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Book Review: Raise A Genius!

I.

A few months ago, I learned about Laszlo Polgar, the man who trained all three of his daughters to be chess grandmasters. He claimed he could make any child a genius just by teaching them using his special methods. I was pretty upset because, although he had a book called Raise A Genius, it was hard to find and only available in Hungarian and Esperanto.

Many SSC readers contributed money to get the book translated, and Esperanto translator Gordon Tishler stepped up to do the job. Thanks to everyone involved. You can find his full translation here: Raise A Genius!

I was hoping that this book would explain Lazslo Polgar’s secrets for raising gifted children. It does so only in very broad strokes. Nor does he seem to be holding much back. But it looks more like he doesn’t really have secrets, per se. The main things he does differently from everyone else are the things he’s talked about in every interview and documentary: he starts young (around the time the child is three), focuses near-obsessively on a single subject, and never stops. Polgar:

The first characteristic of genius education – I could say the most important novelty distinguishing it from contemporary instruction – and its necessary precondition, is early specialization directed at one concrete field. It is indeed true what Homer said, “A person cannot be experienced or first in everything.” Because of this parents should choose a specific field at their discretion. It is only important that by the age of 3-4 some physical or mental field should be chosen, and the child can set out on their voyage.

He has a couple more things to say, but they’re more like vague principles than like specific details. The rest of the book is his opinions on the meaning of genius, his gripes about the Hungarian government, the ways public schooling destroys children’s natural creativity, and various related subjects.

And maybe this stuff deserves some attention. He spends a long time responding to people who say it’s inhumane or immoral to educate children the way he does it, and certainly those claims need a response. A lot of his pedagogical philosophy and personal philosophy of life come out in the way he answers these questions, and given how few specifics he gives, maybe understanding his broader worldview is the way to go. And although a lot of people talk about how public school destroys children’s minds, it’s always good to hear it from the mouth of somebody who’s put his money where his mouth is and done a better job.

But what can we glean from this book in terms of how one can educate a child in the Polgar method?

The closest Raise A Genius comes to anything like a specific prescription is Polgar’s description of what a day might be like in some kind of imaginary Polgar genius school:

In genius education it is necessary that the pedagogue (whether the parents or professional teachers or tutors) stay in direct, constant and intensive contact with the child. Because of this we imagine groups of only 10-15 members. In practice an intensive collaborative contact between the child and an adult must be formed, in which the child does not feel “subordinate.” Think how advantageous it would be if the child already understands at the age of 10 that they know a great deal, that they are a person of the same value as an adult, and that in their life there is at least one field they master as well or better than adults.

As for the curriculum, it would be:

– 4 hours of specialist study (for us, chess)
– 1 hour of a foreign language. Esperanto in the first year, English in the second, and another chosen at will in the third. At the stage of beginning, that is, intensive language instruction, it is necessary to increase the study hours to 3 – in place of the specialist study – for 3 months. In summer, study trips to other countries.
– 1 hour of general study (native language, natural science and social studies)
– 1 hour of computing
– 1 hour of moral, psychological, and pedagogical studies (humor lessons as well, with 20 minutes every hour for joke telling)
– 1 hour of gymnastics, freely chosen, which can be accomplished individually outside school. The division of study hours can of course be treated elastically.

All of this cries out for more explanation (in particular, the humor lessons sound fascinating), but the only part he really explains is the foreign language. He quotes Frantishek Marek: “Learning foreign languages in early childhood is very important, because without that a person cannot later express themself spontaneously, rapidly, and appropriately”, and I think suggests (though I might be misunderstanding) that languages are one of the easiest things to teach young children, and so a good way to get them into the spirit of learning things. He also thinks languages are nice because they have a defined end-goal (speaking fluently) and obvious progress along the way, so children feel good about learning them. He argues Esperanto is perfect for this: as a logical constructed language, it’s very easy to learn, and it convinces children that learning is fast and easy. Then with their Esperanto knowledge they’ll be much better able to pick up other languages later on. I’m not really sure what to think of this – language learning might be more important if you grow up speaking Hungarian rather than English, and Polgar seems so enthusiastic an Esperantist that it’s hard to picture him recommending it for purely rational reasons – but he’s quite insistent on it.

This idea that children should learn things they find exciting and enjoyable – and where they keep making measurable progress – recurs throughout the book. Often it’s in the context of a kind of counterintuitive point, where someone asks him “Won’t kids hate having to learn so much?” and Polgar answers that kids may hate public school, where they sit around a lot and never feel like they’re really mastering anything, but won’t hate intensive genius education, where they actually feel like people are trying to make them good at things:

In conditions of intensive instruction a child will soon feel knowledgeable, perceive independence, achieve success, and shortly become capable of independently applying their knowledge. Let us take an example from language learning. Let us suppose that someone visits a class for interpreters at a school for geniuses, where they are occupied for 5-6 hours with a first foreign language, Esperanto if possible. (Why precisely with this language I will clarify below.) After some months they are already corresponding with children in other countries, they participate in meetings in and outside of their country – and longer-lasting – where they experience serious successes, and they converse fluently in the language they have learned by then. Is this a nice feeling for a child? Yes, it is nice. Is it useful for the child? Yes, it is useful. Is it useful for society? It is useful. In the following year one can do the same with another foreign language – let us say English – and in the year after that another.

The same is valid for any field of life. In this way a child really enjoys what they are doing, and they see that it makes sense. In contemporary schools students do not understand why they are learning. But in genius-education schools the children know that after a few months they will speak Esperanto, in the following year English, in the following year German, etc. Or in the field of chess; in the first year they play at level 3, after the third year at level 1, after five years as a master candidate, after 6-7 years as a master, after 8-10 years as an international master, and after the 15th year as a grandmaster. So the child sees the goal and meaning of their work.

And:

One thing is certain: one can never achieve serious pedagogical results, especially at a high level, through coercion. One can teach chess only by means of love and the love of the game. If I may advise: one should make sure that before everything the father or mother should not diminish the child’s habit of chess playing by too much severity. We should make sure not to always win against the child; we should let them win sometimes so that they feel that they also are capable of thinking. In this way we should bring them to a feeling of success.

So how does one go about ensuring that a child loves education?

At the start it is most important to awake interest. We should make the child aware that who learns this knows this. And chess is learnable. If we educate the child such that they can be a partner, can accept, create, and initiate, then we can always entrust them with more independent tasks. We should get the child to love what they do – to such a degree that they do it almost obsessively. The Hungarian psychologist Tamas Vekerdy warns of the same thing, that infants more easily master things that awake and draw their interest, their attention. And even at the beginning, the child should feel joy. We should not be angry, if they jump around here and there during a chess game; indeed, it is a known fact in psychology that even though a child might frolic aimlessly because of their age-appropriate character, their thoughts can still stay on the task. We should not tell them everything; we should try to get the child themself to say something! We should not ourselves make all the moves; we should try to get the child themself to make the moves! This is the so-called Socratic method, and the essence of instruction in problem-solving – projected onto chess.

Of course great success is not achievable without motivation. At the age of 5-6, if the activity is sufficiently interesting, success can also function as a strong incentive. Stimulation, encouragement, and instilling passion and trust are very important. If the parents and tutors tell the child that they are foolish and bad, the child will probably truly believe this. But the opposite also applies: if we say that they are clever and skillful, they will believe that as well. They often truly believe that, and try harder to actually become so. I consider it a basic principle that success is extraordinarily important. When I began the experiment, I thought that although I would not let my daughters avoid failure, they would nevertheless need to grow up accompanied by success. The proportion of failure to success should be 1 to 10.

Likewise:

The experience of success or failure, as Adler demonstrates, greatly influences the self-confidence – or uncertainty – of the child. According to P. Michel as well, the experience of success, the admiration of others, and the recognition of teachers, significantly stimulates further action, increases the trust of the child in their knowledge and ability to a high degree.

According to Frank, failure, suffering, and fearfulness decrease achievement. Following a number of successive failures, even a damaging inhibitory complex can be created. With an increase in stress, action becomes more superficial and behavior less calm. Similarly, in the opinion of M. Juck, success experienced in one area increases (and failure decreases) the level of aspiration in other areas. Helm’s experiments prove that experience of success decreases the time necessary for solving later tasks, and increases the elasticity and ideational richness of the mind, while following failure there can be hindrances, rigidity, and relative ideational poverty in thinking, and problem-solving time increases.

Likewise:

One should have great patience. We should let the child arrive at a sense of success, but we should not handicap ourselves (we should not give up major pieces or an advantage in pawns), because in that case the structure of the game changes. Preferably the parents or teachers should provide a temporal handicap, or weave intentional mistakes into the game, so that the child can use them for themself. During the game the tutor should organize their position on the board intentionally as is appropriate for the student and the development of the child at their age.

And:

To awaken the child’s interest. The child should like what they are occupied with, that is, be interested in it. One must little by little accustom them to the work and create in them the unification of work and play. It is important as well that the child become accustomed to learning and working. Particular training is necessary for the workload. I call well-organized and age-appropriate work active rest. A child’s workload should be such that they experience it as active rest. Students, for example, who must attend lectures which they then enjoy, feel more rested afterwards than before. And if the speaker lectures inexpertly, they almost fall asleep from boredom and fatigue after half an hour.

There’s a lot of this, always exhorting people to make sure children enjoy being intensively educated, but always giving only vague gestures on how to do it. I suspect Polgar was a naturally gifted teacher, and his daughters naturally curious students, and that he never really encountered problems in this regard and doesn’t expect other people to either. Some of this seems apparent in his section on play:

I think of play as a very important phenomenon, perhaps more important than do many of those psychologists who put it on a pedestal.

But play is not the opposite of work. Play is very important for a child, but in play there is an element of work. One should not separate these two factors in a child’s value system; if for example a child hears at an impressionable age, “Play, son, don’t work!” this can later result in him feeling that work is alien. On the contrary, it is my opinion that a child does not like only play: for them it is also enjoyable to acquire information and solve problems. A child’s work can also be enjoyable; so can learning, if it is sufficiently motivating, and if it means a constant supply of problems to solve that are appropriate for the level of the child’s needs.

A child does not need play separate from work, but meaningful action. Children already enjoy doing meaningful things in infancy. They like solving problems during play, even pleasurable play. The more meaningful and information-rich the problems they solve during their activities, the greater is their enjoyment and sense of success. In the end it is most important at this age to awaken enjoyment and good feelings in them.

Regarding my daughters, it is my experience that learning presents them with more enjoyment than a sterile game. I have the feeling that play deprived of information often plays only a surrogate role, of surrogate action, of surrogate satisfaction.

This is proven also by the fact that when we examine the biographies of exceptionally capable children, we find that they played much less than their peers. The profound and lengthy research of L. M. Turman in California in 1920 uncovered many differences between the play of unusually capable children and their peers. As expected, play that demanded mental action was much more interesting to the talented children. They played alone somewhat more often, compared to the control group. Susanna Millar writes in her book Psychology of Play that sometimes unusually capable children who lack peers at the same intellectual level can have difficulties in play with others. Thus I generally do not rigidly separate learning from play, or work from hobbies at an adult level.

From my point of view, workloads could be measurably increased by appropriate methods. I agree with the pedagogical tendency to ask for intensive instruction. The essence of intensive instruction lies really in using goal-directed workloads, age-appropriateness, the holding of
interest, and the lived experience of achievement and success. The American G Doman thinks the same. In his analogy: as the different muscles of the body can be developed and strengthened only by regular training, so also the capabilities of the brain can only grow by means of daily training. The lack of structured logical thought and learning causes a decrease in intelligence, just as un-exercised body parts atrophy. Doman knows, on the basis of three decades of practical experience, that the brain grows most rapidly between the ages of 1 and 6, and it almost “effortlessly” assimilates knowledge. The ability to learn by play decreases after 6 years of age, when assimilation of information becomes more difficult mental work.

More on peers:

The contemporary psychological and pedagogical literature emphasizes in one sense the importance of the peer group. But in my pedagogical concept it receives a slightly different emphasis. According to me, it is not primarily important for a child to have suitable companions of the same age, but preferably to have spiritually (mentally) appropriate partners, friends worthy of the level of their intellectual capabilities. If the social relationships of a child are exclusively or for the most part limited to groups of the same age, this will slow the progress of an exceptionally capable child.

[Some say that children should not spend too long with adults, but this] is disadvantageous only if the intellectual level is too different, and if the relationship between child and adult is not suitable, for example, if the adult imposes everything on the child so they take away their independence and initiative. But if they try to correctly develop these traits in the child, it is not damaging, but on the contrary is useful. About this I do not want to say that a child should always be in the company of adults. One must find the right proportion of being with adults and peers. I believe that passing their time in the company of those who have a similar level of intellect and similar interests and sense this well in these interactions is decisive.

Zsuzsa is a concrete example: if at the age of 13 she had played chess only with 13-year-olds, who were weaker than her in many categories, this would have been less than useful for her. And for her opponents it would not have been nice to be “knocked out” in every match. Zsuzsa herself would not have profited, because she needed playing partners at a similar level, and those were
found only among adults.

However, this was not a cause for concern, as the age difference itself did not prevent friendly relationships with others, and having good friends and colleagues at the same time. And friendship often flowed from work relationships. Thus one’s work is at the same time a hobby.

On curriculum design:

Of course, one should make everything appropriate to the stage! With regard to the content of instructional materials and also the duration of instruction, one should start from the traits of the age of the child, and tailor the tasks for the optimum ability of the child. At first we should only play chess for half an hour; after some time a bit more. After a week we can extend the duration. At first we should solve only simple problems, and with the passing of time we should always progress to more complicated ones. One should get the child to play a great deal, but always with suitable partners, who have a generally similar playing ability. On some occasions they can be weaker, on some stronger, so that the child experiences what winning and losing are like. But one must certainly find the right proportion. In childhood they should play rapidly, so they should play many blitz matches and those with a short time limit.

[…]

In this case age-appropriateness is also very important. First one should learn the movements of the king. We practiced this for several days, and later we play “king against king.” The task is this: one king must reach the opponent’s baseline, that is, one must go to the other side of the board. Whoever does this first wins. If some king can stand next the other, then the game ends without a decision. When we had learned this well, we added the next piece, the pawn. In this game the goal was the same: to get to the other side. After several days we added the rook, then the knight.

After 3-4 weeks we arrived at the queen. Understanding the queen’s mate followed later. Possessing this knowledge, we played great pawn battles during the following weeks. That is, only the pawns and the two kings were on the board. After a pawn changed to a queen we played until mate. The children really liked this. During this we started learning the knight’s moves. This is most difficult for children, but not truly a problem, although one must carefully practice this.

Later we became acquainted with the simplest mating moves. First I collected around 1,000 one-move mate diagrams; later I found two-, three-, and four-move mate diagrams and posed them as problems. Only after this did we begin playing real chess. The time we spent getting there lasted about 3-4 months. We should not begrudge the time for this! In this way we assimilate (very deeply and solidly) not only rudimentary knowledge, but the children become accustomed to the carefully considered and foundational game, work. Possessing solid knowledge, they simply and easily learned the later tasks. The possessed resolution, and self-confidence, and arrived at success. They experienced the knowledge and enjoyment of its use.

On grades and competition:

If the instruction is good, one has no need of giving grades. In addition, this truly makes no sense in chess. I would rather arrange various in- and inter-class contests. It is worth sending children to foreign competitions only if we feel that they will do well there. Competition only makes sense when it is evident that it will develop those who are capable of it, and can inspire greater accomplishments on the basis of the results. We should never drive students to failure.

And on the end goal:

An important function of genius education is instilling the capability for self-education. It starts with establishing in the child independent interests. Little by little we can instill in them self-education, independence, and creative work. The pedagogical co-worker cannot always stay at their side. So one of the most important educational tasks is to teach self-education. The latter contributes to, among other things, the child liking what they do, and in their life work is not separate from hobbies.

And unrelated to child-rearing, but very related to a previous discussion on this blog:

The fact is that today a newborn baby, being Jewish, has a much greater chance, by the statistics of Nobel prizes, at this prize, than if they are born in a non-Jewish family. This seems to many to be genetically determined. I have a completely different opinion. I conclude that social “heredity” and the response to one’s own Jewishness causes this phenomenon. I accept – this is indeed a fact – what Endre Czeizel also mentioned on Hungarian Radio (1989-05-23), that the proportion of Jews among Nobel prize-winners is 30%…, and if one is born Jewish, they have a hundred times greater chance of a Nobel prize than an average non-Jew. And most of the Hungarian Nobel prize-winners were Jews. Among chess world champions their proportion reaches – to my knowledge – more than 50%: Lasker, Steinitz, Tal, Botvinnik, Smyslov, Kasparov and Fischer are half Jewish. However, I claim that this is also socially determined.

To mention a few factors: The first essential point is that Jewish families – partly because of strong traditions – are relatively stable, and they are always very concerned with education. Another reason comes from the minority status of Jews and from the frequent persecutions throughout their history. How do these factors contribute to the development of the mind? From a negative side in this way, that because of the always disadvantageous situation of the Jews they always had to appear in almost everything doubly more capable than others. Because of the frequent persecution they knew that at any time they might have to leave their homes, dwellings, and even homelands, and begin lives elsewhere. So what is fixed in Jewish tradition? “Learn, my son, because (1) only thus can you succeed in life, and (2) if you must flee, no one can take knowledge away from you, so you can take it with you anywhere.” Jews could not take their houses with them, so they customarily preferred to buy no houses or unportable things, but gold
and diamonds and trinkets, so that during persecutions they could pocket them and run away. And their knowledge bore fruit everywhere.

On the other hand, Jews are always on the periphery, and this awakens stresses in them; they become “eternal adolescents.” Adolescents do not know whether they are children or adults, and their uncertainty comes from this. Similarly, Jews most often do not know to what degree they are – for example – Hungarian, or Jewish, or both. This situation is difficult to clarify to themselves. Because of it they constantly live with internal conflict. This makes them develop with open minds, a habit of problem-solving, and also develops their adaptability. (This can also cause certain negative qualities, for example over-sensitivity, loudness, aggression, extremism, being critical of oneself and others, a very strong ambition for accomplishments, over-driven activity, etc.)

II.

I want to emphasize a second time that I’ve left out most of the book, which is Polgar’s philosophical and moral reflections on why genius is important / why it’s ethical to try to raise children to be geniuses. If you’ve got any concerns in those areas, please look a little deeper into the source text and you’ll find them answered. At length. Twenty times. Interspersed with enthusiastic infodumps about how great Esperanto is.

In contrast, I said above that there wasn’t much specific pedagogical advice. I wrote that before quote-mining it to write a review; after doing so I realize there’s more than I thought. It’s just very broad, and not too different from what you’d expect a smart and up-to-date educator to say at your local slightly-hippy-ish private school.

I think the main reason I keep feeling like Polgar’s not describing his system enough – even though he describes it at some length – is a mismatch between his astounding results, and his excellent-but-not-that-different-from-common-sense educational advice. Surely there are schools that try to make children love learning and feel a sense of accomplishment in their work (don’t be snarky here, I’m as depressed as anyone by the education system but there are so many different private schools with wacky philosophies that I’m sure at least one of them has hit the target). But none of them have all their students grow up to be world-class chess grandmasters or the interdisciplinary equivalent. Why not?

Appealing to genetics can only take us so far. Both Polgar parents are undoubtedly geniuses. But a lot of wacky private schools get a steady supply of students with really smart parents. There’s got to be something more.

My guess is that the “start really early” and “concentrate on one subject” parts do more of the heavy lifting than I’d previously thought. I also think the one-to-one instruction (well, two-to-three instruction) that the Polgar parents were able to give their kids was probably very important, based on the disproportionate number of child prodigies who were home-schooled by their parents (I don’t know if the low teacher:student ratio or the parent-child relationship itself is important). And I suspect Polgar himself was just a naturally gifted educator who was able to effortlessly instill passion for a subject. Get those four things right – early start, single-subject focus, 1:1 home schooling, and a great parent/teacher – and the rest is just common-sense advice. Common-sense advice that lots of educators fail miserably at, admittedly. But common sense advice nonetheless.

