Can You Handle the Truth?

Yesterday Mike Murray started a new thread in the “All Things Chess” section of the USCF Forum. The title of his thread is a question, “Does chess develop transferable skills ?” ( Mike begins his post answering the question by writing, “Evidently, not so much.” He then quotes from this blog by copying something I copied verbatim:

“…recent research into expertise has clearly indicated that, the higher the level of expertise in a domain, the more limited the transfer [of skills to other fields] will be… Moreover, reaching a high level of skill in domains such as chess, music or mathematics requires large amounts of practice to acquire the domain specific knowledge which determines expert performance. Inevitably, the time spent in developing such skills will impair the acquisition of other skills.”

Mr. Murray then gives a link to my post, and adds a link with which I was unfamiliar:
“see also”

I would like to express my thanks to Mike Murray for drawing my attention to this paper.

Before deciding to write about what is currently known in regard to the question of whether or not chess is beneficial for children I took the time to read several papers pertaining to what has been learned by those who study these types of questions. These are the papers:

Facing facts about deliberate practice

David Z. Hambrick1*, Erik M. Altmann1, Frederick L. Oswald2, Elizabeth J. Meinz3 and Fernand Gobet4
1 Department of Psychology, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, USA
2 Department ofPsychology, Rice University, Houston, TX, USA
3 Department of Psychology, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, Edwardsville, IL, USA
4 InstituteofPsychology, Health, and Society, University of Liverpool, Liverpool, UK
Michael H. Connors, Macquarie University, Australia
Reviewed by:
Lena Rachel Quinto, Macquarie University, Australia
Michael H. Connors, Macquarie University, Australia

The Role of Domain-Specific Practice, Handedness, and Starting Age in Chess

Fernand Gobet and Guillermo Campitelli
Brunel University

The genetics of music accomplishment: Evidence for gene–environment correlation and interaction

David Z. Hambrick & Elliot M. Tucker-Drob

Accounting for expert performance: The devil is in the details

David Z. Hambrick a,⁎, Erik M. Altmann a, Frederick L. Oswald b, Elizabeth J. Meinz c, Fernand Gobet d, Guillermo Campitelli e
a Department of Psychology, Michigan State University, United States
b Department of Psychology, Rice University, United States
c Department of Psychology, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, United States
d Institute of Psychology, Health, and Society, University of Liverpool, United Kingdom
e School of Psychology and Social Science, Edith Cowan University, Australia

Does high-level intellectual performance depend on practice alone? Debunking the Polgar sisters case

Robert W. Howard∗
School of Education, University of New South Wales, Sydney 2052, Australia

Longitudinal Effects of Different Types of Practice on the Development of Chess Expertise

University of New South Wales, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Deliberate Practice and Performance in Music, Games, Sports, Education, and Professions: A Meta-Analysis

Psychological Science published online 1 July 2014
Brooke N. Macnamara, David Z. Hambrick and Frederick L. Oswald
DOI: 10.1177/0956797614535810

Intelligence and chess

Fernand Gobet, & Guillermo Campitelli

Educational benefits of chess instruction: A critical review

Fernand Gobet & Guillermo Campitelli
University of Nottingham

What put me on this path was the flap over what Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his book. “In Gladwell’s bestselling “Outliers” he discusses the “10,000-hour rule”: If you practice the necessary 10,000 hours you can reach the zenith of your field.” (

In the same article Zach answers, “We found that, yes, practice is important, and of course it’s absolutely necessary to achieve expertise,” Hambrick told the Times. “But it’s not as important as many people have been saying.”

The article, Is Malcolm Gladwell wrong? Scientists debate the “10,000-hour rule: The argument between talent versus practices deepens with the release of a new study, by Sarah Gray, Tuesday, July 15, 2014. This particular article begins:

“A new study, published in the journal Psychological Science, is fueling the practice-versus-talent debate. The study was co-authored by Zach Hambrick, of Michigan State University, Brooke Macnamara, who is currently at Case Western Reserve University, and Rice University’s Frederick Oswald. According to the New York Times, this study is the “most comprehensive review of relevant research to date.”

