Laszlo Polgar: the father who created chess prodigies

Laszlo Polgar was studying intelligence in his college. Out of curiosity he read over 400 biographies of geniuses. Everyone from Einstein to Mozart to Socrates. And he came to a staggering conclusion: Genius is not born, he is made. All of the geniuses started at a very young age and studied intensively in one particular subject. 

When Polgar met Klara for the first time, he told her that he intended to have 6 kids and raise them all to be brilliant. In his letters to her, instead of talking about romance, he spoke about his philosophy on creating geniuses. After a year and a half of writing letters, he proposed to her and they married.

They went on to have 3 kids instead of 6. And Polgar raised all his 3 daughters to be chess prodigies!

Susan, Sofia, and Judit all 3 went on to perform some amazing feats in the world of chess. And 2 of the 3 sisters even became grandmasters. 

But do you know the funny thing? The sister who showed the most promise out of all 3 sisters when they were young didn’t end up becoming a grandmaster. Sofia Polgar peaked at international master – a level below grandmaster.

When Sofia was just 14 years old, she took part in a competition that included several grandmasters. And astonishing everyone, she beat all of them. Her performance was rated as high as 2900 points (when usually leading grandmasters have 2700-2800 points.). Many experts rate Sofia’s performance in the competition as one of the top 5 performances Chess has ever seen.

So then what happened? Why did Sofia fail to become a grandmaster herself? Why did she plateau out? What did her father Laszlo miss in creating geniuses?

The missing ingredient required for genius

To be fair, at her peak – Sofia Polgar still became the 6th best women’s chess player for a while. But she didn’t become a Chess genius like her father intended. And that’s because she lacked the “rage to master”.

What’s rage to master? Dr Ellen Winner calls it the innate obsessive desire to improve. And Sofia Polgar lacked the rage to master when it came to chess. She did show early signs of being a prodigy. But ultimately, she just didn’t push far enough to mastery.

Without having the inner rage to master, you can’t become the best. No amount of talent will make you excel. 

Rage to master is not merely being curious. It’s deeper than that. It’s about wanting new knowledge, yes. But it’s also about liking new knowledge. Learning needs to be pleasurable. It needs to be its own reward. 

When is learning not its own reward?

It’s difficult to say how one can improve their rage to master. But it’s easy to see how the rage to master can be suppressed.

  1. The biggest enemy of the rage to master is chronic stress. Stress makes learning unenjoyable. Stress often stems from envy and getting all of your drive externally – from your competitors alone.
  1. When monkeys are constantly rewarded for doing tasks, they stop putting in as much effort. Rewarding people and praising them kills the rage to master. As counter intuitive as it sounds, praising people kills their internal drive. That’s why Dr. Carol Dweck recommends that one should never praise a child for how smart he is. If you want to praise, praise how hard working he is.
  2. Sofia Polgar eventually gave up chess and became an artist. She didn’t push to improve. Not because she found chess hard. But because she found chess easy. It bored her. The difficulty of learning has to be managed. You can’t have it too hard or too easy.

Interestingly, Jenny Wang of Rutgers University conducted research on 5 year old kids. She would read storybooks about weird topics like “contagion.” The goal was to measure how interested the kids were to learn more about the topic after the story was over. Wang found that the kids who knew too little about the topic and didn’t understand it at all, showed no further interest in it. But so did kids who knew a lot about the topic. If they knew a lot, they were bored to learn more about it. The sweet spot was the kids in the middle. A topic has to be just challenging enough to be interesting.

This is precisely the reason why so many child prodigies end up plateauing out as they grow older. The challenge dies. And the learning stops being rewarding.

Do you have to start young to become a genius?

Laszlo Polgar did many things right and he still has a great track record in making his daughters genius at chess. But he did get this other thing wrong too. You don’t have to start young to become a genius.

Case in point is Laszlo himself. He excelled at his job of creating chess prodigies even when he didn’t start from a young age. But he had the rage to master.

Not being a good chess player himself, Laszlo spent a considerable time in learning how best to teach chess. When his oldest daughter Susan was 4 years old, he started her off with playing only with pawns. He then added rooks and knights. And only after a few more weeks were the queens added.

He then meticulously taught her the simple mating moves. Laszlo collected over 1000 one-move mate diagrams. Then he added two three and four move mate diagrams. And slowly took Susan to mastery. Before she turned 5, Susan was beating adults at the game.

Funnily, Laszlo’s most famous book is not any book he wrote on raising geniuses. But its a chess book. A 1000 page book where he collected 5334 unique problems and games. Slowly, he led Susan on a meticulous journey of facing just the right amount of challenge. He built up her love for the game and made it a joy for her. And awakened her rage to master.

Action Summary:

  • Do you have the rage to master a specific topic? Go deep and learn about something better than anyone else in the world?
  • Manage your stress and fix your reward system to make sure the process of learning is inherently enjoyable for you.