This should be encouraging for people who want to repeat the Polgars’ experiment. You probably don’t need an education degree, let alone training in some secretive arcane Polgar Education Technique, to make it happen. You just need a monomaniacal focus, a lot of free time, and hard-to-define talent.

I think I have a lead on how to get this last one. Polgar talks about how he devised his system by reading the biographies of former child geniuses like John Stuart Mill. It might be useful to repeat this project, if only to see whether someone else can absorb some of the same implicit lessons Polgar did, and gain the same breadth of knowledge he had. This would be my next step from here if I wanted to try to learn more about education.

One concluding quote from Polgar:

There is no magic even in chess instruction, so I want to “warn” those who are expecting to discover miracles. The main pedagogical method and explanations of basic psychological ideas can be found naturally in pedagogical, psychological and technical chess textbooks.

There’s a word for someone who successfully performs miracles, writes a book called Perform Miracles!, and then “warns” those who are “expecting to discover miracles”. That word is “tease”. But Polgar gives us enough of a sketch to at least start out on the road he went on, and hopefully enough further leads to go the rest of the way.

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231 Responses to Book Review: Raise A Genius!

  1. Deiseach says:

    Get those four things right – early start, single-subject focus, 1:1 home schooling, and a great parent/teacher – and the rest is pretty typical Montessori-style common-sense advice.

    And that is what the “any 16 year old can mind kids, why require a college degree* to work in a childcare centre?” argument does not take into account: early start, ratio of staff to children, individual attention, focus on teaching what you’re teaching, even if it’s ‘only’ how to eat and drink and take turns, etc. Not at all the same thing as “stick them in front of the TV watching cartoons with a box of sugary cereal”.

    I think Mr Polgar’s book is rather like if Leopold Mozart wrote a book about how “anyone can raise a musical prodigy kid!” Yes, if you’re already a composer and music teacher with two gifted (one extraordinarily so) children 🙂 Same way with the Polgars; the parents had talent for chess, the kids inherited that plus had a natural interest, and the father was able to teach them intensively. I think it would have been a different matter if he’d picked three random kids and tried teaching them something outside his area of competence.

    Though I think he does have the correct emphasis that whatever subject or topic you pick for the intensive coaching, it must be something the child has an interest and capacity for. It’s no good trying to make a chess genius out of a kid whose natural talent is for cookery; turn them into a leading chef instead. That’s probably the big pitfall with anyone who wants to apply the Polgar method: don’t get caught up in what you want (a sports star, a master musician, a Nobel Prizewinner in science), rather tailor it to the child’s talents and interests.

    *In Ireland we don’t require a college degree but we do require a Level 5 Certification, which is a vocational training award, for those wanting to work in childcare and day care centres.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I think this is the opposite of what Polgar believes. From the book:

      “According to my principle one should not try to find talents, but choose an appropriate pedagogical method for developing the talents. The first characteristic of genius education – I could say the most important novelty distinguishing it from contemporary instruction – and its necessary precondition, is early specialization directed at one concrete field. It is indeed true what Homer said, “A person cannot be experienced or first in everything.” Because of this parents should choose a specific field at their discretion. It is only important that by the age of 3-4 some physical or mental field should
      be chosen, and the child can set out on their voyage.

      And:

      “How much should parents intervene in the future of their children? Should they influence the choice of profession, partner or politics?” Let us begin with the choice of profession. I will speak only about parents who seriously endeavor to smooth the way for their children. Among them there are two types. Some say that a child should be many-faceted, “taste” everything, and in adulthood or close to it they should decide for themselves what they will do. I can also understand this standpoint. However, if the parents wish the children to achieve genius results, then – in my opinion – the parents’ decision should not be put off, and one should decide the direction of their specialization even in infancy.

      • johan_larson says:

        So who is to decide what professional path a person will follow? If the decision is made by the parents, it can be made early, but a matter of vast consequence is placed wholly outside of the child’s control. If the decision is made by the child, it must be postponed into at least adolescence and will necessarily be made by someone with a more immature understanding. And in either case, except for the case of a parent deciding their child should follow them into their own profession or a related one, the choice is made without a clear understanding of what the actual work will be like. I’m a computer programmer, and I have a pretty vague idea of what the day-to-day work of a claims adjuster, lawyer, or plumber is like.

        It’s a hard problem. I don’t see a good solution.

        • Viliam says:

          If I understand Polgár’s philosophy correctly, the decision must be made by parents, because it needs to be made early. Of course you can try multiple things and see how the child reacts. If you can’t make it a pleasant game, stop! But ultimately, you cannot expect a 3 years old child to make an informed decision about their future career. And you should not waste time, because human life is short, especially if you want to reach the genius levels.

          It allegedly takes 10 000 hours to become a master. If you start at the age of 3, and spend 3 hours a day doing something, it is 1000 hours a year. That means you become a master at 13; and then you progress towards the genius levels. If instead you wait until you are 18 to choose your college and your specialization, you are left hopelessly behind.

          Even worse, there will be the Matthew effect in action: The child genius will receive social rewards and support of various kinds, including financial support and better choice of school or jobs; in best case, they will never need to participate in the usual rat race, which in turn will allow them to further develop their talents, and get even more rewards. On the other hand, the kid who started specializing at 18 will be treated as a replaceable cog in the machine, will work 8+ hours a day at a soul-sucking job, and probably burn out.

          Now of course there is a risk that the child grows up and tells you: “Dear parents, I really hate chess. I wish you would have given me piano lessons instead. Now that I am 18, I am not going to touch the chess board anymore.” (Or maybe it will be: “Dear parents, I really hate the piano. I wish you would have given me chess lessons instead. Now that I am 18, I am not going to touch the piano anymore.”) What about that?

          Well, some degree of risk seems inevitable. Yes, we all wish we had a time machine to help us make better decision in the past based on the feedback from the future. And no, we don’t have the time machine (yet). But here are things that reduce the risk:

          (1) If you keep it a game, the chance that the child will literally hate it is negligible. The worst case will be more like: “Dear parents, I am not really interested in chess (piano) anymore. I will start playing piano (chess) instead.” Which means the worst outcome in this method is like the best outcome of the usual method, i.e. spending 18 years browsing Facebook, and then deciding to play piano (chess).

          (2) Being a child with several hundreds or thousands of hours of experience, shortly “a child prodigy”, will make the child admired and rewarded. That is a positive experience which the child will connect to the chess (or the piano), which increases the chance that the child will actually be happy about having been taught chess (or piano).

          And by the way, it is not completely true that Polgár focused “near-obsessively on a single subject”. His three daughters also learned dozen foreign languages, and did a lot of sport. So in a parallel Everett branch, where they randomly received an anti-chess gene, they possibly still became successful linguists or translators. (And hopefully Polgár noticed the anti-chess gene soon enough and switched to something else; probably math.) Except, being the world’s best linguist (as opposed to being e.g. the world’s tenth best linguist) is not as visible as being the world’s best chess player, so in the parallel world the Polgár sisters are probably not internationally famous. But this was explicitly the reason (or rationalization) in the book for choosing chess.

          And I agree that it is easier to teach your children your own profession or hobby, because you know that best.

          • Jiro says:

            (1) If you keep it a game, the chance that the child will literally hate it is negligible. The worst case will be more like: “Dear parents, I am not really interested in chess (piano) anymore. I will start playing piano (chess) instead.” Which means the worst outcome in this method is like the best outcome of the usual method, i.e. spending 18 years browsing Facebook, and then deciding to play piano (chess).

            The worst outcome is like the “best” outcome of the usual method, reduced by the opportunity cost of not being able to spend 18 years browsing Facebook. Which is actually a pretty big reduction. It’s not zero cost just because browsing Facebook is low status and you can sneer at it (besides, the kid may have done something other than browse Facebook anyway.)

          • onyomi says:

            I mostly agree here and will add that I don’t think most children, adolescents, or adults, have nearly so strong preferences about what they will do as we might imagine.

            Sure, we are “drawn” to certain things, and if a child is drawn to a particular pursuit from a young age, the Polgar method seems to say you can pick that (and presumably there’s no hard and fast rule saying you absolutely must stick with it if the child later decides he is obsessed with something else).

            But the thing is, the level of effort needed to be professional at anything is usually much higher than anyone, especially a busy adult, will expend just for “fun.” At some point your passion becomes work when you decide to turn it into your job. Doesn’t mean you no longer feel passionate about it; just means it will always feel like “work” to some degree if you’re doing it enough to be a professional.

            The alternative where you let the kids try a whole bunch of things and only specialize later sounds like it should be fun, but I think it may paradoxically leave most people bored and confused. People like things they are good at. Don’t let the child focus on any one thing long enough to be really good at it and he never establishes that positive feedback loop Polgar references where you can impress all your peers and even adults with your precocious ability at x.

            Faced, at high school graduation, with the fact that he knows a little bit about a whole bunch of things, kind of likes but also feels a little ambivalent about a whole bunch of things, etc. and it isn’t unusual at all (in fact, I’d say it’s now the norm) for the college freshman to still be pretty uncertain about what he might like to major in, much less how he’d like to make a living.

            And all these people are way behind the person who can always fall back on his virtuosic piano playing if whatever else he decided later to do doesn’t work out.

          • Evan Þ says:

            reduced by the opportunity cost of not being able to spend 18 years browsing Facebook. Which is actually a pretty big reduction.

            I’m interested – aside from making social connections to more people your age, what’s the opportunity cost of not browsing Facebook? Presumably these homeschooled child geniuses will still be getting as much socialization as other homeschoolers.

          • Jiro says:

            The cost is that people like browsing Facebook, and it has value to them. Depriving them of it deprives them of value.

            And remember, “Facebook” is just metonymy. It includes other things than actual Facebook.

          • VivaLaPanda says:

            @onyomi

            Anecdote time!

            This resonates with my experiences. I feel like I’m a good programmer, and I get a lot of enjoyment out of it. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that I started in Middle School. My parents aren’t engineers of any kind, so I don’t obviously have a preexisting leaning towards programming/engineering. I really ended up with computers early through happenstance. However, the positive social feedback from making cool software motivated me to work hard and thus see the sense of satisfaction that comes from becoming good at something. I also think the fact that particularly in my rural area programming had a high social value, and as a young person that made me feel good about learning it.

            Now that I’m about to graduate college, I feel like one of the biggest blessings in my life has been knowing what I want to do since early on, and having the opportunity to get good at it. I see so many friends and acquaintances who still aren’t sure what they want to do in their lives, and maybe if they had just committed to one skill early on that wouldn’t be such a mental drain for them.

            If I was raising a child, I would definitely encourage them to get really good at something and stick with it for as long as possible unless they absolutely hate it. Worst case you’ve learned a skill that you might not use much, but you’ll probably be at about the same place as everybody else (i.e. not knowing what to learn/do).

          • Jiro says:

            The reasons why chess is an outlier also happen to apply to computer programming.

          • A Definite Beta Guy says:

            And all these people are way behind the person who can always fall back on his virtuosic piano playing if whatever else he decided later to do doesn’t work out.

            I think part of the problem is that you cannot rely on “falling back” on piano. You need to be quite excellent at playing piano to make a living off playing piano.

            There are a few other points that come to mind:
            1. I am sure there are a lot of parents who forced their kids to play piano from a young age, but there are no Mozarts in the last century (to my knowledge).
            2. This really does not jive with the Scott Adams theory of success, which is more intuitive, which is based on the idea of leveraging different skills together. Like, the piano guy in the Piano Guys is probably not the most best piano player in the world, but he leverages his piano skills with other skills (like marketing the crap out of stuff on youtube) to achieve notoriety and success.

            Obviously Polgar is trying to raise super-geniuses, but I am still skeptical, even if he’s going 3/3, and we’re talking about some sort of back-up to failure.

          • onyomi says:

            This really does not jive with the Scott Adams theory of success, which is more intuitive, which is based on the idea of leveraging different skills together

            This is a good point and probably more true nowadays (in the “gig” economy) than in the past.

            But I disagree that you have to be a Mozart to make a living off the piano. You may need to be an amazing piano player to make a really good living off it, but you can still make a living off being a pretty good piano player–playing at weddings and airport bars, etc.

            Many people, even many college graduates, have literally no marketable skills of significance, which is why they work at McDonalds and Wal Mart, places where basically a medieval peasant could work.

            When I say you can fall back on your piano skill, I mean that, even if you don’t turn out to be world-class in whatever thing your parents had you spend 10,000 hours on as a child, there’s a decent chance, if it is a marketable skill, that you can at least use it to keep the water and lights on if all else fails.

            In my case, the tangible skill I learned in college most marketable outside academia was foreign language. Because I can speak and read a couple foreign languages at a high level, I can always use that ability to work as a translator or interpreter. I don’t like these jobs and they don’t pay very well if you’re not working at the UN, but they sure beat Wal Mart and McDonalds.

            And I think it’s interesting, therefore, that Polgar chose foreign language to be another major focus of his education curriculum.

            Also, re. Adams, I think something only counts as part of your talent “stack” if you have learned it well enough to reach the sort of level I’m describing–not necessarily world class, but could use it to put food on the table if you really had to. The problem with today’s education system is it’s so diffuse in focus that you end up not being good enough at anything to achieve even that level, much less the world-class genius level, which I’m pretty sure everyone here agrees requires some inborn talent in addition to a lot of enthusiasm and time spent in childhood.

          • scherzando says:

            @ADBG – I’m not sure what your criteria are for being Mozart, but on the violin, Sarah Chang and Midori Goto were pretty well-known and impressive child prodigies (who have gone on to have successful careers as soloists). For composers, I would argue that Shostakovich’s First Symphony is better than anything Mozart had written at the age of 19 (though this is admittedly a matter of taste). And then more recently there’s Alma Deutscher, whose parents, from what I can gather, seem to be adopting more or less Polgar’s strategy: homeschooling, with intense study of a single subject from an early age, but with emphasis on making it a fun and creative process for their child.

            Interestingly, Chang, Midori, and Deutscher’s Wikipedia articles all mention early performances in association with Zubin Mehta – I didn’t know of him having any reputation for working with child prodigies, but now that I think about it, if he worked with a few it may have become self-fulfilling in that everyone wants to send the next star his way.

            edit: I’m not quite sure what your point is more generally, but if it’s that the success rate of people who think their child will be a famous musician is incredibly low, that’s of course true. (But it’s also probably true that most of the people forcing their child to play piano from a young age are not trying to replicate Polgar’s experiment. Rather, many are 1. coercing the children in ways that Polgar would rightly object to, and 2. trying to make their children successful mathematicians/businesspeople/etc at the same time, rather than actually focusing on one thing.)

          • A Definite Beta Guy says:

            Onyomi,

            Here is where I am probably going to disagree with you:

            When I say you can fall back on your piano skill, I mean that, even if you don’t turn out to be world-class in whatever thing your parents had you spend 10,000 hours on as a child, there’s a decent chance, if it is a marketable skill, that you can at least use it to keep the water and lights on if all else fails.

            In my case, the tangible skill I learned in college most marketable outside academia was foreign language. Because I can speak and read a couple foreign languages at a high level, I can always use that ability to work as a translator or interpreter. I don’t like these jobs and they don’t pay very well if you’re not working at the UN, but they sure beat Wal Mart and McDonalds.

            The Polgar Sisters are intelligent enough to pursue educations that will enable employment besides Wal Mart and McDonalds.
            The relevant trade-off is not Piano Player vs. McDonalds.
            It is Piano Player vs. Generic UMC job (doctor, banker, etc.)

            Piano players make like $52k a year according to payscale, with no benefits, and bad hours. That may be a biased sample, but Payscale says it does NOT increase with experience, so I think this is possibly a “winner-take-all” market where going from the First Best Piano Player to Hundredth Best Piano Player moves you from Big Salary to Median salary.

            In contrast, I went to a second-tier state university, in business school. These kids are reasonably intelligent, but not super-intelligent, and generally now make wages that range from $60k-$120k, with benefits, at age 30.

            Polgar says he can do this with ANY kid, but I assume most kids actually able to become “Genius” are in the upper 25% of the IQ distribution, and are giving up some valuable career prospects to chase “genius.”

            Opportunity Cost is quite high.

            Also, if I want to pursue genius? Something tells me chess players are not able to command the salaries of top executives, and there are more top executives than top chess players.

            I realize the last is unfairly moving the goal posts (talking about whether we should raise geniuses is different than talking about whether we CAN raise geniuses), but it’s not unfair to suggest that this might not be the best societal move since there are other kinds of “genius” we need.

            Also, if college kids are graduating without marketable skills, or even high school kids are graduating without marketable skills, I think there’s a good argument for reforming the education system. Additionally, I can just tell ADBG Jr. “major in accounting” and avoid those pit-falls.

            scherzando,
            Thanks for the background. I am not familiar with any of these people, or the industry. They are not households names yet.

            I agree that the parents may not be following the Polgar method, maybe the Polgar method would be more successful. Perhaps they would be.

            However, the reason the parents push their kids to do different things is so they can have good careers and backup options. I wouldn’t want a kid mid-25 who can’t do anything but play piano and can’t find a decent job playing piano. I’d be heart-broken.

            My bigger point is #2, anyways, which is that single-minded competency is not the most in-demand kind of genius. I do not know who Sarah Chang is, but I sure know who Warren Buffet is. I don’t think you can teach a 3- or 4- year old stockpicking.

          • JL says:

            @ADBG: late to the party, so you might not see it; but I’m surprised by this claim:

            >Polgar says he can do this with ANY kid, but I assume most kids actually able to become “Genius” are in the upper 25% of the IQ distribution, and are giving up some valuable career prospects to chase “genius.”
            > Opportunity Cost is quite high.

            Presumably if you’re following Polgar’s method, and by age of 16-18 it’s clear that the genius thing is not really working out, you can still fall back to the ‘generic banker career’ – elementary/high school-level education not being very useful in the first place, and more of a ‘place to store children so parents can work’. Hell, you could go to college at 21-24 and not be far behind others by the time you’re 30+.

      • Deiseach says:

        Yes, but I still think the best results are building on what is already there. You can probably decide “my three week old child will be a boxing superstar” and drill them in that up to the age of fifteen or so, but I think you’ll go a lot further in getting a future heavyweight unified title champion if the kid is going to grow up tall, strong, nimble on the feet, has the boxing brain, and can take a punch than if they’re a short asthmatic with a glass jaw and two left feet.

        I defy even Laszlo Polgar to take two year old me and turn me into a La Scala standard opera singer 🙂

        • Tarpitz says:

          Right. Polgar does not appear to allow much of a role in the process for innate talent, or acknowledge that the degree to which it’s important might vary dependent on the chosen specialism. I suspect that the proportion of humans capable of being world class chess players if brought up in this way is vastly greater than the proportion capable of being world class sprinters – and I suspect that only around 10 or 15% of the population would be capable of the former.

          That said, if you had asked me before reading about Polgar what proportion of the population were capable of being world class chess players based on innate talent my estimate would have been a lot lower than 10-15%.

    • alexsloat says:

      And this is why a pet peeve of mine for many years has been how teacher hiring works. If good teachers make a huge difference(and anyone can tell you that they do), we should make more effort to select teachers by quality instead of by seniority. Yes, it’s true that there’s no foolproof system for doing so. But refusing to even try is grossly destructive.

      • this is hotly contested issue: do good students make the teacher, or do teachers make good students

        A top 1% teacher in ability, conscientiousness, and compassion (assuming those things could be quantified) would probably have the most beneficial impact on kids in the top 1%. A good teacher can help a gifted kid realize his or her full potential, but cannot make an average kid exceptional.

      • Anon. says:

        and anyone can tell you that they do

        There’s no evidence to support this. See TEACHERS: MUCH MORE THAN YOU WANTED TO KNOW.

        >In summary: teacher quality probably explains 10% of the variation in same-year test scores. A +1 SD better teacher might cause a +0.1 SD year-on-year improvement in test scores. This decays quickly with time and is probably disappears entirely after four or five years, though there may also be small lingering effects.

