Last Sunday my son suddenly produced a tournament result that was some 400 points better than his rating. People were more than surprised, they were gobsmacked. So what had happened?
In Sam’s case I think it’s down to the stages in someone’s development and at 11 years of age your brain can start to change a lot. I’ve been seeing changes in him for a few months now, he had started doing much better at school and reason things out with his chess. It looks like he’s reached the formal operational stage in Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development.
There’s also our extensive training program, but then that’s another story.
Kids are known to be able to improve quickly but nobody really expects the same of adults. It’s true that most adults fail to improve, yet there are exceptions. The case of Jonathan Hawkins amazing rise in his late teens is the stuff of legends. And I’ve seen this in others too, for example Ivars Dahlberg made an amazing rise from the 2200s to the high 2480s in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
What’s the secret? I think it can be many things, but common factors will be a strong desire to improve (strong enough to cause someone to practice) plus some insights into how to do it. In Hawkins’ case he made an extensive study of the endgame whereas Dahlberg managed to conquer his nerves during games with a series of relaxation protocols.
How should someone gain such insights? Probably the most important part is self-honesty, a willingness to look in the mirror and see the warts alongside any good points. Not many people can do this, partly because they lack the knowledge to put their play into perspective and partly because they may not want to admit to certain weaknesses.
In the light of the above the sort of smooth progression that’s implied in age/rating charts loses it’s meaning. Players that improve will show a steady rise, but the stats don’t include those who fail to make progress or drop out altogether (which includes most of the kids that played at primary school). If they did we’d see a very different picture, a sea of great flatness with perhaps a slight rise from childhood followed by a falling away in the twilight years.
Extraordinary achievements in any field simply don’t come on their own and the norm is not of improvement but rather stagnation. What is required is extraordinary effort, and this can come at any time once the decision to do so is made.