Bring up Genius

(This is a “Pareto trans­la­tion” of Bring up Ge­nius by Lás­zló Polgár, the book re­cently men­tioned at Slate Star Codex. I hope that se­lected 20% of the book text, trans­lated ap­prox­i­mately, could still con­vey 80% of its value, while tak­ing an or­der of mag­ni­tude less time and work than a full and pre­cise trans­la­tion. The origi­nal book is writ­ten in an in­ter­view form, with ques­tions and an­swers; to keep it short, I am rewrit­ing it as a monologue. I am also tak­ing liberty of mak­ing many other changes in style, and skip­ping en­tire parts, be­cause I am op­ti­miz­ing for my time. In­stead of the Hun­gar­ian origi­nal, I am us­ing an Esperanto trans­la­tion Eduku ge­ni­u­lon as my source, be­cause that is the lan­guage I am more fluent in.)


Ge­nius = work + luck

This is my book writ­ten in 1989 about 15 years of ped­a­gogic ex­per­i­ment with my daugh­ters. It is nei­ther a recipe, nor a challenge, just a demon­stra­tion that it is pos­si­ble to bring up a ge­nius in­ten­tion­ally.

The so-called mir­a­cle chil­dren are nat­u­ral phe­nom­ena, cre­ated by their par­ents and so­ciety. Sadly, many po­ten­tial ge­niuses dis­ap­pear with­out any­one notic­ing the op­por­tu­nity, in­clud­ing them­selves.

Many peo­ple in his­tory did a similar thing by ac­ci­dent; we only re­peated it on pur­pose.

1. Se­crets of the ped­a­gogic experiment

1.1. The Polgár family

The Polgár sisters (Su­san, Sofia, Ju­dit) are in­ter­na­tion­ally as fa­mous as Ru­bik Ernő, the in­ven­tor of the Ru­bik Cube.

Are they merely their father’s pup­pets, ma­nipu­lated like chess figures? Hardly. This level of suc­cess re­quires agency and ac­tive co­op­er­a­tion. Pup­pets don’t be­come ge­niuses. Con­trar­i­wise, I pro­vided them op­por­tu­nity, free­dom, and sup­port. They made most of the de­ci­sions.

You know what re­ally cre­ates pup­pets? The tra­di­tional school sys­tem. Watch how kids, ea­gerly en­ter­ing school in Septem­ber, mostly be­come burned out by Christ­mas.

Not all ge­niuses are happy. Some are re­jected by their en­vi­ron­ment, or they fail to achieve their goals. But some ge­niuses are happy, ac­cepted by their en­vi­ron­ment, suc­ceed, and con­tribute pos­i­tively to the so­ciety. I think ge­niuses have a greater chance to be happy in life, and luck­ily my daugh­ters are an ex­am­ple of that.

I was a mem­ber of the Com­mu­nist Party for over ten years, but I dis­agreed with many things; speci­fi­cally the lack of democ­racy, and the op­po­si­tion to elite ed­u­ca­tion.

I work about 15 hours a day since I was a teenager. I am ob­sessed with high qual­ity. Some peo­ple say I am stub­born, even ag­gres­sive. I am try­ing hard to achieve my goals, and I ex­pe­rienced a lot of frus­tra­tion; seems to me some peo­ple were try­ing to de­stroy us. We were threat­ened by high-rank­ing poli­ti­ci­ans. We were not al­lowed to travel abroad un­til 1985, when Su­san was already the #1 in in­ter­na­tional rank­ing of fe­male chess play­ers.

But I am happy that I have a great fam­ily, happy mar­riage, three suc­cess­ful chil­dren, and my cre­ative work has an on­go­ing im­pact.

1.2 Na­ture or nur­ture?

I be­lieve that any biolog­i­cally healthy child can be brought up to a ge­nius. Me and my wife have read tons of books and stud­ies. Re­search­ing the child­hoods of many fa­mous peo­ple that they all spe­cial­ized early, and each of them had a strongly sup­port­ive par­ent or teacher or trainer. We con­cluded: ge­niuses are not born; they are made. We proved that ex­per­i­men­tally. We hope that some­one will build a co­her­ent ped­a­gog­i­cal sys­tem based on our hy­poth­e­sis.

Most of what we know about ge­net­ics [as of 1989] is about dis­eases. Healthy brains are flex­ible. Ed­u­ca­tion was con­sid­ered im­por­tant by Wat­son and Adler. But Wat­son never ac­tu­ally re­ceived the “dozen healthy in­fants” to bring up, so I was the first one to do this ex­per­i­ment. Th­ese are my five prin­ci­ples:

* Hu­man per­son­al­ity is an out­come of the fol­low­ing three: the gifts of na­ture, the sup­port of en­vi­ron­ment, and the work of one’s own. Their rel­a­tive im­por­tance de­pends on age: biol­ogy is strongest with the new­born, so­ciety with the ten years old, and later the im­por­tance of one’s own ac­tions grows.

* There are two as­pects of so­cial in­fluence: the fam­ily, and the cul­ture. Hu­mans are nat­u­rally so­cial, so ed­u­ca­tion should treat the child as a co-au­thor of them­selves.

