderance of psychological evidence indicates that experts are made, not born.

Without a demonstrably immense superiority in skill over the novice, there can be no true experts, only laypeople with imposing credentials. Such, alas, are all too common. Rigorous studies in the past two decades have shown that professional stock pickers invest no more successfully than amateurs, that noted connoisseurs distinguish wines hardly better than yokels, and that highly credentialed psychiatric therapists help patients no more than colleagues with less advanced degrees. And even when expertise undoubtedly exists--as in, say, teaching or business management--it is often hard to measure, let alone explain.

Skill at chess, however, can be measured, broken into components, subjected to laboratory experiments and readily observed in its natural environment, the tournament hall. It is for those reasons that chess has served as the greatest single test bed for theories of thinking--the "Drosophila of cognitive science," as it has been called.

The measurement of chess skill has been taken further than similar attempts with any other game, sport or competitive activity. Statistical formulas weigh a player's recent results over older ones and discount successes according to the strength of one's opponents. The results are ratings that predict the outcomes of games with remarkable reliability. If player A outrates player B by 200 points, then A will on average beat B 75 percent of the time. This prediction holds true whether the players are top-ranked or merely ordinary. Garry Kasparov, the Russian grandmaster who has a rating of 2812, will win 75 percent of his games against the 100th-ranked grandmaster, Jan Timman of the Netherlands, who has a rating of 2616. Similarly, a U.S. tournament player rated 1200 (about the median) will win 75 percent of the time against someone rated 1000 (about the 40th percentile). Ratings allow psychologists to assess expertise by performance rather than reputation and to track changes in a given player's skill over the course of his or her career.

Another reason why cognitive scientists chose chess as their model--and not billiards, say, or bridge--is the game's reputation as, in German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's words, "the touchstone of the intellect." The feats of chess masters have long been ascribed to nearly magical mental powers. This magic shines brightest in the so-called blindfold games in which the players are not allowed to see the board. In 1894 French psychologist Alfred Binet, the co-inventor of the first intelligence test, asked chess masters to describe how they played such games. He began with the hypothesis that they achieved an almost photographic image of the board, but he soon concluded that the visualization was much more abstract. Rather than seeing the knight's mane or the grain of the wood from which it is made, the master calls up only a general knowledge of where the piece stands in relation to other elements of the position. It is the same kind of implicit knowledge that the commuter has of the stops on a subway line.

The blindfolded master supplements such knowledge with details of the game at hand as well as with recollections of salient aspects of past games. Let us say he has somehow forgotten the precise position of a pawn. He can find it, as it were, by considering the stereotyped strategy of the opening--a well-studied phase of the game with a relatively limited number of options. Or he can remember the logic behind one of his earlier moves--say, by reasoning: "I could not capture his bishop two moves ago; therefore, that pawn must have been standing in the way...." He does not have to remember every detail at all times, because he can reconstruct any particular detail whenever he wishes by tapping a well-organized system of connections.

Of course, if the possession of such intricately structured knowledge explains not only success at blindfold play but also other abilities of chess masters, such as calculation and planning, then expertise in the game would depend not so much on innate abilities as on specialized training. Dutch psychologist Adriaan de Groot, himself a chess master, confirmed this notion in 1938, when he took advantage of the staging of a great international tournament in Holland to compare average and strong players with the world's leading grandmasters. One way he did so was to ask the players to describe their thoughts as they examined a position taken from a tournament game. He found that although experts--the class just below master--did analyze considerably more possibilities than the very weak players, there was little further increase in analysis as playing strength rose to the master and grandmaster levels. The better players did not examine more possibilities, only better ones--just as Capablanca had claimed.

Recent research has shown that de Groot's findings reflected in part the nature of his chosen test positions. A position in which extensive, accurate calculation is critical will allow the grandmasters to show their stuff, as it were, and they will then search more deeply along the branching tree of possible moves than the amateur can hope to do. So, too, experienced physicists may on occasion examine more possibilities than physics students do. Yet in both cases, the expert relies not so much on an intrinsically stronger power of analysis as on a store of structured knowledge. When confronted with a difficult position, a weaker player may calculate for half an hour, often looking many moves ahead, yet miss the right continuation, whereas a grandmaster sees the move immediately, without consciously analyzing anything at all.

De Groot also had his subjects examine a position for a limited period and then try to reconstruct it from memory. Performance at this task tracked game-playing strength all the way from novice to grandmaster. Beginners could not recall more than a very few details of the position, even after having examined it for 30 seconds, whereas grandmasters could usually get it perfectly, even if they had perused it for only a few seconds. This difference tracks a particular form of memory, specific to the kind of chess positions that commonly occur in play. The specific memory must be the result of training, because grandmasters do no better than others in general tests of memory.

Similar results have been demonstrated in bridge players (who can remember cards played in many games), computer programmers (who can reconstruct masses of computer code) and musicians (who can recall long snatches of music). Indeed, such a memory for the subject matter of a particular field is a standard test for the existence of expertise.

The conclusion that experts rely more on structured knowledge than on analysis is supported by a rare case study of an initially weak chess player, identified only by the initials D.H., who over the course of nine years rose to become one of Canada's leading masters by 1987. Neil Charness, professor of psychology at Florida State University, showed that despite the increase in the player's strength, he analyzed chess positions no more extensively than he had earlier, relying instead on a vastly improved knowledge of chess positions and associated strategies.

Chunking Theory In the 1960s Herbert A. Simon and William Chase, both at Carnegie Mellon University, tried to get a better understand-ing of expert memory by studying its limitations. Picking up where de Groot left off, they asked players of various strengths to reconstruct chess positions that had been artificially devised--that is, with the pieces placed randomly on the board--rather than reached as the result of master play. The correlation between game-playing strength and the accuracy of the players' recall was much weak-er with the random positions than with the authentic ones.

Chess memory was thus shown to be even more specific than it had seemed, being tuned not merely to the game itself but to typical chess positions. These experiments corroborated earlier studies that had demonstrated convincingly that ability in one area tends not to transfer to another. American psychologist Edward Thorndike first noted this lack of transference over a century ago, when he showed that the study of Latin, for instance, did not improve command of English and that geometric proofs do not teach the use of logic in daily life.

Simon explained the masters' relative weakness in reconstructing artificial chess positions with a model based on meaningful patterns called chunks. He invoked the concept to explain how chess masters can manipulate vast amounts of stored information, a task that would seem to strain the working memory. Psychologist George Miller of Princeton University famously estimated the limits of working memory--the scratch pad of the mind--in a 1956 paper entitled "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two." Miller showed that people can contemplate only five to nine items at a time. By packing hierarchies of information into chunks, Simon argued, chess masters could get around this limitation, because by using this method, they could access five to nine chunks rather than the same number of smaller details.

