Incubator For Geniuses: The Story Of The Grandmaster Sisters Polgar

A life 2023

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Incubator For Geniuses: The Story Of The Grandmaster Sisters Polgar
Incubator For Geniuses: The Story Of The Grandmaster Sisters Polgar
Video: Incubator For Geniuses: The Story Of The Grandmaster Sisters Polgar
Video: Born to Be a Chess Master - The Incredible Polgar Sister Experiment 2023, February

Dmitry Kurkin

What makes a person a genius? What determines our talents - heredity or the notorious ten thousand hours of practice (according to sociologist Malcolm Gladwell, this is exactly how much a person needs to become a professional in their field)? Half a century ago, Hungarian teacher Laszlo Polgar began a long-term experiment on growing geniuses in a single family. The results of this experiment, how unique, just as controversial, became sensational and at the same time broke the age-old prejudice about the "inferiority" of female intelligence. But do they prove what Polgar insisted on in the first place - that outstanding abilities are not predetermined by nature, but can be cultivated in the right environment, a kind of incubator with a special training regime?


Laszlo Polgar became interested in the phenomenon of genius in the mid-sixties while studying the development of human intelligence at university. Having studied the biographies of about four hundred prominent personalities, he came to the conclusion that the talents of people like Mozart and Gauss are the result of methodical studies begun at an early age, and not a win at genetic roulette. According to the teacher, which he formulated in the monograph "How to Raise a Genius", almost any healthy child can be raised as a child prodigy - for this you need to start studying with him before he turns three, and from the age of six to decide on a specialization.

It remained to confirm the theory with practice, and Polgar began to look for the mother of future geniuses, whom he intended to raise with his own hand. To do this, according to legend, he posted an ad in a magazine, to which Clara Altberger, a Soviet teacher from Transcarpathia with German and Hungarian roots, soon responded. After six years of dating and active correspondence, the couple got married in the USSR and moved to Budapest, where they had three daughters: Zhuzhanna (Zhuzha), Sofia and Judit. The pedagogical experiment began.

According to eyewitnesses, Polgarov's cramped apartment in the working-class district of Budapest was littered with books on chess theory, but this did not bother the girls at all. There are various explanations for why parents chose chess when choosing a specialization. Strictly speaking, they taught their children both foreign languages ​​(all three sisters became polyglots) and mathematics. But the rating of polyglots and mathematicians does not exist - in contrast to the chess rating of Elo, which made it possible to more clearly assess the success of children. On the other hand, the sisters themselves confidently say that they themselves chose chess. One thing does not contradict the other, and it seems that Polgar Sr. managed to ignite interest in the game in children, and gamification played an important role in this: Zhuzha recalls that chess pieces have become her favorite toys.

Although almost all of the time was devoted to studying in the Polgars' house, from morning to evening (four hours are obligatory for chess), Laszlo did not believe in coercion and stick discipline and considered it important to maintain sincere enthusiasm in the children. The sense of reward from victory had to be many times greater than the disappointment of defeat, and the desire to win had to be stronger than the fear of possible loss. It worked: In a 2016 Ted lecture, Judit Polgar, known for her aggressive style of play, reveals that she loved to compete from an early age.

Feeling rewarded

from victory should have many times exceeded the disappointment from defeat, and the desire to win is to be stronger than the fear of failure

Contemporaries looked askance at the pedagogical methods of Polgar, suspecting in him a mentally unhealthy abuser who stole childhood from children for the sake of an ethically dubious experiment (these suspicions were often mixed with everyday anti-Semitism). In order to defend the right to home schooling for his eldest daughter - Zhuzha had already studied the elementary school curriculum by the age of seven - he had to endure a protracted bureaucratic war with the Hungarian Ministry of Education.In addition, the supervisory authorities from time to time organized raids on the Polgars' apartment, and the head of the Hungarian Chess Federation and party leader Sandor Serenyi called the father of the family “a scoundrel and an anarchist”. “People said: 'Their parents are killing them, they have to work all day, they have no childhood at all,'” Judit recalled. She herself, like her sisters, never questioned the upbringing chosen by her parents.

The Hungarian authorities loosened their grip only when the Polgarov method finally began to bring tangible results: at the age of ten, Zsuzsa created a national sensation, successfully performing at the country's adult chess championship, and the news about incredible children gradually began to change public opinion. However, this did not make it easier to break into the chess establishment, which in those years remained a closed men's club, where terry sexism flourished. It was believed that women were naturally incapable of playing on the same level as men, and the fact that not a single woman had received the title of grandmaster by that time, as it were, reinforced the gender stereotype.

It was a great challenge for the Polgars. Laszlo banned his daughters from playing in women's tournaments and insisted that they compete with as strong opponents as possible. To do this, sometimes it was necessary to play "blindly" - and only after the matches did the skilled chess players on the other side of the board learn with surprise that they had been beaten by a nine- or eleven-year-old girl. It should be noted that at this stage Polgar was no longer a diplomatic father: American chess player and politician Sam Sloan recalls how Laszlo chastised Judit in front of him for agreeing to a draw, playing with the 223rd number in the FIDE rating, and thus the most lowered its own rating coefficient. According to Sloan, it would have been a miracle for Judit to draw that game to a draw, but Laszlo could not appreciate it, since he was a mediocre chess player himself.

But no matter how strong the prejudices against "female intelligence" were, it was impossible to ignore the level of the Polgar sisters. Zhuzha confirmed the title of master at thirteen years old, international master at eighteen, grandmaster at twenty-one. Sofia became a grandmaster at fourteen, Judit at thirteen, thus beating Bobby Fischer. The latter circumstance gave her special pleasure, since the former wonder boy of American chess was a famous misogynist and in 1963 declared that women “play monstrously”: “I think they are simply not very smart … ".

It was believed that women by nature are not able to play on the same level with men, and the absence of women grandmasters reinforced the stereotype

The Polgar sisters' successes became a strong argument in favor of their father's theory, but the question he was trying to answer remains open. Three examples, even exceptional ones, are an insignificant sample by the standards of science, which cannot be considered unequivocal proof of Polgar's correctness. Especially when we don't have reliable statistics on how many of these champion breeding experiments have failed. In addition, genetic research confirms that at least mathematical abilities and ear for music are indeed encoded in human DNA and are inherited.

At the same time, there is a healthy grain in Polgar's theory: he quite accurately indicated the age at which it is worth starting training, and the age for choosing a specialization. According to the theory of information processing, proposed by cognitive psychologists at about the same time when Polgar was publishing his monograph on the education of geniuses, from two to five years a person develops a long-term memory, and also the first analytical abilities appear: to recognize previously assimilated information, to focus on which one for a long time. -or a problem and find different ways to solve it.From the age of five to seven, metacognitive skills are added to them, that is, the ability to "think about how we think" and "reason about how we reason."

The fears of Polgars' contemporaries, who believed that they thoughtlessly cripple the psyche of their children, were not justified either. They were not as obsessed with their experiment as was commonly believed: when the Dutch billionaire, impressed by the success of Zsuzsa Polgar, offered them to repeat the experiment for a fee, adopting three boys from economically disadvantaged countries, the couple refused. And although outstanding chess players do have problems with socialization, the specific upbringing did not prevent the Polgar sisters from becoming what they call "harmonious personalities", whose life is by no means limited to chess. As Judit explained in the same Tedov lecture, reproducing from memory the game played against Anatoly Karpov about thirty years ago, chess became for her just another perfectly learned language.

PHOTOS: Wikimedia, Juditpolgar

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