Sunday, April 12, 2009

some unrefined thoughts about temperment and talent

I was listening to John Watson's interview with Jonathan Rowson on ICC, and he says something that struck me about talent: that it's partly early exposure to high level chess ("how many GMS you play before age 15"), and it's partly genetics, but that genetic "talent" might be more tempermental than mental. He talks about it in terms of being able to sense critical moments, but also in terms of energy and optmisim and the willingness to concentrate for long periods.

I think this is a very interesting reformulation of the idea of talent in chess, that idea that the genetic component we recognize as "talent" is something like persistance, or optimism, or an overriding intellectual curiosity, or the ability to think clearly in stressful situations, or just the willingness to sit through long periods of hard work and anxiety. I feel like for starters, this changes the terms of the conversation about gender in chess. It certainly makes the suggestion that women aren't as good at chess because they don't like playing it more powerful.

I was talking to a friend of mine about talent and he said something like the boys he works with are more talented than the girls. I asked what exact behaviors caused him to say this, and he replied something like "none of the girls would ever be able to solve these endgames immediately, or recognize that this idea is from a classic game." But I think those two things are actually about the work you have done in chess, more than about natural talent. But it's interesting that something that is probably a trained skill, like being able to make comparisons to earlier games ("pattern recognition"?) is sometimes seen, even by strong players/trainers, as talent.

But maybe the conclusion should be that a substantial part of what we mean by talent is the temperment to work? I read an interview with Carlsen where he said something like "probably if I described it, it would seem like I spend a huge amount of time studying chess, but really it never seemed like work to me." I remember in a 'coaches interview' I did for Chess Life a few years ago, Robby Adamson made a comment like "Girls don't work as hard at chess as boys, and that's why they aren't as good. You almost never see girls studying by themselves." I blew that off at the time, but I've come to think maybe he's right. Also, Dmitry Gurevich said to me a few years ago "when girls get good at chess, they peak for a short time but can't maintain it." I also found that annoying and stupid at the time*, but I've come back to think about it a lot.

any thoughts?

update: title of article: "Garry Kasparov in Nashville: Hard Work is a Talent"
*mostly because my own rating was beginning a free fall. :)


Anonymous said...

The "studying alone" angle is an interesting one. Maybe adolescent girls could sustain their interest and skill in chess by forming some kind of cooperative study group, the goal of which would be to support one another's continued growth.

I've often noticed, among both boys and girls, that in early adolescence, willingness to put sustained effort into anything becomes almost entirely a matter of identity: kids start to see themselves as good students, athletes, musicians, whatever, and they'll happily put hours of effort into these things without even thinking about it, but getting them to put sustained effort into anything else is like pulling teeth.

Anonymous said...

Elizabeth, If the ratio of women playing chess compared to men is say one to 50. Then with a typical bell curve more men are likely to be at the extreem high end and low ends of Chess.

I believe we have already seen that statistically women are as strong as men in chess.

I think finding a study method that is suitable for each varied individual in a chess positive culture is more important than lumping everyone into gender categories and gender methodological expectations.

Need I say Polgar?

"I am blogging as Knight Fork And Spoon, but I could not get it to go through, hence anon.)

Andy said...

"It certainly makes the suggestion that women aren't as good at chess because they don't like playing it more powerful."
When you put it like that, it just raises the question why they don't like it so much and maybe we get a chicken-egg thing going.
Apart from that, the question of not liking is just as complicated as the question of ability.

However, it's a bit more relaxing to discuss it that way, since nobody has a problem with the statement "women don't like to play chess".
However, when I say "women can't play chess" may raise objections from various directions.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand this line of thought--are we saying that women lack the capacity for sustained hard work? Please don't tell this to Marie Curie, Adrienne Rich, or countless working mothers.

Elizabeth Vicary said...

"I believe we have already seen that statistically women are as strong as men in chess."

All I can say is that I have read a lot of the papers that analyze stats on women players and I don't believe that the fewer number of women at the top level is convincingly explained by lower general participation rates.

