What are the odds that the best chess player in the world has never played chess?

by on December 28, 2009 at 7:46 am in Education, Games | Permalink

The more general issues are how well the modern world allocates talent and how much exposure you need to something you eventually will be very good at. 

My view is that people who are born into a reasonably good educational infrastructure get exposed repeatedly — albeit briefly — to lots of the activities which might intrigue them.  If the activity is going to click with them, it has the chance.  To borrow the initial example, most high schools and junior high schools have chess clubs and not just in the wealthiest countries.  Virtually everyone is put in touch with math, music, kite-flying, poetry, and so on at relatively young ages. 

The idea of taking an economics class in college, or picking up some economics literature, strikes most educated people at some point, even if they squash the notion like a bug.  If there is some other Paul Samuelson-quality-would-have-been who didn't become an economist, perhaps he preferred some other avocation even more.

Billions of people are not exposed to quality economics, math, music, etc., but those people also don't have the nutrition, the education, the infrastructure, or whatever, to excel at world class levels.  The infrastructure and the exposure come together and in that sense we keep on mining the pool of potential talent.  (Their only modal scenario to #1 for these individuals is an entirely different life altogether; mere additional exposure won't do it.) 

Ernest Bazanye is blogging from Uganda.

Some people get stuck in local genres, such as a brilliant Nigerian learning funk or rap, in his teen years, but not modern jazz and besides he can't find a Nigerian market for the latter in any case.  These "specialization corners" are less of a problem for math or economics, although the unification of those areas is fraying with time. 

Magnus Carlsen's father suggested that if he hadn't had an older sister, he might not have taken up the game at all.  Magnus was uninterested at ages four and five, but grew intrigued at age eight when he watched his father play chess with his older sister.  I read this anecdote as suggesting he would have been exposed again to the game, one way or another, probably in school.

Two scenarios militate against my thesis.  First, mistreated savants may not receive the necessary exposure to the activity.   I am very much a believer in the potential productivity of mistreated savants.  Still, I believe they often do best when not trying to be pure #1 in some commonly contested, measurable area but rather by filling unusual and hard to specify niches in a broader production process and benefiting from the division of labor to an especially high degree.

Second, a large number of children are placed on medication at early ages.  This may not eliminate their exposure to an activity in the literal sense, but it may stop them from responding to potential interests.

In sum, I believe that the odds that "the best (modal) chess player in the world" has never played chess is well under fifty percent but probably above ten percent. 

Bill December 28, 2009 at 7:56 am

If you believe in meritocracy, what we are getting is a selection of talent from the children of the middle class, and not a selection of all who may be potentially talented.

Add to that, some professions may not be attractive to middle class kids because the subject matter may be too hard, so we have a further narrowing of talent.

How do we create random acts of opportunity?

john December 28, 2009 at 8:23 am

What was it said of Einstein: that he’d have made a great Talmudic scholar, if only….

Slocum December 28, 2009 at 8:46 am

I’m not sure it’s even a sensible question. That is, I doubt that ‘latent chess playing potential’ is a stable, measurable property — even hypothetically. I suspect that a champion chess-player is produced by having the right genes, yes, but also the right parents, the right friends and siblings, the right social environment, and a specific, idiosyncratic set of experiences. I don’t think that if Magnus Carlsen had not had a father and sister who played chess but was eventually exposed to chess later, that he would developed in anything close to the same way. For most bright kids (even bright in just the right sort of way), when they are exposed to it, chess never becomes more than a hobby or passing fancy, as it probably would have for Magnus Carlsen even under a very slightly altered set of initial conditions (there are, after all, so many, many other things that might captivate a kid besides chess). So I don’t think our lives are, to any meaningful degree, preordained by our latent talents even when the full range of opportunities is available in our environments.

There are exceptions when the latent ability is specific to an activity and completely obvious to both the person possessing the attribute and everybody else. So I think it’s unlikely that an athletic 7-footer would never be exposed to basketball. But having first-rate latent chess abilities is not like being a foot taller than all your peers. On the other hand, I think it’s very likely that people who might, under some ideal set of circumstances, been the world’s greatest 6-foot point guard or soccer midfielder never end up playing the game (or do so only briefly or casually). Chess-playing is much more like that, I believe.

