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.