In no way am I saying women don't work hard. But it might be that there is something about the requirements of playing high level competitive chess that is either biologically or socially harder for women. Autism is much more prevalent in men, for example, right? And *lots* of chess players are autistic. I'm partly just fascinated by what the shift in the idea of 'talent' from intellectual to tempermental does to my thoughts about gender. I think it does make the conversation less loaded (whether or not that's logical).

Anonymous said...

An interesting observation, but outside of the Polgar sisters, are there other examples of the same effort and degree of family interest?

I also listened in to that interview and he seems to be saying that early exposure to high quality play AND a natural aptitude is a common finding in those who become really strong players. At first it seems both insightful and obvious - only those who play pretty well get exposed to play GMs. But after dwelling on it a bit further, it may be like learning a musical instrument or language or sport. If you learn early and have the aptitude you can become a maestro. Learn it later with the same aptitude, you'll be good even great, but not a virtuoso. Fischer, Morphy, Capablanca and the Polgar sisters and to a degree almost all of the Soviet era champions (Botvinnik, Smyslov, Tal, Spassky, Karpov, etc.) all fit this historical pattern. Tiger Woods may just be Eldridge Woods, scratch golfer, if he learned golf a bit later perhaps.

If you compare sports and activities where girls have the same intense exposure and early aptitude (music for example, ice skating, gymnastics, tennis) their performance and development curves are quite similar to boys.

Anonymous said...

As an aside, I hope the interview with Jonathon Rowson gives you encouragement to keep up your blog. He is smart, believes in the good aspects of chess, but keeps it in perspective. His dismissal of those who link "deep chess understanding" as some sign of other mental ability was refreshingly honest.

robert beatty said...

Mind if I segue a bit...there is a report on Susan Polgars site that Ketevan Grant Arakhamia has achieved the Grandmaster title at the age of 40!!!!and being a mother and being married. Does that fly in the face of women being inherently unable to excel at chess because of their makeup. Kudos to Ms. Grant. OMG what really amazes me is the fact that she refutes all the "no you can'ts because" with a clear yes I CAN. The theory that age can hold one back is first and foremost in my mind, even more than she is female. DAYUM You go girl!!! I am blown away

Anonymous said...

Interesting. Anecdotally, it seems like you might be onto something. I know so many adolescent boys who happily spend countless hours alone on the computer whether mastering chess or mastering the next level of some video game. Are those boys somewhere on the spectrum that tends toward Aspergers and autism and is it those tendencies that make them more suited to long hours of solitary study? I know a guy in his 20s who was up every night until 3 am playing whatever version of dude wars was in the late 1990s on his computer. His mother was constantly freaking out about him. But he ended up going to college and getting into medical research which is also a very solitary pursuit. By contrast (and this is a gross generalization), many of the adolescent girls I know spent countless hours on the computer texting, ichatting or engaging in other activities of "relatedness." Yet I know adolescent girls who spend hours practicing the piano or violin or swimming laps or wacking tennis balls or practicing the same spin or jump over and over at the skating rink or the same moves in the dance studio or even memorizing dictionary definitions for spelling bees. So it's not the ability for sustained hard work but the sustained hard work at chess in particular. And then the question is whether girls are put off by the overwhelming maleness and combativeness of chess culture.


robert beatty said...

Addendum. There may be another reason. Chess doesnt pay the bills. I think women may be more pragmatic than men. I believe chess has a lot to do with egoistic behavior. Women aren't about that on the level of men. Doctor, Lawyer, Scientist..positions that are much more financially rewarding certainly competitive will draw young females involved in chess initially, but seeing the pragmatic side leave( perhaps they play chess better than men who stay in this all consuming passion)seeing no financial advantage to staying. Its not worth the effort when the rewards are so low.
An interesting look at this theory about women and chess is to study the chinese women who are supported by the state and have no financial worries. The progress of Hou Yifan will answer a lot of questions. Will she make a quantum leap ala Carlsen bounding over Humpy Koneru only time will tell.

Perhaps you have noticed that your female student Ms. Vicary initially want to be really good...GMs even but as time goes on they are thinking about Law, Medicine or perhaps even teaching as opposed to chess. I would like to hear your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Sex Cess and Evolution

Our behaviors are confined within limits set by the physics of the brain. The brain is an organ that permits changes and adjustments to behavior without needing to evolve these through the slower process of natural selection across generations. A brain and human culture function as the immune system does, like a form of hyper-evolution.

