Genius — Or Just Damned Hard Work?

Is chess genius a matter of genes, or of graft?

Dominic Lawson

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.”

In this context, it’s interesting that the Norwegian Magnus Carlsen, already the highest-rated player in the world at just 19, has now enrolled as a pupil of…Garry Kasparov. I spoke to Magnus’s father, Henrik, about this. He said that Kasparov was a notably hard taskmaster. Yet Magnus is himself an example of how the capacity for sustaining long periods of intense concentration might itself be the key to understanding what we call “genius”. In Simen Agdestein’s Wonderboy (Interchess BV, 2007), we read of Magnus’s choosing to spend hours doing 50-piece jigsaw puzzles — at the age of two. Truly, as Kasparov said, the capacity for extremely hard work is itself a rare talent.

How far is it possible to get by dedication and hard work alone? Viktor Korchnoi managed to get to the very brink of the world title, yet he always said that he had no special chess talent, that he achieved everything through dedication. Recently, I discussed this with Peter Lee, the only man to have been British champion at both chess and bridge. Peter told me that he had played Korchnoi many years ago in a student chess Olympiad, and was struck by the fact that throughout the entire game the undergraduate Russian never once looked at him, nor even moved from the board during the full six hours of the game. His concentration was total and unyielding — while Peter could not manage the same, and was eventually ground down.

Yet, as Kasparov says, it’s not simply about an infinite capacity for taking pains: we all do have different cognitive abilities. Some people just have better mental processors than others; those whom we might term geniuses must have very good cerebral hardware, even if their brains would not visibly differ from the rest of humanity’s if sliced and examined under a microscope.

There are perhaps only two players in history who stand out as natural talents quite divorced from the benefits of learning and hard work. The first was born in New Orleans in 1837. Paul Morphy learnt the game without even being instructed, just by silently watching his father play — who was staggered when the infant Paul suddenly told him he had made a mistake. Morphy, entirely self-taught, discovered single-handedly the now accepted principles of piece development and placement.

Then there was the Cuban José Raúl Capablanca, who discovered chess as an infant exactly as Morphy had done; yet like Morphy, he did not want to devote his entire life to chess. He was not even especially dedicated, which is why he lost the world championship to the maniacally focused Russian Alexander Alekhine. Yet Alekhine knew that his Cuban rival had something he (and everybody else) lacked. When Capablanca died, Alekhine wrote: “We have lost a genius whose like we shall never see again.”

Capablanca’s best games had a translucent elegance, which music lovers might describe as Mozartean. Here is a charming example, Capa playing White against the Hungarian-born US champion Herman Steiner in 1933. 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bb5 Bb4 5.0-0 0-0 6.d3 d6 7.Bg5 Bxc3 8.bxc3 Ne7 9.Nh4 c6 10.Bc4 Be6 11.Bxf6 gxf6 12. Bxe6 fxe6 13.Qg4+ Kf7 14.f4 Rg8 15.Qh5+ Kg7 16.fxe5 dxe5 17.Rxf6! Kxf6 18.Rf1+ Nf5 19.Nxf5! exf5 20.Rxf5+ Ke7 21.Qf7+ Kd6 22.Rf6+ Kc5 23.Qxb7 Qb6 24.Rxc6+! Qxc6 25.Qb4 mate. Genius. 

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