* I be­lieve that any healthy child has suffi­cient gen­eral abil­ity, and can spe­cial­ize in any type of ac­tivity. Here I differ from the opinion of many teach­ers and par­ents who be­lieve that the role of ed­u­ca­tion is to find a hid­den tal­ent in the child. I be­lieve that the child has a gen­eral abil­ity, and achieves spe­cial skills by ed­u­ca­tion.

* The de­vel­op­ment of the ge­nius needs to be in­ten­tion­ally or­ga­nized; it will not hap­pen at ran­dom.

* Peo­ple should strive for max­i­mum pos­si­ble self-re­al­iza­tion; that brings hap­piness both to them and to the peo­ple around them. Ped­a­gogy should not aim for av­er­age, but for ex­cel­lence.

2. A differ­ent education

2.1. About con­tem­po­rary schools

We home­schooled our chil­dren. To­day’s schools set a very low bar, and are in­tol­er­ant to­wards peo­ple differ­ent from the av­er­age by their tal­ent or oth­er­wise. They don’t pre­pare for real life; don’t make kids love learn­ing; don’t in­sti­gate greater goals; bring up nei­ther au­tonomous in­di­vi­d­u­als nor col­lec­tives.

Which is an un­sur­pris­ing out­come, if you only have one type of school, each school con­tain­ing a few ex­cep­tional kids among many av­er­age ones and a few fee­ble ones. Even the av­er­age ones are closer to the fee­ble ones that to the ex­cep­tional ones. And the teacher, by ne­ces­sity, adapts to the ma­jor­ity. There is not enough space for in­di­vi­d­ual ap­proach, but there is a lot of mind­less rep­e­ti­tion. Sure, peo­ple talk a lot about teach­ing prob­lem-solv­ing skills, but that never hap­pens. Both the teach­ers and the stu­dents suffer at school.

The gifted chil­dren are bored, and even tired, be­cause bore­dom is more te­dious than ap­pro­pri­ate effort. The gifted chil­dren are dis­liked, just like ev­ery­one who differs from the norm. Many gifted chil­dren ac­quire psy­cho-so­matic prob­lems, such as in­som­nia, headache, stom­ach pain, neu­roses. Fa­mous peo­ple of­ten had trou­ble at school; they were con­sid­ered stupid and un­tal­ented. There is bul­ly­ing, and gen­eral lack of kind­ness. There are schools for gifted chil­dren in USA and USSR, but some­how not in Hun­gary [as of 1989].

I had to fight a lot to have my first daugh­ter home-schooled. I was afraid school would en­dan­ger the de­vel­op­ment of her abil­ities. We had sup­port of many peo­ple, in­clud­ing ped­a­gogues, but var­i­ous bu­reau­crats re­peat­edly re­jected us, some­times with threats. Fi­nally we re­ceived an ex­cep­tional per­mis­sion by the gov­ern­ment, but it only ap­plied for one child. So with the sec­ond daugh­ter we had to go through the same pro­cess again.

2.2. Each child is a promise

It is cru­cial to awaken and keep the child’s in­ter­est, con­vince them that the suc­cess is achiev­able, trust them, and praise them. When the child likes the work, it will work fruit­fully for long time pe­ri­ods. A profound in­ter­est de­vel­ops per­son­al­ity and skills. A mo­ti­vated child will achieve more, and get tired less.

I be­lieve in pos­i­tive mo­ti­va­tion. Create a situ­a­tion where many suc­cesses are pos­si­ble. Suc­cesses make chil­dren con­fi­dent; failures make them in­se­cure. Ex­pe­rience of suc­cess and ad­mira­tion by oth­ers mo­ti­vates and ac­cel­er­ates learn­ing. Failure, fear, and shy­ness de­crease the de­sire to achieve. Suc­cesses in one field even in­crease con­fi­dence in other fields.

Too much praise can cause over­con­fi­dence, but it is gen­er­ally safer to err on the side of prais­ing more rather than less. How­ever, the praise must be con­nected to a real out­come.

Dis­ci­pline, es­pe­cially in­ter­nal psy­cholog­i­cal, also in­creases skills.

I be­lieve the age be­tween 3 and 6 years is very im­por­tant, and very un­der­es­ti­mated. No, those chil­dren are not too young to learn. Ac­tu­ally, that’s when their brains are evolv­ing the most. They should learn for­eign lan­guages. In mul­ti­lin­gual en­vi­ron­ments chil­dren do that nat­u­rally.

Play is im­por­tant for chil­dren, but play is not an op­po­site of work. Gather­ing in­for­ma­tion and solv­ing prob­lems is fun. Provide mean­ingful ac­tivi­ties, in­stead of com­part­men­tal­ized games. A game with­out learn­ing is merely a sur­ro­gate ac­tivity. Gifted chil­dren pre­fer games that re­quire men­tal ac­tivity. There is a con­tinuum be­tween learn­ing and play­ing (just like be­tween work and hobby for adults). Brains, just like mus­cles, be­comes stronger by ev­ery­day ac­tivity.

My daugh­ters used in­tense meth­ods to learn lan­guages; and chess; and table ten­nis. Is there a risk of dam­ag­ing their per­son­al­ity by do­ing so? Maybe, but I be­lieve the risks of dam­ag­ing the per­son­al­ity by spend­ing six child­hood years with­out any effort are ac­tu­ally greater.