“The paper, which looked at 88 different studies, covering a wide range of activities, from chess to music to sports, found that only 20 to 25 percent of a person’s ability — in music, sports and chess — came from practice. In academics, the Times reports, it is even lower; only 4 percent of a person’s academic ability came from practice. However, the authors note that academic skill was more difficult to measure, because it was tough to gauge how much people knew beforehand.”

The book by Malcolm Gladwell was a best-seller and the author, no doubt, made much money. Unfortunately for him, his theory has been refuted. Even so, their are many people who have not gotten the word. For example, I was sitting at a table in a Barnes & Noble with a chess board in front of me while reading a copy of the best chess magazine in the world, New In Chess, when an older fellow walked up and asked, “Putting in your 10,000 hours?” I asked if he were referring to Gladwell’s book and he answered in the affirmative. As he took a seat I told him Gladwell’s theory had been refuted. Having read the book, he was in disbelief. “The man would not have written the book if it were not true,” he said. Nothing I said could disabuse him of his belief. Fortunately, someone whom he knew arrived and he took his leave, but not before telling his friend that I was a “party pooper.” I have been called far worse…

This kind of thing happens all the time in our society. An example would be what the Bushwhackers said happened to Private First Class Jessica Dawn Lynch during the invasion of Iraq. Initial reports by the Bushwhackers said that before being captured and brutalized, PFC Lynch, in her best Rambo imitation, fired all the rounds in her weapon until the weapon was so hot it burned her hands, but still she continued, in great pain, to hold onto the weapon, using it to club Iraqi soldiers until there were so many of them she could no longer swing said weapon…or some such. I will admit to paraphrasing here, but you get the idea. The truth came out later, and I quote, “Initial official reports on Lynch’s capture and rescue in Iraq were incorrect. On April 24, 2007, she testified in front of Congress that she had never fired her weapon, her M16 rifle jammed, and that she had been knocked unconscious when her vehicle crashed. Lynch has been outspoken in her criticism of the original stories reported regarding her combat experience. When asked about her heroine status, she stated “That wasn’t me. I’m not about to take credit for something I didn’t do… I’m just a survivor.” ( See The authorized biography, I Am A Soldier Too: The Jessica Lynch Story, by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Rick Bragg.” See also, “The truth about Jessica.” ( People can still be found who will tell you all about the brave woman during the invasion of Iraq who made Rambo look like a wuss…

The lies the Bushwhackers told about former NFL star Pat Tillman are even more egregious, and the truth still has not been told to WE THE PEOPLE. I do not mean to single out the Bushwhackers. “Presidential aide Arthur Schlesinger has written that President Kennedy said just days before the assassination that Johnson was a man “incapable of telling the truth.” (See Robert F. Kennedy and His Times, page 655. I have taken this from the masterful work by Douglas P. Horne, Chief Analyst for Military Records, Assassination Records Review Board, “Inside the Assassination Records Review Board: The U.S. Government’s Final Attempt to Reconcile the Conflicting Medical Evidence in the Assassination of JFK – Volume 5.”)

Another example would be the prosecutor who, while the defandant is on the stand, looks the jury in the eye and says, “The defendant is obviously a scurrilous scumbag!” The public defender then leaps to his feet saying, “Your Honor, I most strenuously object.” At which time the judge says to the prosecutor, “The objection is sustained. Mr. Prosecutor. I cannot believe a man with your credentials would would say such a thing.” To which the prosecutor says, “Yes Your Honor. Forgive me. It will not happen again.” The judge then say, “That last remark will be stricken from the record and the jury will disregard the comment made by the esteemed prosecutor.”
When the trial ends and the jury is marched into chambers to decide the fate of the accused, the only question to be decided is which one will be chosen foreman. Once a foreman is chosen he will say, “Do we really need to spend any time voting? It is more than a little obvious the defendant is a scurrilous scumbag.”
Someone will mention the judge said to disregard the remark and will be turned on by the rest of the pack while the foreman says forcefully, “What the hell do you mean? The ESTEEMED prosecutor said the defendant was a scurrilous scumbag, and he would not have said it if it were not true!” Meanwhile the rest of the pack will nod in agreement, saying, “Uh huh, uh huh, right on, right on, right on.” The poor defendant will be lucky to have a show of hands before being declared guilty.