      • Viliam says:

        The educational outcome is an interaction of: the teacher, the student, the classroom, the school administration, the parents, and more factors (e.g. the teachers in previous grades). Trying to reduce it to one factor is doomed to fail. For example, you could have a top 1% teacher and a top 1% student… and the rest of the class disrupting every lesson, and the administration refusing to admit that there is a problem that needs to be addressed.

        Also, there are not enough “miraculous teachers”, if we need a school at every corner, sufficiently cheap, and without automation because we are superstitious about that. Our school system is McDonalds, not Jamie Oliver; and it even wouldn’t make sense to hire Jamie Oliver and then make him work in the McDonalds system.

        And, as Grey Enlightenment said, different students have different potential, and would probably benefit from different types of teachers. In my personal experience, I would roughly divide students into two groups: willing to cooperate, and unwilling to cooperate. With the former group, the main task is to transform the knowledge into materials that are pleasant (or at least not actively unpleasant) to use, let the kids use them, and provide consultations when necessary. With the latter group, it is sadly all about keeping discipline in the classroom, and the results will be mediocre anyway. Mixing these two types of students together is a recipe for disaster, which also happens to be the norm.

        If good teachers make a huge difference (and anyone can tell you that they do),

        Trust me, some students (and their parents) complain about those good teachers, too. People complain about being told more than the bare minimum of information required to pass the tests. People complain about having stuff explained too easily, so it doesn’t feel high status anymore. People complain about having stuff explained at all, when they could instead simply memorize it in shorter time. (Generally, whenever you hear people complain about teachers doing X, someone else is probably complaining about a teacher not doing X.) Some people also complain about not being allowed to play Angry Birds in the classroom.

        There is no way to make everyone happy. However you select the “good teachers”, many people will complain that they suck, because they are not doing things their preferred way.

        Sometimes I dream about having a “market” solution to there problems. Like, having different teachers, and letting students (or their parents?) freely choose which teacher’s lessons they want to attend. A teacher without students would be fired. A teacher could ban a student from his lessons; and a student banned from all lessons, and unable to pass exams otherwise, would also be fired. Also, separate teaching from exams; the teacher’s (and the whole school’s) job would be only to teach; the students would be examined by a separate institution. This would nicely integrate with homeschooling; or partial homeschooling, where a student would attend some subjects at school, and learn other subjects at home. Students (and their parents (and their lawyers)) could no longer blackmail teachers into giving good grades by threatening to complain about their teaching methods; the teacher would have no direct impact on the outcome of exams.

        The problem with this “market” solution is that at the elementary or high school level you usually do not have enough people at the same place to create a functional marketplace. People have a preference for having their kids study near their home. Students are separated by age. Teachers are specialized by subjects. So if you have an elementary school with 500 kids, that makes about 60 kids per grade, that is about 2 parallel classrooms, so you have 2 teachers for that subject; not much competition.

        • Nancy Lebovitz says:

          Well, I was a semi-cooperative student– willing to learn somewhat, but not put in a lot of effort.

          As for how far Polgar’s project could be replicated, the whole thing can’t be done for everyone, but it offers some clues for improvement.

          What do you think of the theory that children have an innate strong desire to learn (walking and talking take work), but it gets knocked out of them by conventional schooling?

          Standards for teaching: I would settle for no child having to deal with any really bad teachers and every child having a good chance at an excellent teacher. This is based on seeing people say that one good teacher was enough to put them on a path of learning, and other people say that one bad teacher led them to give up, at least on a subject.

          One thing to look at is setting up teaching so that children get a sense of accomplishment for real achievements. It reminds me of someone who said that she was wasn’t raising children, she was raising adults.

          • Aapje says:

            What do you think of the theory that children have an innate strong desire to learn (walking and talking take work), but it gets knocked out of them by conventional schooling?

            I think that children have specific interests that don’t necessarily line up with that is good for them/society. A kid who watches cartoons or plays computer games all day learns too, but its not the kind of knowledge that usually gets people a job.

          • Tibor says:

            @Aapje: I learned quite a lot of English from playing computer games as a child (in the early 90s pretty much no games were translated to Czech). A lot of my classmates were playing in the park instead or something like that (I also did that, but less often than the average child, I think). Arguably, I learned more than them. I also had this https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Way_Things_Work software, sort of a game-encyclopedia thingy, I loved playing with it and probably learned a lot from it. We also had a lot of history books at home since my mother is a history teacher and I read all of those which contained pictures. So at the age of 10 I knew the structure of the Republican and Imperial Roman army, the names of their weapons, I knew the entire story of Iliad and Odyssey (from a kids comic book kids version but nonetheless) and a bunch of other things. On the other hand, I’ve always been quite hazy on Czech history, particularly the early centuries since I only learned about that at school and it was not presented in an entertaining way.

            Generally speaking I never learned anything that I wasn’t interested in, or at best I learned it only to a level required to get a decent grade and then forgot it immediately afterwards. I suspect that I am not quite unique in this and so I think that the way things are taught at school is usually really bad. Maybe a difference between a good teacher and a bad teacher is simply making things entertaining. Then the children actually learn it themselves.

            There might be people who are simply uninterested in learning “anything useful” from the very beginning. For them the traditional schooling might make sense, or at least a version of it which teaches them a marketable skill and doesn’t bother then with other things they are going to forget anyway. I think most children don’t fit into that category, but it might just be the bubble I’m living it.

          • Aapje says:

            I learned quite a lot of English from playing computer games as a child (in the early 90s pretty much no games were translated to Czech). A lot of my classmates were playing in the park instead or something like that (I also did that, but less often than the average child, I think). Arguably, I learned more than them.

            They might have learned more social skills 🙂

            Anyway, while you are correct that you usually learn something useful, my point was more that you generally need a somewhat coherent set of skills that is useful for an adult/in your job, which is not automatically what kids gravitate to.

            In general, a major benefit of school is that you learn skills where you later figure out when they are useful, but if you never got pushed/mentored into learning those things, you might never know what useful things you don’t yet know.

          • Tibor says:

            @Aapje: Oh yes. Social skills. I forgot about those 😀

            I guess that this is indeed the strongest argument for the classical curriculum and against unschooling. That is, some things might require a period of a rather boring introduction to become interesting enough and you cannot really say whether you like this or that before you learn enough about it. I’m not sure how strong an argument it really is. Some things definitely need some introduction to be understood and possibly judged but I don’t think you really need years of that. I think it might be an argument for slight nudging – making the children learn the basic outlines of a lot of things fairly quickly and then letting them choose and continue more or less with unschooling methods. For me the most changes which might have required more exposure were in music and art in general. But I am not sure how much it was influenced by prolonged exposure to music and playing a musical instrument and how much it was me getting older. But as far as skills you learn at the school go, I don’t think I ever suddenly became interested in something after having studied it for x years at school (in fact often the effect of schooling was the exact opposite, at best good teachers were able to rekindle the interest in me that previous teachers snuffed).

      • Malarious says:

        “Good teachers” alone aren’t really enough — if it was that simple, then private schools would be churning out geniuses left, right, and center. I suspect it’s the intensive, individually tailored curriculum, taught by a single teacher (or small group of teachers) over a long period of time who really understand the child.

        I was in a gifted program for a few years in middle school and it was a huge improvement over the rest of the public school system. The teachers seemed “better”, sure, but the reduced class size (12 students) played a role there, I suspect. The real difference was being surrounded by truly exceptional peers for the first time: I wasn’t great at math, but when your best friends have been attending evening classes at college since they turned 11, it’s harder not to pick up some things. If I got stuck on anything, our teachers always had time to spare to help — but often they weren’t even necessary, as my classmates frequently knew just as much and were willing to lend a hand. We covered years of official curriculum in a couple of semesters, and when we ran out of official curriculum, we pivoted to self-study of subjects that interested us, guided by our teachers every step of the way as they taught us how to teach ourselves.

        My family moved across the country when I was set to enter high school, and I went from a class of the top 1% in a major metropolitan school board to a rural high school with 500 students: 3 years in the gifted program was enough to completely trivialize the next 4 years of high school for me, and as much as I begged my parents to let me “test out” and enter college early, they refused. In retrospect, I could’ve made the most of the situation and used that time to hone my social skills. Instead I spent it bitter and alone and writing passive-aggressive letters to the school administration because they insisted on closing the library every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday due to a “staff shortage” (which was, somehow, never resolved in my 4 year time there) leaving me without anywhere to read in peace. A great teacher could’ve done their best to help me work around the system, but when it comes to actually teaching, I suspect they’d be too encumbered by the curriculum (and their responsibilities split among too many other students) to really make a difference.

        Anyway, I wasn’t a genius, but I suspect a couple of my classmates in that gifted program would’ve qualified. The ones who were really successful had support at home, and had been tutored (either by their well-educated parents, or their older siblings) from an early age, were constantly challenged (and overcame said challenges), and had a real love for learning instilled upon them. For these students who were already set to be geniuses — I don’t know how much they were getting out of the gifted program. The real benefactors were the students like me who, through mere proximity, could be pulled along those genius’ vortices and reach higher than expected. Peers can teach in a way schoolteachers cannot, though I’m not sure it’s fair to ask that of them when they could be pursuing their own success and refining their own genius.

      • James Miller says:

        Ideally, yes. But what if you have a school district run primarily for the benefit of the politicians who control the school district? They will see teaching as patronage jobs and will pay/promote/hire/fire based on what gives the ruling politicians the best political/financial advantage.

    • Candide III says:

      I think it would have been a different matter if he’d picked three random kids and tried teaching them something outside his area of competence.

      To make a slightly different but related point, how sure are you we aren’t just looking at author selection bias here? Imagine if a guy created a new gambling system, went to Las Vegas for a day and cleaned out through sheer luck. His book on his gambling system would sell like hot cakes, but there would be ten thousand other guys who didn’t have any luck and didn’t get to write books about their systems. We don’t know their names, we only know of their existence by inference. But the lucky winner’s system is just as much rubbish as theirs.

      • Viliam says:

        This was addressed in the previous article and the discussion (1, 2). The short version is that “it was mere luck, plus high IQ” is not a sufficient explanation for having literally 3 teenage chess grandmasters at one family.

        I don’t know how many people write books about their ability to bring up genius children and court their future wives on the basis of “let’s raise genius children together using my method”. I doubt there are ten thousand of them.

        But I think the stronger counterargument is that he had three kids and his record was 3/3. The most certain way to eliminate survivorship bias is to repeat the experiment. He did. Twice. I’m willing to believe this one.

        due to regression of the mean, it’s near-impossible that anyone would have three kids capable of succeeding at chess due to biological intelligence alone (although of course high biological intelligence was a necessary permissive factor). That a person obsessed with educating people into geniuses should strike this one-in-a-million chance beggars the imagination.

        I’m not saying these people don’t probably have top 1% IQs. I’m saying that 70 million people worldwide have top 1% IQs, so something else must be going on here.

        • but that is not an independent controlled environment

          • Viliam says:

            Sure, it is weaker evidence than having 3 child geniuses raised independently.

            But it is stronger evidence than only having 1 child genius raised — by a person who publicly precommitted to raise a child genius! — which already would be… at least, worth attention.

            It is an argument against some competing explanations which would be more convincing in case of having only 1 child genius, such as “she just got lucky at the tournament” or “she luckily got a mutation of a chess superpower gene” or “she luckily got an optimal combination of chess genes from her two parents, allowing her to surpass both”. — The luck required by 3 sisters would be several orders of magnitude less likely than luck required by one. The random mutation would need to happen 3 times at the same family. Even the optimal combination of parental genes happening 3 times in a row is less likely than it happening only once.

            On the other hand, it creates another competing explanation that “having siblings who play chess” is the true ‘one weird trick’ to become a grandmaster. Especially if the younger sisters had more success; they were exposed to a chess-playing sibling for longer parts of their lives. (The book provides an alternative explanation to the last one: the oldest sister faced bureaucratic obstacles when trying to participate in the adult nongendered tournaments; the younger sisters could use an existing precedent.)

          • gwern says:

            by a person who publicly precommitted to raise a child genius!

            He precommitted, just like every quack and loon and educational fad peddler ‘precommitted’, by making vague promises of some great success and then painting a circle around the success if any, while insisting you ignore that he never specified what exactly the success would be in advance and all the other failed projects- the golfer who said 10,000 hours would make him a PGA pro, the Chinese parent who wrote a book on how to get your child into Harvard, the list just goes on and on and on. Every year brings in new fads like ‘growth mindset’ with their books & paid speeches & training courses even before the old ones have been debunked or faded into obscurity. Look at actually comprehensive meta-analyses rather than cherrypicked examples, and you see that failure is the norm and the field is strewn with nulls with occasional small effects (eg http://scholar.harvard.edu/files/fryer/files/handbook_fryer_03.25.2016.pdf or http://coalition4evidence.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/IES-Commissioned-RCTs-positive-vs-weak-or-null-findings-7-2013.pdf ). If you aren’t deeply cynical and disgusted by the quality of research in education, you are not paying attention.

          • carvenvisage says:

            If you aren’t deeply cynical and disgusted by the quality of research in education, you are not paying attention.

            What does this have to do with polgar? Grit, growth mindset, etc, as promoted, are obvious bullshit insofar as one dogma never fits all, without needing to see any studies. As it happens the studies I’ve read have also been a joke, asking questions which are blatant proxies for past actual success and general togetherness, but Polgar is not relying on any cooked studies, he is relying on the strength of his argument and a few “spectacular” successes (called in advance). How can you condemn polgar by means of these fads? Please explain the relation if you would maintain this position.

        • Candide III says:

          I guess I didn’t make my point sufficiently clear. I’m talking basically about publication bias. I suspect that there are tons of smart parents who had tried to bring up their kids as geniuses and didn’t get any results that were worth publicizing. Or, maybe, they had 3 kids, more-or-less succeeded with 1 and the other two turned out about what one would expect based on their parents’ IQ, SES and whatever. Would anybody write or publish a book about how he has this brilliant theory about genius education, tried it on his 3 kids and more-or-less succeeded with only one?

        • Fuge says:

          It’s probably easier than you think, since the parent is also a chess grandmaster, and is relentlessly drilling them since age 3 or 4. Don’t believe his bullshit about education theory; a dominating parent willing to control a child’s life to achieve an outcome probably will get that outcome, unless the outcome requires more than innate ability.

          And keep in mind this is chess, which mostly is a memorization game. If you force your child to memorize and play chess four hours a day for 12+ years, chances are they will be very good at it. Most of the difference between grandmasters and normal people is that normal people aren’t going to obsessively memorize a massive amount of chess openings, midgames, and endgames to evaluate positions. Especially starting at age 3!

      • I agree ..there are possible methodological errors in trying to make an inference from Polgar’s successes. AFAIK, it hasn’t been replicated under a controlled environment. It’s an appealing story but the science is sketchy

    • Though I think he does have the correct emphasis that whatever subject or topic you pick for the intensive coaching, it must be something the child has an interest and capacity for. It’s no good trying to make a chess genius out of a kid whose natural talent is for cookery; turn them into a leading chef instead. That’s probably the big pitfall with anyone who wants to apply the Polgar method: don’t get caught up in what you want (a sports star, a master musician, a Nobel Prizewinner in science), rather tailor it to the child’s talents and interests.

      Because cooking is not impressed unto any specific domain of intelligence (except for perhaps math when reading measurements and verbal when reading cookbooks), talent in this instance is almost synonymous with interest/desire, than innate ability. If one seeks to create a superstar, it would be prudent to choose something that does not require much innate ability and that the child expresses an interest in.

    • BlindKungFuMaster says:

      Did the Polgar parents know a lot about chess? I don’t think Laszlo was more than a hobby player, if even that. For the first few years you probably don’t have to know much about chess to teach it to a child and later you hire a grandmaster.

  2. Nabil ad Dajjal says:

    Glad to see that the translation is complete.

    With the caveat that I haven’t read it yet, I’m not quite sure what more you want in terms of Polgar’s ‘recipe.’ Start training your kids at a very young age, focusing on a single topic with a concrete endpoint and clear signs of progress along the way, while taking care to make sure that your kids don’t experience it as a joyless slog. Those really don’t sound like common sense ideas to me.

    Since you have read it, how do you think the Polgar method would work with the idea of “gamifying” education? The method seems to rely on generating interest in the subject and on the child seeing clear signs that they’re making progress. But not all fields provide that sort of feedback or naturally provoke that kind of interest. Using the same techniques MMORPGs do to keep players grinding might be useful for kids grinding away at a difficult subject.

    • Candide III says:

      Gamification has been a recurring educational fad. Doesn’t seem to work very well for most subjects. The very fact that it tends to come and go argues that it doesn’t really work, like diets. There used to be “multimedia educational games” sold on CDs in the 90s which attempted to use similar techniques; their name was legion; I saw maybe a dozen. Developing a taste for instant gratification is the most likely outcome.

    • Viliam says:

      I guess the devil is in the details. How specifically do you make sure that your kids will like chess? I have a 2 years old daughter, and she pretty much refuses to do anything that wasn’t her own idea. I can’t make her throw me a ball, ever. She often complains about having to bath, or having to sit at table while eating. Right now I can hardly imagine that a year or two later I will tell her: “you can only move the king on the adjacent square, and then it’s my turn” and she would be like: “sure, Daddy, whatever you say”. (Of course, two years is a lot of time, this could change.)

      • Deiseach says:

        At two years old, their favourite word is “No!” 🙂

      • A Definite Beta Guy says:

        Yes, this. I have a several nieces and nephews, the oldest being 6. The 3-5 year olds do not sit for any serious instruction on anything.

        They can’t even color in-between the lines!

        Mrs. ADBG is teaching the 6 year old some piano, and tries to make it exciting with Disney music. The 6 year old still hates her practicing and isn’t really fond of her lessons, so apparently it’s not been “gamified” really well.

        It’s honestly just a struggle to get these kids to learn their ABCs, how to sign their name, and some basic match and reading (all of which is apparently required by kindergarten these days).

  3. nickexperience says:

    Who cares about being a “genius” and why?

    • Viliam says:

      Some people enjoy doing things (it’s called having a hobby), and it is better if you are so great at your hobby that people in your social group admire you, and if you have a chance to get a well-paying job based on your hobby.

      You can treat such outcome as a matter of blind fate, or as something that parents can help their children achieve (at least the parents and children with sufficiently high IQ).

      • nickexperience says:

        There’s a big difference between “enjoy doing thing” and “genius at thing”. Not everyone really cares if they are “admired” for any particular talent, so it seems strange to spend so much time and energy on developing one in a child.

    • nimim.k.m. says:

      According to Scott’s review, Polgar spends quite many pages elaborating on this. I haven’t yet read the book, but my thoughts:

      I would personally be a bit sad if I’d never manage to achieve anything of importance when I maybe could have. The only way to know for sure is to try. And it’s easier to achieve something if your parents give you head start.

      Many find the call of ambition alluring. “A person is not truly dead as long as their name is spoken.” I don’t know if the ambition creates happiness, but it certainly occasionally creates men and women whose names are not forgotten. And of those persons whose names we do remember, I’m not probably alone in suggesting that we should respect more the geniuses in arts and sciences than the generals and politicians. Empires come and go, but Archimedes had more positive net impact than the Roman general who led the conquest of Syracuse.

      Would you rather live in a world where more people strive to excel at what they do, or fewer? A world where people seek knowledge to their best capability, whether it’s the knowledge of a skill in arts like chess and Go or knowledge like understanding of the details of the universe’s internal workings or mathematical truths, or the world where they in general don’t?

      A desire to do and create is not exactly that weird. Consider fiction. The story where Bilbo decides to stay on his porch smoking his pipe until the end of his days and never goes anywhere is maybe full of pleasant descriptions of ordinary happenings in a life of an ordinary upper-class hobbit, but it would be a short and boring read (and possibly ends in Sauron winning at the end).