When my daugh­ters were 15, 9, 8 years old, we par­ti­ci­pated in a 24-hour chess tour­na­ment, where you had to play 100 games in 24 hours. (Most par­ti­ci­pants were be­tween age 25 and 30.) Su­san won. The suc­cess rates dur­ing the sec­ond half of the tour­na­ment were similar to those dur­ing the first half of the tour­na­ment, for all three girls, which shows that chil­dren are ca­pa­ble of stay­ing fo­cused for long pe­ri­ods of time. But this was an ex­cep­tional load.

2.3. Ge­nius—a gift or a curse?

I am not say­ing that we should bring up each child as a ge­nius; only that bring­ing up chil­dren as ge­niuses is pos­si­ble. I op­pose uniform ed­u­ca­tion, even a hy­po­thet­i­cal one that would use my meth­ods.

Public ideas of ge­niuses is usu­ally one of two ex­tremes. Either they are all sup­posed to be weird and half-in­sane; or they are all sup­posed to be CEOs and movie stars. Psy­chol­ogy has already moved be­yond this. They ex­am­ined Ein­stein’s brain, but found no differ­ence in weight or vol­ume com­pared with an av­er­age per­son. For me, ge­nius is an av­er­age per­son who has achieved their full po­ten­tial. Many fa­mous ge­niuses at­tribute their suc­cess to hard work, dis­ci­pline, at­ten­tion, love of work, pa­tience, time.

All healthy new­borns are po­ten­tial ge­niuses, but whether they be­come ac­tual ge­niuses, de­pends on their en­vi­ron­ment, ed­u­ca­tion, and their own effort. For ex­am­ple, in the 20th cen­tury more peo­ple be­came ge­niuses than in the 19th or 18th cen­tury, in­ter alia be­cause of so­cial changes. Ge­niuses need to be liber­ated. Hope­fully in the fu­ture, more peo­ple will be free and fully de­vel­oped, so be­ing a ge­nius will be­come a norm, not an ex­cep­tion. But for now, there are only a few peo­ple like that. As peo­ple grow up, they lose the po­ten­tial to be­come ge­niuses. I es­ti­mate that an av­er­age per­son’s chance to be­come a ge­nius is about 80% at age 1; 60% at age 3; 50% at age 6; 40% at age 12; 30% at age 16; 20% at age 18; only 5% at age 20. After­wards it drops to a frac­tion of per­cent.

A ge­nius child can sur­pass their peers by 5 or 7 years. And if a “mir­a­cle child” doesn’t be­come a “mir­a­cle adult”, I am con­vinced that their en­vi­ron­ment did not al­low them to. Peo­ple say some chil­dren are faster and some are slower; I say they don’t grow up in the same con­di­tions. Good con­di­tions al­low one to progress faster. But some philoso­phers or writ­ers be­came ge­niuses at old age.

Peo­ple find it difficult to ac­cept those who differ from the av­er­age. Even some sci­en­tists; for ex­am­ple Ein­stein’s the­ory of rel­a­tivity was op­posed by many. My daugh­ters are at­tacked not just by pub­lic opinion, but also by fel­low chess play­ers.

Some ge­niuses are un­happy about their situ­a­tion. But many en­joy the cre­ativity, per­ceived beauty, and suc­cess. Ge­niuses can harm them­selves by hav­ing un­re­al­is­tic ex­pec­ta­tions of their goals. But most of the harm comes from out­side, as a dis­mis­sal of their work, or lack of ma­te­rial and moral sup­port, base­less crit­i­cism. Nowa­days, one dem­a­gogue can use the mass com­mu­ni­ca­tion me­dia to poi­son the whole pop­u­la­tion with rage against the rep­re­sen­ta­tives of na­tional cul­ture.

As the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­ni­ca­tion and ex­change of ideas grows, ge­niuses be­come more im­por­tant than ever be­fore. Ed­u­ca­tion is nec­es­sary to over­come eco­nom­i­cal prob­lems; new in­ven­tions cre­ate new jobs. But a ge­nius pro­vokes the anger of peo­ple, not by his be­hav­ior, but by his skills.

2.4. Should ev­ery child be­come a celebrity?

I be­lieve in di­ver­sity in ed­u­ca­tion. I am not crit­i­ciz­ing teach­ers for not do­ing things my way. There are many other at­tempts to im­prove ed­u­ca­tion. But I think it is now pos­si­ble to aim even higher, to bring up ge­niuses. I can imag­ine the fol­low­ing en­vi­ron­ments where this could be done:

* Homeschool­ing, i.e. teach­ing your biolog­i­cal or adopted chil­dren. Mul­ti­ple fam­i­lies could co­op­er­ate and share their skills.

* Spe­cial­ized ed­u­ca­tional fa­cil­ity for ge­niuses; a col­lege or a fam­ily-type in­sti­tu­tion.

Homeschool­ing, or pri­vate ed­u­ca­tion with parental over­sight, are the an­cient meth­ods for bring­ing up ge­niuses. Fam­i­lies should get more in­volved in ed­u­ca­tion; you can’t sim­ply out­source ev­ery­thing to a school. We should sup­port fam­i­lies will­ing to take an ac­tive role. Ed­u­ca­tion works bet­ter in a lov­ing en­vi­ron­ment.

In­stead of try­ing to a find a tal­ent, de­velop one. Start spe­cial­iz­ing early, at the age of 3 or 4. One can­not be­come an ex­pert on ev­ery­thing.

