It was the ultimate lesson in course management. I’m starting
this column after Tiger’s emotional win at the British Open. To
have hit so many fairways right down the middle on a course
filled with so many unpredictable bounces was a testament to
Woods’ mastery of his craft. Having myself golfed on two
British Open courses, St. Andrews (carded a 114) and Carnoustie
(109), I can appreciate even more Tiger’s achievement.
I’m also a hacker at chess. Our 13-year-old grandson and I have
played a few games recently. It took him half an hour to
convince me that I could not checkmate him even though I had a
knight and my king versus his lone king. (He later found in a
chess manual the statement that even if I had two knights I
wouldn’t necessarily have been able to checkmate him.)
Do grandmasters in chess and golfers of Tiger’s caliber share
something in common? Are experts born or made? Philip Ross,
in “The Expert Mind” in the August Scientific American, writes
about studies on grandmasters and how they become experts.
The article pictures Tiger Woods as a child prodigy before
becoming an expert in his field. In last Sunday’s (June 23) New
York Times Magazine section, Professor David Karp of UC
Berkeley wrote about a related subject, the effects of nurture and
nature on IQ.
Ross cites an exhibition in 1909 by Jose Raul Capablanca of
Cuba. He was playing 28 amateur players at once, going from
one to another around a circle, taking only two or three seconds
to make each move. These 28 matches were part of 168
successive matches he won on a tour showcasing his expertise.
When asked how he could see so many moves ahead, he said he
only saw one move ahead, but that was always the correct one!
So, the question: is expertise in chess at the highest levels, due to
some innate characteristic, perhaps a special ability to foresee the
ultimate consequences of a given move? Or is the expertise due
more to intensive training and experience? The evidence favors
the latter. How have researchers reached that conclusion? The
nature of chess and its rating system has provided the raw
material for studies over the past 70 years or so. The system
tracks the performance of chess players and a statistical scale has
evolved that can predict with a substantial degree of accuracy the
results of matches between players of different rankings. A
player whose opponent rates 200 points below him or her on the
scale will beat the opponent 75% of the time.
For example, the famed Russian grandmaster Gary Kasparov has
a rating of 2812 while Jan Timman, the 100th-ranked player, has
a rating of 2616, essentially 200 points lower. Kasparov will win
75% of his matches against Timman. The median rating is about
1200 for tournament chess players and if a 1200-rated guy plays
a 1000-rated gal the guy will win 75% of the matches. Enter the
Dutch chess master and psychologist Adriaan deGroot, who took
advantage of an international tournament back in 1938 to carry
out an interesting experiment.
De Groot asked the tournament players to look at a board on
which the pieces were arranged in positions matching those in an
actual tournament game. They were allowed only seconds to
look at the board and then were asked to reconstruct the
positions. He found that the grandmasters were much better in
recalling the positions than the novices. Not much of a surprise,
I imagine. However, since then a number of similar studies have
been made and the Scientific American article contains data that
shows something more surprising.
One set of data is essentially the de Groot experiment in which
the players examined for only 10 seconds a board with positions
matching those in an actual tournament game. Players rated
below 1600 only could recall about 4-5% of the positions
correctly. Players rated above 2350 recalled over 20% correctly,
4 times more than those rated below 1600. Players rated in
between the two extremes fell neatly in between.
However, in another experiment, the players looked for 10
seconds at a board on which the pieces were arranged randomly,
not from a tournament game. This time the lowest rated players
got about 2-3% of the positions correct while the players rated
above 2350 only got about 5% correct, a major fall from the 20%
they achieved for an actual tournament situation. Conclusion?
These grandmasters aren’t gifted with unusually sharp memories;
they have filed in their memories a wealth of tournament
positions that enable them to draw on these memories rather than
trying to memorize individual pieces in a short period of time.
In 2001, workers at the University of Konstanz in Germany ran
brain-imaging studies on subjects playing chess on a computer.
The results showed how much activity was going on in areas of
the brain related to analysis and to long-term memory. The
lowest rated players spent 40-65% of their brain activity in
analysis. The highest rated players, rated 2500-2600, spent only
about 20% in analysis and about 80% in searching long-term
memory! Those thousands of hours studying and playing chess
have created immense files of board positions over the years.
The implication is that experts are made not born. Would Tiger
have become last Sunday’s Tiger without his late, beloved dad
and the thousands of hours spent preparing for that moment? I
think it’s unlikely. Tiger and his dad have counterparts in the
chess world. A Hungarian, Laszlo Polgar, decided some decades
ago to rear his three daughters to become chess experts and
schooled them in the game, assigning as much as 6 hours a day
of homework. Today, one is an international master and the
other two are grandmasters. One, Judit, is 30 years old (Tiger’s
age, I believe) and is ranked 14th in the world!
So, you can make an expert. Can you make a genius? I suspect
the answer is no. However, Karp, in the Times article, discusses
IQ studies and nature vs. nurture. I was taken with two studies
Karp cited. Identical twins might be expected to have nearly the
same IQs, if IQ is genetically determined. Psychology professor
Eric Turkheimer reexamined studies done some 30 years ago and
found that identical twins raised in wealthier families had nearly
identical IQs. Not so for identical twins raised in the poorest
families; the IQs varied as much as the IQs of fraternal twins,
which are not clones of each other as are the identical twins.
Another study on adopted children in France showed a similar
result. The children, 4-6 years old, were generally abused or
neglected as infants and had been in various foster homes or
institutions before their adoption. Their average IQ was only 77,
close to retardation. The children were tested 9 years after being
adopted. Those adopted by farmers and laborers increased their
IQs to an average of 85.5. Those in middle-class families had
IQs averaging 92. Those in wealthy homes jumped up to 98,
nearly the average IQ for the general population.
Not all wealthy homes contain good parents. However, on
balance, the wealthier environments provide the resources to
fully develop the innate genetic capabilities. These and other
such studies have spurred the movements to provide more
preschool education to all children to help level the playing field.
Back to chess. Yesterday, I did sneak my queen deep into my
grandson’s territory and a relatively quick checkmate resulted.
However, he handily defeated me in a game he suggested where
we just used only our pawns. To add insult to injury, he also
took three out of four games of pool the day before. Old
Bortrum is no expert!
Allen F. Bortrum