      • Fiona van Dahl says:

        As a former homeschooler and current student of hobbitness: You can explore and create without leaving behind hobbit comforts. (After all, Bilbo eventually returned to the Shire and spent most of the remainder of his life there.) Hobbit comforts are not a concession, not meant to be gamified or used as educational tools, and don’t exclude also being an intellectual adventurer.

        My big non-abuse-related objection to this monolithic ‘My Homeschooled Kid Must, Can, and Will Be A Genius’ philosophy (a common trope of the homeschool community circlejerk) is that emotional and practical comfort/self-care fall by the wayside to make more time for study, practice, helping educate siblings, etc. Polgar comes across this way to me; it’s an attractive approach for narcissists who want impressive offspring (not necessarily emotionally functional ones).

        • rminnema says:

          As the parent of homeschooled kids, who meets a lot of other homeschooled kids through our activities, I find the “super-high achieving homeschooler” to be the outlier, rather than the norm.

          In fact, I find that I meet more kids who are emotionally well-adjusted, compared to their public-schooled peers. My kids know how to talk to adults, and my eldest (age 9) actually enjoys talking to adults more than kids right now. (This is its own problem when my wife and I want to have private conversations in the evening!)

          I know a lot of homeschooled kids who are polite, well-mannered, and socially well-adjusted because they aren’t trapped in the single-grade-level public school system. They’ve learned to talk to people of all ages.

          This is not to say that the crazy high-achieving types don’t exist; they obviously do. But they’re much less common than stereotypes would have you think. (As are the crazy, controlling, Christian Fundamentalists.)

          • Fiona van Dahl says:

            Hmm. Maybe the well-adjusted homeschool parents don’t make a habit of going online to brag/circlejerk/complain, and therefore I don’t get exposed to them. It’s a relief to know they apparently exist en masse IRL.

          • rminnema says:

            @Fiona van Dahl

            Yeah, you got it in one. There are absolutely parents who use their homeschooling as a way to brag on how awesome their kids (and therefore the parents themselves) are. But this isn’t limited to the homeschool community, as any trip through any school will tell you. There are a lot of parents out there living vicariously through their kids.

            Come to a Cub Scout meeting with us. Our pack is the homeschool pack for the local area, so all the kids are homeschooled. Yeah, we’ve got a couple crazies. We also have a higher proportion of invested parents than other units. And I meet a whole lot of emotionally well-adjusted kids.

        • nimim.k.m. says:

          Just to clarify, I wasn’t thinking about a homeschooling in particular while writing that, but why someone might value achieving things, especially intellectual achievements. Or maybe “curiosity” is a better word or a healthier attitude (but I don’t think it’s totally disentangled from “ambition”.)

          Unless the local schools are abysmally bad (not only useless, but will hurt your kid’s education) and there are no other options (because of distance or monetary reasons), I am not personally a fan of homeschooling (neither categorically against it). It’s probably not a good idea to be in charge of your kids education alone (sanity checks and all that); but if you can get a group of adults who are professionals in their respective fields to participate in a tutoring a group of kids, I could see how it might be more ideal than the usual school experience.

          But any way on the topic of “head start”, there’s also less drastic measures than pulling the kids out of official system. Usually you can do quite much even within the framework of the official system. As a personal experience, my parents encouraged me to enroll in open university while in high school. Where I live it’s relatively cheap, and while my HS wasn’t bad, it was certainly more interesting.

          edit. oops, meant to write “It’s probably not a good idea”

          • Viliam says:

            Usually you can do quite much even within the framework of the official system.

            The official system will make the child repeatedly waste 45 minutes listening to explanations of something they already know. Then finally you have an afternoon, which you have to split between actual learning and free time — which one would you rather sacrifice? (Maybe in different countries the flexibility of the official system is different, so this may not apply.)

            But in my opinion, the greatest danger of school is the possibility of bullying. Which in my opinion happens quite often. And the easiest way to get bullied is to be somehow different from the norm. For example, being smarter.

  4. smitty1e says:

    I think Wayne Gretzky is interesting in this vein: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wayne_Gretzky
    It’s not clear how natural his gifts were. What is clear is that he invested so much more time into hockey and related efforts that he was simply playing at a higher level than those around him.
    Nature is important, but so is nurture.

    • manwhoisthursday says:

      Gretzky is sometimes brought up in these contexts, as he was not obviously dominant in terms of speed, size and strength. So, he wasn’t a naturally talented athlete as usually conceived.

      However:
      1. Sports like hockey require certain mental abilities. It’s not clear that those are the result of nurture, though obviously Gretzky developed them through study.
      2. Gretzky did have some extremely impressive physical attributes. He was, for example, famous for never getting tired. A lot of his dominance came in the third period. I don’t think that’s the kind of thing that can really be much developed beyond a certain point.

  5. Ozy Frantz says:

    The “start early” thing makes me think about sports stars: a lot of the world’s greatest athletes (such as Venus and Serena Williams) had parents who made them play a lot of their chosen sport starting at a very young age. If you have a naturally fairly talented kid with an extra decade of practice doing a thing they might very well become world-class at that thing. Pulling that off without burning the kid out is pretty notable, though, so good on him. This argument suggests Polgar’s method won’t make polymaths; the Polgar sisters might be exceptionally good at chess, but they’re not going to have any other skills unusual for a highly intelligent person raised by good parents.

    I’m torn between “I’m not sure I can predict any subjects will be useful two decades from now, so I’m not sure the cost-benefit analysis works out in favor of intensive education unless you happen to specifically desire that your child be a tennis star or a chess grandmaster” and “TINY FIVE-YEAR-OLD ECONOMIST.”

    • gbear605 says:

      The method at least made Polgar’s kids polyglots, which is a very useful skill in and of itself.

      • Ozy Frantz says:

        But we already knew how to make kids polyglots. You give them opportunities they care about to actually use the language. That is why most Europeans are multilingual and most of the Anglosphere is not.

        Judit Polgar speaks four languages, which about 10% of Europeans do; that’s remarkable but not that remarkable for a smart Hungarian.

        • nickexperience says:

          Right, and what is the POINT of making kids polyglots? Another way to show off or is there some sort of significant usefulness that warrants the significant time dedication?

          • edanm says:

            Well, for many Europeans, the point is that they live in a country where more than one language is spoken, so they need to know more than one language to manage daily life.

            In other countries which might not speak English, knowing English is pretty important.

          • BlindKungFuMaster says:

            It’s pretty nice to speak let’s say English and Chinese. Gives you access to a lot of information. Foreign languages also have useful concepts, you wouldn’t come across in your mother tongue.

          • nickexperience says:

            edanm: yeah, I originally included that as an example of “usefulness” but figured it was obvious. I think it’s far more likely that parents see polyglot kids (like any other exceptional talent or skill) as an opportunity to show off than that there’s some significant benefit (outside those you raised) to speaking multiple languages.

          • registrationisdumb says:

            So they don’t have to be filthy plebs who rely on others to make subs/dubs of their favorite chinese cartoons?

          • carvenvisage says:

            What is the point of giving your kids skills? What is the point of helping your kids be smart, or healthy, or happy?

            Why does your kid need to learn to walk? Teach him a desk profession and the effort the child expends will have been nothing but a waste of time. Confine your children to their chairs. ‘Toddling’ is the first sign of arrogance.

          • Ozy Frantz says:

            Dude, no one is arguing that you shouldn’t teach kids anything. Children have a limited number of hours in which to learn skills, so you can’t possibly teach your child everything they could learn, so you have to prioritize. Asking about prioritization is not the same thing as saying that you shouldn’t teach them at all.

          • Spookykou says:

            limited number of hours in which to learn skills

            Is it normal for people to actually get close to/reach this limit?

          • carvenvisage says:

            Right, and what is the POINT of making kids polyglots?

            I am answering what the point is, the point is to help your children.

            It doesn’t sound like asking ‘is there more efficient ways’ it sounds like asking if there is even any basic value.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @Ozy:

            Dude, no one is arguing that you shouldn’t teach kids anything.

            As near as I can tell, that is (roughly) Scott’s espoused position. See him citing examples of genius mathematicians emerging fully formed from the slums of India.

            I don’t think it’s his actual position. But I’m not sure he could espouse his actual position.

            ETA: When I asked Scott for his actual position, he just gave me a link to his proposed “graduation speech” wherein he mocks/chides/derides the students for thinking their education was worth it., and asks them wouldntnthey rather have all the money that was spent on their education.

            To paraphrase Hans Gruber, we could all be on the beach earning 20%.

          • nickexperience says:

            carvenvisage: so you would logically equate the ability to walk with the ability to speak multiple languages? Great, but not congruent with my value system. If the “point” is to “help your children” (how does it help?), could you imagine a scenario in which alternative activities would help more? Why not do those? How do you decide which activities to make available to your children? Methinks many parents choose activities that have the best chance of making their child appear “impressive”. This is basic social conditioning. I’m not sure it’s as controversial as you suggest.

          • Ozy Frantz says:

            Spookykou: I expect so, with reasonable limits on e.g. television-watching. Many things we don’t think of as academic (unstructured play, socializing with friends) teach assorted useful skills as well.

          • carvenvisage says:

            “what’s the point” is a different question from “how efficient is it”, it’s questioning the basic value of something, not the relative. And when you complain about people ‘showing off’ it sounds even more like you resent effort others expend on their children.

            You’re now saying that isn’t what you meant, and I guess I believe you, but I stand by my interpretation of your initial phrasing.

      • Michael Watts says:

        Getting children to learn to speak a language is possibly the easiest thing you could do. Everyone has known how to do it since at least the dawn of mankind.

    • ilkarnal says:

      Tiger Woods is another such success story.

      This argument suggests Polgar’s method won’t make polymaths; the Polgar sisters might be exceptionally good at chess, but they’re not going to have any other skills unusual for a highly intelligent person raised by good parents.

      We don’t need to speculate, we have fairly detailed biographies:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Susan_Polgar

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sofia_Polgar

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judit_Polgár

      No notable accomplishments outside of Chess.

      What we don’t know is what percentage of parents who try to ‘start early’ get nowhere, as opposed to making Williams sisters or Tiger Woods or the Polgars. Probably that percentage is extremely high. This has to be weighted very heavily – what’s the expected value for your child of all this work? The question isn’t ‘is it worth this effort for my child to be successful in this field,’ the question is ‘is it worth it for my child to have a much greater chance at being successful in this field, which still means there’s a 97% chance they don’t meet the spectacular success necessary to justify those hours.’

      I’m abstractly in favor of letting children have jobs and make money. Is it remotely worth it just from a monetary perspective to spend 48hrs a week practicing Chess, even if 1/3 will meet with stunning success? Even earning minimum wage they could accumulate a very significant chunk of money that could be very useful upon reaching adulthood. Working 48hrs a week at $8 an hr you make like $20k a year. How much prize or sponsorship money per year have the Polgar sisters earned, on avg? Though you can’t really send your kids out to earn $8/hr 48hrs a week in the first world, I think it is worth making the comparison.

    • philwelch says:

      There’s an up-and-coming example of this in basketball in Lonzo Ball, who is a rookie for the Lakers. His father Lavar was a failed basketball player who decided to focus his sons’ upbringing around learning basketball. Lonzo is his eldest son and has shown an unusually high level of good decision making for such a young player. He has two younger sons as well, and if at least one of them also makes it to the NBA, that would be highly significant, since that represents the 450 best basketball players in the entire world and the Ball brothers don’t have the obvious genetic gifts of “being seven feet tall” that tend to confound these measurements.

    • rminnema says:

      The flip side of this is Todd Marinovich, who was groomed his entire life to be an NFL quarterback by an intensely competitive father.

      This is all the realm of anecdote, or course. No one knows for certain where the balance is in raising your kids, and it’s probably different for every kid.

      • cuke says:

        I super like the “and it’s probably different for every kid” approach, which a lot of these Polgar-type systems seem to miss. The trick is you have to be curious in a sustained way about who your particular kid is.

        I do sort of wish all parents had to take some basic developmental psychology class so that they can at least potentially recognize where their needs end and their child’s needs begin (speaking as a therapist who has treated a lot of people raised by narcissistic parents).

    • Spookykou says:

      so I’m not sure the cost-benefit analysis works out in favor of intensive education

      I am surprised by how much push back the Polgar method is getting in the comments, and I guess this is the crux of my confusion.

      What is supposed to be the ‘cost’ of the Polgar method.

      Homeschooling is a cost, of sorts, I don’t actually know how the math works out on homeschooling versus traditional education, but I imagine it is more expensive. However if we imagine a family that is going to engage in some kind of homeschooling, what would they/their children lose by following the Polgar method instead of some other method?

      It was my understand that traditional education was pretty much garbage(I know mine was, I learned more from magic cards than I ever learned in an English class). Even if they never became grand masters, it seems to me the Polgar sisters head to college at 18 dramatically better off than I did.

      Edit: The one obvious ‘cost’ I can think of is everyone is just assuming that most people who try this will fail and just torture their kids by forcing them to do things they hate, which they also never really get good at. This feels a bit like cheating, but I guess I can see how the Polgar method might be more prone to operator error than more traditional education methods.

      • Ozy Frantz says:

        If your kid is spending three hours a day learning chess, they are not spending those three hours a day doing something else. It is very very possible that the thing they would otherwise be doing would be more important than chess. If you go with a fixed number of educational hours, it’s probably trading off against learning other subjects more deeply. If you expand educational hours, then it might be trading off against exercise (better health, longer lifespan), unstructured play (creativity, executive function), socializing with other people (social skills), sleep (mood, health, executive function, probably a dozen other things)…

        In addition, some methods of homeschooling encourage lots of independent work on the part of the student, and many parents arrange for homeschool coops so they don’t do all the teaching. Polgar method makes it harder to do homeschool coops with parents who aren’t doing a similar parenting method, and is very intensive so you can’t teach your kid and cook dinner at the same time.

        • Spookykou says:

          If your kid is spending three hours a day learning chess, they are not spending those three hours a day doing something else.

          I think at least part of my confusion is that some people seem to think of the Polgar method as ‘force your kid to spend tons of hours on this’.

          My initial impression, was that it was more about fascination hacking(moridinamael goes into this below). It seemed to me, from Scotts first post even, that the core of the method was, get your kid to love playing chess. In that context it is really hard for me to think of 3 hours a day of chess(something you love to do anyways) as trading off against anything worthwhile, especially given the staggering number of hours I spent playing World of Warcraft.

          Edit: I guess a lot of this is wrapped up in my personal experience, I feel like I ‘wasted’ the vast majority of my time as a child, that anything more structured than, doodle for 8 hours a day go home and play video games, sleep, repeat, would have me dramatically better off than I am now.

          • Ozy Frantz says:

            Video games are not terribly useful for anything besides developing hand-eye coordination, but one assumes that parents who are content to allow their children to play video games for all their waking non-school hours are not going to adopt intensive make-your-child-a-chess-genius educational programs.

            (I had a lovely childhood and my large amounts of unstructured outdoor play provided exactly the benefits the literature suggests. I would be somewhat cross if my parents had chosen to replace it with intensive chess education.)

          • axiomsofdominion says:

            This is extremely ignorant and someday you will probably be very embarrassed for having said it some day. Video games launched the careers of thousands of historians, linguists, anthropologists, classicists, and others. They also provided the impetus for hundreds to thousands of programmers. Strategy games inspired similar numbers of people into relevant fields like political science, diplomacy, the military, etc. The vast majority of video games don’t even require above average hand eye coordination. Sure if you just played Doom/Call of Duty/Halo/ LoL/Overwatch all day you only learn hand/eye coordination, but that’s not a majority of games.

  6. ednever says:

    Thanks for finding this. As the dad of a very bright 2-year old I think a lot about what I should be doing to develop her.

    A question I have is: If not chess, then what?

    I had a friend is school that was a multi-time US chess champion (he got destroyed internationally. At the time he said, “its like I was the best basketball player in Greece”). Before business school he had a business teaching kids chess. His arguement was it was a unique skill that helped kids learn to learn. Because it had such a quick direct feedback mechanism kids could see the value of learning. (Vs when you learn physics, how long before you really understand you’ve learned anything? Who is learning faster? Was the test even fair? Etc)

    Chess (or at least non-random element games) has/have a lot of unique properties that say something like cooking does not.

    If I eere to use his method to teach my daughter to be a genius, what skill should I choose? What is the realistic selection set? I really don’t think it’s “anything”

    I don’t think it’s cooking

    I could see how it might be math. But mag lacks that feedback mechanism that Chess has. I’ll bet poker would be better if you wanted her to learn probability.

    Does there need to be a competitive element? It feels like it would st least help.

    (If I look at the skills I picked up at a high level outside of school they were all competitive – I even did competitive lifeguarding and improv comedy. I can’t imagine getting to the level I got in life guarding if there weren’t competitions to test against)

    What’s the competitive version of writing and communication? (Debate maybe? But is feedback cycle too long in that?)

    Chess is also nice that it is competitive but not judged.

    Would love others thoughts on this.

    (We already have her in language (Spanish), music/singing and gymnastics. I guess I have 6 months to figure out her specialty…)

    Thanks.

    • BlindKungFuMaster says:

      If you want to start raising a genius, you should choose a subject that is heavily based on pattern recognition. Chess, music and to a certain degree maths. These are the areas where prodigies regularly turn up.

      In maths you have a tight feedback loop if you develop it mostly as problem solving using basic techniques. Of course knowing the technical stuff inside out doesn’t turn you into a great mathematician, but it’s definitely a big leg up.

    • johan_larson says:

      If you are looking to cultivate general ability in some broad generally useful field, how about making her good with people? Being well-liked, persuasive, and good at organizing joint efforts is useful in pretty much any job or hobby.

      In the earliest days, this would be done by enrolling her in lots of group-focused activities. Later on, it would mean looking for minor opportunities for leadership, such as patrol leader positions in the Scouts or Guides. Teenagers also sometimes participate in fund raising, which could be useful experience in salesmanship.

    • herbert herberson says:

      I was going to make this post, so I’m glad you did.

      Programing seems like a good candidate, maybe? That said, while I don’t have kids, I do have a wife, and judging from us it seems very likely that our child’s core competency will be with the liberal arts and rhetoric. How do you do the single-focus-at-an-early-age thing with something like that, which to my view doesn’t really work without a broad knowledge base? Or maybe I’m wrong about that last part, and you can get there with sufficiently dog-earred copies of Symbolic Logic and Rhetoric?

    • Steve Winwood says:

      Math by far, imo. There are math competitions down the line and, as mentioned, the problem-solving element creates a mental reward. Getting someone to see math as a series of fun problems to be solved instead of as rote work and applications of formulas (comp to the steps Polgar walked before even starting full chess games with his daughters) is more naturally challenging than doing the same with chess, but still very achievable.

      A brief argument in favor of math: 1) it’s beautiful and rewarding at near-mastery: you see many mathematicians in love with their subject in a way that doesn’t seem true about e.g. programming 2) it has many subfields and natural ties to other potential subjects and interests 3) a deep understanding of math is hugely beneficial for many academic and non-academic careers even at sub-prodigy level

    • Tarpitz says:

      I think that the approach could probably work for acting. I don’t have any presentable evidence for this – I suspect that the occasional outstanding child actors who do emerge in the world we actually live in are the product of natural talent not intensive training – but it’s a learnable skill that is for the most part incredibly poorly taught, leading to a career frequently entered into by people who are still very bad at it in which there is a considerable premium on already being good in one’s late teens or early twenties. I think given the time and dedication required, a reasonable actor (like me) would have an excellent chance of raising a brilliant one.

      • ednever says:

        I’ve thought about that. I did a lot of improv comedy when I was younger – even wrote a book on it – and performed stand-up for a few years. A few weeks ago I did an open mike and brought her on stage with me. She told a simple (nonsense) knock-knock joke and brought down the house (knock knock. Who’s there. Gorilla. Gorilla who? [beats chest]).

