In part 3 of My Brilliant Brain, the documentary features Hungarian-born Chess Grandmaster Susan Polgar – the first woman to break the gender barrier in a formerly male-dominated game.

At the age of 4, Susan was an ordinary child with no remarkable genius abilities. It was the educational journey she embarked upon with her father, László Polgár, that would ultimately shape her brilliant brain.

László Polgár was a man with a plan. He believed that any child, given the right environment from young, could grow up to become a genius. Mozart was his inspiration – he noted that Mozart was given a rich musical environment from an early age which helped to bring out his musical genius. Polgár set out to prove his theory – but first he needed a child. His intention was to carry out his experiment with his own progeny so he sold his idea to a Ukrainian foreign language teacher to get her on board. When his first daughter, Susan, was born, he began to shape her early environment. Polgár believed that the key to genius was early intensive specialisation in a specific subject and that was exactly what he did with Susan.

When she was 4, Susan stumbled upon a chess board while looking for toys to play with. Not knowing the rules of chess, her mother directed her to her father and promised that he would teach her how to play when he got back from work. From that day forwards, Polgár used chess as the subject for Susan’s early intensive specialisation. After 6 months of training, Polgár took little Susan to the local chess club where she played against aged men and beat them hands-down. She went on to dominate the girls’ under 11 chess tournament.

Polgár had two other girls after Susan. When they were old enough, Polgár allowed them into the room where Susan received her intensive chess training on condition that they, too, learned how to play. Having watched their older sister devoting hours, day after day, to the game of chess, they became eager and willing participants.

The interesting thing about Chess is that it is usually male-dominated. This is because the game of chess favours the abilities of the male brain – visual-spatial processing. By beginning their chess lessons early, the Polgár sisters were able to bridge this gap between the male and female brain by developing their visual-spatial processing centers.

The conclusion of this documentary is essentially what Malcolm Gladwell highlighted in his book “The Outliers” – what you need to become great is practice – lots and lots of it, like 10000 hours or so. After a while, the many hours of practice will level out the “talent”. They demonstrated this point by performing an experiment on Susan. While seated at a cafe, a truck drives past her. On the side of the truck is chess board of a game in progress. Susan has a 3-second view of the board before she is asked to reconstruct the chess board that she saw on the truck by placing the chess pieces on a board in the positions that they were shown on the truck. She does so – perfectly.

The human brain can only remember about 7 pieces of information at a time. So how is Susan able to remember where all the chess pieces were after glancing at the picture for 3 seconds? Because of the many hours Susan spent practicing, studying and playing chess, she had memorised tens of thousands of chess configurations. Instead of seeing a board with chess pieces placed randomly, she recognised patterns. She could break the board up into chunks so that all she had to remember were 5 chunks of information.

To prove the point, Susan is shown a second picture of a chess board with chess pieces placed randomly by a non-chess player. Because the chess pieces were now in positions they would never really appear in a real game, Susan has trouble remembering where each piece should be. She could no longer rely on her vast collection of chess board configurations to help her remember the placements of the pieces. Her amazing achievements in chess are the result of years and years of deliberate practice.

So what you need to raise a genius is:

  • focus on a specific subject
  • early exposure
  • practice, practice, practice

Another point I will add is personal interest – you need your child to be interested because he has to be the driver for his own practice. Without your child’s willingness to practice, it is impossible to achieve such success.