By this brain-culture we humans are able to live in jungles and deserts, fly through the air, perform surgeries, and play chess.

Just the same, the brain is an evolved organ that came together part by part because it was beneficial for that organism for navigating different problems.

Because the reproductive strategies of males and females are different and other aspects of gender differentiation such as size and muscle mass are different, a starting question could be, are there physical differences between a male and female brain?

For example, could a trained specialist, looking at an MRI or physical brain of a cadaver, sucessfully point out the gender of the person without using DNA, or any other part of the body?

If so, then there is a possibility. But the follow up would be, which parts of the brain are used in playing chess? And are these parts recognizably different between genders? And even if they are different do they show chess strength, or alternative thinking methods within chess?

And finally, with the possibility of brain development through usage, what difference did beginning structures make once a person has reached mastery level of either gender? Does brain placticity negate gender differences?

Whatever the case Elizabeth, you are a woman. I am a man. And you are a better chess player than me.

I salute you.

Elizabeth Vicary said...

I think most of your questions are answered in this wikipedia article:

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

well heres what i think about that statement. consider your students Ms. Vicary. if it wasn't for ALexis, ROchelle would be the best player without a doubt that is currently on the team. Then there are the alumni such as Darrian, Ana, Alexandra, & Anjelica. For the most part they are strong competitors and could probably out do most people (specifically boys in chess) that are of there calibur. They have shown dedication to the sport and as such there ratings prove it. So for someone to say that girls dont work as hard as boys do in chess, well look at the chess queens you helped raise over the years

Elizabeth Vicary said...

Sorry, I should b more specific about context. I'm not saying women can't study chess at all, or get to 2000 or 2200. Obviously they (and my students and I) can and do. I'm saying that given the expansion of women's chess in the last 20 years, I don't think the progress at the very top levels is comparable, and I think it's worth asking why.

Just saying "women can do it," and citing one or two exceptional examples isn't good enough, because the vast majority of the chess community silently and correctly believes there is one woman in the top 100.

Naisortep said...

I have to listen to the Rowson interview but when I think of talent I dont consider persistence or enthusiasm for the game. I've met many lazy players who are luke warm about chess that are incredibly good and did not start pre-teen. I've met other intelligent people who love the game and consntatly study/play but never get far. Thats talent :).

Anonymous said...

Look at the top section and the top boards at Foxwoods. Where are the female counterparts to Hess and Lenderman? Maybe Foxwoods is not the best example because it is a holiday weekend and young women, whether chess players or not, might have more pressure than their male counterparts to spend time with their families.

Anonymous said...

Are these random posters ever going to stop by giving ONE example of a case where a female was good or where there are no females? It's the most absurd method of argument.

Hey look, Zorigt was all star in the USCL so women are awesome at chess, hey wait.. no women won the top prizes at the World Open this year so they suck,, hey look a junior high team had a few girls on it, proving girls are great at chess!

Anonymous said...

its also unfortunate to say that like most sports chess is a predominatly male sport. so it will take time for women to get the recognition that they deserve. I'll give you an example. In tennis (before i think 2007 or so) in a nationally televised tournament womens prize money was always nothing compared to mens. But through the work of Bill Jean King and Serena Williams and others they were able to make it so that male and femal tennis players would be given the same amount in prize funds. (I think i digressed to much.) What i'm trying to say is the way it looks now in the chess world men outnumber the women. But the women who are here and here and arent backing down. There determination is whats going to bring more females to this male dominated sport and eventually juxtapose it. Plus just like this economy we cant expect change overnight. It will take some time but women will get there just dos

Anonymous said...

the best part i like about your blog is the pictures that are from your recent chess outings and the games and results from them. I thought the game from Jacob was a teaser. Do you mind showing some more results and some pictuires from nationals? PLease and thank you xoxo

ATH2044 said...

As she mentioned earlier, Elizabeth, in a rare but frightening episode of chemically induced subclinical ADD neglected to take any pictures in Nashville that didn't involve Greg & food.
Aside from the obvious ones at, there's several posted on Polly Wright's Castling Queenside blog as well as some interesting looks behind the scenes.
I wonder if women take better pictures than men.