Does Playing Chess Make You Smarter?

D. Zachary Hambrick is a Professor in the Department of Psychology at Michigan State University. He received his Bachelors from Methodist College, Fayetteville, NC 1994; Masters at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, GA 1997; and became a Ph.D. at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, GA 2000, where I became acquainted with him by taking part in studies which led to his earning his Ph.D. Because of the kinds of things he studies I sought his answer to the question of what, exactly, is the state of knowledge pertaining to whether or not learning, and playing, chess can enhance intelligence. Zach emailed me a copy of Educational benefits of chess instruction: A critical review, by Fernand Gobet & Guillermo Campitelli, of University of Nottingham, which, unlike many other studies, can be found online. This study is considered by those in the academic world to be the “last word.”

The introduction begins, “Chess playing makes kids smarter.” “Chess increases mathematical abilities.” “Chess improves academic performance.” Numerous similar claims have been made about the efficacy of using chess to foster education.”

That it has…It used to be that chess was considered to be a lifetime “sport.” Now when a Chinese GM reaches the ripe old age of thirty he is forced to retire and become a “trainer,” or “coach.” The players have become ever younger, and now one sees a picture of the latest four year old “prodigy” at Chessbase. Check out, Moscow Open: The four-year-old veteran by by Albert Silver. ( The chess world is doing the age limbo; how low can it go?

The introduction continues, “Indeed, schools in various countries (e.g., USA, France, Argentina) offer chess as an optional subject, and some even propose compulsory classes. There is clearly a strong interest worldwide in the potential advantages of chess in education, and the conference from which this book stems is just another example of this interest. Implicit in all these activities is the belief that skills acquired playing chess can transfer to other domains. Is this belief based on well-substantiated evidence? Is the educational value of chess a well-established empirical fact? Or have chess players been blinded by their love of the game into thinking that it offers instructional advantages? In this chapter, we attempt, as objectively as possible, to tackle the question of whether chess is advantageous for general education. To do so, we subject research into the educational benefits of chess to the same rigorous criteria commonly used in academia for evaluating educational research.”

They begin with The question of transfer.

“The question addressed in this chapter can be summarized as follows: Can a set of skills acquired in a specific domain (in our case, chess) generalize to other domains (e.g., mathematics, reading) or to general abilities (e.g., reasoning, memory)?”

The question is simple enough. People have pondered the question for centuries. A well known and popular NM here in Georgia, a former State Champion, and Georgia State Senior Champion, and the only player to hold both titles simultaneously, the sui generis David Vest, has stated that the President of the Georgia Chess Association, Dr. Fun Fong, “is proof positive that expertise in one area does not translate into expertise in another area.” I wholeheartedly concur with his astute assessment of the situation in regard to the POTGCA. He may be a fine emergency room doctor at Emory University, but as POTGCA he leaves a great deal to be desired.

The authors continue, “This is an old question, which, for a long time, was answered positively; for example, for centuries, it was accepted without dispute that learning Latin or geometry would train the mind and prepare it to cope with other topics. However, when, for the first time at the beginning of the 20th century, the question was studied scientifically, the conclusions were rather different.”

Inquiring minds want to know, and not just accept that which is offered. The more highly educated the people the more questions asked, and the generations after the second world war are the most highly educated in history. There are more inquiring minds than ever before in the history of mankind. So when, for example, there are constant problems with the organization of the GCA; when there are problems with every tournament organized by the GCA; and when members of the GCA board resign and there is no accountability by the President of the GCA, who continues to stonewall in the same way as did US President Richard Nixon during what came to be known as “Watergate,” people begin to question. The two members who resigned have not answered my email entreaties and have chosen to remain silent. This has caused rumors of things like financial malfeasance, illegal stipends paid out, and hush money, to run rampant.