My daugh­ters played chess 5 or 6 hours a day since their age of 4 or 5. Similarly, if you want ot be­come a mu­si­cian, spend 5 or 6 hours a day do­ing mu­sic; if a physi­cist, do physics; if a lin­guist, do lan­guages. With such in­tense in­struc­tion, the child will soon feel the knowl­edge, ex­pe­rience suc­cess, and soon be­comes able to use this knowl­edge in­de­pen­dently. For ex­am­ple, af­ter learn­ing Esperanto 5 or 6 hours a day for a few months, the child can start cor­re­spond­ing with chil­dren from other coun­tries, par­ti­ci­pate at in­ter­na­tional meet-ups, and ex­pe­rience the con­ver­sa­tions in a for­eign lan­guage. That is at the same time pleas­ant, use­ful for the child, and use­ful for the so­ciety. The next year, start with English, then Ger­man, etc. Now the child en­joys this, be­cause it ob­vi­ously makes sense. (Un­like at school, where most learn­ing feels pur­pose­less.) In chess, the first year makes you an av­er­age player, three years a great player, six years a mas­ter, fif­teen years a grand­mas­ter. When a 10-years old child sur­passes an av­er­age adult at some skill, it is highly mo­ti­vat­ing.

Gifted chil­dren need fi­nan­cial sup­port, to cover the costs of books, ed­u­ca­tion, and travel.

Some peo­ple ex­press con­cern that early spe­cial­iza­tion may lead to ig­no­rance of ev­ery­thing else. But it’s the other way round; abil­ities formed in one area can trans­fer to other ar­eas. One learns how to learn.

Also, the spe­cial­iza­tion is rel­a­tive. If you want to be­come e.g. a com­puter pro­gram­mer, you will learn maths, in­for­mat­ics, for­eign lan­guages; when you be­come fa­mous, you will travel, meet in­ter­est­ing peo­ple, ex­pe­rience differ­ent cul­tures. My daugh­ters, in ad­di­tion to be­ing chess ge­niuses, speak many for­eign lan­guages, travel, do sports, write books, etc. Hav­ing deep knowl­edge about some­thing doesn’t im­ply ig­no­rance about ev­ery­thing else. On the other hand, a mis­guided at­tempt to be­come an uni­ver­sal­ist can re­sult in know­ing noth­ing, in mere pre­tend-knowl­edge of ev­ery­thing.

Emo­tional and moral ed­u­ca­tion must do to­gether with the early spe­cial­iza­tion, to de­velop a com­plex per­son­al­ity. We wanted our chil­dren to be en­thu­si­as­tic, coura­geous, per­sis­tent, to be ob­jec­tive judges of things and peo­ple, to re­sist failure and avoid temp­ta­tions of suc­cess, to han­dle frus­tra­tion and tol­er­ate crit­i­cism even when it is wrong, to make plans, to man­age their emo­tions. Also, to love and re­spect peo­ple, and to pre­fer cre­ative work to phys­i­cal plea­sure or sta­tus sym­bols. We told them that they can achieve great­ness, but that there can be only one world cham­pion, so their goal should rather be to be­come good chess play­ers, be good at sport, and be hon­est peo­ple.

Ped­a­gogy puts great em­pha­sis on be­ing with chil­dren of the same age. I think that men­tal peers are more im­por­tant than age peers. It would harm a gifted child to be forced to spend most of their time ex­clu­sively among chil­dren of the same age. On the other hand, spend­ing most of the time with adults brings the risk that the child will learn to rely on them all the time, los­ing in­de­pen­dence and ini­ti­a­tive. You need to find a bal­ance. I be­lieve the best com­pany would be of similar in­tel­lec­tual level, similar hob­bies, and good re­la­tions.

For ex­am­ple, if Su­san at 13 years old would be forced to play chess ex­clu­sively with 13 years old chil­dren, it would harm both sides. She could not learn any­thing from them; they would re­sent los­ing con­stantly.

Origi­nally, I hoped I could bring up each daugh­ter as a ge­nius in a differ­ent field (e.g. math­e­mat­ics, chess, mu­sic). It would be a more con­vinc­ing ev­i­dence that you can bring up a ge­nius of any kind. And I be­lieve I would have suc­ceeded, but I was con­strained by money and time. We would need three pri­vate teach­ers, would have to go each day to three differ­ent places, would have to buy books for maths and chess and mu­sic (and the mu­sic in­stru­ments). By mak­ing them one team, things be­came eas­ier, and the fam­ily has more things in com­mon. Some psy­chol­o­gists wor­ried that chil­dren could be jeal­ous of each other, and hate each other. But we brought them up prop­erly, and this did not hap­pen.

This is how I imag­ine a typ­i­cal day at a school for ge­niuses:

* 4 hours study­ing the sub­ject of spe­cial­iza­tion, e.g. chess;

* 1 hour study­ing a for­eign lan­guage; Esperanto at the first year, English at the sec­ond, later choose freely; dur­ing the first three months this would in­crease to 3 hours a day (by re­duc­ing the sub­ject of spe­cial­iza­tion tem­porar­ily); trav­el­ing abroad dur­ing the sum­mer;

* 1 hour com­puter sci­ence;

* 1 hour ethics, psy­chol­ogy, ped­a­gogy, so­cial skills;

* 1 hour phys­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion, spe­cific form cho­sen in­di­vi­d­u­ally.