David Dalka December 28, 2009 at 9:39 am

I used to be in a Chess club in High School in Cook County, just outside Chicago.

Sean Carroll December 28, 2009 at 10:01 am

I think this analysis dramatically understates the influence of “early adoption.” The best chess player in the world (granting for purposes of argument the existence of such a thing) might have been exposed to chess early, but there’s a good chance they were also exposed to other things they were talented at, like music or mathematics, and for whatever reason chose to concentrate on that. Probably much more true for something like economics or philosophy, where early exposure is extremely spotty, than for chess.

Wagster December 28, 2009 at 10:29 am

I don’t think exposure is sufficient for excellence. If Tiger Woods had not had the same father, but was exposed to golf at an early age it is doubtful he would have become the world’s greatest golfer. Similarly, US athletes are nearly all exposed to soccer at some point early in their development. Soccer is the most popular sport in the suburbs and has been for many years. Yet the US is still to develop a world-class talent like Maradona, Beckham or Ronaldo, despite having a population base roughly equal to Argentina, Brazil, and Britain combined. The difference is that those countries are profoundly acculturated to soccer. I think this principle would be even more true about Chess.

So for the most part, I’m with Slocum. Nature and nurture are impossible to pry apart and quantify separately, even on a theoretical level. Say your genes said that when you receive x amount of encourage, you achieve y level of achievement. To what do you ascribe the achievement? What percentage is due to genes, and what percentage is due to environment? The interaction makes the question impossible (and non-sensical) to answer.

Tyler Cowen December 28, 2009 at 11:00 am

Marc, had I been asked that question in the half-century you cite, my answer would have been different. Today, in chess, Russia is just another country.

soccertom December 28, 2009 at 11:17 am

What are the odds that the best economist in the world has never studied economics?

Gary Arndt December 28, 2009 at 11:31 am

I was involved in academic debate in high school and college. The best debaters are never just really smart people, they always come from schools with great coaches. When coaches retire or leave for another school, it is usually axiomatic that a program will get worse.

I think it isn’t just exposure to chess or math, it is how you learn the subject and who teaches you. I don’t think the best gymnasts in the world were all from Romania at one point or that the fastest people in the world are really Jamaican. You need to have some talent, but more importantly, you need to be in a system which will maximize that talent.

tgray December 28, 2009 at 12:29 pm

Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway’d,
Or wak’d to ecstasy the living lyre.

But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page
Rich with the spoils of time did ne’er unroll;
Chill Penury repress’d their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

adam December 28, 2009 at 12:50 pm

Here’s my little story. When I was a Senior in High School, I decided I wanted to play on the chess team instead of continue on in varsity sports (I was a little nerdy). I of course knew HOW to play, but I didn’t know any of the strategy; so, I sucked and was a ‘reserve’ player. But chess is a meritocracy where you have to play for your position every week, and throughout the school year I moved up.

In fact, we were the best Chess team in the state and our top 2 players played at a ~1900 level (?) (that’s a high club level). I studied hard, and two of them were my friends so I let them annihilate me often, and by the end of the year, I was basically a their level. The chess coach was astonished! Apparently if I’d started younger, he thought I could have had a good chance at being a grandmaster one day. Alas, I started when I was 17, played for a year, then kind of drifted away. I’m sure there are TONS of similar people like me.

Of course, for a while I was also ranked as one of the top players at StarCraft for a while, so maybe that’s where you’ll find the missing talents ;)

John December 28, 2009 at 1:24 pm

most high schools and junior high schools have chess clubs and not just in the wealthiest countries

Most?! I would bet a lot of money against this even if we restrict our inquiry to the USA. Where is the evidence?

Charles St. Pierre December 28, 2009 at 4:48 pm

Have a contest: Entries to be brief but significant contributions to the field. Prize?

Steve Sailer December 28, 2009 at 8:48 pm

Mulp is on the right track — compare chess to other competitive endeavors. I think the 100m dash might come closest to universal exposure. Everybody who goes to school is roped into a running race at some point early in life. (Maybe that’s not universal — India? — but it’s pretty close.)

