The greatest chess players are usually described as "geniuses". It's a convenient term — but does anyone know what it means? Where do we draw the line between "gifted" and "genius"? Most people would reply that we know genius when we see it; but that is a circular argument of no objective or persuasive value.
There is also a conventional view that a "genius" can perform great mental feats with no apparent effort, a person who rises above the mental struggle of the common run of humanity. Yet this too is to misunderstand the minds of those whose abilities seem, to outsiders, almost supernatural.
Garry Kasparov — the strongest chess player of the modern era and a dazzling prodigy as a boy — recently made some fascinating observations about the nature of extreme talent (such as his own). He said: "Talent is a misused term and a misunderstood concept. The moment I became the youngest world champion in history at the age of 22 in 1985, I began receiving endless questions about the secret of my success and the nature of my talent. I soon realised that my answers were disappointing...My memory was good, but hardly photographic...There is little doubt that different people are blessed with different amounts of cognitive gifts such as the long-term memory and visuo-spatial skills that chess players are said to employ...[but] where so many of these investigations fail...is by not recognising the importance of learning....The ability to work hard for days on end without losing focus is a talent. The ability to keep absorbing new information after many hours of study is a talent."
The idea that genius is little more than the capacity for hard work is painfully unromantic — and not new. Thomas Edison is at least as well known for his remark that "genius is one per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration" as for any of his inventions. Yet Kasparov's philosophy stems not from that great American entrepreneur but from the Soviet method that formed the basis of his chess development. Kasparov, though he renounced communism as an adult, was the product of the Botvinnik chess school. Mikhail Botvinnik, the first Soviet world chess champion, applied what might be described as the Stakhanovite method: prodigious hard work, to the extent of ignoring all human frailties. If that is instilled at an early age, any natural talent (such as the young Kasparov had) is bound to be formidably augmented.
I've often felt that if England's most naturally talented chess player, Nigel Short, had been packed off to Russia to train at the Botvinnik school, he would have been twice the player he is today. You can see a glimpse of this method in the account by the already strong Scottish grandmaster, Jonathan Rowson, of what he learned as a pupil of the former Soviet champion Artur Yusupov: "Over the course of five days...my ego has never had such a systematic pounding before or since...We looked at 30 different difficult positions [chosen by Yusupov]...almost never did I get the solution right from start to finish. It made me feel like a very weak player."