        What would you suggest on this route? Just games from Viola Spolin to start? Some local theatre classes for kids? (have her in music/singing classes already)

        I live in Seattle, so I feel like it’s not the ideal LOCATION to make it in acting…

        • Tarpitz says:

          I don’t know anything about Viola Spolin specifically (improv being much less of a big thing this side of the Atlantic) but improv games certainly doesn’t sound like a bad start. I’d be a bit wary of local theatre classes for kids; I think a disturbing amount of approximate training for young people – including leading drama schools for aspiring professionals in their late teens or early 20s – has a tendency to make actors worse, not better, specifically in the sense of encouraging false, superficial, stagey performances. That might be less of a problem in the States than Britain, but I wouldn’t count on it. I also agree with those above that it’s likely the strong, persistent personal connection with the teacher is an important part of Polgar’s recipe.

          Singing, dancing and playing common instruments (I would guess guitar>piano>violin in terms of usefulness) are certainly all useful ancillary skills that can make it easier to find employment (true triple threats are like hen’s teeth) but are less relevant to the screen work that’s by far the most realistic way to make a long term living than to stage. Definitely worth doing if it fits in the schedule, though.

          An aspect of the skillset that I do think is easy to overlook is working with text. Making other people’s words – sometimes complicated passages of words – sound like they naturally belong to you is important and not always easy. I’m pretty sure this is a big part of the reason why the Dragon School keeps churning out actors in spite of minimal drama teaching or indeed expertise on staff (at least at the time any of them were there) – they have kids reading out loud, learning and reciting serious literature from an early age. I also think it’s telling that Chloe Moretz – one of those rare child stars who was actually good – first accessed acting by reading in lines to help her older brother when he was at stage school.

          All that said, there definitely very much remains the question of whether you should. Even aside from Seattle not necessarily being the ideal location, it’s not an easy career to succeed in (and one in which being extremely good is less a guarantor of success than in chess or tennis or maths) and not one that has the best history of making people happy even if they do succeed. It’s set up almost perfectly to engender anxiety and rejection. The highs are very high, and I enjoy the structure of alternating periods of working very intensively with significant time off; I don’t regret my choice. But… I’d be wary of pressing it on someone else, especially someone I loved.

    • James Miller says:

      As the dad of a very bright 12-year old I suggest exposing your kid to lots of things and let her interests decide how you allocate your learning time with her. Since you kid will care a great deal about what you think of her, you can easily give her meaningful feedback. The feedback problem only arises when your child is interested in something and becomes better at it than you. But, kids under ten are not very smart compared to adults so you will likely find it easy to keep far ahead of her in whatever she finds interesting for a while. I wrote this LW post on memory games you can play with your kid. Working memory is so important for learning that I think it’s worth it to push/bribe your child to play games that increase working memory.

      • ednever says:

        Thanks you.

        You wrote that a couple of years ago. How has it gone since then?

        Have you taught him memory palaces? That’s something I’ve always thought would be a valuable skill to pick up early and have for life.

        • James Miller says:

          We have been spending less time on memory games because he would rather be doing other types of learning which now is mostly computer programming and math. I have not taught him the memory palace approach. His working memory is still exceptional and he can remember symbols on a 5 by 5 grid and answer questions such as how would you move from the “T” to the “+”. He is doing exceptionally well at school and in September (although he will be only 12) he will be taking AP calculus BC and probably AP computer science (for which he took a placement test today). Both of his parents and three of his grandparents are/were college professors so it’s just possible that genetics plays a role in him being good at academic stuff.

      • sconn says:

        I taught poetry to my younger brother starting at two. Kids’ rote memory is impressive and practice helps them keep that skill.

    • baconbacon says:

      If you are really interested in attempting this then you need to choose something you already enjoy. Skimming parts of the book shows me that the subtext is heavily about the parent/child teacher/student relationship. Are you really going to instill a deep love of something in your children when you only have a passing interest? Even if you are just the secondary partner in this (ie you work and your spouse is a stay at home) you will be spending hundreds of hours a year with you child on this subject.

    • cthor says:

      Music is mentioned a lot here, but mostly as a performer (learn an instrument). What about music production? Playing around with a DAW is pretty fun. You could make a feedback cycle by having your kid make a track periodically and then you review it. It usually only takes 3–5 years for adults to become competent, so the kid could already be making hits before they’re 10.

      Drawing is fun if you’re good at it, and most kids enjoy it even when they’re just doing stick figures. But they don’t usually practice 3 hours a day. (The ones that do usually get a career out of it.)

      Competitive video games are also an option. Most current professionals started playing their game at 12–15 years old. Having 10 years on the competition is pretty sure to give your kid a leg up. And the fun is already built in, so it’s not much work as teacher. (Of course, you might not want to expose your kid to something like CS:GO at 3 years old.) The biggest problem is finding a game that will still be around in 15 years.

  7. BlindKungFuMaster says:

    Sofia is not a grandmaster, afaik. So two grandmasters and an international master.
    Or, alternatively: Two grandmasters and a woman grandmaster, which however is weaker than an international master.

    Fun fact: None of the Polgar sisters is still playing.

    • glorkvorn says:

      Is it odd for them to not still be playing? According to Wikipedia they moved into coaching. I don’t know anything about competitive chess but that seems like a pretty standard career move for a middle-aged athlete.

      • moridinamael says:

        35, plus or minus a few years, is the average “peak” for chess players. Kasparov retired before he was 42. Judit, the strongest sister, retired at age 38. That doesn’t seem particular shocking one way or the other.

      • BlindKungFuMaster says:

        Retiring before you are 40 is definitely not terribly common. I’d say most world class players don’t retire at all. Of course many tone it down a lot, but these guys just love chess. It’s part of the charm of chess that you can meet the legends of the seventies in some international (or even local) open (at least in Europe).

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Thanks to the magic of affirmative action, she is officially a Woman Grandmaster.

      • The Nybbler says:

        That’s not really affirmative action. That’s a separate category for women, which has been common in competitive sports probably since women began playing them. Seems a little odd in chess where any advantage men has is not obviously visible, but it fits that pattern better than affirmative action. If it was affirmative action, she’d be simply called _Grandmaster_ (despite passing a lower bar) and it would be against the rules to treat her any differently than any Grandmaster who met the higher bar.

        • MNH says:

          It doesn’t seem that odd in Chess. As we’ve seen linked from a links post on this very blog, factors that have small impacts on the population mean will cause very notable disparate representation when you’re very far from the mean. I would expect that there are at least small social prejudices against women pursuing a mastery of chess, so I’m not surprised to hear that the number of women who clear the (male) bar for grandmaster is notably lower (and hence that a separate bar would be created).

        • random832 says:

          That’s a separate category for women, which has been common in competitive sports probably since women began playing them.

          I don’t think I agree with it, but the position that all such things are affirmative action is at least defensible at first glance.

      • entobat says:

        Women can also be (regular) grandmasters, as indeed her two sisters are. As someone fairly familiar with chess—I follow the world chess championship and I’ll disclose my lichess username to you privately if you’d like to check that I play actively—I would say that saying GM when you mean WGM is not done in chess circles, and is at best misleading.

        • entobat says:

          I would recommend “three masters—including two grandmasters” or, as another commenter suggested, “two grandmasters and an international master”.

  8. Steve Winwood says:

    “Surely there are schools that try to make children love learning and feel a sense of accomplishment in their work (don’t be snarky here, I’m as depressed as anyone by the education system but there are so many different private schools with wacky philosophies that I’m sure at least one of them has hit the target). But none of them have all their students grow up to be world-class chess grandmasters or the interdisciplinary equivalent. Why not?”

    You basically need to let the kid set the pace of their own learning for 10+ years — how many schools are truly willing to do that? No private or public school in my pop-1m city would come close to that. It’s just not how they process their mission statement (“teach kids x in y years so they can move on to z”); even gifted schools and classes will just have more ambitious values of x, y, and z. This rules out 99.9+% of schools no matter how much they try to make kids love learning, and then the remaining handful are still operating under the constraints of economics, the need to have a plan that they can sell to more than one parent, and the talent pool both of students and of teachers.

    I’m sure a variation of Polgar’s philosophy has been used many times to raise extremely successful children, just through a homeschool setup. The parents didn’t aim to or care about replicability, and an Ivy math Ph.D is less marketable than a child chess prodigy.

    My experience is that simply “don’t hold back your most gifted students” would increase any school’s chances of turning out a genius-level specialist by an order of magnitude+. Anecdotally: as I’m sure is true for a lot of commenters, I was in top classes in local schools through high school. For reasons more logistical than philosophical, I was given a textbook and free rein in math for 1.5 years of middle school. I’d estimate I learned 5x faster with this setup — with minimal oversight, and no “sense of play” or world-class teacher, just some professor the school paid to show up once every two weeks for an hour — than in traditional high-level classes.

    • welb says:

      Yeah, I had a similar experience growing up, and I wonder if much of this genuinely is just “start with bright kids, don’t get in their way, encourage them to do something incredible, and find a way to make it fun.” Those last two were huge for me, even after the initial gains from being left alone, but I’m not sure it would have been the same if someone had tried to make a whole school do it.

  9. onyomi says:

    I saw a story recently with a headline like “man hits his head in diving accident; becomes musical genius.”

    What… struck me about this story, though I don’t know how legit it is and haven’t looked into it carefully, is that, when interviewed, the man said he felt an obsessive need to play the piano ever since the accident.

    In other words, the headline makes it sound like “blow to head instills musical ability.” If the man is correct, however, what the blow to the head instilled was not musical ability per se, but an obsessive need to cultivate it.

    And this is why I always think motivation and interest is so important. No one becomes great at music without practice, but that doesn’t mean everyone who practices a lot will become great at music; more importantly, the desire to practice music a lot varies widely. If you decide to obsessively focus on facilitating your children’s tennis career and they happen to also have a strong motivation to play tennis (which they will probably have at a rate greater than chance, assuming you are their genetic parent), then they may, in fact, become great tennis players.

    But if you take a child not intrinsically interested in tennis and stick him a tennis-obsessed household, they will probably end up rolling their eyes about tennis at best, deeply resentful of their pushy parents at worst.

    • Tarpitz says:

      Or perhaps, like Andre Agassi among others, incredibly good at tennis but psychologically messed up and deeply resentful about it.

    • alchemy29 says:

      I thought you were referring to Tony Cicoria who was struck by lightning and supposedly developed a talent for playing the piano. Anyways as someone who listens to a lot of piano music and plays it myself (though not professional level) I would say that they are good but not great. I’ve met more talented people in composition classes in college. Compulsion is part of talent certainly, but it is not all of talent. Some people really do learn more quickly, develop better intuitions, show more creativity etc. with the same amount of effort as normal folk.

    • hollyluja says:

      Or there is Radiolab’s latest episode about a guy who starts playing piano obsessively after his fourth brain surgery. Unfortunately also correlated with disinhibitory behaviors like overeating and hypersexuality, which confused me. Playing the piano for 8+ hours per day would seem like something that takes disclipine?

    • HeelBearCub says:

      Man in NYC asks a friendly cabbie “Hey, how do I get to Carnegie Hall?”

      The cabbie shoots back “Practice!”

  10. Fiona van Dahl says:

    I had chills the entire read because, despite all the talk of ‘the children should enjoy learning’, this all reminds me of my narcissist father’s botched, abusive, and isolationist K-12 homeschooling of myself and my brother.

    “If the instruction is good, one has no need of giving grades.” Of course! The better to obscure their academic failures from observers! This was one of my dad’s tactics, and it all ended with me at a 8th grade level on most subjects at the age of 20.

    At least he wasn’t obsessed with grooming us for chess (his hyper-focus was reading in general), but still, we came out barely functional. Homeschooling can be great when it’s not performed by narcissists and/or religious fanatics; otherwise, it produces academically and emotionally stunted victims. That’s the vibe I get here; I’ll be pleasantly surprised if I learn that none of Polgar’s daughters experienced mental anguish as adults, but Polgar apparently doesn’t give them a voice here at all, because that would diminish his spotlight.

    Screw raising a genius. I want my future kid to be able to get by in the world, and to not hate themselves deep into their 20s.

    • herbert herberson says:

      I’d really like to hear more details on what went wrong for you, if you don’t mind sharing them.

      • Fiona van Dahl says:

        I participate a lot in /r/raisedbynarcissists and recommend it. I’ve posted there a lot about what I went through, but in general, a lot of these abuse patterns are surprisingly common. I’m shocked there aren’t far more homeschooling stories there.

        Someday, I’d like to write a dos/don’ts guide to homeschooling based on my experiences, but probably won’t be able to do it justice until I’m raising (homeschooling?) my own kid.

        • rminnema says:

          I appreciate that you can separate your experiences from homeschooling-at-large. I, for one, would be interested in your thoughts on dos-and-don’ts for homeschooling.

          Homeschooling is the province of weirdos. I am constantly reminded that we’re strange for choosing to school our kids within our own four walls. It can make one defensive.

        • cuke says:

          I second rminnema. I think your homeschooling experience is worth telling, to the extent you are interested in doing that.

          We’re homeschoolers as well. I get that homeschooling is already often viewed as something undertaken by a bunch of crazies, so that would be fueled by stories of people homeschooled by parents who have untreated mental illness. But it’s worth saying that if your parents have mental health problems, then having no escape from them into school or other adult influences could be that much more harmful to a child.

          I read a ton of stuff about homeschooling when we first started down this road almost a decade ago, and I don’t recall reading anything about social and psychological factors that might encourage better or worse outcomes for kids. Though I feel like I could have some opinions about that now.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Polgar’s daughters have all been interviewed and say they’re really happy and loved their childhoods. A lot of journalists have investigated and it seems true.

      • Fiona van Dahl says:

        Thanks for the follow-up. That’s a relief, but I have two concerns:

        1) Many abuse survivors, especially from previous generations where abuse was normalized, remain in denial or never find the vocabulary to object to how they were treated. Assuming that’s not the case,

        2) I could still see this material being exploited by abusive parents who latch onto the idea of raising ‘geniuses’. Then again, that’s already a widespread problem in homeschooling, and we still haven’t figured out how to protect the majority of kids from abusive parents even outside of homeschooling, so this looks more and more like just another brick in the wall.

        • andrewflicker says:

          In general I think we should default to taking them at their word before going down the “maybe they’re just in denial about being victims- make them victims!” road.

          But your 2nd point is a good one- unfortunately one that’s perhaps vulnerable to being universalized as an objection to nearly anything. My parents gave me books to read, and I enjoyed it and quite thoroughly benefited from high literacy later. But it sounds as though someone like your father could stretch even something as banal as that into motivation-for-abuse.

          • carvenvisage says:

            In general I think we should default to taking them at their word before going down the “maybe they’re just in denial about being victims- make them victims!” road.

            Daring to have reservations is not anywhere close to that road. And she bent over backwards to put off exactly that aggressive misinterpretation by explicitly disavowing it. Have some respect.

      • sourcreamus says:

        Polgar seems like a guy who can make learning fun. Someone trying to implement this without this skill could make for a hellish childhood. Andre Agassi famously hated his tennis obsessed childhood, while Monica Seles loved hers. The difference was their dads’ skills at making things fun were so wildly different.

    • sconn says:

      Yeah, this reminds me of the Tiger Mother, who got her kids playing instruments at high levels plus into Ivy League schools, but they seem pretty unhappy, and the younger and more talented daughter hates the violin so much she gives it up as soon as she’s an adult. I’m not opposed to my kids being geniuses, but not at the price of their happiness.

    • void_genesis says:

      I havent seen any mention of the story of The Shaggs here. They were a family of young girls pulled out of mainstream schools to practice music every day because their father was convinced they would become a famous pop band. Obsessive practice on its own is definitely not enough to achieve anything. For one thing the father had no musical training or talent of his own, so had to hire music teachers. The girls never seem to have become engaged with the process, always understanding themselves to be mediocre musicians.

    • Viliam says:

      “If the instruction is good, one has no need of giving grades.” Of course! The better to obscure their academic failures from observers!

      I find it ironic that where I live, the idea “perhaps grades are obsolete, who needs feedback anyway?” is typically expressed by parents who have their children at schools. I guess that banning grades would finally make schools the perfect babysitting institutions with no downside.

      On the other hand, I would love to see exams decoupled from teaching; preferably done by a different institution. Because then, no matter how specifically the children were educated, they would be graded the same way (which also means we could compare the efficiency of different types of education; perhaps if we control for IQ and some other things). But even in absence of this, whoever believes they are raising geniuses, can send them to various competitions. For example, if my kids will do well at math, I will definitely tell them to do math olympiad.

      I’ll be pleasantly surprised if I learn that none of Polgar’s daughters experienced mental anguish as adults

      You have an experience of being abused by homeschooling. I know people who were abused by the school system (actually I was also bullied for a few months). In theory, at school there are more people who can intervene. In practice, they often don’t.

      • random832 says:

        Because then, no matter how specifically the children were educated, they would be graded the same way

        Even outside the worst-case “teach to the test” failure modes, this locks you into a specific order of topics – if the exams for Nth grade cover US history and geometry, and the ones for N+1th grade cover European history and algebra, people who learn these in different years are not going to do as well.

  11. Vermillion says:

    Quick formatting notes, a lot of the quoted text seems to have weird returns or spaces in it, from copy pasting out of the PDF I assume, and there’s a missing html quote tag entirely for the end goal.

  12. sandoratthezoo says:

    I’d like to again push my theory:

    A lot of parents in the 20th Century home-schooled their children with some kind of goal of doing education better, academically, than the school system. (That is, I’m excluding here people who home-schooled their children for moral lessons or whatever: just talking about people who felt that they could do better at traditional schooling goals than their school system). And then there were many more parents in the 20th Century that did some other kind of alternative to “send their kids to the local school,” that wasn’t homeschooling.

    One guy ended up with three internationally-accomplished chess players. A million other people did not. What is our basis for believing that this was anything other than chance and survivorship bias?

    • TyphonBaalHammon says:

      Polgar should probably be compared not with the average homeschooling parent but with the average homeschooling parent of a genius. He probably did better than chance because he raised three geniuses, not just one.

      • sandoratthezoo says:

        If I flip a coin ten times in a row and it comes up heads every time, that’s pretty unlikely. It’s not particularly unlikely in the context of 1,000 other people flipping coins and not coming up with heads every time.

        I haven’t seen anyone even attempt to quantify how unlikely it is to have three daughters who were internationally ranked in chess, nor how large the group is that we’re implicitly looking at; there’s just a lot of “oh, this must be signal, not noise.”

        Humans are notoriously bad at this. They see random noise and create signal out of it. Where is the rigorous attempt to overcome bias here?

        • baconbacon says:

          Only there is no binary good/not good for chess. His daughters include the best woman player of all time and the only woman ever to qualify for a World Championship tournament, this isn’t just crossing some minimum threshold like flipping a coin.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      He said he was going to do it beforehand (he courted his wife by looking for someone who was interested in helping him try his genius-raising technique) and he did it 3/3 times.

      • sandoratthezoo says:

        So what?

        Look, let’s say that each of those daughters was in the top 1% by pure random ability to play chess (over and above whatever IQ you’d expect them to gain from expected heredity and from the amount of time they spent training on it). That doesn’t sound crazy to me. Like one person in 100 could become a grandmaster (or grandmaster-lite) if they’re basically high-IQ and train monomanically from birth. At that point, this family is a one-in-a-million outlier. There were thousands of one-in-a-million outlier families over the course of the 20th Century. The reason you have this book and not one of the several thousand other books from one-in-a-million outlier families is that only 0.x% percent of outlier families had some particular kind of crazy theory about how their essentially random success was a result of their hard work.

        Done.

        • The Nybbler says:

          So what?

          So a called shot is more impressive than an uncalled one, and three called shots even more so. It avoids the Texas Sharpshooter fallacy (calling whatever you hit the ‘target’).

          The reason you have this book and not one of the several thousand other books from one-in-a-million outlier families is that only 0.x% percent of outlier families had some particular kind of crazy theory about how their essentially random success was a result of their hard work.

          That’s _exactly_ what Polgar’s pre-commitment avoids.