Take the sentence "Mary had a little lamb." The number of information chunks in this sentence depends on one's knowledge of the poem and the English language. For most native speakers of English, the sentence is part of a much larger chunk, the familiar poem. For someone who knows English but not the poem, the sentence is a single, self-contained chunk. For someone who has memorized the words but not their meaning, the sentence is five chunks, and it is 18 chunks for someone who knows the letters but not the words.

In the context of chess, the same differences can be seen between novices and grandmasters. To a beginner, a position with 20 chessmen on the board may contain far more than 20 chunks of information, because the pieces can be placed in so many configurations. A grandmaster, however, may see one part of the position as "fianchettoed bishop in the castled kingside," together with a "blockaded king's-Indian-style pawn chain," and thereby cram the entire position into perhaps five or six chunks. By measuring the time it takes to commit a new chunk to memory and the number of hours a player must study chess before reaching grandmaster strength, Simon estimated that a typical grandmaster has access to roughly 50,000 to 100,000 chunks of chess information. A grandmaster can retrieve any of these chunks from memory simply by looking at a chess position, in the same way that most native English speakers can recite the poem "Mary had a little lamb" after hearing just the first few words.

Even so, there were difficulties with chunking theory. It could not fully explain some aspects of memory, such as the ability of experts to perform their feats while being distracted (a favorite tactic in the study of memory). K. Anders Ericsson of Florida State University and Charness argued that there must be some other mechanism that enables experts to employ long-term memory as if it, too, were a scratch pad. Says Ericsson: "The mere demonstration that highly skilled players can play at almost their normal strength under blindfold conditions is almost impossible for chunking theory to explain because you have to know the position, then you have to explore it in your memory." Such manipulation involves changing the stored chunks, at least in some ways, a task that may be likened to reciting "Mary had a little lamb" backward. It can be done, but not easily, and certainly not without many false starts and errors. Yet grandmaster games played quickly and under blindfold conditions tend to be of surprisingly high quality.

Ericsson also cites studies of physicians who clearly put information into long-term memory and take it out again in ways that enable them to make diagnoses. Perhaps Ericsson's most homely example, though, comes from reading. In a 1995 study he and Walter Kintsch of the University of Colorado found that interrupting highly proficient readers hardly slowed their reentry to a text; in the end, they lost only a few seconds. The researchers explained these findings by recourse to a structure they called long-term working memory, an almost oxymoronic coinage because it assigns to long-term memory the one thing that had always been defined as incompatible with it: thinking. But brain-imaging studies done in 2001 at the University of Konstanz in Germany provide support for the theory by showing that expert chess players activate long-term memory much more than novices do.

Fernand Gobet of Brunel University in London champions a rival theory, devised with Simon in the late 1990s. It extends the idea of chunks by invoking highly characteristic and very large patterns consisting of perhaps a dozen chess pieces. Such a template, as they call it, would have a number of slots into which the master could plug such variables as a pawn or a bishop. A template might exist, say, for the concept of "the isolated queen's-pawn position from the Nimzo-Indian Defense," and a master might change a slot by reclassifying it as the same position "minus the dark-squared bishops." To resort again to the poetic analogy, it would be a bit like memorizing a riff on "Mary had a little lamb" by substituting rhyming equivalents at certain slots, such as "Larry" for "Mary," "pool" for "school" and so on. Anyone who knows the original template should be able to fix the altered one in memory in a trice.

A Proliferation of Prodigies The one thing that all expertise theorists agree on is that it takes enormous effort to build these structures in the mind. Simon coined a psychological law of his own, the 10-year rule, which states that it takes approximately a decade of heavy labor to master any field. Even child prodigies, such as Gauss in mathematics, Mozart in music and Bobby Fischer in chess, must have made an equivalent effort, perhaps by starting earlier and working harder than others.

According to this view, the proliferation of chess prodigies in recent years merely reflects the advent of computer-based training methods that let children study far more master games and to play far more frequently against master-strength programs than their forerunners could typically manage. Fischer made a sensation when he achieved the grandmaster title at age 15, in 1958; today's record-holder, Sergey Karjakin of Ukraine, earned it at 12 years, seven months.

Ericsson argues that what matters is not experience per se but "effortful study," which entails continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond one's competence. That is why it is possible for enthusiasts to spend tens of thousands of hours playing chess or golf or a musical instrument without ever advancing beyond the amateur level and why a properly trained student can overtake them in a relatively short time. It is interesting to note that time spent playing chess, even in tournaments, appears to contribute less than such study to a player's progress; the main training value of such games is to point up weaknesses for future study.

Even the novice engages in effortful study at first, which is why beginners so often improve rapidly in playing golf, say, or in driving a car. But having reached an acceptable performance--for instance, keeping up with one's golf buddies or passing a driver's exam--most people relax. Their performance then becomes automatic and therefore impervious to further improvement. In contrast, experts-in-training keep the lid of their mind's box open all the time, so that they can inspect, criticize and augment its contents and thereby approach the standard set by leaders in their fields.

Meanwhile the standards denoting expertise grow ever more challenging. High school runners manage the four-minute mile; conservatory students play pieces once attempted only by virtuosi. Yet it is chess, again, that offers the most convincing comparison over time. John Nunn, a British mathematician who is also a grandmaster, recently used a computer to help him compare the errors committed in all the games in two international tournaments, one held in 1911, the other in 1993. The modern players played far more accurately. Nunn then examined all the games of one player in 1911 who scored in the middle of the pack and concluded that his rating today would be no better than 2100, hundreds of points below the grandmaster level--"and that was on a good day and with a following wind." The very best old-time masters were considerably stronger but still well below the level of today's leaders.

Then again, Capablanca and his contemporaries had neither computers nor game databases. They had to work things out for themselves, as did Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, and if they fall below today's masters in technique, they tower above them in creative power. The same comparison can be made between Newton and the typical newly minted Ph.D. in physics.
At this point, many skeptics will finally lose patience. Surely, they will say, it takes more to get to Carnegie Hall than practice, practice, practice. Yet this belief in the importance of innate talent, strongest perhaps among the experts themselves and their trainers, is strangely lacking in hard evidence to substantiate it. In 2002 Gobet conducted a study of British chess players ranging from amateurs to grandmasters and found no connection at all between their playing strengths and their visual-spatial abilities, as measured by shape-memory tests. Other researchers have found that the abilities of professional handicappers to predict the results of horse races did not correlate at all with their mathematical abilities.

