People have asked the question, “Are geniuses born or made?” since eternity. But one man made it a mission of his life to answer this question with proof. Laszlo Polgar decided to perform an experiment to raise a child as a genius and prove to the world that hard work beats talent in the long run.
The Polgar Sisters’ story:
Laszlo Polgar was a researcher from Hungary who studied intelligence and had a fascination towards understanding geniuses. He had studied well over 400 prodigies and analyzed the common patterns. His study included people with the highest intellect from Socrates to Einstein. He observed that all of them started at a very young age and practiced their skills to a depth.
Laszlo Polgar’s theory and experiment
Somewhere in the 1960s, Laszlo Polgar presented a theory that great performers are made and not born. He believed that he could raise a genius himself. When he tried to present his intentions, the local government asked him to see a psychiatrist. But Laszlo remained undeterred, stood by his opinion and made it his lifetime goal to confirm his theory.
To start, he needed a wife. In 1965, he started approaching women, explaining his intent. A Ukranian lady named Klara found his concept intriguing and agreed to be a part of the experiment. Soon after, in 1969, Klara Polgar gave birth to a child whom the couple named Susan Polgar.
The first daughter, Susan Polgar
The experiment began in 1970 where Laszlo Polgar decided to homeschool Susan and teach her chess. The reason for choosing Chess was because it had a clear objective and ranking. In other fields like writing or acting, people can debate if a person is truly world-class or not. However, the chess ranking system determines if a person is the best player in the world or not.
Laszlo himself was a mediocre chess player at best, but he left no stone unturned to help his daughter develop expertise in the game. Susan was hooked by the game and practiced intensively every day. By the age of 5 years, she had amassed tons of practice already. Her father decided to have Susan participate in a local chess competition where most of the participants were more than twice her age.
At age 5, Susan decimated all her opponents by winning the tournament with a 10-0 score. In another tournament, where the participants were adults, people joked about Susan participating by saying she could barely reach the table. Susan beat several adult participants in the event making the naysayers take their words back.
As the years went by, Susan turned into an expert chess player. By 1984, she had become the top-ranked female chess player in the world at a tender age of 15. She was the first woman to qualify for the Men’s World Championship in 1986. She went on to achieve the coveted title of a grandmaster in 1991. She became the first woman in history to win the Chess triple crown.
The second daughter, Sofia Polgar
Now, you might assume that Susan was born as a genius due to some stroke of luck. But it was not only the first daughter of Laszlo and Klara Polgar who dominated chess. Their second daughter, Sofia and the third, Judit Polgar achieved extraordinary success too. All 3 Polgar sisters achieved world-class results in Chess.
Sofia Polgar, went on to become the sixth top female chess player in the world. She won several tournaments and medals like her elder sister, Susan. Among her other achievements, Sofia is well known for the “Sack of Rome”.
During a tournament in Rome held in 1989, she won the event with a score of 8.5 out of 10 which had several other grandmasters. Sofia was only 14 at that time. The experts rate Sofia’s performance in the tournament as the fifth-best ever in the history of chess. Her chess skills would have put any normal chess player to shame, but unfortunately, the other two sisters overshadowed her achievements.
The third daughter, Judit Polgar, the best female chess player in history
Finally came Judit Polgar, born in 1976, who achieved the highest results among the three Polgar sisters. Born after two sisters already proficient in chess, Judit naturally found herself in the atmosphere of the game. Judit is considered the strongest female chess player of all time.
Judit was the fastest to achieve the title of a grandmaster, men and women included, at the age of 15 years and 4 months, a record earlier held by the well known Bobby Fischer. She was the youngest player to break into the top 100 players at the age of only 12.
When Judit showed exceptional chess prowess at a young age, Garry Kasparov had commented saying, “She has fantastic chess talent, but she is, after all, a woman. It all comes down to the imperfections of the feminine psyche. No woman can sustain a prolonged battle.”
However, in 2002, Judit beat Kasparov, after which he walked out of the table with angst apparent on his face. The incident made him change his opinion about the effect of gender on chess. Until then, many male players believed that gender-based limitations exist in chess and some continue to believe that today.
Judit has also defeated various other world champions such as Vladimir Kramnik, Vishwanathan Anand, Anatoly Karpov and many more.
Judit Polgar’s trophies and victories in chess are too many to list. Some of her records remain intact till date today. She is the only woman to win against a reigning world number 1. No other woman except Judit has qualified for a World Championship event. She is the only woman to have crossed a score of 2700 Elo points.
Laszlo Polgar managed to prove his theory right after many decades of effort, both his own and that of his daughters’. His effort is called as one of the most amazing experiments in the history of human education. He believes that when a child is born healthy, it is a potential genius. Whether that happens or not depends on the upbringing and the effort put in.
Interesting facts about the story of the Polgar Sisters
- Neither Laszlo nor Klara Polgar had significant chess skills to pass on to the Polgar sisters. Therefore, in no case could they have passed on some grandmaster chess genes to their daughters. Judit even beat her father in chess at the age of 5.