          • sandoratthezoo says:

            It absolutely does not avoid that problem, unless you accept the premise that if Polgar had raised three kind of decent Master-level daughters, you’d ever have heard his name. Which you clearly would not have.

            Look, there are tons of very simple stories that explain this result:

            1. Chess, as it turns out, is a game that responds extremely well to very early childhood training.

            2. Polgar and his wife had some kind of genetic combination which led to impressive chess performance per se with decently high probability.

            3. Polgar just happened to have three very smart daughters who would have excelled regardless of their educational regime.

            4. Some combination of the above.

            All of these stories are clearly far more plausible than the idea that Polgar is a Solar Exalt with a Training Charm (read: “than that Polgar has the supernatural ability to create geniuses”). All you have to do is be a little less impressed that he was trying to do something like this.

            Polgar lived in a time and place replete with people making educational experiments. There are a huge wealth of people out there calling shots and failing, and you just don’t hear about them. The human species is enormously big. This is just survivorship bias. The fact that he called his shot, sure, adds a few orders of magnitude to the size of the population that needs to be culled before you see some survivors, but the size of that population is 10^9 or 10^10. It’s plenty big to handle that.

          • The Nybbler says:

            I agree that there are alternate explanations, but luck isn’t a good one. There aren’t anything like 10^9 total humans who ever lived, let alone childhood educational experiments.

          • alchemy29 says:

            I’m sorry if this comes off as snarky, but I’m surprised by how confident you are in your made up numbers. Are you aware that there have only been about 40 female grandmasters ever? Do you have any idea how often siblings both achieve the grandmaster title? (almost never)

            In any case, I think it’s hard to deny that for a large number of skills, an intense training during childhood will produce much greater success than having that child try to pick up those skills as an adult – it will not take an average person and make them world renowned – but it will take them to a much higher level. These skills include language (most anyone can learn 4 languages if you start early enough), music performance (the story of most child prodigies was having a Tiger mother or father), chess, and I suspect programming will become one as well. Skills that I doubt fall into this category include science (because of the lack of a clear endpoint and the need for luck/connections), writing (lack of a clear goal), politics (too much luck dependence on luck and connections). But those are just a guess.

          • The Nybbler says:

            I think programming will not. It’s just not complex enough to require that kind of dedication.

          • sandoratthezoo says:

            @TheNybbler

            Er, 10^9 is 1 billion.

            @alchemy29

            Do you know how many female children have been trained since age 3 3+ hours a day every day?

          • The Nybbler says:

            Err, sorry, miscounted my exponents. But there haven’t been 1 billion weird childhood education experiments either (that would be something like 1 in 110 children, for all time). There are a lot of children who were trained 3+ hours a day, if you could call it that. But in “production line” facilities for general or elite educational purposes, not to make them into chess grandmasters.

          • sandoratthezoo says:

            I agree, there are not 10^9 weird childhood educational experiments. But there are 10^9 families, just in the 20th Century, and that’s ultimately the population that matters. Our attention gets drawn to highly unusual families, and then we go and look for what makes them highly unusual.

            If it wasn’t “I decided to raise chess players,” then it could plausibly be something else, and we’d be debating the merits not of this particular pedagogy, but this particular diet, or this particular approach to assortative mating, or, you know, some other pedagogy, or, as Scott tried to do before Polgar, the merits of this region of this country. Or whatever. And we don’t see the various people who have similar pedagogies or diets or mating strategies or unusual regions they come from or blah-blah-blah that don’t end up with one in a million or one in a billion families.

            We just shouldn’t be too impressed that Polgar said, “I decided to make my daughters good at chess,” and then trained them extensively at chess, and they were good at chess. If he said, “I decided to make my daughters good at chess” and then trained them extensively at chess, and then they were incredible polymaths that were great at fields that we have much more interest in, and which far, far, far more people have trained extensively in, that would be more interesting.

            Like, the worst of all worlds for Polgar is that his method kinda sorta works for chess in particular, but his daughters were like 1:10 or 1:20 outliers in its efficacy for whatever reason. At that point his family is only 1:1000 or 1:8000, and we have a pedagogy that mostly doesn’t work for chess and doesn’t work at all for anything else, and which requires 10 years of constant training to determine the success of.

      • ilkarnal says:

        He raised three very high performing female Chess players. If their performance at Chess was simply an epiphenomena of their incredible intelligence that would be one thing, but their bios are devoid of any significant achievements unrelated to Chess. Laszlo’s claim that ‘geniuses are made, not born’ is certainly not borne out with his offspring. Great competitors are made, not just born – but everyone already knew that was true to some extent, great competitors are shaped by their trainers and their training regime.

        You don’t know how many fellas try to spring this on their kids. Saying you’re gonna do some experiment beforehand is valuable in large part so people can see failure rate by looking at all the people who say they are going to do x thing and counting the successes and failures. If those pre-announcements are completely muted for failures (you never hear about some guy saying ‘I know how to make the smartest kids ever’ if there are no spectacular results) then the most important thing about calling a shot and then making it is fundamentally gone.

        This is nothing like a way to raise ‘geniuses.’ Even in its properly stated extremely narrow scope it is very failure prone, impossible if you don’t have the right heredity, and not remotely worth the tremendous effort unless you and your children find it fun. Getting lucky three times is not impossible. I’m not saying this sort of regime does not hugely enrich your children’s competitive chances – it likely increases them many fold – I’m saying I wouldn’t be at all surprised if his chances of going 3/3 even in the limited way he did were low. I’d guess even one boy would screw up the ‘perfect’ record, because that boy would face much tougher competition to earn any worthwhile acclaim.

        • John Schilling says:

          You don’t know how many fellas try to spring this on their kids.

          But we can put a reasonable upper bound by assuming that anyone who is going to develop and test a Super Genius Baby Recipe on their own kids is going to have to A: home-school them and B: have a scientific background at roughly the Ph.D. level. Those aren’t strictly and absolutely requirements; it’s possible that someone with an MS in psychology has come up with what they think is a Super Genius Baby Recipe compatible with spending eight hours per day in public schools, but those cases are presumably more than balanced by the Ph.D. homeschoolers who aren’t testing Super Genius Baby Recipes.

          Applying statistics from here and here, with a bit of supplemental data from around the web, I estimate that about 30,000 households with at least one Ph.D. or equivalent parent have homeschooled their children to adulthood in Europe and the Anglosphere since 1945. That, I think, is a conservative upper bound for the number of people who have attempted to privately implement Super Genius Baby Recipes any place we would expect to have heard of at least the successes.

          Judging by the FIDE ratings, even the weakest of the Polgar sisters is in the top 0.005% of the field in her predesignated area of excellence. Judit is pretty much off the charts, top 0.0005% and having achieved that at an unprecedented age. Not just a genius in her chosen field, but a literally superlative human(*) being. Crudely speaking, the odds of getting results equal to the Polgar sisters by chance are one in 340 trillion.

          But that’s not fair. We are by definition talking about a deliberate attempt to cultivate excellence in one specific field; let’s throw out 99% of FIDE-rated players as dilettantes who could have simply tried harder and shouldn’t be counted in the comparison. And let’s attribute 50% of the Polgar sisters’ exceptionalism to their shared Hungarian Jewish Mad Scientist DNA. My statistics texts are in the other office, but BOTE I still get that as one in 18,000.

          So, of all the people who could plausibly have attempted Laszlo Polgar’s hat trick, we would expect one or two to have succeeded. And Laszlo is the one who called his shots ahead of time. Perhaps not a proven fact by P<0.05 or whatever other standard you'd prefer, but it certainly looks like something worth paying attention to.

          * Or maybe Abomination of Mad Science, but it's mad social science with no DNA tinkering and we’re open-minded and tolerant sorts here.

          • sandoratthezoo says:

            You think that 1 in 100 FIDE-rated players were trained multiple hours a day every day since literally before they could remember? That seems high to me. There are half a million FIDE-rated players. 5,000 people who were trained monomanically throughout their lives seems like a lot. 500 seems like a lot, but perhaps within the realm of reason.

            We might also reasonably believe that if one of the Polgar sisters had some biological predilection for chess success beyond the baseline for what we’d expect a reasonably smart person to, the other two children having it are not independent odds. They have, after all, 50% of each other’s DNA, and presumably similar prenatal environments.

          • John Schilling says:

            1% of FIDE players is a set of 4000 or so, almost all of them professionals or very dedicated amateurs. Several hours per day since they decided chess was their thing, probably some time well before adulthood, seems likely to me.

            That it has to begin literally before one can remember is part of the Polgar recipe being tested. Only a part, and not every proposed recipe for genius includes that element.

          • ilkarnal says:

            I’m sorry, I’m not quite sure what to take from the reddit post you linked. ‘Chess.com’ ratings aren’t FIDE as far as I know.

            https://ratings.fide.com/card.phtml?event=700231
            https://ratings.fide.com/card.phtml?event=700088
            https://ratings.fide.com/card.phtml?event=700070

            Best of the sisters is top .0004% (assuming 170,000 rated players) Worst is top 1%. I don’t think you can just take peak rating without putting in quite a bit of effort determining how much churn there is – how many people at one point got to x percentile is gonna be much higher than x percentile percent.

            I think you might be massively overestimating the number of people who put full time hours into Chess.

            Several hours per day since they decided chess was their thing, probably some time well before adulthood, seems likely to me.

            I would be very surprised if on avg they spent 48hrs a week on Chess during their childhoods, and when you’re an adult with a job, well, you can’t typically put in full time hours. I don’t think the number of people who can actually make a living with pro Chess is that high… The Polgar sisters spent an unusual amount of time, and this matters.

            Worth paying attention to, I would agree. I just don’t like the ‘How to raise a genius’ framing, or his notion that geniuses are raised not born. These particular very highly performing Chess players were certainly raised, not born, and that’s cool. I think children are generally underestimated and it’s a good idea to get them started on a useful skill quickly, and this bolsters that idea.

            Einstein, Pauli, Bohr etc obviously weren’t ‘raised rather than born’ to become great physicists in anything remotely like the way these girls were raised to become great Chess players, and I think it is very clear that you could never raise such people – because unlike with Chess you don’t yet know what the crucial narrowly-defined problem spaces they’ll be working in are. You can’t ‘raise rather than birth’ Lewis and Clark by making them study maps of their voyage, because if you had these maps the voyage wouldn’t be special in the same way. What we most commonly call ‘genius’ is the incredible taming and mastery of novel problem spaces and problems.

            Now if we have some open problem space which is important and has resisted attempts to usefully deal with it, and the situation will likely be very similar in a decade or so, then this sort of child ‘genius’ training program seems very promising indeed. But.. problem spaces that are really important and open, that won’t be substantially dealt with or altered with a decade or so of effort are rare as far as I know.

            Anyway. If this Laszlo guy’s only point was – give kids way more credit, throw them at problems early, have fun with it, then I give four thumbs+big toes up. I don’t like the ‘nurturist’ angle of it, that’s my issue. This doesn’t show ‘geniuses are raised, not born,’ not at all, not remotely.

          • John Schilling says:

            I think you might be massively overestimating the number of people who put full time hours into Chess. […] I would be very surprised if on avg they [top 1% of rated players] spent 48hrs a week on Chess during their childhoods, and when you’re an adult with a job, well, you can’t typically put in full time hours.

            Top 1% of FIDE-rated players comes to roughly 4000 people. If Quora is right, there are between 3000 and 10000 people whose job is chess. Those people, and some of the most dedicated amateurs, I am fairly confident are putting in 40+ hours per week either playing or studying chess and I would wager that most of them started on that path before they graduated high school.

            This is, to the first order, a body of people whom we can reasonably expect to have made themselves as good at playing chess as they can by the usual methods, and so compare any particular unusual method that might be proposed. In that sense it is fortunate that the Polgars chose chess rather than e.g. rocket science or brain surgery, as there is a reasonably quantifiable metric for chess performance.

          • ilkarnal says:

            If Quora is right, there are between 3000 and 10000 people whose job is chess. Those people, and some of the most dedicated amateurs, I am fairly confident are putting in 40+ hours per week

            Mmmm, this is wiggly-woggly stuff. Having Chess as your full time job for years is a very different thing than ‘going pro’ very briefly.. I’m not big into the Chess scene but in the esports world you have a lot of people who basically go big trying to succeed as ‘pros,’ and they are ‘pros’ it is their job, but they burn out within a couple years because while they might be really good they aren’t making the kind of money they need to make… And below the top things are very, very meager.

            People like the Polgar sisters who can dedicate so many hours so consistently, for years, being supported in this path… That’s gotta be an incredibly rare thing.

            https://www.chess.com/article/view/making-money-in-chess

            $10 mln/year – no one

            Over $1 mln/year – top-3 in the world

            Over $200k – top-10

            Over $100k – top-50

            Players close to the bottom of the top-100 are very unlikely to earn over $100k, for most the figure would be about $50-70k.

            This is similar to the esports I follow… Look, there’s no way there are “between 3000 and 10000 people whose job is chess” in the sense that they can put in 48hrs a week for years and years undistracted, not having to give up or have another job alongside. A few hundred is probably stretching it. A situation like the Polgars is unbelievably amazing, just being able to practice 48hrs+ a week for years with full support and encouragement..! You don’t understand what that means if you think that’s not an amazing advantage.

            There are lots of people who throw themselves into some competitive thing and do crazy hours for a little while. Many many people can do it for a little while, maybe even a year or two, that kind of thing. Very very very few can just have that be their thing unmolested. At any age. ‘Mom, instead of going to school can I just study and play Chess?’ Not gonna fly.

            In that sense it is fortunate that the Polgars chose chess rather than e.g. rocket science or brain surgery, as there is a reasonably quantifiable metric for chess performance.

            I mean, I’m actually super down with getting kids from promising backgrounds into subjects like that on a practical level really early. I think you’d get good results, more time more learning more practice is great. I just don’t think it means you have a ‘genius factory.’ You have a way to – by paying a very high price in time and effort – make someone a lot better at specifically x, y, or z. You’re not improving their general intelligence one bit, you’re improving their performance at a very particular task.

            Really the main point in my mind isn’t that this is a great way to raise kids, but this is a great way to use kids. There isn’t a need to waste the first 18 years not accomplishing anything, if the kids have potential that potential can be used, and for more serious things than Chess competitions.

    • sconn says:

      A lot of homeschoolers actually are brilliant though. Either just high achieving or unusually creative or boundary-breaking. Wasn’t Zuckerberg homeschooled?

  13. humantradebot says:

    I think we should be more precise about what we want to improve in our educational system. As you alluded to in the end, there are a bunch of private schools out there who are doing good things. Believe it or not, some of them have results over the course of many years that suggest they even know what they’re doing. This is all going to come off as arrogant on my part, so sorry in advance. I am fascinated by education, but am no expert, have raised no kids, much less prodigies, and am probably a little naive because education worked out really well for me. I will avoid saying things generally, and but I can tell you about where I went to high school.

    Did you know that John Hamm, Danny Meyer, and Sam Altman all went to the same St. Louis high school of < 100 kids per class? I went to the same high school and can tell you that even beyond the crazy outliers I just mentioned, there are a lot of alums who have done very well for themselves but you've never heard of. The students there all had a huge leg up on life through family money and connections, but the results are still exceptional. It cost a lot of money, which makes is really hard to normalize the results for social status. Of note is that a huge percentage of the students were on financial aid while I was there, which solves some of the problem of wealth, but there's still a big selection bias. It's also worth noting that a fair number of these kids came to the school in 7th grade from very average public schools (I did).

    I won't go into what exactly the education was like there, but I will say that the school was 7-12 (US grades) and it was definitely a liberal arts education. It was definitely a very broad education, but there were outlets for students to specialize to a limited extent.

    My big takeaway from my (admittedly extremely statistically small) experience was that it isn't a complete mystery as to how you should educate the students who excel in primary school. When people talk about how improving education is a hard problem I think they are usually talking about how to improve the educational outcomes for the bottom x% where x < 95. It seems like we have found some pretty good secondary education methods for the kids that primary education has shown us are exceptional. Identifying the top 1-x% isn't trivial and our current system has big blind spots but I think we're already better at that than we are at educating the bottom 25%.

    Separately, if your goal is to place your child in the highest echelon of an established sport where an exorbitant amount of attention has been focused and the rules have been established for a long time (be that a thinking sport such as chess or go, or a physical sport such as basketball), they you're probably going to need to focus on that exclusively from a very early age, have some really good genes yourself, and get a little lucky in the genetic lottery. I would suggest that you are probably setting too narrow a goal for your child.

    Humorously, Polgar's education system is self defeating if we taught every child intensive chess (or even a mix of 100 different similar games). It is mathematically impossible for every child to be in the top 1% of their sport! What are we going to do with all the excess chess players? While chess might be more applicable to other pursuit than baseball, there's a fair amount of evidence that the skills aren't all that transferable.

    To his credit, training kids to become self teachers and love learning, if not exactly a breakthrough, strikes me a really important advice.

    To the extent that the question we are really trying to answer is "how do we form primary education in a way that more students are ready for the secondary educations that have demonstrated effectiveness?", a story about raising chess experts by teaching them chess from a very early age is really useless. I am much more interested to hear from someone who's three kids went on to be great engineers, entrepreneurs, or even salespeople. It seems like there is probably more to be gained on a wider scale by improving those professions than improving our understanding of chess.

  14. TyphonBaalHammon says:

    When you first talked about Laszlo Polgar on here, I assumed he was long gone. However, I now realize that he is still alive, which suggest a pretty obvious to gain more information about his educational theories and methods : ask him directly !

  15. glorkvorn says:

    I feel like this is just a mix of common sense and non-generalizable.

    Common sense: if you have a smart kid and you train them intensely at a specific subject for hours every day from a young age, they will become good at it. Of course they will! But it’s usually not so simple because…

    Non-generalizable: Most kids can’t focus like that on one subject for so long, and most adults aren’t able to teach them to a high level. It worked here because chess is a game, so it’s fun for kids, but with a clear system of steadily progressing. There’s no physical component so they can play evenly against adults, no outside knowledge needed so they don’t need to study anything else, and their dad was fully capable of teaching them everything they needed to know. The pro chess system gives them an objective way to see their improvement and a lot of motivation (money, fame, praise) to keep improving. It’s well developed enough that they can easily find strong opponents and win prizes, but also niche enough that there weren’t many (any?) other kids doing the same thing, especially in women’s chess.

    What if he had tried to make them into, say, the ultimate surgeon instead? That would be much more useful for society than a chess grandmaster. Unfortunately it’s not so straightforward. You can’t just “practice surgery”, you have to learn all the background knowledge (biology, chemistry, physics, anatomy, etc) first. You need to either observe live surgery or get cadavers to practice on, pretty much impossible until you’re accepted into a medical school. No one will let you perform a surgery until you’ve gone through a bunch of training and certifications first, so you have to keep this long-term abstract goal in you head while you do years of training. There isn’t much in the way of competitions or prizes for “best young biology student” so you have to motivate yourself internally. And finally, even if you do succeed in your goal, there’s no objective ranking system so you’d never be able to prove to anyone that you’re “the best”.

    I guess you could just make a kid play “Operation” over and over but somehow I don’t think that would work.

    • nimim.k.m. says:

      You need to either observe live surgery or get cadavers to practice on, pretty much impossible until you’re accepted into a medical school.

      Apropos. Our middle school biology teacher got us animal hearts (cow, if I recall correctly) from the local butchery that we proceeded to cut into pieces in a particularly memorable biology class. Also some smaller dead animals (I think they were some small birds? I can’t remember where they came from, maybe the same place as the hearts, but I do remember that my partner decided to have a sudden toilet break when I loudly exclaimed loudly that I had managed to find the optic nerve of the critter we were dissecting.)

      However, surprisingly few of the students were disgusted compared to ones who were fascinated. I thought these kind of demos are relatively common. (Boring, regular municipal school in Finland, late 00s.)

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        I had frog dissection in what was probably high school. Junior high seems possible.

      • glorkvorn says:

        Yeah that’s true. Most American biology classes do that too. I guess you could learn some basic surgery skills that way. But I still think making the jump to practicing on a living human would be quite tough.

    • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

      I mean I’m not confident as to how applicable this is to real surgery, but you can dissect / vivisect fly larvae (maggots) pretty much the same way as you can with any other organism. As far as I’m aware there aren’t any regulations on this.

      If you wanted to build up the motor skills of a surgeon, cutting up insects is a cheap pastime which a lot of kids enjoy doing anyway but still takes very fine manipulations to do properly. You can make a dissection plate and pins yourself, the tweezers and micro-scissors are relatively cheap, and the dissection scope can get more use as they get older and graduate to rodents.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      You can speculate about pushing the boundaries, but we don’t take advantage of the basics that we know about today. We know (search for “western”) how to turn a medical student into the best hernia surgeon in the world, in just a year, but most hernia surgeries are performed by inferior generalists with a decade of training. Probably it would be better to have specialists for many other kinds of surgeries.

      There are objective rankings for surgeries: time in OR, recovery time, adverse events. If you do 750 of the same surgery each year, these numbers are statistically meaningful.

      (On the other hand, ER surgeons have to be generalists. Gawande has another essay about how the C-section is popular because it can be taught to generalists, even though specialists can do a better job with other methods.)

    • Yug Gnirob says:

      My immediate thought would be to start with stuffed animals and dinner meats. Prepping for an operation could be a dinner activity; you can use condiments as stand-ins for… surgery things… and get the kid to memorize the names and process order. You could get anatomy pictures and use them as mazes. They could have clear goals to make incisions of exact lengths and depths in certain timeframes.

      …I think the training and certification requirements are a civilized world thing; I bet you could find some terrible place that would let an untested child practice surgery.

      • sconn says:

        When I was homeschooled we dissected fish eyeballs and chicken giblets. That stuff is readily available at the store. For the more advanced, you can order preserved fetal pigs. But that’s very different from human surgery, still, and what if you actually do become an expert surgeon at 12? They’re still not going to let you operate on living humans!

        • johan_larson says:

          There’s also the simple fact that there is an instructional pipeline for surgeons, and you can’t really get around it. But I suppose you could hurry things along a bit.

          Suppose you start in school at the regular age, grade 1 at age 6. You do really well and are allowed to skip two grades, meaning you start college at age 16 rather than the usual 18. Between AP credits and summer school, you finish your undergraduate studies in two years and start med school at 18. I’ve never heard of anyone moving through med school at anything other than the standard rate, so you take the same four years everyone else does, meaning you start your surgical residency at 22. The shortest surgical residencies take five years, so you could be a fully trained surgeon at 27.

  16. moridinamael says:

    You’ve written before about “winning the lottery of fascinations”. It seems to me, just from reading these snippets, that Polgar is primarily interested in rigging that lottery. Everything he’s doing is aimed at that goal specifically, even at the cost of what most would consider the primary attributes of an “education”.

    * He would rather go through the material at a painfully slow rate than risk boring or overloading the child.
    * He would rather let the child win/succeed almost all the time than take the slightest risk that they might lose and consequently start fearing failure. (Do you know how hard it is to let a toddler beat you at anything nine times in a row?)
    * He would rather completely eschew anything that feels at all like “work” so the child can perpetually think of their studies as play, and this means almost every activity has to be carefully engineered to hit the exact right spot on the difficulty curve. No grinding through the chess equivalent of multiplication tables for the Polgar sisters.
    * He explicit builds into his system a social reward structure, making innate human social wiring work for him. Now the child wants to excel and grow because on some level it serves her social standing to do so, not just in the eyes of her parents, but also she seeks the esteem of her professional peers.

    There’s a lot of bits of information there. At the risk of repeating myself, he’s making choices that are at the direct expense of what traditional educational paradigm requires. This slow, fun, social approach to learning is anathema to the need to just “get through the material” that is imposed by any typical program and even most atypical programs.

    And I don’t think any hippy private school does the things in that list. I mean, trust me, I tried to find one. Nearly the best you’re gonna get is a private school that tries “crazy” things like not assigning ball-numbing homework sets and maybe letting teenagers start school later than 6:45 AM. If anybody is aware of a private school that takes a similar approach toward first-and-foremost engineering a kid’s fascination lottery, please let me know.

    • phil says:

      “Do you know how hard it is to let a toddler beat you at anything nine times in a row?”

      ————

      tic tac toe – when the first player picks center, if the second player picks a corner, the game should end in a draw, if the second player picks a non corner, the first player should be able to win unless they make a mistake

      when waiting at restaurants, I like to play tic tac toe with my daughter, and pick a non corner to let her think through the logic puzzle of getting the win

      She went out to dinner with her aunt, report I got afterwards:

      “Aunt (redacted) is way better at tic tac toe than you are Dad!”

    • Douglas Knight says:

      He would rather let the child win/succeed almost all the time than take the slightest risk that they might lose and consequently start fearing failure. (Do you know how hard it is to let a toddler beat you at anything nine times in a row?)

      He specifically rejects ever letting the student win. Thus he rejects starting with competition too soon, instead builds puzzles out of chess, such as endgames.

      what most would consider the primary attributes of an “education”.

      Which are? boredom and overloading? pretending to “get through the material”? When you put it that way, maybe doing nothing is an improvement. Have you considered unschooling?

      Nearly the best you’re gonna get is a private school that tries “crazy” things like not assigning ball-numbing homework sets and maybe letting teenagers start school later than 6:45 AM.

      This is probably just hyperbole, but it makes you sound like you haven’t heard of the single most common atypical program, Montessori. No, it doesn’t engineer fascinations, but it does avoid the most basic pitfalls.

      • moridinamael says:

        I definitely didn’t read those quoted snippets as a rejection of letting the student win. I will need to read the full book to clarify this fully for myself, I suppose.

        My kids are in a Montessori charter school. It avoids the most basic pitfalls but it’s still required to adhere to the federally mandated curriculum, meaning there’s always going to be an emphasis on “getting through the material” rather than slow, methodical mastery.

        I would seriously try unschooling if it weren’t for life circumstances requiring that I rely on school as a form of childcare.

        • Douglas Knight says:

          When I said “specifically,” I didn’t mean to imply that it was what he said here, but I don’t remember where I read it, probably here, but I can’t find a quote that much matches it.

          Searching both sources for “win,” I find several quotes from all over the spectrum.

          We should make sure not to always win against the child; we should let them win sometimes so that they feel that they also are capable of thinking.

          One should get the child to play a great deal, but always with suitable partners, who have a generally similar playing ability. On some occasions they can be weaker, on some stronger, so that the child experiences what winning and losing are like. But one must certainly find the right proportion.

          Remember to let the child win most of the time.

          To provide an advantage for the child, don’t play with less pieces, because that changes the structure of the game. Instead, provide yourself a very short time limit, or deliberately make a mistake, so the child can learn to notice them.

        • sconn says:

          If you’re thinking of unschooling, Sudbury Valley schools, if there is any near you, espouse an unschool-type philosophy.

    • sconn says:

      Montessori is big on a lot of this stuff. Learning is at a child’s own pace, with hands-on games if possible. It’s super expensive because of all the manipulatives involved, but very popular around here. There are like three Montessori schools and one hybrid Montessori school in our small town. Other areas may be different.

  17. andagain says:

    You probably don’t need an education degree, … to make it happen

    Some might suspect it is positively harmful:

    What if everything you knew about education is wrong

    Progressively Worse

  18. Sniffnoy says:

    What with all the talk of the virtues of Esperanto, I feel like a link to Justin Rye’s “Learn Not To Speak Esperanto” is obligatory here…

    (Also, Scott, the “on the end goal” paragraph is missing blockquote tags.)

  19. Richard Kennaway says:

    If people here were interested in trying this method with their own current or future children, what would be their curriculum choices? Given that how to think well is the universally general specialisation, what would that look like taught à la Polgar?

    • Björn says:

      I don’t think it matters that much what you choose, as long as you choose something that is fun for your children and encourages intellectual growth. I would teach my children reading at an early age, and show them the things I like most, which for me would be music and mathematics. I mean, Polgar more or less suggests spending a lot of quality time with your kids teaching them things in a way that raises their interest.

      By the way, here’s an article where a father taught his son video gaming on a really high level: https://medium.com/message/playing-with-my-son-e5226ff0a7c3
      I think that fits other topic well, video gaming is of course also a cultural ability. And you see that it’s not about putting your son in front of a play station, you have to put some thought into what you do so your child ends up one of the most video-game-educated person on the planet.

  20. MB says:

    I suspect that quite a few Americans, when reading this
    “I suspect Polgar was a naturally gifted teacher, and his daughters naturally curious students, and that he never really encountered problems in this regard and doesn’t expect other people to either.”
    will think about how unfair and unjust this situation is and how the Polgar children should have been made to hate school and learning just like everyone else. At least they should have been made more aware of their privilege and should have had to publicly denounce it.
    This attitude seems especially prevalent in pedagogical circles.

    • andrewflicker says:

      I think you’re stretching it a bit- I dropped out of a big teaching credential program in California most of the way through. The prevalent attitude would have been something more like “kids like that will do well regardless. We should focus our effort on the disadvantaged and struggling.”

  21. sconn says:

    As a teacher and later homeschool parent, I couldn’t get past that schedule. is that nine hours of organized study a day? And only one hour of it for “general education” like reading, writing, history? I think the school district would not be pleased if I told them I’d decided to basically not even bother teaching my kid to read because I was busy teaching them chess.

    It is possible to do a kindergarten or first-grade education in roughly an hour a day, because there’s not a whole lot they’re learning and their focus isn’t really that good either. I taught my kid to read in an hour a day, we sort of did some math here and there, and for other subjects we watched videos or played games. But no way could I have gotten his six-year-old self to cooperate in activities organized by me for nine hours a day. Much less when he was three years old. But as he gets older, there’s more he’ll have to learn, so when exactly is he supposed to fit in world history or physics? When does he learn to write a good essay or do algebra? These might not be super-important skills if he wound up being a chess genius, but you can only be a chess genius for a living if you make it into the very top, I would imagine. That’s true of many genius-type skills like piano playing as well. There are no end of really good violinists out there who aren’t *quite* good enough to perform for a living, so they wind up teaching violin part time or just giving it up altogether. That’s a mighty big gamble to make on a kid. But if you lose the gamble, what other skills does he have? Can he go to college? Probably not, if he’s only dabbled in algebra and essay-writing!

    Honestly this reads a lot like “how to raise an autistic kid.” If extreme savant skills in one area and deficiencies in the rest are your goal, I’m sure you can do that. But I’m not entirely sure it’s a good goal; it seems a bit too high-variance where you *might* get a chess star but on the other hand you *might* have him living in your basement at 30.

    Now. That said. Unschooling can do a lot of this, because when a child is really, really obsessed with something he really will spend nine hours a day on it, and provided it’s not just videogames (and maybe even if it is!) he’s going to learn something from it, so you can let him have at it. But part of unschooling is that kids lose interest in one thing and take up another, so over time they’re getting broad skills. Or sometimes you use one interest as a tie-in to another interest, like Minecraft math or something. I would be really, really leery of letting a child neglect other areas of education *even if* his skills at his favorite thing were above average. There are very few skills you can be good enough at that nobody cares that you can’t do your own taxes or write your own resume.

    However I’m definitely going to take his advice about chess instruction. My eldest is mildly autistic and he is bananas for chess, but he can’t actually play it very well at all. My husband has played with him a few times and always beats him easily, which invariably ends in tears. I’m going to suggest he let the Wookiee win.

  22. 2irons says:

    I found the comments on language learning interesting. Scott seems at best only open-minded about the benefits of learning a foreign language. This is exactly the starting viewpoint I want in seeking advice on making my decision around my daughter’s learning.

    I’m not really sure what to think of this – language learning might be more important if you grow up speaking Hungarian rather than English, and Polgar seems so enthusiastic an Esperantist that it’s hard to picture him recommending it for purely rational reasons – but he’s quite insistent on it.

    I only speak English and have a toddler growing up in an English speaking country. I’m wondering how much resource to put into her learning one or more languages. I’m not really sold on the practical value of it and not looking to be convinced of that – but I have found the information I’ve read from respected scientists that foreign language acquisition improves some non-linguistic problem cognition compelling. The point that the perception of progress in the child’s mind is a sell on the process of learning overall is an interesting addition.

    The trouble is the sources always seem to be from those who have already mastered several languages. I can’t help but think there is a bias there. Both in underestimating the costs/difficulty of learning and in overselling the value of speaking more than one language (since they are effectively talking up their own book.)

    My wife and I only speak English, our schooling in a foreign language was the typically poor, half-hearted effort that doesn’t begin till age 12 but even taking that into account I do think we both have below average natural language learning ability. However it’s clearly a lot easier for young children and her abilities could be quite different from ours.

    Given money and time are finite, and the marginal effort could be put into music, general learning or just play – do any readers have any new viewpoints on whether language learning is of high value even discounting any practical application. Has anyone looked at the quality of studies on foreign language learning’s impact on the brain?

    • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

      The primary benefit of being bilingual as an American is that it signifies upper-class status. This is very useful for the purposes of admission into top universities.

      For these purposes, the language should have three characteristics. First, it should have limited practical use. Second, it should be associated with high culture. Third, it shouldn’t reflect your ethnic background but be an obvious affectation. Under my theory, languages like French German and Russian would be ideal for these purposes in America.

      (It would also mean that my choice to learn German was a tactical mistake. My family never anglicized my surname, so even though I’m actually a native English speaker it’s a much less impressive-looking accomplishment.)

      It’s not very important how well the child actually speaks the language because it’s unlikely that interviewers will make any serious attempt to probe her fluency.

      • Tibor says:

        Wouldn’t Spanish make a lot more sense for Americans? One of your neighbours speaks Spanish, an increasing proportion of the US population speaks Spanish as a native language and the rest of America (or Americas if you consider it to be two continents) minus Brazil, Suriname, French Guayana (which together have a lower population than many cities in the US) an a couple of islands speaks Spanish.

        Plus it is closer to English than German and especially Russian and probably a bit easier (way more sensible spelling and easier pronunciation) than French. It makes sense to learn German for Europeans and Russian also to some degree, but learning French is in many ways a relic of a bygone era, Spanish is the new French (again).

        • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

          That’s why it doesn’t make sense to learn Spanish. It’s considered a very easy language to learn, is practical in day-to-day life and is associated with manual labor. Exactly the opposite of what you want your children to learn if you’re an upwardly-mobile middle class family.

          That said, personally I found German to be much more similar to English than the romance languages I briefly studied. To each his own.

          • Tibor says:

            I speak both German and English as well as ok-ish Spanish and even Spanish is closer to English than German is, French is even closer than that. German has grammatical cases, 3 genders (and they are a mess which is governed by little to no rules , mostly due to shifts where many of older suffixes were dropped from the words and so many words have a particular gender because they used to have the appropriate suffix which you can’t see any more) and while it shares quite a few roots with English, those are usually the easy everyday words which are, well, easy to learn anyway. French/Latin is the source of the more complicated English words which makes it easier I’d say. German is more phonetic than French, but that seems like the only thing that makes it easier for an English speaker.

            If Spanish is not high-status due to its practicality (a weird concept for me, I’m a bit skeptical about it being exactly as you say, but I’m European, we have to learn languages for practical reasons), then learn Portuguese. You’ll be able to sort of understand Spanish after that and half of South America speaks Portuguese (even though in just one, albeit huge, country). Plus, IMO it sounds great, it is more suave than Spanish and less overtly sweet than French. Particularly Brazilian Portuguese sounds amazing.

            I guess I forgot Quebec. But nobody seems to like them anyway, at least not in Canada 🙂

          • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

            a weird concept for me, I’m a bit skeptical about it being exactly as you say, but I’m European, we have to learn languages for practical reasons

            It’s not that complex. This is exactly the sort of situation the term “signalling” was meant to apply to.

            In America, we have never had titles of nobility: in fact, they’re explicitly forbidden by the Constitution. And we like to imagine that there’s no class hierarchy, that “anyone can become President.”

            At the same time, the upper classes have traditionally had a distinctly aristocratic character. Boston Brahmins and all that. And they need to be able to distinguish themselves from the plebs, especially for university admissions to Ivy league schools.

            Acquiring a time-consuming and impractical skill, like learning French and gaining a passing familiarity with French literature, signals that one has money to spare and is clued into the current intellectual fashion. It’s something that will catch the eye of admissions and let them know that you’re one of them.

          • Spookykou says:

            I am not sure if this is already captured in ‘signaling high status’, but I generally think of signaling as being a proxy for something else, so in this case, I come from a nice family that took me to Europe and museums when I was a child. I think being multilingual/bilingual has an additional benefit in blue tribe spaces of being implicitly cool, which is just another boost to your social prospects.

        • Jiro says:

          That would fail the “limited practical use” criterion.

          • Tibor says:

            Yeah, I missed that. I’m a bit skeptical about it actually being like that, though. Most Americans (and English native speakers in general) don’t speak any foreign languages (or at least not on any notable level). Unless Spanish is your native language, speaking it fluently should still be considered impressive in the US. But I’m just guessing.

          • herbert herberson says:

            Nah, you’re right, Tibor. The only way to edge out Spanish in terms of prestige is with a more difficult but still commonly spoken language like Arabic or Mandarin. Especially that last one, I think it’s currently the most fashionable for upper-class prep/private schools. Learning Latin or some Euro langauge where all the native speakers are bilingual will impress no one.

            Also, no one in America is assuming that a German name = likely to have learned German natively in the home. Nabil’s post reads like a dispatch from 1910.

          • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

            You’re probably right about the name issue. Looking back more often people just assume that I’m Jewish. Some people pick up on it immediately in person but it’s probably not most people’s first thought.

            Learning Latin or some Euro [language] where all the native speakers are bilingual will impress no one.

            I’ve literally never heard anyone call Spanish fluency impressive. Chinese at least is famously difficult. Spanish is the language you take because you want to sleep through your language requirement.

            Where do people consider Arabic or Spanish to be the most prestigious languages? Is this something that’s big in elite pre-K but hasn’t reached the current crop of students yet?

          • herbert herberson says:

            Arabic seemed extremely prestigious when I was in college, but that might have been an artifact of going to school in DC during the height of the Iraq occupation.

            Otherwise, I guess it’s not so much that I think Spanish is super-prestigious (because it certainly is common as dirt) as that I think you’re off about the relative uselessness of the (other) European languages being a positive signaler. I think German and French, especially, will be read by most as “the language program at the school this person attended was very out of date.” In the extremes, I think you’re probably still right–if you were fluent in Sanskrit or Anishinaabe, yea, then you’re gonna stand out–but otherwise I bet you’re better off signalling intelligence by making a practical, intelligent choice, which in the US is pretty much always going to be Spanish (with honorable mentions to Arabic and Mandarin).

          • Tibor says:

            @Nabil ad Dajjal: In Europe, Spanish fluency is considered relatively impressive, unless you’re in southern France or Portugal I guess. Most people learn either French or German as a second foreign language (everyone learns English as the first). I find that people consider it very impressive that I speak 5 languages, even though I’m not really that good in 2 of them (and those two are also very similar to each other), everyone speaks relatively good English at the university and learning German is easy when you reside in Germany (still a lot of foreign students don’t ever learn it). Plus my German is still far from perfect. But people somehow imagine it is really difficult to do that while really it gets easier with each new language from the same language group and in fact it might be harder to learn Mandarin than to learn 4 languages from the Indo-European branch when your native tongue also belongs to that branch.