Although nobody has yet been able to predict who will become a great expert in any field, a notable experiment has shown the possibility of deliberately creating one. Laszlo Polgar, an educator in Hungary, homeschooled his three daughters in chess, assigning as much as six hours of work a day, producing one international master and two grandmasters--the strongest chess-playing siblings in history. The youngest Polgar, 30-year-old Judit, is now ranked 14th in the world.

The Polgar experiment proved two things: that grandmasters can be reared and that women can be grandmasters. It is no coincidence that the incidence of chess prodigies multiplied after Laszlo Polgar published a book on chess education. The number of musical prodigies underwent a similar increase after Mozart's father did the equivalent two centuries earlier.

Thus, motivation appears to be a more important factor than innate ability in the development of expertise. It is no accident that in music, chess and sports--all domains in which expertise is defined by competitive performance rather than academic credentialing--professionalism has been emerging at ever younger ages, under the ministrations of increasingly dedicated parents and even extended families.

Furthermore, success builds on success, because each accomplishment can strengthen a child's motivation. A 1999 study of professional soccer players from several countries showed that they were much more likely than the general population to have been born at a time of year that would have dictated their enrollment in youth soccer leagues at ages older than the average. In their early years, these children would have enjoyed a substantial advantage in size and strength when playing soccer with their teammates. Because the larger, more agile children would get more opportunities to handle the ball, they would score more often, and their success at the game would motivate them to become even better.

Teachers in sports, music and other fields tend to believe that talent matters and that they know it when they see it. In fact, they appear to be confusing ability with precocity. There is usually no way to tell, from a recital alone, whether a young violinist's extraordinary performance stems from innate ability or from years of Suzuki-style training. Capablanca, regarded to this day as the greatest "natural" chess player, boasted that he never studied the game. In fact, he flunked out of Columbia University in part because he spent so much time playing chess. His famously quick apprehension was a product of all his training, not a substitute for it.

The preponderance of psychological evidence indicates that experts are made, not born. What is more, the demonstrated ability to turn a child quickly into an expert--in chess, music and a host of other subjects--sets a clear challenge before the schools. Can educators find ways to encourage students to engage in the kind of effortful study that will improve their reading and math skills? Roland G. Fryer, Jr., an economist at Harvard University, has experimented with offering monetary rewards to motivate students in underperforming schools in New York City and Dallas. In one ongoing program in New York, for example, teachers test the students every three weeks and award small amounts--on the order of $10 or $20--to those who score well. The early results have been promising. Instead of perpetually pondering the question, "Why can't Johnny read?" perhaps educators should ask, "Why should there be anything in the world he can't learn to do?"

Sunday, July 08, 2007


Thanks to Korsmonaut, I've been tagged. Rise and Shine, you're it.

What is your blogger name and URL?
RockyRook, with my "Circles" quest over at

How did you learn about the circles?
I don't remember exactly how I came accross de la Maza's book, but I know it was through the Chessville site and forum.

When did you learn about the circles?
Probably late 2002 or early part of 2003 ... I know it was shortly after the book came out and it was around the time I "found" on-line chess and FICS.

How long have you been going through the circles or how long did it take if you finished?
I received CT-ART 3.0 for Christmas in 2003 and I made a few feeble attempts in 2004. Then I went back to school to earn an MBA and that left little time for chess. Then in February 2006 I found Man de la Maza's blog and the Knight Errants. After that, I decided to try the program again. So I started again June 2006 determined to do 1039 problems, but recently decided to cut that to 500. I just finished yesterday.

How is your progress?
I spent a lot of time hammering the problems into my head. Although I've improved, I still have a long way to go.

Does working with the circles alone work for chess improvement, or is it more helpful to join the Knights?
I think joining the Knights is better. Having that quasi-accountability over my head helped me to keep at it as long as I did.

Are you a scholastic player?

Would you recommend the circles to a scholastic player?
Maybe ... if that is what the player needs to improve.

Do you use other training methods to supplement the circles?
While I was working on them, no. Now that I'm done, I plan to keep doing mini-circles while studying other parts of the game.

Any general comments about chess training or the circles?
It's tough at times, but you gotta do it if you want to improve.

Monday, July 02, 2007

4th of July and Chess

With the 4th of July in a couple of days, I was interested in seeing how the 4th are chess are related when entered into a search engine.

Quite of few hits came up for chess sets. actually has a category of chess sets named "Revolutionary War Chess Sets" There are other military themed-sets too, of course.

If you google "Revolutionary war chess", you'll find lots of sites willing to sell you a set similiar to this one.

This person (over at takes atomic chess to the next level ... rigging actual pieces with fireworks. When captured, the firework is lit!

And while you're out BBQing on Wednesday, the chess competitor in you may decide to focus on Championship BBQ ... read more here. DG over at the BCC picked up on this article last year and proposed a BBQ/Chess competition.

After cooking up your BBQ, sit down and enjoy your picnic and a nice game of chess ... but be careful about the distractions.

Enjoy the 4th!

HAPPY BIRTHDAY to the United States of America!

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Former Chess Champion Transitions Skills to Politics

In a recent interview, former chess champion Garry Kasparov says that transitioning his chess skills to politics has been easy.

"In politics, body language is everything. In chess, I found that by strategically placing my hands on my face, I could influence the mind of my opponent."

The chess legend went on to explain the various messages he could send with body language.

"If I put a half-clenched fist under my chin it meant, 'oh, that was a good move, but really quite silly.' Usually this move will cause my opponent to squirm a little."

He further explains, "If I want my opponent to piss his pants, then I put my whole hand over my mouth and give him the stare of death. Then I wait for him to resign."

Rocky Decisions Overturned

PHILADELPHIA—In the wake of last month's shocking revelation that actor
Sylvester Stallone had been caught with the illegal human growth hormone Jintropin at an Australian airport, the World Boxing Association, in a joint decision with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Screen Actors Guild, has overturned the uplifting, feel-good endings of Rocky II, III, and IV, sources said Monday.

... read the rest of the article.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Chess Titles and Classes

Just so you understand where I'm coming from ... I've not played chess all my life and have never been a member of the USCF. I've always been curious about what the different titles and classes mean. So I finally took the time this morning to find an explanation of these terms.

A special thanks to Duif for her explanation which is found here.

