It’s a misty night in early 1980’s Budapest, Hungary. Susan Polgar and her trainer, a prominent International Master, are trying to analyze and solve a chess end-game. She is getting ready for the World Under 16 (Girls) Championship. After nearly an hour of struggle and sweat, they turn to their last resort. In the bedroom next door sleeps Judit, Susans sister. They wake her up and bring her to the practice room. Half-asleep, 4 year old Judith solves their problem in a matter of minutes, after which she goes back to bed.
This was a regular occurrence in the home of Lazslo and Klara Polgar, a household which produced 1 International Master and 2 Grand Masters of Chess. The eldest of the sisters, Susan, is the first woman Chess Grand Master, breaking numerous gender barriers on her way achieving this. The youngest sibling, Judit, is to this day considered the greatest woman chess player of all times.
During his student years, Lazslo Polgar, a student of educational psychology , studied intelligence extensively. His aim was to figure out what made a genius, genius. From ancient Greek writers, through classical musicians to prominent physicists of the 20th century, Polgar studied over 400 biographies of extraordinary people considered pioneers in their respective fields. What he noticed was that all of these people started at a very early age and worked furiously towards their goals, putting in long hours and devoting themselves completely. Being an educational psychologist, he sought a way to apply this in practice.
His child-rearing theory was quite simple. A child is born as a ‘blank slate’ and if born healthy, any child possesses the ability to become a genius. The nature vs. nurture debate was ongoing ever since psychology appeared on the map in the early 20th century, with schools of thought either pulling in one or the other direction. With his firm belief that he has solved this century-long question, he decided to try and take matters in his hands. After finishing university, he put out an ad in the newspaper looking ‘Female companion that wanted to make child geniuses with him’. As weird as it sounds, he got a reply from a Ukrainian foreign language teacher named Klara with whom, after explaining his theories and plans, he married. The sole purpose of their marriage was to produce prodigy children.
“Any child, given that it’s born healthy, possesses the ability to become a genius in any field” . – Laszlo Polgar
After moving to Hungary and having their first child, they ran into huge problems with the (then under heavy USSR influence) authorities. It was very hard for them to obtain government permission to home-school their children, but in the end they succeeded. Still, the pressure put on them by both the government and their friends and family was immense, with people even claiming they are depriving their children of normal life and socialization that naturally occurs in schools. But still, the Polgars persisted.
At first, Laszlo Polgar did not know what field to specialize his children in. The children were getting lessons in Maths and Logic by their father, and lessons in Esperanto, German, Russian and English by their mother. The decision for chess to be the primary field of study happened purely by chance. One night, Susan found her father’s chess board (Laszlo was a huge chess enthusiast, although he wasn’t at anywhere near the level his daughters later reached). After explaining the rules of the game to her, the child seemed entranced. Susan discovered chess at the age of 4, and in 4 months time she was already winning against her father. Six months after she started, her father took her to the Budapest chess club, where she proceeded to beat all of the senior experienced players. Worthy of note is the fact that there were no prominent chess players in both Klara and Lazslo’s families.
One thing to keep in mind here is the fact that at that time, chess was considered a men-only sport. Women were thought to lack the mental ability and strength to play chess against men. All of the Grand Masters were men and there was a separate league for women chess players. Could you imagine the faces of Hungarian International Masters after the first defeat by a 5 year old? Most of the men she beat at chess would later make excuses that they had a stomach ache, or that they didn’t feel well that day. In a documentary made about her by NatGeo in 2012 (link at the end of the post), Susan jokingly states that she has never played a healthy man. According to her, being a girl gave her a competitive edge. The differences in the male and female brain helped her think of new strategies of how to solve chess problems, paired with the fear of losing to a small girl caused a lot of panic in her opponents.
After years of struggle and being banned from competing in men’s chess tournaments, Susan Polgar finally became a Chess Grand Master in 1991, becoming the first woman Grand Master ever. The same year, after her sister broke the ice, Judit became the youngest Chess Grand Master at the age of 15 years and 4 months, beating the all time best Chess Player Bobby Fischer by a month. The sisters went on to break many taboos in the world of chess through the years culminating with Judit’s victory over Gari Kasparov. This was the first time ever a woman beat a Chess World No.1 and Judit described this as the best game of her life.
