While it was good to see the UK’s impressive haul of medals at the Rio Olympics, it did raise the issue of sponsorship. There are those who have expressed concern that while we’ve been providing welcome financial support for many sportspeople who were seen as potential medallists, other sports, and, more generally, sports at grassroots level, were losing out. If you have funding available, whether it’s for physical sports, the arts or chess, should you use it to support professional exponents in these fields so that they can achieve even more success, should you use it to identify young talents and help bring them up to professional levels, or should you use it to support mass participation?
Let’s suppose, for a moment, that your fairy godmother offers you a million pounds to identify young chess talents and train them to reach international levels. How would you go about it? You might well decide that top grandmasters these days always start young, so if you want to produce strong grandmasters you’ll need to identify young children with the necessary qualities.
If you know little about chess, you might, I suppose, look at a television programme such as Child Genius. UK readers will be able to watch the recently completed 2016 series here.
Of course these programmes are always edited to tell a story, but there’s a very clear division.On the one hand there are kids with an exceptional natural talent (usually an eidetic memory combined with quick and accurate computational skills) who have, we are told, entered themselves into the competition. Their parents, while being extremely supportive, seem bemused by their children’s extraordinary gifts. On the other hand there are kids who are portrayed, fairly or unfairly, as being reasonably bright, but who are being pushed too hard by over-competitive parents whose teaching techniques border on emotional abuse. What they all have in common, though, is a very high level of parental involvement.
If you’re looking for potential sports stars you’re going to look for kids with specific physical attributes. It would be futile training a very short person to be a basketball player or a very heavy person to be a jockey. Likewise, if you’re looking for kids who might excel at chess at an early age you’ll be looking for specific mental attributes.
In my experience, kids who start playing good chess at secondary school age can come from any background: sometimes you’ll be surprised at the kids who take an interest in chess. But the kids who excel at primary school age all have four things in common.
1. They all have exceptional cognitive skills, specifically excelling at subjects requiring logical-mathematical intelligence.
2. They all have extremely supportive parents who are prepared to give up their weekends and holidays to take their offspring to chess competitions.
3. They all have regular access to a strong chess player who is able to develop their chess skills while also being tuned in to their emotional needs. This may either be a family member or friend, or a professional chess tutor.
4. They all have exceptional maturity for their age, or, to put in in more scientific terms, executive function skills. A lot of the children I teach have the first three attributes, but not the fourth, which is one reason why I’m sceptical about starting children too soon.
Some children are strong academic all-rounders who will, in all probability, gain top grades in all their public examinations before getting a degree from a top university. Some of them will give up chess and spend the rest of their life on activities which are more lucrative (hello, Demis Hassabis) while others will still play occasionally (hello, Luke McShane). Others will be single-issue obsessives (hello, Bobby Fischer) some of whom will be diagnosed on the autistic spectrum, and some will go on to have problems related to mental health or addiction later in life.
Some children will come from chess-playing families (hello, Magnus Carlsen), while others will have parents who decide to use chess as a project at which their children can excel (hello, Judit Polgar and sisters). Sometimes parental support can turn into physical or emotional abuse (hello, Gata Kamsky’s dad Rustam). Hugh Patterson wrote an excellent article on this subject recently, which, if you haven’t already done so, I urge you to read.
Next time I’ll take a closer look at what exactly is meant by executive function, but as it’s been a few weeks since I’ve demonstrated a game for your enjoyment, here’s an entertaining king hunt from the 1972 Oxford-Cambridge university match. You need outstanding executive function skills to play a game like this.