Laszlo Polgar, a Hungarian Maths teacher in the 1960s,
was, by any standards, a quite extraordinary man.  As an educational psychologist, he was one of
the first advocates of the practice theory of expertise, declaring that an
emphasis on practice rather than talent could transform young people and indeed
the whole education system.  “Children
have extraordinary potential and it is up to society to unlock it” he said “the
problem is that people do not want to believe it – they seem to think that excellence
is only open to others and not to themselves.” 
Back in the 1960s, Polgar’s ideas were considered outlandish; indeed one
local government official told him that he needed psychiatric help to “heal him
of his delusions”.

So, Polgar decided to conduct an amazing experiment.  He wrote to a number of women around Eastern
Europe to ask them if they would be interested in joining him to create a
family of children with world class abilities. 
A lady called Klara from Ukraine replied; they met; they liked each
other; and they agreed to marry.  On 19
April 1969, the day after my own wife was born, they had their first child, a
daughter called Susan.  Polgar then had
to choose a specific field in which Susan would gain world class status.  He chose chess, because if he had chosen art
or sport, then people could still have said that her expertise came through
natural talent.  Chess also has a world
ranking system, so there would be no doubt about where Susan ranked against her
peers. The problem was that he did not even play much chess himself.  So he spent months teaching himself to play
and to coach, and poured much of that time into teaching Susan, so that by her
fifth birthday she had already had hundreds of hours of practice under her belt.  Practice was based entirely on fun, and Susan
loved it.  At five, she won her first
tournament, against children twice her age; she also acquired a younger sister,
called Sofia.  As soon as the younger
sister could stand, she was dying to play chess, too – she watched her older
sister for hours, but her father would only let her handle the chess pieces,
lovingly and longingly, playing with them in her hands, until, aged five
herself, she was finally allowed to play – by which time she was hooked.  The same happened with the third daughter,
Judit, a couple of years later.  The
three girls had been taught to love the game and trained devotedly throughout
their childhoods.  By the time they had
reached adolescence, all three sisters had accumulated well over 10,000 hours
of specialised practice, the number most commonly associated now with the
levels of practice to become a world class performer.

So what happened? 
By the age of 14, Susan became the top rated female player in the world;
by 21, she became the first ever female player to reach the status of
grandmaster.  By the end of her career,
she had won the women’s world championships 4 times.  Her younger sister won the Under 11 Hungarian
championships aged 5 and gold in the world under 14 championships.  Her biggest achievement in chess was to win
eight straight games against some of the best male chess players in the world –
an achievement rated as the fifth greatest chess performance of all time, male
or female.  The youngest sister, Judit,
became the youngest ever grandmaster in history, male or female, at the age of
15.  That year, she won the Hungarian
championships, defeating a run of male grandmasters.  During her career, which ended last year, she
beat almost every top male chess player in the world, including 11 current or
former world champions.

I said I would read a book called Bounce over half term –
this story comes directly from there.  It
is a story of hope for all of us – not hope that we become a world champion
necessarily; such dedication requires the most amazing number of hours of
sacrifice – and maybe someone in here will achieve that.  But it gives hope to all of us at a lower
level that we can be good at something if we really want to be.  All of these girls learnt to love chess; they
then played incessantly, were coached well and had some significant competition
close by and on tap.  They were living
proof of an audacious human experiment; but they loved it, and by all accounts
still do.  We need not feel sorry for
them.  We, too, can be good at something;
we may not be as good as they were, but we can be good.  Don’t let anyone tell you that you have no
talent for maths, or will never be any good at languages, or can’t hold a tune.  With time, determination and desire, we can all
do it.  

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