The paper continues, “A different view of transfer emerges from the psychological study of intelligence. Researchers in this field believe that one or a few transferable abilities form the basis of intelligence. These abilities are seen as general, at least within verbal or visuo-spatial domains, and are supposed to apply to a variety of domains (see Sternberg, 2000, for an overview). However, these basic abilities are also seen as innate, and thus not amenable to improvement through practice.”

“In spite of these disagreements about the nature of transfer, some results are clear. In particular, recent research into expertise has clearly indicated that, the higher the level of expertise in a domain, the more limited the transfer will be (Ericsson & Charness, 1994). Moreover, reaching a high level of skill in domains such as chess, music or mathematics requires large amounts of practice to acquire the domain specific knowledge which determines expert performance. Inevitably, the time spent in developing such skills will impair the acquisition of other skills.” (Emphasis is mine.)

Fortunately for Dr. Fong, he has already developed the skills needed to become a ER Doctor. The Georgia chess community can only hope the Doctor decides the time he is spending on chess will impair the acquisition of other skills he may need to become even better at his day job and leave the administration of chess in Georgia to those who have a clue as to what to do.

Will Confusion Be Our Epitaph

In his post Confusion about Facts dated 15 February 2015, Mark Weeks writes, “Despite some confusion about facts that I happen to know something about, i.e,

‘first played in Afghanistan back in 600 AD’ • ‘Dr. Robert Ferguson (a cardiologist at the Northeast Georgia Diagnostics Clinic)’; • ‘Grandmaster Chess Research Project […] collaborative effort between Israel’s University of Haifa and Grandmaster Boris Delfand’, (sic)…”

Mark provides a link to an article, Does Playing Chess Make You Smarter? on the Examined Existance website (, where one finds this:

Chess sharpens critical thinking skills.

“In his 1995 study titled Chess in Education: Research Summary, Dr. Robert Ferguson (a cardiologist at the Northeast Georgia Diagnostics Clinic) had established that chess is instrumental in the enhancement of a child’s critical thinking and good judgment skills. Ferguson’s subjects, who were seventh to ninth graders, yielded a 17% improvement in the results.”

A picture of Dr. Ferguson’s is prominently displayed on the home page of the NGDC. ( His study, which took place from 1979-1983, is featured in any discussion relating to chess “improving” the intelligence of children. The problem is that it has been discredited.

Unfortunately, this kind of thing happens all the time. A newspaper prints an attention grabbing headline about something negative about a person on the front page, then places a retraction on a page in the rear of the next day’s paper which hardly anyone reads. Time passes and the only thing left in the memory is the headline. The mistake is rarely acknowledged, unless it is as egregious as was the mistake made by former chess GM Kenneth Rogoff. See: “The Rogoff-Reinhart data scandal reminds us economists aren’t gods,” by Heidi Moore (; “Reinhart, Rogoff… and Herndon: The student who caught out the profs,” By Ruth Alexander, BBC News (; “The Reinhart and Rogoff Controversy: A Summing Up,” (; “Ken Rogoff, Author Of Discredited Austerity Research, Angrily Blasts Keynesians,” by
Mark Gongloff…This one begins, “Kenneth Rogoff is mad as hell, and he’s not going to take it any more.” Unfortunately for the former GM, he has had to continue to take it…(; “How the Case for Austerity Has Crumbled,” by Paul Krugman (; “Republicans’ Favorite National-Debt Researchers Are Now Even More Discredited,” By Danny Vinik ( There is much more and it can be found using any search engine by typing in, “Ken Rogoff discredited,” but this will suffice for now because I do not wish to make the former chess GM any madder than he already seems to be…

In the paper Educational benefits of chess instruction: A critical review, Fernand Gobet and Guillermo Campitelli write: Teaching the fourth “R” (Reasoning) through chess; (Ferguson,
(7 This study is referred to as “Developing critical and creative thinking through chess” in Ferguson

