Debunking the Polgar Sisters Case

Mark Weeks writes the “Chess For All Ages” blog, and he is confused about the facts (http://chessforallages.blogspot.com/2015/02/confusion-about-facts.html) 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” (https://xpertchesslessons.wordpress.com/?s=USCF+President+Ruth+Haring%27s+%22Numbers+Game%22). 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…” (http://www.uschess.org/forums/viewtopic.php?f=23&t=20700&sid=be60acd8a7253d079b536fc53c4dad14) 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.”

Conclusions

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.”

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