Grandmaster (GM) title awarded by FIDE for GM norms
International Master (IM) title awarded by FIDE for IM norms
FIDE Master (FM) minimum FIDE rating of 2300 after 24 games
National Senior Master (SM) e.g., USCF Senior Master--USCF 2400+
National Master (Master or NM) e.g., USCF Master--USCF 2200+
National Expert or Candidate Master (E or CM) e.g., USCF Expert--USCF 2000+

National US Amateur Classes
National Class A (USCF 1800- 1999) top amateur class
National Class B (USCF 1600-1799) above average tournament player
National Class C (USCF 1400-1599) average tournament player
National Class D (USCF 1200-1399) a strong social player
National Class E (USCF 1000-1199) social/scholastic players
National Class F (USCF 800-999) novice/scholastic players
National Class G (USCF 600-799) beginner II/scholastic players
National Class H (USCF 400-599) beginner I/scholastic players
National Class I (USCF 200-399) early beginner/scholastic players
National Class J (USCF 100-199) minimum rating

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Mobius Chess

Somehow I missed this Neatorama post back in March.

White to move and mate in two. Here's the solution (seriously!)

'CBS Cancels Plans for Series on Chess Playing Beaver'

Here's the link ... hil-lair-ee-us!

The Anti-Resigner Goes Down with a Fight

A few weeks ago, The Boylston Chess Club blog brought to our attention an Ohio prison inmate who "murdured his cellmate because he kept surrendering during chess games."

Well, as of today at 11:53am local time, Christopher Newton, 37, was pronounced dead after being excuted by lethal injection. But true to his philosophy, he did not resign. The execution team had a hard time finding a vein that would work because Mr. Newton weighed over 300 pounds. Nearly two hours after his scheduled excution, Mr. Newton was finally "mated."

News links here, here, here & here.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Topalov Held Hostage

Elbonian terrorists held Veselin Topalov hostage for several hours. They demanded money from the grandmaster after blind-folding him. The terrorists were unsuccessful in their questioning as Topalov only recited chess moves. They later released the chess master and he continued play in the tournament the next day. Local police forces are searching for the terrorists.

Baseball and Chess

Last fall during the MLB playoffs, it seemed that every report filed on a game had some reference to chess in it.

I ran across a Mariners site today that delves into pattern recognition in baseball stats and chess.

This post says,

Human masters — chess, or baseball — are better than AI programs because they know which factor in a position matters.In chess, all strong players are aware of the dozen or so important factors that are in play in a given position. The player who wins, is the player who knows which is the most important factor.

It is not knowledge that makes the difference between two experts. It is judgment.

The post continues,

It is not data-gathering that separates the boys from the men in 2005. It is the use of good judgment to sift the important data from the noise!
Chessmasters know that this good judgment is rooted in pattern recognition — knowing about similar cases in the past, and knowing in which ways the present case differs from those similar cases.
This latest post refers back to the post mentioned above.

Unfortunately, in chess you have to take this massive amount of data and experience (pattern recognition) and jam it into your head somehow (The Circles). You can't just retrieve the data (via computer database) during a game. In this regard, chess and baseball are not alike. But once you do mange to upload the data into your head, you can then begin focusing on which positions matter most (which I think is the point of the author over at the Mariners blog).

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Chess Around the Net

In this article, the author discusses the beginning of on-line addictions ... namely chess and web surfing. With regard to playing chess he says,

If I was on a roll then I couldn’t stop. And if I was losing, I’d have to keep playing until I started winning again. I’d have intermittent breaks for “meet­ings” with people who thought they were my co-workers. I’d keep playing until midnight, 1am, 2am, all night sometimes, and stumble home just to change clothes. It was ugly and I was scared.

Scared because the truth finally hit me. It was never going away. It’s not as if this internet chess club was a temporary thing. This was here for ever and it was only going to get worse.

Finally, a friend of mine helped wean me off the online chess server. He showed me a piece of software called Mosaic, which could download and format images and text off the internet. Also audio, but only if you wanted to wait two hours for a download. The worldwide web was just starting and there were maybe a few hundred websites at the time.

He continues,

During this period, I would take the occasional bathroom break from my
chess games and I’d see another guy wandering the halls around midnight or so. He told me he was working on something that could read text and catalogue it and he was testing it out by retrieving pages from the few websites there were. He was hoping for government funding so he could work on his little hobby during the day.

“Yeah, right,” I thought to myself as I locked my office door behind me for another session of one-minute chess. “Good luck with that.”

He went back to his computer, which was named and eventually became the computer for the search engine he created, Lycos. It helped his net worth top 9 figures by 1997.

He eventually relates his story to being "one click away from internet fortune."

This is quite a cool chess picture ... it's literally cool.

A landscaping idea for my backyard.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Clash of the Knights

I hadn't played chess for almost two weeks, so after working on CT-ART last night I logged on to FICS to play a few rapid 15 1 games.

I won my first game and then decided to play another one. My second game was against none other than our Troubled Knight ... Blunder Prone.

He soundly clobbered me.

Here's where my house of cards came tumbling down.

Thanks BP for the comment on the other blog. I know I greatly lack in openings, but maybe one day I can focus on them. Your advice will help in the mean time.

Another thing I learned is that I need to play more. I've been so focused on working on tactics that I havn't been giving myself time to play and practice on the board. It shouldn't be too hard to fix that though.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

"Chess Goes to School" Article's Daily Dirt Chess blog featured an article about chess over at Slate.

There were a couple of parts that I found interesting. The first one has to do with tactics and The Circles.

The more patterns a player internalizes, the more intricate a system of
combinations that player can access. At lower levels, that allows a stronger player to run through more possibilities than a weaker one would; at the top, there's a quantitative to qualitative shift, with grandmasters zeroing in on the best possibilities, rather than reviewing more possibilities faster than an expert would. But if you ask a top player to remember random positions of pieces on a chessboard, rather than situations that might actually arise in master-level play, his powers of recall don't correlate nearly as well with his skill. In other words, a studiously honed memory for chess combinations doesn't necessarily transfer to better retention of other material.
The other quote describes chess as such:

Ruthless standards and dizzying freedom, all in one package: That is a rarity. And it is a recipe for what experts call "effortful study," or the process of indefatigably tackling ever harder challenges, which many believe is the secret to successfully pursuing excellence in anything.

The author goes on to point out that chess can be an "all-consuming distraction" and cites an example of a boy named Shawn on the Murrow team who is so addicted to chess that he skips school to play blitz games in the park! Horror of horrors! As if chess were the only cause of a boy skipping class.

Playing chess is like any other sport or hobby or carrer in life. You can take it to an extreme and let it consume you or you can be the master of your domain and control your obsessions. I also think that chess can not only provide a person enjoyment and fulfillment, but it can teach one a lot about choices and life and problem-solving.

Overall, the Slate article was a good read.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007


For the last few years I've been going to to solve the daily chess puzzle ... I usually do this from my desk at work. Well today that fine tradition has ended ... either Websense or the group in my company that runs Websense has added to the filter.

What is the world coming to?