“This project, which took place from 1979 to 1983, aimed at providing
stimulating experiences fostering the development of critical and creative thinking.
Participants were gifted students (with an IQ equal to or higher than 130) in grades 7
through 9, in the Bradford (PA) area school district. They chose among a variety of
special activities such as chess, dungeons and dragons, Olympics of mind, problem
solving with computers, creative writing, and independent study. Each group met
once a week for 32 weeks.
Participants were tested with alternate forms of the Watson-Glaser Critical
Thinking Appraisal test (CTA) and of the Torrance test of creative thinking, both at
the beginning and at the end of the year. Results for the CTA showed that the chess
group significantly outperformed the non-chess groups (p < .001), the computer group
(p < .003), and the non-participants (p < .025). With the Torrance test of creative
thinking, the chess group showed statistically significant improvement in “fluency,”
“flexibility” and “originality” when they were compared to the population norms and
the non-chess groups. There was also a significant difference in “fluency” and “originality” (but not in “flexibility”) for the chess group compared to the computer
Ferguson used a pretest and posttest design and used more than one control
group, each carrying out activities other than chess. However, this study has an
important weakness that rules out any interpretation of the results in terms of the
contribution of chess training to critical thinking and creativity: students switched
activities either quarterly or semi-annually, and chess players participated in other
activities as well. Therefore, we do not know whether the improvement is due to chess
treatment or to the other treatments. Another limitation of this study is that it
investigated a gifted population; hence, the claims cannot be generalized to the entire
population of school students. Finally, the sample was rather small (15 students in
the school chess club)."

As a baseball Sabermetrician I know all about a small sample size; it is worthless. In the fifth game of the 1969 MLB season Don Bosch, from San Francisco, playing for the expansion Montreal Expos in their very first season, went 4 for 5, leaving his batting average for the young season a robust .571! Don had played for the Asheville Tourists in the AA Southern League in 1964 & 65, then with Columbus and Jacksonville in the AAA International League from 1966-68, and he was called one of the very best center fielders to have ever worn a glove. His problem was his hitting ability did not measure up to his defensive ability. Don had 121 plate appearances in 1969 and hit .179, which happened to be his highest batting average of any MLB season. He ended his career way below the Mendoza line at a robust without the "ro" of .164 in 346 PA's.

It pains me to have to write this about my fellow Georgian, who has, no doubt, done great things in his long life, but honesty compels me to acknowledge citing his study does a disservice to chess. To quote a discredited study, such as this, is dishonest. People do this all the time. For example, the Bushwhackers quoted bogus documents that "… seem to depict an attempt made by Saddam Hussein in Iraq to purchase yellowcake uranium powder from Niger during the Iraq disarmament crisis." ( The Bushwhackers did this while knowing what they were saying was a lie because, "Retired ambassador Joseph C. Wilson wrote a critical op-ed in The New York Times in which he explained the nature of the documents and the government's prior knowledge of their unreliability for use in a case for war. Shortly after Wilson's op-ed, in a column by Robert Novak, in pondering why a State Dept employee was dispatched rather than a trained CIA agent, the identity of Wilson's wife, CIA analyst Valerie Plame, was revealed. The Senate Intelligence Committee report and other sources confirm that Plame "offered his name up" to her superiors." (
They tried to discredit Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson by outing his wife, which is a violation of Federal law, and still, no one has been prosecuted. This was despicable! Any man who would do such a thing is NOT MUCH OF A MAN!

If the chess community is going to tell parents the game of chess will increase the intelligence of their child, the least we can do is to be honest about the facts.