Would I like to teach at such school? In the­ory yes, but in prac­tice I am already burned out from the end­less de­bates with au­thor­i­ties, the press, opinionated ped­a­gogues and psy­chol­o­gists. I am re­ally tired of that. The teach­ers in such school need to be pro­tected from all this, so they can fully fo­cus on their work.

2.5. Esperanto: the first step in learn­ing for­eign languages

Our whole fam­ily speaks Esperanto. It is a part of our moral sys­tem, a tool for equal­ity of peo­ple. There are many prej­u­dices against it, but the same was true about all pro­gres­sive ideas. Some peo­ple ar­gue by Bible that mul­ti­ple lan­guages are God’s pun­ish­ment we have to en­dure. Some peo­ple in­vested many re­sources into learn­ing 2 or 3 or 4 for­eign lan­guages, and don’t want to lose the gained po­si­tion. Eco­nom­i­cally strong na­tions en­force their own lan­guages as part of dom­i­nance, and the speak­ers of other lan­guages are dis­crim­i­nated against. Us­ing Esperanto as ev­ery­one’s sec­ond lan­guage would make the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­ni­ca­tion more easy and egal­i­tar­ian. But con­sid­er­ing to­day’s eco­nom­i­cal pres­sures, it makes sense to learn English or Rus­sian or Chi­nese next.

Esperanto has a reg­u­lar gram­mar with sim­ple syn­tax. It also uses many Latin, Ger­manic, and Slavic roots, so as a Euro­pean, even if you are not fa­mil­iar with the lan­guage, you will prob­a­bly rec­og­nize many words in a text. This is an ad­van­tage from ped­a­gog­i­cal point of view: you can more eas­ily learn its vo­cab­u­lary and its gram­mar; you can learn the whole lan­guage about 10 times eas­ier than other lan­guages.

It makes a great ex­am­ple of the con­cept of a for­eign lan­guage, which pays off when learn­ing other lan­guages later. It is known that hav­ing learned one for­eign lan­guage makes learn­ing an­other for­eign lan­guage eas­ier. So, if learn­ing Esperanto takes 10 times less time than learn­ing an­other lan­guage, such as English, then if already know­ing an­other for­eign lan­guage makes learn­ing the sec­ond one at least 10% more effi­cient, it makes sense to learn Esperanto first. Also, Esperanto would be a great first ex­pe­rience for stu­dents who have difficulty learn­ing lan­guages; they would achieve suc­cess faster.

3. Chess

3.1. Why chess?

Origi­nally, we were de­cid­ing be­tween math­e­mat­ics, chess, and for­eign lan­guages. Fi­nally we chose chess, be­cause the re­sults in that area are easy to mea­sure, us­ing a tra­di­tional and ob­jec­tive sys­tem, which makes it eas­ier to prove whether the ex­per­i­ment suc­ceeded or failed. Which was a lucky choice in hind­sight, be­cause back then we had no idea how many ob­sta­cles we will have to face. If we wouldn’t be able to prove our re­sults un­am­bigu­ously, the at­tacks against us would have been much stronger.

Chess seemed suffi­ciently com­plex (it is a game, a sci­ence, an art, and a sport at the same time), so the risks of over­spe­cial­iza­tion were smaller; even if chil­dren would later de­cide they are tired of chess, they would keep some trans­fer­able skills. And the fact that our chil­dren were girls was a bonus: we were able to also prove that girls can be as in­tel­lec­tu­ally able as boys; but for this pur­pose we needed an in­dis­putable proof. (Although, peo­ple try to dis­count this proof any­way, say­ing things like: “Well, chess is sim­ple, but try do­ing the same in lan­guages, math­e­mat­ics, or mu­sic!”)

The sci­en­tific as­pect of chess is that you have to fol­low the rules, an­a­lyze the situ­a­tion, ap­ply your in­tu­ition. If you have a fa­vorite hy­poth­e­sis, for ex­am­ple a fa­vorite open­ing, but you keep los­ing, you have to change your mind. There is an aes­thetic di­men­sion in chess; some games are pub­lished and en­joyed not just be­cause of their im­pres­sive logic, but be­cause they are beau­tiful in some sense, they do some­thing un­ex­pected. And most peo­ple are not fa­mil­iar with this chess re­quires great phys­i­cal health. All the best chess play­ers do some sport, and it is not a co­in­ci­dence. Also it is or­ga­nized similarly to sports: it has tour­na­ments, play­ers, spec­ta­tors; you have to deal with the pain of los­ing, you have to play fair, etc.

3.2. How did the Polgár sisters start learn­ing chess?

I don’t have a “one weird trick” to teach chil­dren chess; it’s just my gen­eral ped­a­gog­i­cal ap­proach, ap­plied to chess. Teach the chess with love, playfully. Don’t push it too force­fully. Re­mem­ber to let the child win most of the time. Ex­plain to the child that things can be learned, and that this also ap­plies to chess. Don’t worry if the child keeps jump­ing dur­ing the game; it could be still think­ing about the game. Don’t ex­plain ev­ery­thing; provide the child an op­por­tu­nity to dis­cover some things in­de­pen­dently. Don’t crit­i­cize failure, praise suc­cess.