Elizabeth Vicary said...

once in a while, the exceptional-example-as-argument is useful, I think, because maybe it shows you a framework for the idea that you hadn't thought about. But of course in general, I agree.

I actually do have a lot of positions for you, good ones too, I just left my notebook with them at school. But thanks, you've motivated me, and tomorrow morning I will walk over there (I live 5 minutes walk from 318) and retrieve it and post you some positions.

And there is some school fair in the park this Sunday that a bunch of the kids are playing chess at, so I'll take some photos. Thanks for asking.

Elizabeth Vicary said...

it's a really horrible physical experience, right? playing chess for a long weekend? you're never outside and you eat badly and at weird times and you sit in tense positions and maybe drink too much? I definitely know a lot of people who love chess who just won't play two games a day because it's so godawful. Maybe women are just less willing, physically, to suffer like that. Maybe part of the reason there are so many more female chess players in Europe is that they play one round a day. It might be interesting to look at tournaments that have especially high rates of female participation (without obvious reasons why, like conditions or association with a female chess camp) and see if there is anything noticable about the physical conditions. It might be useful practical information for organizers, for example, if every woman's favorite tournament had a one round a day option, or was in a hotel with good food choices, or was in a hotel on a beach.

Elizabeth Vicary said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Is Rowson working on another book? I just started reading Chess for Zebras and I love his writing and thinking.

Will said...

I think men and boys have a natural tendency to be obsesive, women and girls tend to be more extroverted. I see lot of my own obsesive tendencies in my son and not in the girls in his class.
Also, the boys seem more competitive. Probably because the girls are smarter and have a higher emotional IQ at a young age.

Gurdonark said...

I believe that socialization and not genetics/hard-wiring accounts for the gender imbalance in reaching the top spots. We will have more strong women players when the subtle and not-so-subtle differences in societal expectations for male and female players cease to differ.

On a different but related topic, I come with time to accept in part the point Alexey Root among others has made about the typical chess tournament being a less ideal playing environment for female players than for male. I don't want to overstate the point, but
I do feel that some tournaments have a "boys locker room" feel to them that subtly discourages participation by both genders.

I don't want to burden my expression of my notions with anecdotal examples, as we can find a case or cases for almost any argument. Instead I'll say that I see two great challenges the USCF faces if it is to grow and thrive--and fortunately, neither involves litigation in Lubbock.

The first challenge is that chess tournaments must feel like a fun thing for players to play in even when they age well past the point of "junior play". The second challenge is that chess can no longer be such a gender-imbalanced game.

I believe that the solution to both issues has less to do with creating the next chess superstar to bring the crowds in and more to do with tournaments based upon participation and fun than upon ribbons or cash. I see the problem as one to be solved by crowd-sourcing, and not from "on high".

Anonymous said...

Some tournaments definitely have a "boys' locker room" smell.

I agree with gurdonark's final point.

an ordinary chessplayer said...

women aren't as good at chess because they don't like playing it ... and I believe the reason is the playing conditions.

When I was teaching chess in K-6, I had almost as many girls as boys. I put a lot of thought into keeping the girls, and what would definitely drive them away was a traditional chess club atmosphere.

The most talented student I ever had was a girl. Her parents emphatically said "no tournaments", so the odds of her making GM were nil from the start.

Here's my *brilliant* suggestion for attracting girls to chess tournaments: go to any non-chess sporting event that has lots of moms and sisters in the audience (the competitors could be either boys or girls). See what kinds of amenities are provided. Then do that. With anything approaching a normal environment at a chess tournament, girls would do fine.

By the way, it is not only Greg amongst guys that does not like the tournament atmosphere. Three of my pet peeves are (1) people dropping bags and coats on any available space; (2) kids setting up games in the hallway; (3) homeless players sleeping in chairs in the lobby. Those are the worst, but the complete list is quite long. Personally I can just go into a shell for the duration, but those who are more sensitive are no doubt repelled.

Anonymous said...

I wonder whether the fact that girls tend to mature/go through puberty earlier than boys has anything to do with it.