- Judit is considered to have the least talent among the three Polgar sisters but the one who put in the most effort. Susan has called Judit a slow started but extremely hard working.
- Sofia is known to have put in the least effort among the three which she herself admits
- The sisters admit that their world ranking is in line with the effort each of them put in. Judit ranked the world number one, Susan stood second and Sofia reached sixth place.
- The Polgar sisters documentary called The Polgar Variant was released in 2014. Here is the IMDB link to the movie.
- Cathy Forbes wrote a book on the Polgar sisters’ story called Training or Genius
The takeaway from the story
1. Practice beats talent in the long run
Laszlo Polgar proved his theory he made over 50 years ago that great performers are made, not born. If only one of his daughters became successful, you could argue that she was born a prodigy.
But when all three Polgar sisters reached a world-class status, all factors such as luck and coincidence are out of the window. The chances that all of the Polgar sisters were born with a high IQ also seems unlikely. The IQ of the Polgar sisters is estimated to be in the range of 120-140 which does not fall under the bracket of a genius. In comparison, Bobby Fischer had an IQ of over 180.
If you spend enough time and effort to achieve mastery, you can reach the peak. All three daughters had amassed over 10,000 hours of practice by the age of 12. You may not have similar practice by the time you hit your teens, but that does not mean you should not practice at whatever age you are.
Deliberate practice at an early age can shorten the time taken to develop mastery, but starting at your current age is better than not trying at all. Better late than never.
My father believes that innate talent is nothing, and success is 99 percent hard work. I agree with him.Susan Polgar
2. The world sees the results, not the effort
The media and the internet have a habit of labeling success with talent alone. No one looks at the effort which went behind the results. Those who hear the success Judit achieved, consider her a born chess whiz. The challenge her father took up remains unknown to the world.
Similarly, the painstaking effort put in by other successful people often gets swept under the rug. Warren Buffet made his first investment at the age of 11. Bill Gates wrote his first software program at the age of 13 when computers were in their most nascent stage. Elon Musk taught himself programming at the age of 10 and sold a video game before he turned 13.
However, articles written on these men attribute their success to their IQ or innate talent. In reality, the results these people achieved are only the tip of the iceberg. The years of effort put in remains invisible to sight.
3. People believe expertise is beyond their reach
If you ask a hundred people if they can reach the world-class status in any topic, 99 or even all 100 would say, “Such success is beyond my abilities.” Most people believe that excellence lies over and above their limits.
You might assume such mastery is open only to others and not to yourself. The truth is, you can be the best in the world if you put in enough effort, time and the right practice.
4. Mastery requires effort and interest
If you try to become a Laszlo Polgar and attempt to make your kid a grandmaster in chess, you will succeed only if your child shows interest. Laszlo managed to make all three of his daughters hooked to chess. Without such conviction, the daughters would not have put in enough energy into gaining expertise. They wasted no time on unnecessary activities.
Laszlo says, “I just set things into motion and they did the rest on their own.”
You can achieve mastery over any subject by putting in years of practice. But, the subject has to pique your interest and make you spring out of bed each morning. If not, you will not put in the required number of hours into practice and learning. Effort and passion together make mastery possible.
5. It takes sacrifice to achieve high levels of success
Laszlo Polgar did not send his children to school. He taught them at home by training them primarily on chess and other important subjects such as language and math. He skipped many of the subjects that schools teach students. This is because Laszlo believed that to achieve mastery, kids must start specializing in one area early in life without having their attention fragmented into different subjects.
As a father, Laszlo Polgar battled authorities so that he could home school his children, because such a practice seemed like a crime during those periods. The daughters had to give up formal education to develop their skills in chess.
You might have the desire to become the best in the world in a specific area. To get there, you will need to sacrifice other comforts, benefits or privileges. The sacrifice could come in the name of time, luxury, relationships or any other area which is dear to you. That is where most people go astray from achieving mastery by preferring to enjoy their current comfort zone.
The story of the Polgar sisters is a topic of discussion on various aspects. Some people believe that Laszlo deprived his daughters of their childhood by staying indoors around chessboards. The sisters themselves do not feel the same because they did what they loved and traveled around the world participating in various chess events.
Laszlo had a mission and his daughters worked with him to make it successful out of their interest and not their father’s compulsion. Laszlo expresses regret that his daughters did not follow his example and raised their children as geniuses. In any case, the sisters have tremendous love for each other and the utmost respect for their parents.
So a man spent 30-40 years of his entire life proving a theory which he believed to be true. Several people are born with talent but that alone does not lead to success. Judit proved the opposite true where she achieved the highest success while being the least talented among the three sisters.
In the end, the story of the Polgar family puts an end to the debate, “Geniuses are made, not born.”
What I am not:
What I am:
Continuously improving self-learner
Productivity/Time Management Obsessed