Start with shorter les­sons, only 30 min­utes and then have a break. Start by solv­ing sim­ple prob­lems. Our girls loved the “check­mate in two/​three moves” puz­zles. Let the child play against equally skil­led op­po­nents of­ten. For a child, it is bet­ter to play many quick games (e.g. with 5-minute timers), than a few long ones. Par­ti­ci­pate in tour­na­ments ap­pro­pri­ate for the child’s cur­rent skill.

We have a large library of differ­ent games. They are in­dexed by strat­egy, and by names of play­ers. So the girls can re­search their op­po­nent’s play be­fore the tour­na­ment.

When a child loses the tour­na­ment, don’t crit­i­cize them; the child is already sad. Offer sup­port; help them an­a­lyze the mis­takes.

When my girls write ar­ti­cles about chess, it makes them think deeply about the is­sue.

All three parts of the game open­ing, mid­dle game, end­ing re­quire same amount of fo­cus. Some peo­ple fo­cus too much on the end­ings, and ne­glect the rest. But at tour­na­ment, a bad open­ing can ruin the whole game.

Su­san had the most difficult situ­a­tion of the three daugh­ters. In hind­sight, hav­ing her learn 7 or 8 for­eign lan­guages was prob­a­bly too much; some of that time would be bet­ter spent fur­ther im­prov­ing her chess skills. As the old­est one, she also faced the worst crit­i­cism from haters; as a con­se­quence she be­came the most defen­sive player of them. The two younger sister had the ad­van­tage that they could op­pose the same pres­sures to­gether. But still, I am sure that with­out those pres­sures, they also could have pro­gressed even faster.

Poli­ti­ci­ans in­fluenced the de­ci­sions of the Hun­gar­ian Chess As­so­ci­a­tion; as a re­sult my daugh­ters were of­ten for­bid­den from par­ti­ci­pa­tion at in­ter­na­tional youth com­pe­ti­tions, de­spite be­ing the best na­tional play­ers. They wanted to pre­vent Su­san from be­com­ing the wor­ld­wide #1 fe­male chess player. Once they even “donated” 100 points to her com­peti­tor, to keep Su­san at the 2nd place. Later they didn’t al­low her to par­ti­ci­pate in the in­ter­na­tional male tour­na­ments, al­though her re­sults in the Hun­gar­ian male tour­na­ments qual­ified her for that. The gov­ern­ment reg­u­larly re­fused to is­sue pass­ports to us, claiming that “our for­eign trav­els hurt the pub­lic or­der”. Also, it was difficult to find a trainer for my daugh­ters, de­spite them be­ing at the top of world rank­ings. Only re­cently we re­ceived a for­eign help; a pa­tron from Nether­lands offered to pay train­ers and spar­ring part­ners for my daugh­ters, and also bought Su­san a per­sonal com­puter. A Ger­man jour­nal­ist gave us a pro­gram and a database, and taught chil­dren how to use it.

The Hun­gar­ian press kept at­tack­ing us, pub­lished fake facts. We filed a few law­suits, and won them all, but it just dis­tracted us from our work. The for­eign press whether writ­ing from the chess, psy­cholog­i­cal, or ped­a­gog­i­cal per­spec­tives was fair to us; they wrote al­most 40 000 ar­ti­cles about us, so fi­nally even the Hun­gar­ian chess play­ers, psy­chol­o­gists and ped­a­gogues could learn about us from them.

At the be­gin­ning, I was a father, a trainer, and a man­ager to my daugh­ters. But I am com­pletely un­der­qual­ified to be their trainer these days, so I just man­age their train­ers.

Un­til re­cently no one be­lieved women could play chess on level com­pa­rable with men. Now the three girls to­gether have about 40 Guiness records; they re­peat­edly out­performed their former records. In a 1988 in­ter­view Kar­pov said: “Su­san is ex­traor­di­nar­ily strong, but Ju­dit… at such age, nei­ther me nor Kas­parov could play like Ju­dit plays.”

3.3. How can we make our chil­dren like chess?

Some tips for teach­ing chess to 4 or 5 years old chil­dren. First, I made a blank square di­vided into 8x8 lit­tle squares, with named rows and columns. I named a square, my daugh­ter had to find it; then she named a square and I had to find it. Then we used the black-and-white ver­sion, and we were guess­ing the color of the named square with­out look­ing.

Then we in­tro­duced kings, in a “king vs king” com­bat; the task was to reach the op­pos­ing row of the board with your king. Then we added a pawn; the goal re­mained to reach the op­pos­ing row. After a month of play­ing, we in­tro­duced the queen, and the con­cept of check­mate. Later we grad­u­ally added the re­main­ing pieces (knights were the most difficult).

Then we solved about thou­sand “check­mate in one move” puz­zles. Then two moves, three moves, four moves. That took an­other 3 or 4 months. And only af­ter­wards we started re­ally play­ing against each other.

To provide an ad­van­tage for the child, don’t play with less pieces, be­cause that changes the struc­ture of the game. In­stead, provide your­self a very short time limit, or de­liber­ately make a mis­take, so the child can learn to no­tice them.