Friday, April 13, 2007


In light of a few other chloggers waxing political, I thought I'd post this link. When I read the following headline "I Am Plotting a New Russian Revolution", the first person I thought of was Kasparov. But after reading the article, it wasn't about Kasparov - but Kasparov and Berezovsky may be working together.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Chess Around the Net

Intense Focus

When I'm in a chess game, I can usually block out everything else that is going on. My wife or kids might call me, but most of the time I don't hear them. My wife can carry on a whole conversation while I'm playing chess and then ask me a question ... the answer she will get is the deer-in-the-headlights-look on my face. But when I'm done with a game, my attention to family matters and otherwise returns.

Apparently this blogger forgot to return to reality after playing a blindfold game.

Years ago I played a relatively good blindfold game on the computer, then
got in my car to go somewhere and immediately ran a red light. Mentally I
was still busy analyzing the game instead of watching the road…
Most Expensive Chess Set

I'm sure many have seen this, but I thought I'd include it ... here's an article on a chess set worth $9.8 million.

The Blog Bet

I enjoyed the events of The Bet ... see here and here. Because of that bet, I found some new, interesting blogs! Thanks DG and Mark!


I wonder if this man's heart is racing.

Here's a totally scripted chess-shot. Wrong set up. And there's NO WAY the bishop arrived at that position. Plus, it's NOT checkmate.

This shot could be the icon for the Knights Errant ... if these knights aren't errant, then I don't know what is.

Paper Chess

We've seen an edible chess set, now here is a (rather cool-looking) paper chess set. You can click here to read more about it.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Missed Tactic in 15 1 Game

I won this game, but I knew there was a tatic I missed. Here's the position: Black to move and win.

It was pretty obvious once I went back to analyze the game.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Chess: A Workout for the Heart?

Does it happen to you? Do you ever find yourself in the middle of a game and notice that your heart is racing and your palms are sweaty? It happens to me every now and then ... especially in games that are really important to me.

I've noticed that the last couple of games I've played, that when I spot a tactic, my heart rate jumps up considerably. I find myself having to control my breathing. Only recently have I began to concentrate on my breathing during chess games ... whenever I begin to feel nervous or feel my heart rate increase, I take several controlled deep breaths until my heart rate is back to normal. Although I appreciate the workout my heart is getting, I find that unless I get it under control, I am more prone to blunder. Therefore, I take my time to calm down and cooly assess the situation before moving.

There have been plenty of times where I did not try to calm my nerves down (or couldn't because it was a blitz game) and I blundered horribly.

Interestingly enough, I found an article about a research that was performed on chess players with regard to heart rate. The summary simply states, "Hopelessness is associated with decreased heart rate variability during championship chess games." You can read the entire article here.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Tactic Spotted

I don't know if it was the best move, but it made all the difference in the game.

What I was impressed with was the potential mate in 7 (the key word being "potential" because it was not forced.) The fact that I saw it was what suprised me a little. Normally I would not have considered the move, but I kept going down the line to see where it would lead. My opponent saw the danger of being greedy and did not take the bait.

Anyway, here's the position:

He had just moved f5 threatening to capture my queen when I moved Ng6. If 21. ... fxe4, then 22. Nxe7+ Kh7 23. Rxf8 Qc7 24. Bxe4+ g6 25. Bxg6+ Kg7 26. Rf7+ Kh8 27. Rh7#

But my opponent failed to move his rook at f8 and I captured it with my knight and I went on to win.

Friday, March 16, 2007

"Young chess prodigy runs away, lives with stripper"

Here's an amazing story of 15-year-old international master Emilio Cordova from Peru who after being crowned South American chess champion travelled to Brazil and "became caught up in Sao Paulo's pulsating and sleazy nightlife."

To fund his Brazilian sojourn, he told his family he had fallen ill and needed
them to wire out money to pay for medical expenses. He even sold his laptop computer, which contained all his chess notes and training programs.
Wow! The story says he "returned home to a hero's welcome."

I ran accross the article from a news search. I also found has his games and some info about him in their database. A few kibitzers posted a few links to the same story.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Rough Weekend

I lost my latest game in the OCL. My excuse this time was that I was tired and un-focused. My dear wife was very ill over the weekend and so while she was resting, I was taking care of everything else around the house. Thankfully she is feeling better today, but still not 100%. Anyway, my mind wasn't exactly focused on chess by the time the match started.

I really didn't want to play a 60 15 game late at night. I ended up blundering twice and then resigned.

I've been thinking that I just might be better off finding long games on my own rather than finding them via the OCL. It is much easier to focus on a game when I want to play (as opposed to having to play). A boss of mine once said of meetings, "Someone is not going to like what time the meetings start and it's not going to be me." Scheduling these games with people in Russia or Austrilia or even in the US is difficult. I usually have small windows of time to play a long chess game.

As for the tactics ... I'll get back on track tonight. It's been 4 days since I worked on CT-ART. I can't afford to lay off on CT-ART for very many days.

Lastly ... thanks for the shout-out Takchess! God bless you too! Thanks for the encouragement!

Friday, March 02, 2007

Edible Chess Set

"Not only do you have the satisfaction of taking a piece, but you can eat it as well!"

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Greatness = Demanding Practice and Hard Work

Back in October 2006, I linked to a couple of articles that talked about the road to greatness. Fearing that the links might go dead, I'm copying the articles in their entirety in this post.

What it takes to be great
Research now shows that the lack of natural talent is irrelevant to great success. The secret? Painful and demanding practice and hard work

By Geoffrey Colvin, senior editor-at-large
October 19 2006: 3:14 PM EDT

(Fortune Magazine) -- What makes Tiger Woods great? What made Berkshire Hathaway (Charts) Chairman Warren Buffett the world's premier investor? We think we know: Each was a natural who came into the world with a gift for doing exactly what he ended up doing. As Buffett told Fortune not long ago, he was "wired at birth to allocate capital." It's a one-in-a-million thing. You've got it - or you don't.

Well, folks, it's not so simple. For one thing, you do not possess a natural gift for a certain job, because targeted natural gifts don't exist. (Sorry, Warren.) You are not a born CEO or investor or chess grandmaster. You will achieve greatness only through an enormous amount of hard work over many years. And not just any hard work, but work of a particular type that's demanding and painful.

Buffett, for instance, is famed for his discipline and the hours he spends studying financial statements of potential investment targets. The good news is that your lack of a natural gift is irrelevant - talent has little or nothing to do with greatness. You can make yourself into any number of things, and you can even make yourself great.

