The Cult of the Head Start
One year and four days after World War II in Europe ended in unconditional surrender, Laszlo Polgar was born in a small town in Hungary-the seed of a new family. He had no grandmothers, no grandfathers, and no cousins; all had been wiped out in the Holocaust, along with his father's first wife and five children. Laszlo grew up determined to have a family, and a special one.
He prepped for fatherhood in college by poring over biographies of legendary thinkers, from Socrates to Einstein. He decided that traditional education was broken, and that he could make his own children into geniuses, if he just gave them the right head start. By doing so, he would prove something far greater: that any child can be molded for eminence in any discipline. He just needed a wife who would go along with the plan.
Laszlo's mother had a friend, and the friend had a daughter, Klara. In 1965, Klara traveled to Budapest, where she met Laszlo in person. Laszlo didn't play hard to get; he spent the first visit telling Klara that he planned to have six children and that he would nurture them to brilliance. Klara returned home to her parents with a lukewarm review: she had "met a very interesting person," but could not imagine marrying him.
They continued to exchange letters. They were both teachers and agreed that the school system was frustratingly one-size-fits-all, made for producing "the gray average mass," as Laszlo put it. A year and a half of letters later, Klara realized she had a very special pen pal. Laszlo finally wrote a love letter, and proposed at the end. They married, moved to Budapest, and got to work. Susan was born in early 1969, and the experiment was on.
For his first genius, Laszlo picked chess. In 1972, the year before Susan started training, American Bobby Fischer defeated Russian Boris Spassky in the "Match of the Century." It was considered a Cold War proxy in both hemispheres, and chess was suddenly pop culture. Plus, according to Klara, the game had a distinct benefit: "Chess is very objective and easy to measure." Win, lose, or draw, and a point system measures skill against the rest of the chess world. His daughter, Laszlo decided, would become a chess champion.
Laszlo was patient, and meticulous. He started Susan with "pawn wars." Pawns only, and the first person to advance to the back row wins. Soon, Susan was studying endgames and opening traps. She enjoyed the game and caught on quickly. After eight months of study, Laszlo took her to a smoky chess club in Budapest and challenged grown men to play his four-year-old daughter, whose legs dangled from her chair. Susan won her first game, and the man she beat stormed off. She entered the Budapest girls' championship and won the under-eleven title. At age four she had not lost a game.
By six, Susan could read and write and was years ahead of her grade peers in math. Laszlo and Klara decided they would educate her at home and keep the day open for chess. The Hungarian police threatened to throw him in jail if he did not send his daughter to the compulsory school system. It took him months of lobbying the Ministry of Education to gain permission. Susan's new little sister, Sofia, would be homeschooled too, as would Judit, who was coming soon, and whom Laszlo and Klara almost named Zseni, Hungarian for "genius." All three became part of the grand experiment.
On a normal day, the girls were at the gym by 7 a.m. playing table tennis with trainers, and then back home at 10:00 for breakfast, before a long day of chess. When Laszlo reached the limit of his expertise, he hired coaches for his three geniuses in training. He spent his extra time cutting two hundred thousand records of game sequences from chess journals-many offering a preview of potential opponents-and filing them in a custom card catalog, the "cartotech." Before computer chess programs, it gave the Polgars the largest chess database in the world to study outside of-maybe-the Soviet Union's secret archives.
When she was seventeen, Susan became the first woman to qualify for the men's world championship, although the world chess federation did not allow her to participate. (A rule that would soon be changed, thanks to her accomplishments.) Two years later, in 1988, when Sofia was fourteen and Judit twelve, the girls comprised three of the four Hungarian team members for the women's Chess Olympiad. They won, and beat the Soviet Union, which had won eleven of the twelve Olympiads since the event began. The Polgar sisters became "national treasures," as Susan put it. The following year, communism fell, and the girls could compete all over the world. In January 1991, at the age of twenty-one, Susan became the first woman to achieve grandmaster status through tournament play against men. In December, Judit, at fifteen years and five months, became the youngest grandmaster ever, male or female. When Susan was asked on television if she wanted to win the world championship in the men's or women's category, she cleverly responded that she wanted to win the "absolute category."
