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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USCF President Ruth Haring’s “Numbers Game”

Ruth Haring is the President of the USCF board. She begins her President’s Report with, “I report to you today as I complete three years as President and five years as an executive board member.”
For the five years Ruth has been on the executive board members have been leaving the USCF ship like rats on the Titanic. The numbers she provides in the charts and graphs show this fact. She even expresses the major problem in words, writing, “It is notable that there is a drop year over year in the adult category, and we should find out the reason for this change.
Looking at the chart “Membership by Age Breakdown,” we can see that our under 12 membership is constantly changing. Under 12 members are not the same members year over year. We need to pay more attention to how to retain our members as they become teenagers and adults.”
Ruth and the boys have had five years to “pay more attention” to the problem. What have they been doing for the previous half decade? Not only does the problem persist, it continues to grow, like a cancer.
In her second paragraph she writes, “…and heeding the words of JFK who said, “Effort and courage are not enough without purpose and direction”, the board set out on a journey to accomplish just that; meeting in January for a comprehensive strategic planning workshop. Jean will talk about the work done in this meeting in more detail.”
I write this in late August, at least eight months after the “comprehensive strategic planning workshop.”
What is the “purpose and direction” of USCF? Ruth needs to elaborate on the “purpose” part because the “direction” is known. It is in the numbers, which are heading down. What does the President plan on doing about this? “In the past I have discussed retention and demographics and my goal to have equal number of female and male chess members doubling our membership. I believe that a side effect of the influx of around 70,000 female players will also be that our female players will be stronger. It’s all a numbers game.”
Let me repeat that last part, “IT’S ALL A NUMBERS GAME.”
Ruth is on a mission to vastly increase the number of female players. She has stated this ad infinitum. It is her raison d’etre. She believes in this in the way Joliet Jake and Elwood Blues believed they were “On a mission from God.” She believes she will have “70,000 female players.” The woman is delusional. She also believes the exponential increase in girls will produce a “side effect” of making female players stronger because “It’s all a numbers game.” Her thinking has been refuted by Robert Howard who “holds a PhD in psychology from the University of Queensland in Australia and has research interests in human intelligence, learning and memory, and in the development of expertise. He has carried out many research studies examining expertise in general, using chess data. Until recently, he taught at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. He has authored five books, the latest being Islands in the Orient Sea: Travels in the Edgy 21st-Century Philippines, published in 2012.” Do not take my word for it; read the refutation yourself in a recent article on Chessbase, “Explaining male predominance in chess” by Robert Howard (http://en.chessbase.com/post/explaining-male-predominance-in-chess)
Certainly Ruth has been made aware of the article, yet she has chosen to disbelieve it because it does not conform to her thinking. It took many people a long time to wrap their minds around the fact that the earth was not flat.
After five years on the board, three as President, Ruth has a goal and tells us about it, “So my goal is to double USCF membership. What about retention? Recall the earlier chart of of membership by age and the dropoff at 11-12 years old? A jigsaw puzzle we need to solve for sure.” Unfortunately, the woman is still puzzled after all these years.
Let us consider a possible reason for the staggering numbers by which these children drop out by age thirteen. What happens to a child at that age? It is called puberty. The chart shows, “67% of our girl players are 12 and under.” This drops to 11% in the 13-15 age group. With these numbers staring her in the face, President Ruth has the audacity to write that there will be an, “… influx of around 70,000 female players.” Yeah, right. What are the odds of such an occurrence?
I thought about Ruth Haring while reading an interview with former World Human Chess Champion Vladimir Kramnik on the chess24 website (https://chess24.com/en/read/news/24-000-goal-for-chess-documentary) Vlad said, “As a chess player in any situation the first thing you do is always think logically – if I do this what will the guy do? But in fact many people just don’t think this way. For a chess player it’s automatic. You play a move and you always think about what the answer of your opponent will be. In fact this is also something which is very useful in life. I see this in many areas, especially politics. Modern politicians are lacking it a lot, because they just don’t think, in my opinion. I’m very unpleasantly surprised by the mistakes they’re making because they just don’t think in this way. They’re just thinking about their moves, not trying to calculate the moves of their opponent.”
Let us consider how it may affect USCF to have an influx of 70,000 girls on chess by considering what the effect has been on the demographic change since the USCF decided to become, shall we say, more “child friendly.” Former adult players have found other pursuits. I would assume this would continue at an exponential rate. The graph shows there are less than five hundred members in the 20 year-old age group; 473 to be specific. That is an average of less than TEN PER STATE! Why is this so? By age twenty only 2% of the females are left in the numbers. TWO PERCENT! Could it be that a twenty year-old male, who is becoming a man, does not wish to continue playing a game with grammar school age children, especially preteen girls? Many comments can be found on the USCF forum concerning comments made by young male adults saying chess is considered a “children’s game.” These males have left childhood behind and are preparing to enter the adult world. Yet after five years on the board, three as President, Ruth Haring is “puzzled.” It is obvious the USCF is purposeless and heading in the wrong direction. It’s in their own numbers.

As an addendum, I posted something on the USCF forum in reply to Ruth’s report, which has not, as yet, been taken down, if you can believe it. It can be found here: (http://www.uschess.org/forums/viewtopic.php&f=24&t=20425)

RIKKI DON’T LOSE THAT NUMBER (1974) by Steely Dan

Steely Dan “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” 9/30/13 Beacon Theatre, NYC

The Blues Brothers – Briefcase Full Of Blues (Full Album)

BLUES BROTHERS BAND | Live at Montreux Jazz Festival (Switzerland, 1990)