The Future of Chess is Terrifying

Continuing with “Intelligence and chess” by Fernand Gobet, & Guillermo Campitelli, published in 2002, we find this under the sub-heading, Expertise in chess:

“In addition, there are important individual differences in the style of play:
some players are aggressive, others defensive; some prefer tactical complications,
others transparent strategic planning. Finally, one can look at extra-chess activities
for evidence of individual differences. In his 1946 book, De Groot found that there
were important differences in training and background in the sample of 55
grandmasters he studied. In particular, he found that 13 of his grandmasters had a
training in science or mathematics. Interestingly, such differences in background
have tended to fade away in recent years: nowadays, with the stringent training
requirements of competitive chess, most players are professional, with no university
Where do these differences come from? Several psychological explanations,
paralleling the strands of research mentioned above, have been advanced. Information-
processing research tends to emphasise the role of the environment (presence
of coach or playing opportunities, coaching techniques, etc.). The extreme position
in this strand has been taken by Ericsson (e.g., Ericsson et al., 1993) in his theory of
deliberate practice, which denies the role of innate differences, except for motivation
and the ability to sustain long-term practice.”

This is the “theory.” In an article at the Chessbase website, Vladimir Kramnik: My Path to the Top, dated 2/20/2015, we find the “practice.” Vladimir says, “If my first book would have been a collection of the best games of Kasparov or Tal, I am sure that I would have a different playing style. But it happened as it happened, and I have nothing to complain about.”

“In the introduction Kramnik reveals how he started to play chess and he describes the atmosphere and the chess culture in Tuapse, a small town on the Black Sea where he was born and brought up. You will hear charming and humorous anecdotes you have not heard before: “I had a normal childhood. When I was seven, I went to a normal school. I would say Tuapse was a normal provincial Soviet town. It is an industrial town with working people, and I can say that I was not in the elite atmosphere, I’d say as far I am aware quite a few of my classmates, they went to prison rather soon after finishing the school (laughs). So it was a normal worker’s place with rather tough working lessons…”

“Kramnik also reveals what his first chess book was. Can you guess? A collection with the Best Games of Anatoly Karpov! Kramnik was fascinated by the games of Karpov and studying them had a big influence on his style.” (

If how chess is learned depends upon the style of the games from which the student learns, what kind of players will be, or are already being produced due to the influence of computer programs such as Komodo and Stockfish? To help answer this question I send you to the excellent article, Massacre by the innocents, by GM Vlad Tkachiev at the website. The GM, one of the best writers, and thinkers, in chess, writes about the future generation of chess, “The future of the second chess superpower arranged a worldwide premiere just for us, with a clash of generations, civilisations and philosophies. And here’s what left the deepest impression on me: the way, whether it was evening, afternoon or morning, they would gather in the lobby of the Grand Sahid Hotel, connect to the free Wi-Fi and spend hours immersed in surfing the internet. They didn’t talk to one another. They didn’t drink anything. They paid no attention to their surroundings. They were off on their notebooks, tablets and smartphones – somewhere very far away.
They say we fear the unknown. For us, seasoned professionals, it was terrifying.” (

Biological Determinants of Expertise in Chess

That there is a difference in the brain of a female when compared with the brain of a male is no longer questioned by science. Consider this from the article, “How Male and Female Brains Differ.”

“Disparities Start Early in Life”

“Scientists now know that sex hormones begin to exert their influence during development of the fetus. A recent study by Israeli researchers that examined male and female brains found distinct differences in the developing fetus at just 26 weeks of pregnancy. The disparities could be seen when using an ultrasound scanner. The corpus callosum — the bridge of nerve tissue that connects the right and left sides of the brain — had a thicker measurement in female fetuses than in male fetuses.

Observations of adult brains show that this area may remain stronger in females. “Females seem to have language functioning in both sides of the brain,” says Martha Bridge Denckla, PhD, a research scientist at Kennedy Krieger Institute.