Have pa­tience, if some phase takes a lot of time. On stronger fun­da­men­tals, you can later build bet­ter. This is where I think our ed­u­ca­tional sys­tem makes great mis­takes. Schools don’t teach in­tensely, so chil­dren keep for­get­ting most of what they learned dur­ing the long spaces be­tween the les­sons. And then, de­spite not hav­ing fully mas­tered the first step, they move to the sec­ond one, etc.

3.4. Chess and psychology

Com­pet­i­tive chess helps de­velop per­son­al­ity: will, emo­tion, per­se­ver­ance, self-dis­ci­pline, fo­cus, self-con­trol. It de­vel­ops in­tel­lec­tual skills: mem­ory, com­bi­na­tion skills, logic, proper use of in­tu­ition. Un­der­stand­ing your op­po­nent’s weak­ness will help you.

Peo­ple over­es­ti­mate how much IQ tests de­ter­mine tal­ent. Mea­sure­ments of peo­ple tal­ented in differ­ent ar­eas show that their av­er­age is only a bit above the av­er­age of the pop­u­la­tion.

3.5. Eman­ci­pa­tion of women

Some peo­ple say, in­cor­rectly, that my daugh­ter won the male chess cham­pi­onship. But there is offi­cially no such thing as “male chess cham­pi­onship”, there is sim­ply chess cham­pi­onship, open to both men and women. (And then, there is a sep­a­rate fe­male chess cham­pi­onship, only for women, but that is con­sid­ered sec­ond league.)

I pre­pared the plan for my chil­dren be­fore they were born. I didn’t know I would have all girls, so I did not ex­pect this spe­cial prob­lem: the dis­crim­i­na­tion of women. I wanted to bring up my daugh­ter Su­san ex­actly ac­cord­ing to the plan, but many peo­ple tried to pre­vent it; they in­sisted that she can­not com­pete with boys, that she should only com­pete with girls. Thus my origi­nal goal of prov­ing that you can bring up a ge­nius, be­came in­di­rectly a goal of prov­ing that there are no es­sen­tial in­tel­lec­tual differ­ences be­tween men and women, and there­fore one can’t use that ar­gu­ment as an ex­cuse for sub­ju­ga­tion of women.

Peo­ple kept tel­ling me that I can only bring up Su­san to be a fe­male cham­pion, not to com­pete with men. But I knew that dur­ing el­e­men­tary school, girls can com­pete with boys. Only later, when they start play­ing the fe­male role, when they are taught to clean the house, wash laun­dry, cook, fol­low the fash­ion, pay at­ten­tion to de­tails of cloth­ing, and try get­ting mar­ried as soon as pos­si­ble when they are ex­pected to do other things than boys are ex­pected to do that has a nega­tive im­pact on de­vel­op­ing their skills. But fam­ily du­ties and bring­ing up chil­dren can be done by both par­ents to­gether.

Women can achieve same re­sults, if they can get similar con­di­tions. I tried to do that for my daugh­ters, but I couldn’t con­vince the whole so­ciety to treat them the same.

We know about differ­ences be­tween adult men and women, but we don’t know whether they were caused by biol­ogy or ed­u­ca­tion. And we know than e.g. in math­e­mat­ics and lan­guages, dur­ing el­e­men­tary and high schools girls progress at the same pace as boys, and only later the differ­ences ap­pear. This is an ev­i­dence in fa­vor of equal­ity. We do not know what chil­dren grow­ing up with­out dis­crim­i­na­tion would be like.

On the other hand, the cur­rent sys­tem also pro­vides some ad­van­tages for women; for ex­am­ple the fe­male chess play­ers don’t need to work that hard to be­come the (fe­male) elite, and some of them don’t want to give that up. Such women are among the great­est op­po­nents of my daugh­ters.

4. The mean­ing of this whole affair

4.1. Fam­ily value

I am cer­tain that with­out a good fam­ily back­ground the suc­cess of my daugh­ters would not be pos­si­ble. It is im­por­tant, be­fore peo­ple marry, to have a clear idea of what ex­pect from their mar­riage. When part­ners co­op­er­ate, the mu­tual help, the shared ex­pe­riences, ed­u­ca­tion of chil­dren, good habits, etc. can deepen their love. Chil­dren need fam­ily with­out con­flicts to feel safe. But of course, if the situ­a­tion be­comes too bad, the di­vorce might be­come the way to re­duce con­flicts.

To bring up a ge­nius, it is de­sir­able for one par­ent to stay at home and take care of chil­dren. But it can be the father, too.

[Klára Polgár says:] When I met Lás­zló, my first im­pres­sion was that he was an in­ter­est­ing per­son full of ideas, but one should not be­lieve even half of them.

When Su­san was three and half, Lás­zló said it was time for her to spe­cial­ize. She was good at math; at the age of four she already learned the ma­te­rial of the first four grades. Once she found chess figures in the box, and started play­ing with them as toys. Lás­zló was spend­ing a lot of time with her, and one day I was sur­prised to see them play­ing chess. Lás­zló loved chess, but I never learned it.

So, we could have cho­sen math or for­eign lan­guages, but we felt that Su­san was re­ally happy play­ing chess, and she started be­ing good at it. But our par­ents and neigh­bors shook their heads: “Chess? For a girl?” Peo­ple told me: “What kind of a mother are you? Why do you al­low your hus­band to play chess with Su­san?” I had my doubts, but now I be­lieve I made the right choice.