On the other hand, the 100m dash loses participants at the high end to other, more lucrative and popular sports. For example, Johnny Lam Jones finished 6th in the 1976 Olympics 100m dash final as an 18-year-old, but then played football at Texas and in the NFL for the rest of his athletic career. So, we’ll never know how fast he would have been in his 20s if he had concentrated on track.

Steve Sailer December 28, 2009 at 9:04 pm

Golf and tennis appear to be sports whose demographic bases are shrinking. In the past, many famous golf champions started out as caddies or as course maintenance workers: Walter Hagen, the immigrant’s son Gene Sarazen (Eugenio Saraceni), the hillbilly Sam Snead, Ben Hogan, and Lee Trevino.

The disappearance of caddies at all but the top clubs (where the job is now dominated by upper middle class college kids) means that tournament golf is less integrated across class and racial lines than previously. For example, between 1961 and 1986, five blacks won a total of 23 PGA tournaments. Since then, only the 1/4th black Tiger Woods is the only even partially black athlete to win on Tour.

Tennis is now so dependent upon intensive training of youths that only children of well-to-do parents can hope to contend. In contrast, one of the dominant tennis players of the late 1940s to early 1970s was Pancho Gonzales, a Chicano from East LA whose mom gave him a tennis racket when he was 12 and never had a lesson.

Steve Sailer December 28, 2009 at 9:45 pm

To a high degree, the best in the world emerges out of a community that’s close to the best community for that kind of competitor in the world. If Michelangelo is the greatest artist of all time, for example, then 15th Century Florence was an unsurprising time and place to emerge from.

Consider Michael Jordan emerging out of basketball crazy North Carolina v. Hakeem Olajuwon emerging out of soccer crazy Nigeria. Exchange them at birth and my guess is that Olajuwon would be, by far, the greatest basketball player in history. In our world, Olajuwon peaked in his mid-thirties instead of his expected mid-twenties because that’s how long it took him to learn the game that he didn’t start playing until his late teenage years.

Thus, Vijay Singh emerging from the Fiji Islands to be the only man in the decade to displace Tiger Woods (from Southern California) from #1 in golf is an amazing feat that got negligible attention.

babar December 29, 2009 at 12:12 am

what is the probability that there is a better game than chess but nobody plays it?

daveg December 29, 2009 at 11:05 am

I cannot believe this whole thread has gone by and nobody tried to guess what the size of the exposed population vs the unexposed!

Take pop of US, Canda, Europe + (all ex-)Soviet Union ~= 800million to get 1 person -= best player.
rest of world is 6 billion ratio ~ 1:7
So most likely there are 7 non chess masters as good as current top but never exposed to chess.
Because of inequality in the developed world this number is prob too low.

D

Miao December 29, 2009 at 11:48 am

A lot of people failed to realize their potential.
Is it a entry from previous”Assorted Links”?
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703740004574513870490836470.html
Excerpt: “If I had been free to choose any profession, I would have become a literary critic,” says Georgii Shabat, a well-known Moscow mathematician. “But I wanted to work, not spend my life fighting the censors.”

Ben Ho December 30, 2009 at 12:12 am

I often think about this type of analysis when trying to figure out how smart Issac Newton was. Sure he had the most success of math as anyone of his day (by a bit, Leibniz discovered much of the same shortly after him), but he was only the best out of the very small set of people born who had access to the resources to become good at math. Let’s say 100,000 at the most, or the top 0.001 percentile. Being in the 0.001 percentile these days means there are thousands of people better than you at math in the world, and thus is probably not good enough to get you into a good graduate program in math these days.

Oliver Chettle January 20, 2010 at 3:52 pm

Steve Sailor’s points about golf and tennis only apply to the United States. Caddying is still alive and well in the developing countries that are the main growth regions for the sport, and probably will be for another couple of generations, until their income differentials close. Golf is growing rapidly in many parts of the world where it is not anywhere near saturation point.

Tennis is also a thriving sport globally, though not in the U.S. The class backgrounds of the current leading players are very mixed. The main exception to this is the United States, if you exclude the Williams sisters. But as the share of Americans on the pro tours is 7% and falling this is insignificant in the global scheme of things.

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