Susan’s development strongly supported Polgar’s theory that a genius is made, not born. After surpassing her father’s chess skill, the father had to hire International and Grand Masters to train his daughter. Prominent Hungarian chess players were regulars at their home, training and further educating Susan.
This, along with the awe they had for their older sister, was one of the main factors that Polgar’s other two daughters, Sofia and Judit showed interest in chess as well. The three sisters spent hours upon hours playing chess and analyzing games. They would solve 30 problems a day as a ‘warm-up’ routine in the morning, spending the afternoon playing each other or some of the guests. During the summer of 1993, while Fischer was hiding in Yugoslavia evading a warrant issued by the US, the family persuaded him to train their daughters. They spent many hours practicing and playing Random Fischer Chess, analyzing strategies and coming up with solutions to problems. The girls were excited to finally work with someone that knows a lot more than them and they all view it as a life-changing experience.
Why did it work? Method and criticisms
Laszlo Polgar had a very simple guess as to why his children were chess prodigies. Any child can become a prodigy in anything, as long as the child is born healthy, starts very young and works very hard. Many psychologists put forward theories to either support or disclaim his theory.
Encompassed in the small circle of their home, surrounded by internationally recognized chess players, the sisters thrived. Many consider this to be critical for the success of this experiment. With no external pressures or any kind of influences, the children did what they wanted. Susan (the first daughter) chose chess on her own, Sofia and Judit (5 ½ and 7 years younger, respectively) followed their older sister’s footsteps. That being said, the inner drive for the girls came, in a way, naturally. They did not feel the pressure to learn chess, they enjoyed the game. A second thing that was put forward as to explain their development is that they had no distractions as they weren’t required to study other subjects that they didn’t like extensively.
A study done by Howard (2012) on the other hand puts Polgar’s theory on the test. First he points out that compared to their opponents, the girls had a head-start, starting chess at the age of 3 and in an attempt to examine does becoming a prodigy depend on practice hours alone, he compares the sisters to other known Chess Grand Masters. His conclusion is that even at their peak performance, the sisters achieved scores as high some other far less-practiced players. This raises the question whether practice is the only thing that is a requirement for a prodigal child or there is an innate talent for something.
A widely accepted theory in psychology is that the roof of your intelligence is dictated by your genetics. Whether you reach that roof or not, mostly depends on your environment. Sure, you can inherit beneficial character traits like curiosity or openness to new experiences, but without the proper stimulation from the environment these are useless. One could argue that the parents actually influenced their children by genetics as well. Klara was a teacher and spoke six languages. Laszlo was an educational psychologist and a dedicated researcher. Even the fact that he was a chess enthusiast (He wrote a lot of books on chess) might be taken as a sign of a dormant talent for the game that he never fully developed. The genetic roof that these girls have inherited from their parents was actually quite high.
Another thing to keep in mind is that Judit (the youngest one) is considered the best of the sisters, although she has literally had the least hours of practice. She has been on par with her sisters (1 ½ and 5 years) since the early age of 11. This opens the door to speculation that even if it’s possible to educate a child prodigy, there still factors at play, presumably genetic aptitude for certain tasks and inheritable character traits.
The method that Polgar developed for his children was not actually as shocking as initially thought. Critics went on as to call him a sadistic, overbearing father, detaining his children at home. Some psychologists compared him to Skinner (known for his work on conditioning) and Dr. Frankenstein. Nevertheless, all of the daughters reported having normal childhoods and no problems with socialization later in life.
The educational method used to raise the Polgar sisters actually has been used in the bringing up of a lot of prominent figures throughout history and today. Venus and Serena Williams were trained by their father, Richard Williams in tennis since the age of 4 ½. Tiger Woods and Todd Marinovich were also brought up in a similar fashion. On the other side of the spectrum, musicians like Mozart and even Michael Jackson also benefited of this kind of a positive developmental environment from a very early age.
Even after Polgar’s experiment, the debate of nature vs. nurture still remains open to this day. Feel free to put in your 2 cents in the comments below.
If you are interested in a more in-depth view of the Polgar sisters, feel free to check out the documentaries below