Scientific experts are producing remarkably consistent findings across a wide array of fields. Understand that talent doesn't mean intelligence, motivation or personality traits. It's an innate ability to do some specific activity especially well. British-based researchers Michael J. Howe, Jane W. Davidson and John A. Sluboda conclude in an extensive study, "The evidence we have surveyed ... does not support the [notion that] excelling is a consequence of possessing innate gifts."

To see how the researchers could reach such a conclusion, consider the problem they were trying to solve. In virtually every field of endeavor, most people learn quickly at first, then more slowly and then stop developing completely. Yet a few do improve for years and even decades, and go on to greatness.

The irresistible question - the "fundamental challenge" for researchers in this field, says the most prominent of them, professor K. Anders Ericsson of Florida State University - is, Why? How are certain people able to go on improving? The answers begin with consistent observations about great performers in many fields.

Scientists worldwide have conducted scores of studies since the 1993 publication of a landmark paper by Ericsson and two colleagues, many focusing on sports, music and chess, in which performance is relatively easy to measure and plot over time. But plenty of additional studies have also examined other fields, including business.

No substitute for hard work

The first major conclusion is that nobody is great without work. It's nice to believe that if you find the field where you're naturally gifted, you'll be great from day one, but it doesn't happen. There's no evidence of high-level performance without experience or practice.

Reinforcing that no-free-lunch finding is vast evidence that even the most accomplished people need around ten years of hard work before becoming world-class, a pattern so well established researchers call it the ten-year rule.

What about Bobby Fischer, who became a chess grandmaster at 16? Turns out the rule holds: He'd had nine years of intensive study. And as John Horn of the University of Southern California and Hiromi Masunaga of California State University observe, "The ten-year rule represents a very rough estimate, and most researchers regard it as a minimum, not an average." In many fields (music, literature) elite performers need 20 or 30 years' experience before hitting their zenith.

So greatness isn't handed to anyone; it requires a lot of hard work. Yet that isn't enough, since many people work hard for decades without approaching greatness or even getting significantly better. What's missing?

Practice makes perfect

The best people in any field are those who devote the most hours to what the researchers call "deliberate practice." It's activity that's explicitly intended to improve performance, that reaches for objectives just beyond one's level of competence, provides feedback on results and involves high levels of repetition.

For example: Simply hitting a bucket of balls is not deliberate practice, which is why most golfers don't get better. Hitting an eight-iron 300 times with a goal of leaving the ball within 20 feet of the pin 80 percent of the time, continually observing results and making appropriate adjustments, and doing that for hours every day - that's deliberate practice.

Consistency is crucial. As Ericsson notes, "Elite performers in many diverse domains have been found to practice, on the average, roughly the same amount every day, including weekends."

Evidence crosses a remarkable range of fields. In a study of 20-year-old violinists by Ericsson and colleagues, the best group (judged by conservatory teachers) averaged 10,000 hours of deliberate practice over their lives; the next-best averaged 7,500 hours; and the next, 5,000. It's the same story in surgery, insurance sales, and virtually every sport. More deliberate practice equals better performance. Tons of it equals great performance.

The skeptics

Not all researchers are totally onboard with the myth-of-talent hypothesis, though their objections go to its edges rather than its center. For one thing, there are the intangibles. Two athletes might work equally hard, but what explains the ability of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady to perform at a higher level in the last two minutes of a game?

Researchers also note, for example, child prodigies who could speak, read or play music at an unusually early age. But on investigation those cases generally include highly involved parents. And many prodigies do not go on to greatness in their early field, while great performers include many who showed no special early aptitude.

Certainly some important traits are partly inherited, such as physical size and particular measures of intelligence, but those influence what a person doesn't do more than what he does; a five-footer will never be an NFL lineman, and a seven-footer will never be an Olympic gymnast. Even those restrictions are less severe than you'd expect: Ericsson notes, "Some international chess masters have IQs in the 90s." The more research that's done, the more solid the deliberate-practice model becomes.

Real-world examples

All this scholarly research is simply evidence for what great performers have been showing us for years. To take a handful of examples: Winston Churchill, one of the 20th century's greatest orators, practiced his speeches compulsively. Vladimir Horowitz supposedly said, "If I don't practice for a day, I know it. If I don't practice for two days, my wife knows it. If I don't practice for three days, the world knows it." He was certainly a demon practicer, but the same quote has been attributed to world-class musicians like Ignace Paderewski and Luciano Pavarotti.

Many great athletes are legendary for the brutal discipline of their practice routines. In basketball, Michael Jordan practiced intensely beyond the already punishing team practices. (Had Jordan possessed some mammoth natural gift specifically for basketball, it seems unlikely he'd have been cut from his high school team.)

In football, all-time-great receiver Jerry Rice - passed up by 15 teams because they considered him too slow - practiced so hard that other players would get sick trying to keep up.

Tiger Woods is a textbook example of what the research shows. Because his father introduced him to golf at an extremely early age - 18 months - and encouraged him to practice intensively, Woods had racked up at least 15 years of practice by the time he became the youngest-ever winner of the U.S. Amateur Championship, at age 18. Also in line with the findings, he has never stopped trying to improve, devoting many hours a day to conditioning and practice, even remaking his swing twice because that's what it took to get even better.

The business side

The evidence, scientific as well as anecdotal, seems overwhelmingly in favor of deliberate practice as the source of great performance. Just one problem: How do you practice business? Many elements of business, in fact, are directly practicable. Presenting, negotiating, delivering evaluations, deciphering financial statements - you can practice them all.

Still, they aren't the essence of great managerial performance. That requires making judgments and decisions with imperfect information in an uncertain environment, interacting with people, seeking information - can you practice those things too? You can, though not in the way you would practice a Chopin etude.

Instead, it's all about how you do what you're already doing - you create the practice in your work, which requires a few critical changes. The first is going at any task with a new goal: Instead of merely trying to get it done, you aim to get better at it.

Report writing involves finding information, analyzing it and presenting it - each an improvable skill. Chairing a board meeting requires understanding the company's strategy in the deepest way, forming a coherent view of coming market changes and setting a tone for the discussion. Anything that anyone does at work, from the most basic task to the most exalted, is an improvable skill.

Adopting a new mindset

Armed with that mindset, people go at a job in a new way. Research shows they process information more deeply and retain it longer. They want more information on what they're doing and seek other perspectives. They adopt a longer-term point of view. In the activity itself, the mindset persists. You aren't just doing the job, you're explicitly trying to get better at it in the larger sense.

Again, research shows that this difference in mental approach is vital. For example, when amateur singers take a singing lesson, they experience it as fun, a release of tension. But for professional singers, it's the opposite: They increase their concentration and focus on improving their performance during the lesson. Same activity, different mindset.