Consider these recent findings. Researchers, using brain imaging technology that captures blood flow to “working” parts of the brain, analyzed how men and women process language. All subjects listened to a novel. When males listened, only the left hemisphere of their brains was activated. The brains of female subjects, however, showed activity on both the left and right hemispheres.” (

Consider this contained in the paper, “Intelligence and chess” by Fernand Gobet, & Guillermo Campitelli, published in 2002:

Geschwind and Galaburda’s theory (1985)

“Geschwind and Galaburda (1985) developed an influential theory of the
neuroanatomical substrate of talent. Their aim was to explain a complex pattern of
results linking, among other things, phenomena such as talent in visuo-spatial
domains (e.g., music or mathematics), brain lateralisation, dyslexia, proneness to
allergies, and handedness. The theory is rather complicated, and, given limits in
space, we will limit ourselves to its main components. It is known that the right
hemisphere of the brain normally underpins visuo-spatial abilities (e.g., Kosslyn &
Koenig, 1992). Geschwind and Galaburda reasoned that better development (e.g.,
pattern of cortical connections) of the right hemisphere should lead to better performance
in visuo-spatial tasks. The key step is to propose that great exposure or
high sensitivity to intrauterine testosterone in the developing male foetus leads to a
less developed left hemisphere than usual, and, as a compensation, to a more
developed right hemisphere. Hence, males should be more represented than females
in visuo-spatial domains such as mathematics, music, and chess, and left-handers
should be more represented in these fields than in the general population. We now
consider the available evidence for testing Geschwind and Galaburda’s theory in

In another section of the paper one finds, “Handedness and chess,” in which they quote two studies having found 18% of chess players are left-handed. “This percentage significantly differs from the percentage in the general population, which has been estimated to lie between 10% and 13.5%.”

The conclusion can only be that because of the difference in the brain of a female, who utilizes both sides of her brain, as opposed to a male, who is more orientated to using one side of his brain, this plays a role in the chess ability of female chess players. Gobet and Campitelli write, “Taken together, these results suggest that there exists biological determinants of expertise in chess.”

Debunking the Polgar Sisters Case

Mark Weeks writes the “Chess For All Ages” blog, and he is confused about the facts ( when it comes to the statement, “‘chess makes you smarter.” Many are confused when it comes to chess and intelligence because much has been written, but little understood, about the role chess has played in improving the “smarts” of a human being. Inquiring minds what to know so I asked for a little help from my friends in order to learn what is known by the most intelligent and learned people who study these kinds of questions. Numerous papers have been published concerning the issue and they are quite expensive. In my impecunious situation I would not have been able to read the papers except for the fact that friends in the world of academia gave me a helping hand. I profusely thank them for their kindness. I have read numerous papers recently, which made my eyes bleed…For the next several days I will share what I have learned with the chess community.

Judit Polgar retired from chess recently, bringing an end to the experiment conducted by the Polgar sisters father, Laszlo. Many women have written that if only there were more female chess players there would be more women in the top echelon of chess. For example, see “USCF President Ruth Haring’s “Numbers Game” ( Anjelina Belakovskaia is planning on a run for the USCF policy board and has written, ” I know that there is much more needs to be done and as a professional chess player myself (WGM), a business person, a Mom of 3 chess playing kids and a coach running Belakovskaia Chess Academy, I feel I can bring a lot to the table. From improving professional chess image, to attracting more girls into chess…” ( She wants more girls in spite of the fact that the USCF’s own numbers show that girls drop out of chess at, or near, puberty. These women play, or have played chess, so they seem to think that if it was good for them, it will be even better for the game if many more girls play chess, and it will translate into many more elite female chess players. What I wanted to know is what the empirical evidence shows. I found the answer in a paper published in 2011 by Robert Howard of the School of Education, University of New South Wales, Sydney 2052, Australia, Does high-level intellectual performance depend on
practice alone? Debunking the Polgar sisters case.