            In fact really good fluency of English is still considered mildly impressive in Europe (outside of the UK, Malta and Ireland, obviously). Europeans with college degrees (a lower percentage of the population than in the US) will generally speak English quite well, but most are still far from perfect and even at the universities you hear constructions like “If you would have X then you would obtain Y” (which is grammatically perfectly correct in German or Czech, but I have to cringe whenever I hear that in English…well, I guess it is still better than one old German professor who said that someone “became a job” – bekommen means to be given in German). Other common German errors are using “there is” where you should say “there are” (like “there is two functions”…because in German you say “Es gibt”…which literally means It gives and is used the same way the “there is/are” English construction in fact occasionally a student literally writes “It gives”). Czechs often either omit articles where they shouldn’t or overcompensate and use them where they should be used (It is quite possible I do it as well sometimes but I’m pretty sure I don’t do it nearly as often). If you ignore the people with university education, most Europeans probably aren’t bilingual in any meaningful sense. They are probably fluent enough in English to order something in a restaurant or ask for directions when on holiday in another country, but that’s about that.

            Some countries fare better than others though. Pretty much all Dutch people speak English very well, I think the same holds for Swedes and Norwegians as well (probably a combination of no dubbing on TV and relative proximity to the English language).

            I think continental Europeans also sometimes try to signal status by learning received pronunciation in English. I hate it though, since mostly it is still slightly off and it just sounds snobbish. I guess it is still better than when people don’t bother with the accent at all and talk like stereotypical Hollywood “foreign guy” characters.

        • A Definite Beta Guy says:

          Learning Spanish is only useful if you couple it with your White Man’s Burden work in Haiti or Ecudaor or whatever (also a boon on your college application).

          Learning Spanish to interact with low-class workers is a detriment to your upper-class status. Who talks to the help? You might as well say “I LOVE NASCAR, VROOOOM, GO DALE EARNHARDT” in your personal essay.

          • Tibor says:

            Haitians speak French. Also, do lower-class Americans (who are not of Latin American origin) actually speak Spanish? I somehow doubt it.

            I generally find the concept of stuff like volunteer work and sports achievements influencing the college admission strange (or writing any personal essays or whatever). I don’t think there is anything like that in Europe, universities only care about your high school grades and your entry exam scores.

          • 2irons says:

            Yeah you guys have nailed it. I’ve instinctively played the game without realizing why I’m making the moves I have so far.

            The prep school application was re-written to include the Mandarin learning and there’s a theory that it was exactly what pushed it over the line. I guess the equivalent of Spanish here would be putting down that Kurdish or similar is spoken at home.

            UK university admission might or might not take something like Mandarin into account but the private schools before do and those are arguably a bigger component of achieving (as well as signalling) upper middle-class status.

            I’m still interested in views on what it achieves beyond signalling though!

          • Tibor says:

            2irons: Well, Mandarin is a marketable skill in itself if you actually speak it well, I think. Not by itself, probably. If a company wants to impress their Chinese partners they will probably rather hire someone from China who speaks English to do that, but if you speak Mandarin and can do something else as well, I guess it is a plus. But the language is really hard, or rather the writing system is really hard. On the plus side, you will be able to communicate in written form with speakers of very different languages, such as Cantonese and maybe even Japanese?

            Still, time is limited and spending it learning Mandarin unless you know why seems a bit strange – unless you like it for the language itself but this is not the case with little kids. If you want to learn multiple languages, in Europe it makes sense to learn one of each of the three branches of Indo-European languages (for these purposes, English is really Germano-romance), because that allows you to learn all other Indo-European languages with relative ease, so pretty much all European languages (Hungarian, Finnish and Estonian are not Indo-European, all other languages in Europe are, unless you count Georgia and Armenia as Europe and unless you count Basque). I’d go for Spanish, Russian and German. Each have the largest number of speakers in their language groups and Spanish and Russian are probably the easiest in their respective groups (Russians have a weird alphabet but it is basically the Greek alphabet and even if you don’t know that it is just learning 25 or so letters, not a big deal). German is probably the hardest Germanic language but by far the most spoken one and other Germanic languages are so close to English that an English native would pick them up with ease. German also has some features common with Slavic languages – grammatical cases and three grammatical genders. Once you learn the concept in one language you don’t have to relearn it in another, you just learn how it is constructed. If you learn these three languages, you will kind of understand something everywhere in Europe outside of Finland, Estonia, Hungary…probably also Albania and Greece.

            And learning all three will probably take about as much effort as learning Mandarin properly. Russian will be the hardest for an English native speaker, Spanish the easiest. I learned Spanish using pretty much just a free app called Duolingo in about a year (to a level where I could have a basic conversation on most topics) and the only sort-of-romance language I spoke before that was English (technically I had a year of French in the 10th grade but I forgot everything since). So I’d start with Spanish, then German and then Russian.

      • 2irons says:

        Hoho – this appears to be exactly the route we are going down. We live in London and she is learning Mandarin. French or German have a much less steep learning curve but given our proximity to Europe arguably too high a possibility of practical use.

        In all seriousness though, a switch to one of those in her next school might be sensible depending on the assessment of the sunk costs at that point. Mandarin or Russian were the only options at her nursery. Learning to sing nursery rhymes and some words through play I think fits in with many of the interpretations of what Polgar was doing right without a lot of downside. But if the learning curve is still steep the decision gets harder.

      • Saint Fiasco says:

        Keep in mind that many kids absolutely despise having to learn a language with no application. “It will look good for top universities’ admission boards” does not count as an application for them.

        • sconn says:

          Then they should learn Japanese. Watching anime without subtitles is useful to a teenager, while being able to easily travel to Japan might be useful to them as an adult..

        • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

          True enough, but many kids also dislike brussel sprouts.

          Part of being a parent is making choices for your children that will pay off long term. If kids knew and cared what would benefit them a decade down the line they wouldn’t need parenting in the first place.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            Is there any reason to force children to eat brussel sprouts?

          • Aapje says:

            – You like it yourself and don’t want to cook two meals
            – learning to enjoy/accept bitter food opens up many food options
            – You have to force many/most children to eat healthy food anyway or they’ll end up just eating junk food
            – Brussels sprouts have been bred to be far less bitter than in the past, so its status as kid-torture food is probably no longer valid
            – My country is the biggest exporter, so it helps our economy if people eat them
            – I think their taste is pretty nice when roasted or sauteed

          • Ozy Frantz says:

            I mean, if you roast and salt them you probably won’t have to coerce your kid into eating them, because they will be delicious. (If “force your kid to eat brussels sprouts” means “require them to take one bite before dismissing the food out of hand,” then I retract my objections to it as a get-your-kid-to-eat-vegetables strategy.)

          • A Definite Beta Guy says:

            – I think their taste is pretty nice when roasted or sautéed

            Most people seem to hate Brussel sprouts because their parents boiled them.
            Pretty much the worst way to cook Brussel sprouts….or any vegetable….

          • The Nybbler says:

            I might hate Brussels sprouts for their bitterness, if I could get past their foul odor long enough to actually put one in my mouth.

            I thought the reason for making kids eat vegetables they find unpalatable is for nutritional purposes during their childhood, not so much building adult habits.

        • Ozy Frantz says:

          If a kid isn’t very very gifted with languages and they have no reason to use the language they might get an A in the class but they won’t learn the language. (How many Europeans speak English? How many Americans speak Spanish? This is not because France has a mind-bogglingly good educational system.)

          That said, it’s not impossible to create reasons. Move to Miami, hire a Spanish nanny and refuse to let them speak English, and when your kid’s a teenager forbid any trashy TV other than telenovelas. Your kid will speak Spanish like a native. If you prefer Mandarin, of course, you’ll have to move to your local Chinatown and introduce them to C-dramas.

          As a person who loves vegetables coercion is also a terrible way to get people to eat vegetables as adults, which is presumably the goal.

          • Tibor says:

            No, your kid will learn to speak like a telenovela character, they will say things like “mi reina!” on a daily basis and everyone will think they’re weird 😛 But yeah, I understand your general point.

          • Aapje says:

            they will say things like “mi reina!” on a daily basis

            It’ll turn them gay????

          • Tibor says:

            @Aapje: Worse. Macho gay!

        • Nancy Lebovitz says:

          That’s interesting about brussels sprouts having been bred to be less bitter.

          I’ve become somewhat more tolerant (not very tolerant) of bitter flavors just with the passage of time. I’m not sure that forcing myself to eat bitter things would have accelerated the process.

  23. Levantine says:

    Thanks for the book and the review.

    It reminded me of another study of genius:

    July 1994, Communications of the ACM, page 26:

    (Interviewer): …For an older student in a conservatory, we can imagine having to study Gregorian chants for a few months before getting any highly (positive) feedback. But in the case of a five-year-old child learning piano or composing, we cannot depend only on delayed feedback or abstract feedback.

    Minsky: I’m afraid that’s true, at least for most young children, but the evidence is that many of our foremost achievers developed under conditions that are not much like those of present-day mass education. Robert Lawler just showed me a paper by Harold Macurdy on the child pattern of genius. Macurdy reviews the early education of many eminent people from the last couple of centuries and concludes (1) that most of them had an enormous amount of attention paid to them by one or both parents and (2) that generally they were relatively isolated from other children. This is very different from what most people today consider an ideal school. It seems to me that much of what we call education is really socialization. Consider what we do to our kids. Is it really a good idea to send your 6-year-old into a room full of 6-year-olds, and then, the next year, to put your 7-year-old in with 7-year-olds, and so on? A simple recursive argument suggests this exposes them to a real danger of all growing up with the minds of 6-year-olds. And, so far as I can see, that’s exactly what happens.

    That is all largely overlapping with my own feelings and views at age 4-14 (numbers semi-arbitrarily chosen). If my childhood intuition, and Polgar, and Macurdy, and Minsky, were wrong about adults’ role and socialization with peers, we surely comprise an interesting minority group.

    Having said that, “genius” means different things:

    “Genius Is Not about Excelling at Something—It’s about Doing Things Differently” : Eric Weinstein
    (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EzdLBGPidAM)

  24. tjfwainwright says:

    One common thread in the comments is concern about the risks of specialization. As a more generalist type myself, I’m interested in thinking about how this Pulgar debate applies to polymaths. I have no interest in raising a Chess Grandmaster per ce, to me the goal would be raising a child who by the age of 20 may be a Grandmaster, may be a piano virtuoso, whatever their one thing is, they have a handle on it–but who is also curious about the world and equipped to go on to explore new interests and gain new proficiencies.

    I’m more interested in raising a Ben Franklin or a Goethe type than a chess savant.

    It seems like Pulgar’s methods are still really relevant, though. A concern seems to be the opportunity costs of specialization. But it is not a zero-sum game. One would pick up skills on the way to becoming a chess grandmaster that should transfer well to other areas–focus, self-directed learning, competition/sportsmanship, social skills, etc.

    This is basically what Jacob Lund Fisker outlines in his book “Early Retirement Extreme” (ignore the title, book changed my life). He was an astrophysics PhD and post-doc, published a bunch of papers etc, but also on the crazy frugal/minimalist end of the spectrum. He retired on his savings from his stipend and salary (!) and has devoted the rest of his life to skill acquisition. He went on to become a competitive regatta racer, an author, and a quant at some hedge fund. He mentions in his book that specializing has a snowball effect–the confidence that comes from mastery in one area helps one in new endeavors.

    Piotr Wozniak, the SuperMemo guy, also talks about this. Here are some related links, maybe there’s something in here that other commenters will tease out into a grand unified theory of Renaissance education that uses rationality techniques to find the perfect balance between specializing and generalizing.

    https://www.1843magazine.com/content/edward-carr/last-days-polymath

    http://super-memory.com/articles/genius.htm

    • A Definite Beta Guy says:

      I have conflicting thoughts on this:

      First:
      Genius-level accomplishment might be much more difficult circa 2017 than it was circa 1776. Not only do we have many more geniuses, but we also have several centuries of accumulated intellectual capital. Making a sizable contribution to any field may be much harder now, and it may be much more difficult to compete at high-level competitions.
      So, yes, specialization would be in fact required to become a truly exceptional.

      Second:
      Yeah, being a specialist sounds like it sucks.

      I made a comment about the Scott Adams theory of success above. He said it’s not really feasible to get to the 99th percentile. What you really want are two complimentary skills that are both in the 80th percentile. So Scott is good at writing jokes and good at drawing…not great, but in 80th percentile, so he can float himself as a cartoonist.

      My background is business, and businesses are all about leveraging different capabilities from different people. This can be extrapolated to any organization, but it requires a different skill set called “leadership” and “management.” So Elon Musk can simultaneously make huge world-changing advances in rocketry, automobiles, solar energy, and transportation infrastructure, because he can lead/manage very well.

      I should read this book. But it sounds like Polgar specifically aims for single-domain excellence. That rules out excellence/genius akin to Elon Musk or Scott Adams.

      That sounds much more poly-math to me than specialized.

  25. Joyously says:

    So what I need to do is find a computer-programming stay-at-home husband. I will get on that.

    • Skivverus says:

      Well, if I understand the gender distribution at SSC correctly, you are posting in (one of) the right place(s), so you’re on the right track at least.
      I suspect a next step would be to set up, and then post, an email where more private expressions of potential interest can be directed.

  26. chernavsky says:

    I just stumbled upon this recent Guardian article (“Why there’s no such thing as a gifted child“), by Wendy Berliner. She is the co-author of a new book called, Great Minds and How to Grow Them. I have no children, and I’m not especially interested in this subject, but I thought I would pass along the information, in case anyone wants to read the book and compare it to Polgar’s work.

  27. gda says:

    Firstly, the fact that Laszlo claims that ‘geniuses are made, not born’ shows he is a ‘blank slate’ proponent, which I believe to be a faulty assumption, and demonstrates that he clearly knows virtually nothing about even his own children. Perhaps he might have had his eyes opened had he managed to beget a son or two, rather than 3 daughters.

    Secondly, I would be most impressed if he was able to demonstrate his methods on someone other than 3 cherry-picked examples. Say, if he had one natural-born daughter and two other adopted daughters, one from Sub-Saharan Africa, and one from West Virginia. Having the same results from that grouping would indeed be impressive (to say the least).

    I struggle to find anything exceptional or surprising here, other than the obvious – 2 parents with exceptionally high IQs begat 3 sisters with high IQs (probably > +2SD)

    Levitt comes up with a equation which relates ELO (chess rating) and IQ score:
    ELO ~ (10 x IQ) + 1000
    https://thechessworld.com/articles/healthpsycology/chess-rating-and-iq-score-correlation/
    The “~” symbol means “given many years of effort will tend to be equal approximately”.

    Note that this gives only an approximation, and its veracity has certainly been challenged, particularly because of the measured IQ of Garry Kasporov (135), who, under the above rule should have had an IQ of around 190. Well, at least the ‘many years of effort’ are definitely there in spades.

    Susan 2577 or an IQ of approx. 157
    Sofia 2505 or an IQ of approx. 150
    Judit 2735 or an IQ of approx. 170

    According to this sceptical article, the Polgar sisters likely had IQs in the 120-140 range:
    http://greyenlightenment.com/the-polgar-prodigies-is-genius-born-or-made/

    And it’s conclusion?
    “So are geniuses born or made? For highly g-loaded activities, it’s a virtual certainty the former, and that the Polgar sisters succeeded because of high IQ and other biological factors, with parenting perhaps a necessary but still insufficient condition.”

    I guess this proves that brilliant people still continue to bring forth stupid ideas.

  28. janrandom says:

    > Get those four things right – early start, single-subject focus, 1:1 home schooling, and a great parent/teacher – and the rest is just common-sense advice.

    What are the chances of these things to fall in place together? Many of which run counter to common wisdom or intuition.

    Early start (with 3) runs counter to the belief that small kids can do the stuff much older children or adults can. And in some cases like reading this is supported by by evidence (exceptions notwithstanding). I know of no other people who tried to raise numerate children by singing counting rhymes to infants or something comparable. 10% maybe?

    Single subject also seems to run counter to raise “balanced and well adjusted” children with a wide and general education. I don’t see a contradiction. What I do see is that whenever a child does find an something really interesting that is not on the radar of acceptable things of the parents there is a tendency to restrict this “distraction”. I was lucky that my parents let me spend insane hours at the home computer despite not knowing that it would pay off for me.

    Home schooling is done for only 3.4% of american children. It’s not available or feasible everywhere (in Germany it’s verboten). I think doing so correlates with being a good teacher (though Polgar is another level). But good teachers are seldom too and also need their own 10K practice.

    In comparison being a good parent is comparatively frequent I hope. But it is an independent factor I think.

    The rest being common sense is a bit easy on how infrequent common sense actually is. And even if there is common sense it still needs to be applied with discipline and we know how hard that is with all the other things we do.

    On top of that I think there is another requirement that is not in the list of four things: Doing enough hours per day. Polgar states 9 hours a day. This really sounds a lot. And I understand that he and his daughters enjoyed it.

    If I multiply some randomly taken fractions for these requirements I’d guess that less than 1 in 10000 hit this sweet spot. I surely don’t. All my boys could do fractions and some exponentials before school. And it was fun. But the curve flattened when they got to school where it stopped being fun.

    I wonder whether smarter parents can hit this sweet easier or whether finding it at all requires a certain amount of smarts (or else luck). If so we should see long tails in the distribution of genius level results.

  29. R Flaum says:

    My impression is that chess is a field in which the benefits of starting early are unusually large — virtually every professional chess player today started playing at a very young age, and this was true to a lesser extent even in earlier days when the general skill level was lower than it is now.

  30. Worley says:

    Certainly the Polgar method is interesting, but I don’t see it as the pilot test for a school. Schools function under vastly different constraints, chief among them is maintaining a fairly high student/teacher ratio, which precludes the teacher spending much time one-on-one with any particular student. The result is a mass-production system, which is either too slow or two fast for most students, and no focus on one single subject for any student. Additionally, the school is judged either by the skills of the median student, or by the skills of the worst student; there’s little credit given for turning out 1/10 of the students as geniuses.

    One place these ideas *are* applicable is the old system where the rich engaged tutors for their children, and the tutor could work with each student intensively. But that doesn’t seem to have been enormously successful. While a larger fraction of observed geniuses have been children of the affluent, that seems to be more of a reflection of economic opportunity, and the children of the affluent have never been credited with being more brilliant than the children of the middle classes (whatever those were at the time).

  31. Worley says:

    One could ask, is it really possible for one person to teach 10 children in this manner? In the one case on record, two people taught three children. Also, I’d like to know how the Polgar family was supported. In my experience of growing up in a “1960 traditional” family, the father spent a large fraction of his hours earning money and the mother spent a large fraction of her hours maintaining the household. But the Wikipedia page “László Polgár” does not suggest that either parent maintained ordinary employment. However, he is well-known for writing educational books on chess, so perhaps he was supported by the Hungarian chess system.

  32. cernos says:

    I think the confounding factor is Laszlo Polgar is a father teaching his children not a stranger teaching someone else’s children. One way to generalize his solution for mass education would be 15 years of paid child-rearing time per child. During that time the father and mother use internet connected services to help them choose, manage and teach a specialized area of knowledge to their children. All uses of these systems are tracked and monitored. Machine learning sifts through the data and hunts for deviants, free riders and anyone doing a poor job. Human agents review the results of the algorithm, investigate and prosecute anyone breaking the law. Politics goes on as normal; new laws are created, some laws removed, some laws are enforced some years and not other years.

    I see nothing that could go wrong.

  33. Worley says:

    At least, Laszlo Polgar should add to his book, “I’m one of the very few people in the world who makes his living teaching master-level chess players. My children happened to choose chess as the subject they would specialize in. And it turned out that I could train them to be very good at it!”

  34. Dominik Lukes says:

    I’m surprised nobody’s mentioned Anders Ericsson and Peak. He pretty much describes the method needed and what it was that made the Polgar’s successful. He calls it deliberate practice and gives lots of examples and research. The problem is that it does not necessarily work in areas where measurement of progress is difficult. So it works well for sports, physical activities, chess, languages, very specialised math but not necessarily for science or humanities (although each of these has components that would be susceptible to this sort of approach). It is also not a good approach for general education – you have to focus on one thing to the exclusion of too much else. And it’s not clear we would be living in a better society consisting of people thus educated. It’s also not clear if it would really work for everyone – the practice is important but you also need the ‘Grit’ to stick with it. Ericsson and Duckworth seem to have complementary views on how to achieve it but they agree that it’s a prerequisite.

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