None of the sisters ultimately reached Laszlo's highest goal of becoming the overall world champion, but all were outstanding. In 1996, Susan participated in the women's world championship, and won. Sofia peaked at the rank of international master, a level down from grandmaster. Judit went furthest, climbing up to eighth in the overall world ranking in 2004.
Laszlo's experiment had worked. It worked so well that in the early 1990s he suggested that if his early specialization approach were applied to a thousand children, humanity could tackle problems like cancer and AIDS. After all, chess was just an arbitrary medium for his universal point. Like the Tiger Woods story, the Polgar story entered an endless pop culture loop in articles, books, TV shows, and talks as an example of the life-hacking power of an early start. An online course called "Bring Up Genius!" advertises lessons in the Polgar method to "build up your own Genius Life Plan." The bestseller Talent Is Overrated used the Polgar sisters and Tiger Woods as proof that a head start in deliberate practice is the key to success in "virtually any activity that matters to you."
The powerful lesson is that anything in the world can be conquered in the same way. It relies on one very important, and very unspoken, assumption: that chess and golf are representative examples of all the activities that matter to you.
Just how much of the world, and how many of the things humans want to learn and do, are really like chess and golf?
Psychologist Gary Klein is a pioneer of the "naturalistic decision making" (NDM) model of expertise; NDM researchers observe expert performers in their natural course of work to learn how they make high-stakes decisions under time pressure. Klein has shown that experts in an array of fields are remarkably similar to chess masters in that they instinctively recognize familiar patterns.
When I asked Garry Kasparov, perhaps the greatest chess player in history, to explain his decision process for a move, he told me, "I see a move, a combination, almost instantly," based on patterns he has seen before. Kasparov said he would bet that grandmasters usually make the move that sprung to mind in the first few seconds of thought. Klein studied firefighting commanders and estimated that around 80 percent of their decisions are also made instinctively and in seconds. After years of firefighting, they recognize repeating patterns in the behavior of flames and of burning buildings on the verge of collapse. When he studied nonwartime naval commanders who were trying to avoid disasters, like mistaking a commercial flight for an enemy and shooting it down, he saw that they very quickly discerned potential threats. Ninety-five percent of the time, the commanders recognized a common pattern and chose a common course of action that was the first to come to mind.
One of Klein's colleagues, psychologist Daniel Kahneman, studied human decision making from the "heuristics and biases" model of human judgment. His findings could hardly have been more different from Klein's. When Kahneman probed the judgments of highly trained experts, he often found that experience had not helped at all. Even worse, it frequently bred confidence but not skill.
Kahneman included himself in that critique. He first began to doubt the link between experience and expertise in 1955, as a young lieutenant in the psychology unit of the Israeli Defense Forces. One of his duties was to assess officer candidates through tests adapted from the British army. In one exercise, teams of eight had to get themselves and a length of telephone pole over a six-foot wall without letting the pole touch the ground, and without any of the soldiers or the pole touching the wall. The difference in individuals' performances were so stark, with clear leaders, followers, braggarts, and wimps naturally emerging under the stress of the task, that Kahneman and his fellow evaluators grew confident they could analyze the candidates' leadership qualities and identify how they would perform in officer training and in combat. They were completely mistaken. Every few months, they had a "statistics day" where they got feedback on how accurate their predictions had been. Every time, they learned they had done barely better than blind guessing. Every time, they gained experience and gave confident judgments. And every time, they did not improve. Kahneman marveled at the "complete lack of connection between the statistical information and the compelling experience of insight." Around that same time, an influential book on expert judgment was published that Kahneman told me impressed him "enormously." It was a wide-ranging review of research that rocked psychology because it showed experience simply did not create skill in a wide range of real-world scenarios, from college administrators assessing student potential to psychiatrists predicting patient performance to human resources professionals deciding who will succeed in job training. In those domains, which involved human behavior and where patterns did not clearly repeat, repetition did not cause learning. Chess, golf, and firefighting are exceptions, not the rule.
The difference between what Klein and Kahneman documented in experienced professionals comprised a profound conundrum: Do specialists get better with experience, or not?