Peo­ple are con­cerned whether my chil­dren had real child­hood. I think they are at least as happy as their peers, prob­a­bly more.

I always wanted to have a good, peace­ful fam­ily life, and I be­lieve I have achieved that. [End of Klára’s part.]

4.2. Be­ing a minority

It is gen­er­ally known that Jewish peo­ple achieved many ex­cel­lent re­sults in in­tel­lec­tual fields. Some ask whether the cause of this is biologic or so­cial. I be­lieve it is so­cial.

First, Jewish fam­i­lies are usu­ally tra­di­tional, sta­ble, and care a lot about ed­u­ca­tion. They knew that they will be dis­crim­i­nated against, and will have to work twice as hard, and that at any mo­ment they may be forced to leave their home, or even coun­try, so their knowl­edge might be the only thing they will always be able to keep. Jewish re­li­gion re­quires par­ents to ed­u­cate their chil­dren since early child­hood; Tal­mud re­quires par­ents to be­come the child’s first teach­ers.

4.3. Wit­nesses of the ge­nius ed­u­ca­tion: the happy children

I care about hap­piness of my chil­dren. But not only I want to make them happy, I also want to de­velop their abil­ity to be happy. And I think that be­ing a ge­nius is the most cer­tain way. The life of a ge­nius may be difficult, but happy any­way. On the other hand, av­er­age peo­ple, de­spite seem­ingly play­ing it safe, of­ten be­come al­co­holics, drug ad­dicts, neu­rotics, lon­ers, etc.

Some ge­niuses be­come un­happy with their pro­fes­sion. But even then I be­lieve it is eas­ier for a ge­nius to change pro­fes­sions.

Hap­piness = work + love + free­dom + luck

Peo­ple worry whether child ge­niuses don’t lose their child­hood. But the av­er­age child­hood is ac­tu­ally not as great as peo­ple de­scribe it; many peo­ple do not have a happy child­hood. Par­ents want to make their chil­dren happy, but they of­ten do it wrong: they buy them ex­pen­sive toys, but they don’t pre­pare them for life; they out­source that re­spon­si­bil­ity to school, which gen­er­ally does not have the right con­di­tions.

And when par­ents try to fully de­velop the ca­pa­bil­ities of their chil­dren, in­stead of so­cial sup­port they usu­ally get crit­i­cism. Peo­ple will blame them for be­ing overly am­bi­tious, for push­ing the chil­dren to achieve things they them­selves failed at. I per­son­ally know peo­ple who tried to ed­u­cate their chil­dren similarly to how we did, but the press launched a full-scale at­tack against them, and they gave up.

My daugh­ters’ lives are full of va­ri­ety. They have met fa­mous peo­ple: pres­i­dents, prime ministers, am­bas­sadors, princess Di­ana, mil­lion­aires, may­ors, UN del­e­gates, fa­mous artists, other olympic win­ners. They ap­peared in tele­vi­sion, ra­dio, news­pa­pers. They trav­eled around the whole world; vis­ited dozens of fa­mous places. They have hob­bies. They have friends in many parts of the world. And our house is always open to guests.

4.4. Make your life an eth­i­cal model

Peo­ple read­ing this text may be sur­prised that they ex­pected a ra­tio­nal ex­pla­na­tion, while I men­tion emo­tions and moral­ity a lot. But those are nec­es­sary for good life. Every­one should try to im­prove them­selves in these as­pects. The rea­son why I did not give up, de­spite all the ob­sta­cles and mal­ice, is be­cause for me, to live morally and cre­ate good, is an in­ter­nal law. I couldn’t do oth­er­wise. I already know that even writ­ing this very book will ini­ti­ate more at­tacks, but I am do­ing it re­gard­less.

And moral­ity is also a thing we are not born with, but which needs to be taught to us, prefer­ably in in­fancy. And we need to think about it, in­stead of ex­pect­ing it to just hap­pen. And the schools fail in this, too. I see it as an in­te­gral part of bring­ing up a ge­nius.

One should aim to be a paragon; to live in a way that will make oth­ers want to fol­low you. Learn and work a lot; ex­pect a lot from your­self and from oth­ers. Give love, and re­ceive love. Live in peace with your­self and your neigh­bors. Work hard to be happy, and to make other peo­ple happy. Be a hu­man­ist, fight against prej­u­dice. Pro­tect the peace of the fam­ily, bring up your chil­dren to­wards perfec­tion. Be hon­est. Re­spect free­dom of your­self and of the oth­ers. Trust hu­man­ity; sup­port the com­mu­ni­ties small and large. Etc.

(The book finishes by list­ing the achieve­ments of the Polgár sisters, and by their var­i­ous pho­tos: play­ing chess, do­ing sports. I’ll sim­ply link their Wikipe­dia pages: Su­san, Sofia, Ju­dit. I hope you en­joyed read­ing this ex­per­i­men­tal trans­la­tion; and if you think I omit­ted some­thing im­por­tant, feel free to add the miss­ing parts in the com­ments. Note: I do be­lieve that this book is gen­er­ally cor­rect and use­ful, but that doesn’t mean I nec­es­sar­ily agree with ev­ery sin­gle de­tail. The opinions ex­pressed here be­long to the au­thor; of course, un­less some of them got im­paired by my hasty trans­la­tion.)