Feedback is crucial, and getting it should be no problem in business. Yet most people don't seek it; they just wait for it, half hoping it won't come. Without it, as Goldman Sachs leadership-development chief Steve Kerr says, "it's as if you're bowling through a curtain that comes down to knee level. If you don't know how successful you are, two things happen: One, you don't get any better, and two, you stop caring." In some companies, like General Electric, frequent feedback is part of the culture. If you aren't lucky enough to get that, seek it out.

Be the ball

Through the whole process, one of your goals is to build what the researchers call "mental models of your business" - pictures of how the elements fit together and influence one another. The more you work on it, the larger your mental models will become and the better your performance will grow.

Andy Grove could keep a model of a whole world-changing technology industry in his head and adapt Intel (Charts) as needed. Bill Gates, Microsoft's (Charts) founder, had the same knack: He could see at the dawn of the PC that his goal of a computer on every desk was realistic and would create an unimaginably large market. John D. Rockefeller, too, saw ahead when the world-changing new industry was oil. Napoleon was perhaps the greatest ever. He could not only hold all the elements of a vast battle in his mind but, more important, could also respond quickly when they shifted in unexpected ways.

That's a lot to focus on for the benefits of deliberate practice - and worthless without one more requirement: Do it regularly, not sporadically.


For most people, work is hard enough without pushing even harder. Those extra steps are so difficult and painful they almost never get done. That's the way it must be. If great performance were easy, it wouldn't be rare. Which leads to possibly the deepest question about greatness. While experts understand an enormous amount about the behavior that produces great performance, they understand very little about where that behavior comes from.

The authors of one study conclude, "We still do not know which factors encourage individuals to engage in deliberate practice." Or as University of Michigan business school professor Noel Tichy puts it after 30 years of working with managers, "Some people are much more motivated than others, and that's the existential question I cannot answer - why."

The critical reality is that we are not hostage to some naturally granted level of talent. We can make ourselves what we will. Strangely, that idea is not popular. People hate abandoning the notion that they would coast to fame and riches if they found their talent. But that view is tragically constraining, because when they hit life's inevitable bumps in the road, they conclude that they just aren't gifted and give up.

Maybe we can't expect most people to achieve greatness. It's just too demanding. But the striking, liberating news is that greatness isn't reserved for a preordained few. It is available to you and to everyone.


In spite of a common belief that genius is innate, research shows that even Einstein, Mozart and Tiger Woods had to put in years of toil to achieve brilliance, writes David Dobbs.

MY MOTHER, rest her merry, brainy soul, convinced me early on that I was - as she liked to put it, quoting the cartoon character Yogi Bear - "SMARRR-ter than the average bear!" I happily assumed that my Yogi-like intelligence would ensure great things.

My sense of entitlement grew when I easily won good marks in school, then grew some more when three different college professors told me I had a talent for writing. Rising to the top, I gathered, was a matter of natural buoyancy.

The reality check came in my 20s, when nearly a decade of middling effort failed to cast the glow of my writing genius much beyond my study walls. By my early 30s I saw the obvious: my smarts and "talent" - above average or not - would count for little unless I outworked most of the other writers. Only when I started putting in some extra hours did I get anywhere.

About the time I had my epiphany, a growing field of scholarship was more rigorously reaching the same conclusion. It seems the ability we're so fond of calling talent or even genius arises not from innate gifts but from an interplay of fair (but not extraordinary) natural ability, quality instruction and a mountain of work. This new discipline - a mix of psychology and cognitive science - has now produced its first large collection of expert reviews, the massive Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance.

The book essentially tells us to forget the notion that "genius", "talent" or any other innate qualities create the greats we call geniuses. Instead, as the American inventor Thomas Edison said, genius is 99 per cent perspiration - or, to be truer to the data, perhaps 1 per cent inspiration, 29 per cent good instruction and encouragement, and 70 per cent perspiration. Examine closely even the most extreme examples - Mozart, Newton, Einstein, Stravinsky - and you find more hard-won mastery than gift. Geniuses are made, not born.


"It's complicated explaining how genius or expertise is created and why it's so rare," says Anders Ericsson, the professor of psychology at Florida State University who edited the handbook. "But it isn't magic, and it isn't born. It happens because some critical things line up so that a person of good intelligence can put in the sustained, focused effort it takes to achieve extraordinary mastery.

"These people don't necessarily have an especially high IQ, but they almost always have very supportive environments, and they almost always have important mentors. And the one thing they always have is this incredible investment of effort."

This is mixed news, Ericsson says. "It's funny, really. On one hand it's encouraging: it makes me think that even the most ordinary among us should be careful about saying we can't do great things, because people have proven again and again that most people can do something extraordinary if they're willing to put in the exercise. On the other hand, it's a bit overwhelming to look at what these people have to do. They generally invest about five times as much time and effort to become great as an accomplished amateur does to become competent. It's not something everyone's up for."

Studies of extraordinary performance run the gamut, employing memory tests, IQ comparisons, brain scans, retrospective interviews of high achievers and longitudinal studies of people who were identified in their youth as highly gifted. None bears out the myth of inherent genius.

Take intelligence. No accepted measure of innate or basic intelligence, whether IQ or other metrics, reliably predicts that a person will develop extraordinary ability. In other words, the IQs of the great would not predict their level of accomplishments, nor would their accomplishments predict their IQs. Studies of chess masters and highly successful artists, scientists and musicians usually find their IQs to be above average, typically in the 115 to 130 range, where some 14 per cent of the population reside - impressive enough, but hardly as rarefied as their achievements and abilities.

The converse - that high IQ does not ensure greatness - holds as well. This was shown in a study of adult graduates of New York City's Hunter College Elementary School, where an admission criterion was an IQ of at least 130 (achieved by a little over 1 per cent of the general population) and the mean IQ was 157 - "genius" territory by any scaling of IQ scores, and a level reached by perhaps one in 5000 people. Though the Hunter graduates were successful and reasonably content with their lives, they had not reached the heights of accomplishment, either individually or as a group, that their IQs might have suggested.

In the words of study leader Rena Subotnik, a research psychologist formerly at the City University of New York and now with the American Psychological Association: "There were no superstars, no Pulitzer Prize or MacArthur Award winners, and only one or two familiar names."

The genius these elite students showed in their IQs remained on paper.

So what does create genius or extreme talent? Musicians have an old joke about this: How do you get to Carnegie Hall from here? Practise. A sober look at any field shows that the top performers are rarely more gifted than the also-rans, but they almost invariably outwork them. This doesn't mean that some people aren't more athletic or smarter than others. The elite are elite partly because they have some genetic gifts - for learning and hand-eye coordination, for instance - but the very best rise because they take great pains to maximise that gift.