In 2009, Kahneman and Klein took the unusual step of coauthoring a paper in which they laid out their views and sought common ground. And they found it. Whether or not experience inevitably led to expertise, they agreed, depended entirely on the domain in question. Narrow experience made for better chess and poker players and firefighters, but not for better predictors of financial or political trends, or of how employees or patients would perform. The domains Klein studied, in which instinctive pattern recognition worked powerfully, are what psychologist Robin Hogarth termed "kind" learning environments. Patterns repeat over and over, and feedback is extremely accurate and usually very rapid. In golf or chess, a ball or piece is moved according to rules and within defined boundaries, a consequence is quickly apparent, and similar challenges occur repeatedly. Drive a golf ball, and it either goes too far or not far enough; it slices, hooks, or flies straight. The player observes what happened, attempts to correct the error, tries again, and repeats for years. That is the very definition of deliberate practice, the type identified with both the ten-thousand-hours rule and the rush to early specialization in technical training. The learning environment is kind because a learner improves simply by engaging in the activity and trying to do better. Kahneman was focused on the flip side of kind learning environments; Hogarth called them "wicked."
In wicked domains, the rules of the game are often unclear or incomplete, there may or may not be repetitive patterns and they may not be obvious, and feedback is often delayed, inaccurate, or both.
In the most devilishly wicked learning environments, experience will reinforce the exact wrong lessons. Hogarth noted a famous New York City physician renowned for his skill as a diagnostician. The man's particular specialty was typhoid fever, and he examined patients for it by feeling around their tongues with his hands. Again and again, his testing yielded a positive diagnosis before the patient displayed a single symptom. And over and over, his diagnosis turned out to be correct. As another physician later pointed out, "He was a more productive carrier, using only his hands, than Typhoid Mary." Repetitive success, it turned out, taught him the worst possible lesson. Few learning environments are that wicked, but it doesn't take much to throw experienced pros off course. Expert firefighters, when faced with a new situation, like a fire in a skyscraper, can find themselves suddenly deprived of the intuition formed in years of house fires, and prone to poor decisions. With a change of the status quo, chess masters too can find that the skill they took years to build is suddenly obsolete.
In a 1997 showdown billed as the final battle for supremacy between natural and artificial intelligence, IBM supercomputer Deep Blue defeated Garry Kasparov. Deep Blue evaluated two hundred million positions per second. That is a tiny fraction of possible chess positions-the number of possible game sequences is more than atoms in the observable universe-but plenty enough to beat the best human. According to Kasparov, ÒToday the free chess app on your mobile phone is stronger than me.Ó He is not being rhetorical.
"Anything we can do, and we know how to do it, machines will do it better," he said at a recent lecture. "If we can codify it, and pass it to computers, they will do it better." Still, losing to Deep Blue gave him an idea. In playing computers, he recognized what artificial intelligence scholars call Moravec's paradox: machines and humans frequently have opposite strengths and weaknesses.
There is a saying that "chess is 99 percent tactics." Tactics are short combinations of moves that players use to get an immediate advantage on the board. When players study all those patterns, they are mastering tactics. Bigger-picture planning in chess-how to manage the little battles to win the war-is called strategy. As Susan Polgar has written, "you can get a lot further by being very good in tactics"-that is, knowing a lot of patterns-"and have only a basic understanding of strategy."
Thanks to their calculation power, computers are tactically flawless compared to humans. Grandmasters predict the near future, but computers do it better. What if, Kasparov wondered, computer tactical prowess was combined with human big-picture, strategic thinking?
In 1998, he helped organize the first "advanced chess" tournament, in which each human player, including Kasparov himself, paired with a computer. Years of pattern study were obviated. The machine partner could handle tactics so the human could focus on strategy. It was like Tiger Woods facing off in a golf video game against the best gamers. His years of repetition would be neutralized, and the contest would shift to one of strategy rather than tactical execution. In chess, it changed the pecking order instantly. "Human creativity was even more paramount under these conditions, not less," according to Kasparov. Kasparov settled for a 3-3 draw with a player he had trounced four games to zero just a month earlier in a traditional match. "My advantage in calculating tactics had been nullified by the machine." The primary benefit of years of experience with specialized training was outsourced, and in a contest where humans focused on strategy, he suddenly had peers.