“The Polgar sisters case often is cited as evidence that practice alone is key to chess skill and that
almost anyone can become a grandmaster (Ericsson & Charness, 1994; Forbes, 1992; Vinkhuyzen, van
der Sluis, Posthuma, & Boomsma, 2009). It has featured in the popular media, with the suggestion of
major educational implications (Colvin, 2008; Flora, 2005; Gladwell, 2008; Ross, 2006). As described
by Hearst and Knott (2009, pp. 136–137), “The Polgars’ father, Laszlo, was a teacher who believed that
there is really no such thing as innate talent or genius and that any reasonably normal intelligent person could achieve great success in a specialized field if he or she were given extensive and concentrated training in that field from an early age, starting particularly before they were six years old. . .”. The three sisters (born in 1969, 1974, and 1976) were raised in Hungary and home-schooled. They learned chess at a very young age and reportedly studied chess many hours a day (Forbes, 1992; Polgar & Truong, 2005). They excelled, two becoming grandmasters, and one still is the strongest-ever female player.
The Polgar case often is regarded as if it had been scrutinized carefully by expert reviewers and
reported in a scientific journal. But it never has been. If so submitted with the bare-bones facts cited by researchers (e.g. early starting ages, many daily practice hours, two becoming grandmasters), would the usual claims for it pass reviewer scrutiny?”

Examination method

“Here, the Polgar case was examined closely. Each sister’s expertise development was quantified
and compared with the other sisters’ development and with other groups and an individual. Two
data sets were used; longitudinal rating data from the international chess federation (FIDE) and data
from an online survey. Practice in chess is defined here as playing games and studying chess material
(Howard, 2009).
One comparison group was other players entering the international chess domain around the same
time; between the sisters’ entry dates of July 1980 and January 1987. The sisters had much more
practice on average because the other players mostly attended school, and there are no reports of
others having a Polgar-type upbringing. Most players do not study a lot. Charness, Tuffiash, Krampe,
Reingold, and Vasyukova (2005) reported a mean 6.3 h per week of “serious study” in chess players.
A second comparison was with an archetypal chess prodigy (ACP, born in 1990). He entered the
domain in January 2001, with a later start than the sisters (he reports taking up the game seriously at
age 8), gained the grandmaster title at age 13, and reached the number one ranking spot at age 19 in
2010. He lacked a Polgar upbringing and must have received much less practice, as detailed below.”

“The sisters started serious practice around the same age and studied about the same number of
hours daily, often being coached together (Polgar & Truong, 2005). Yet there are wide differences in
their rating development and their peak ratings.”


When examined closely, the Polgar case does not show that almost anyone can become a grandmaster
and that practice alone is key. From starting age to the late 1990s, the Polgars probably received
more practice than anyone ever has. Despite their much greater practice levels, two sisters’ peak ratings
are quite comparable to those of other players first on the list around the same time and to those
of eight surveyed and much less practiced grandmasters, and are well below that of less-practiced
ACP. If only practice and an early start were important, there should have been little difference among
them in their rating trajectories and peak ratings. All should have made the top ten and they should
have had a lasting stranglehold on the open world championship. A plausible alternative account is
that the Polgars have much natural talent for chess, one sister has more than the others, and ACP has
more than all three. No claim is being made here that the data presented show the existence of natural
talent, only that this interpretation is plausible.
The present study has limitations. It was not possible to directly survey the Polgars or ACP nor
to administer any tests to them. One might argue that some kind of practice really was key, that
training methods have improved and this somehow accounts for the results, or that everyone in the
present study on the list from 1980 to 1987 really had a Polgar upbringing. One could argue that too
many variables are confounded, or that ACP received some very special type of practice. Nature and
nurture are notoriously difficult to separate and there is no claim that they were separated here. Such
objections are irrelevant to the present purposes of demonstrating that an interpretation of the Polgar
evidence that invokes natural talent is plausible. In conclusion, the Polgar case does not stand up to
the claims often made for it.”

Momir Radovic’s Chess Blog

While searching for the web last night I happened to discover “Momir Radovic’s Chess Blog.” “Looking at the Other Side of Chess from Atlanta, Georgia.”

Another chess blogger of which I was unaware right here in my own backyard. So many blogs, so little time…I have only just begun to delve into the mind of Momir. I could not answer this question, “Who is 2165 Rated Guy Who Scored Undefeated 9.5-2.5 Coming in Second After Benkő at the 1964 US Open?” If you would like to know the answer it can be found on the “Other Side of Chess” @