Take Stephen Hawking, who likes to dismiss questions about his IQ by saying, "People who boast about their IQ are losers". He was a middling student and achiever until his mid-20s. Only then did he catch fire - and begin working obsessively - while collaborating with fellow physicist Roger Penrose on black-hole theory.

Pete Sampras didn't possess more talent than Andre Agassi, but he won 14 grand slams to Agassi's eight because he worked harder and more steadily. And as cellist Yo-Yo Ma once said, the most proficient and renowned musicians are not necessarily those who outshone everyone as youths, but rather those who had "fire in the belly".


This has led scholars of elite performance to speak of a 10-year rule: it seems you have to put in at least a decade of focused work to master something and bring greatness within reach. This shows starkly in a 1985 study of 120 elite athletes, performers, artists, biochemists and mathematicians led by University of Chicago psychologist Benjamin Bloom, a giant of the field who died in 1999. Every single person in the study took at least a decade of hard study or practice to achieve international recognition. Olympic swimmers trained for an average of 15 years before making the team; the best concert pianists took 15 years to earn international recognition. Top researchers, sculptors and mathematicians put in similar amounts of time.

The same goes even for those few who seem born with supreme talent. Mozart was playing the violin at three years of age and received expert, focused instruction from the start. He was precocious, writing symphonies at seven, but he didn't produce the work that made him a giant until his teens. The same is true for Tiger Woods. He seems magical on the golf course, but he was swinging a golf club before he could walk, got great instruction and practised constantly from boyhood. Even today he outworks all his rivals. His genius has been laboriously constructed.

Study so intense requires resources - time and space to work, teachers to mentor - and the subjects of Bloom's study, like most elite performers, almost invariably enjoyed plentiful support in their formative years. Bloom, in fact, came to see great talent as less an individual trait than a creation of environment and encouragement.

"We were looking for exceptional kids," he said, "and what we found were exceptional conditions."

He was intrigued to find that few of the study's subjects had shown special promise when they first took up the fields they later excelled in, and most harboured no early ambition for stellar achievement. Rather, they were encouraged as children in a general way to explore and learn, then supported in more focused ways as they began to develop an area they particularly liked. Another retrospective study, of leading scientists, similarly found that most came from homes where learning was revered for its own sake.

Finally, most retrospective studies, including Bloom's, have found that almost all high achievers were blessed with at least one crucial mentor as they neared maturity. When Subotnik looked at music students at New York's elite Juilliard School and winners of the high-school-level Westinghouse Science Talent Search, he found that the Juilliard students generally realised their potential more fully because they had one-on-one relationships with mentors who prepared them for the challenges they would face after their studies ended. Most of the Westinghouse winners, on the other hand, went on to colleges where they failed to find mentors to nurture their talent and guide them through rough spots. Only half ended up pursuing science, and few of them with distinction.


So what do elite performers attain through all that deliberate practice and sensitive mentoring? What makes a genius? The creme de la creme appear to develop several important cognitive skills. The first, called "chunking", is the ability to group details and concepts into easily remembered patterns.

Chess provides the classic illustration. Show a chess master a game in progress for just five seconds and they will memorise the board so well that they can re-create most of it - 20 pieces or more - an hour later. A novice will be able to place just four or five pieces.

Yet chess masters don't necessarily have a better memory than novices. Their clustering skills begin and end at the chessboard. Show a master and a novice a random list of 20 digits, and a few minutes later neither will be able to recall more than seven or eight of them in sequence. In a chess game, by contrast, the master sees not the 20 pieces that confront the novice but clusters of pieces, each of which is familiar from experience. Interestingly, the chess master will remember about as many clusters - four or five - as a novice will individual pieces. The better the master, the larger the clusters he'll remember.

We all exercise such clustering skills when we read. Learning to read means coming to recognise chunks of letters as words, then chunks of words as phrases and sentences and - at a deeper level - sentences and paragraphs as components of a work's larger meaning. This chunking puts individual words into logical, recallable contexts. As a result, we'll remember almost all of a logical 20-word sentence and only four to seven words from the same 20 words ordered randomly.

Apart from chunking, the elite also learn to identify quickly which bits of information in a changing situation to store in working memory. This lets them create a continually updated mental model far more complex than that used by someone less practised, allowing them to see subtler dynamics and deeper relationships. Again, this is something skilled readers do with good novels. However, it appears more striking - more suggestive of "genius" - when we see these skills used by Garry Kasparov to simultaneously beat 30 grandmasters or French footballer Zinedine Zidane to spot a killer through-ball that no one else saw.

Such masters seem to operate on another plane, yet the rest of us can take solace in knowing that their mastery rarely extends beyond their discipline. It is a fair bet that Roger Federer would beat you at both tennis and ping-pong, but not as soundly in the latter. The gap will shrink as you move further away from his field of expertise.

Michael Jordan, widely considered to be one of the world's greatest athletes, struggled horribly when he moved from basketball to baseball, where he was routinely flummoxed by minor league pitchers. Likewise, if you ever met Kasparov over a poker table, you might well hold your own.

While the study of elite performance has been based mainly on observational and interview techniques, its models agree nicely with what neuroscience has discovered about how we learn. Eric Kandel of Columbia University in New York, who won a Nobel prize in 2000 for discovering much of the neural basis of memory and learning, has shown that both the number and strength of the nerve connections associated with a memory or skill increase in proportion to how often and how emphatically the lesson is repeated. So focused study and practice literally build the neural networks of expertise. Genetics may allow one person to build synapses faster than another, but either way the lesson must still be learnt. Genius must be built.

Studies of elite performance also chime with another recurrent theme in modern neuroscience and genetics. These disciplines all but insist that the traditional distinction between nature and nurture is obsolete. What we call talent or genius illustrates vividly what the past 25 years have taught us about gene expression - that our genetic potentials are activated and realised only through environment and experience. Natural buoyancy merely gets you off the bottom. You rise to the top by pumping yourself up.

So is the ideal of innate genius dead? If not, should we kill it? Certainly a clear-eyed analysis shows that "genius" is really a set of exceptional skills cultivated through disciplined study. We should probably shelve the notion of genius as an innate, almost irrepressible gift and speak instead of expertise, talent or even greatness - terms that hint at the work underlying supreme accomplishment.

Granted, this isn't as much fun, and recognising the work factor is sobering. It is disappointing to realise all your mum's blather about how smart you are doesn't mean anything, and that you have to work demonically regardless. But as something to believe in, genius is not looking so smart. You want to play the big stage, you got to put in the time.

- New Scientist

The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, by Anders K Ericsson, Neil Charness, Paul J Feltovich, Robert R Hoffman, Cambridge University Press, $104.