How blurring the distinction between effort and talent leads to performance gains
I’ve recently enjoyed reading Dirk Jan Ten Geuzendam’s interview with the legendary Indian chess coach, Ramachandran (RB) Ramesh (New in Chess, 2022 #3), in which Ramesh expands on his thoughts about chess development generally, and on the recent explosion of chess talent in India more specifically. What shines through this interview is a sense of profound wisdom and a real humility, coupled with some quite strong views – which he himself acknowledges “… could be controversial”. Ramesh makes no overt reference to published academic studies as his thoughts and views are based almost entirely on the empirical evidence of his years of grounded experience, but I’d like in this blog post to pick out a few assertions that I think are worth highlighting, which do indeed come with the imprimatur of scientific legitimacy, and which might in some cases have implications for our Chessable practice. I will concentrate in particular on a recurring theme, which seems to be becoming something of a trope: that the 20th-century Western distinction between talent (nature) and effort (nurture) is an over-simplistic and unhelpful explanation for high performance outcomes in chess, as in other domains, in the 21st century.
Size matters, but so does structure
First, of course, we must recognize that India’s extraordinarily large base of chess players plays a part in its emergence as a chess superpower – as it did in the former Soviet Union and, more recently, China. But in itself, size is insufficient – India has always had a vast population, but its chess strength is much more recent. And size may not even be a necessary condition (lightly populated Norway as the country of origin for chess’s GOAT, anyone, or Iceland’s astonishingly high proportion of titled players relative to its size?). Helpful as size is, that condition requires another to be met too – the structures that expedite progression. Ramesh notes that India’s pyramid-base is founded on the many age-category tournaments (from U8 to U20), available at all levels – from district to state to the national stage – “Getting a lot of playing opportunities is one important reason why we have managed to create a broader base than most countries”. Another is the emergence of chess academies catering for children from the youngest ages – 50 academies in Ramesh’s home city of Chennai alone! And role models can’t but be helpful either, with former World Champion Vishy Anand being an exemplar of chess excellence and human virtue for the ages.
More than any specific training regimen though, Ramesh attributes Indian players’ rapid progress to their work ethic, and he contrasts this with those of his students from many other countries: “One notable difference is that the Indian players understand from when they are very young that a lot of effort is required. There’s no easy way to success. You have to put in the hours.” But the right sort of hours. Later in the interview he observes that hard work should be measured qualitatively: “… it’s not the quantity. In my view hard work is the willingness to learn things that do not come easily to you. And the intensity of the effort.”
At the time that the young American (of Indian heritage) Abhimanyu Mishra become the world’s youngest-ever GM, I remember being humbled by his (literally) prodigious Chessable workrate: since he joined the Chessable community in late October 2019 he accumulated over 53 million XP points en route to his GM title at the end of June 2021. Over a comparable period I’ve accumulated about 7 million, and I thought I was being diligent! How are you doing? Chessable is supporting an in depth research study into Abhi’s chess development, and those findings will be published in due course. I have no doubt that work ethic will form a prominent part of Abhi’s profile, and those XP-points won’t have been acquired for their own sake, but as part of a strategic improvement plan.
So what’s the source of this characteristic tendency to work hard? Some chromosomal outlier in the national genome? Hardly. Ramesh feels that in the West, the standard of living is very high relative to the experience of most Indians. The concept of struggle is relatively foreign. But for Indians, they have to fight for everything and “… this is reflected in chess as well”. Of course we’re speaking in generalisations here, and there will be many exceptions to disprove a strict ‘rule’, but in this sense, it’s also interesting how many non-Indian chess legends went on to convert their impoverished (and often fatherless) childhoods into their pugilistic chess characters – Korchnoi, Bronstein, Fischer and (in his early pre-GM-draw years at least), Spassky spring immediately to mind.
Ramesh goes on to describe how when working with young players in the West, their parents often ask him to be discreet about the intensity of the training sessions, as it might to others seem akin to child labour, depriving the child of a balanced and happy childhood. The western shame of working hard, if you will, as opposed to the eastern shame of not working hard! He contrasts a Western preference for a variety of activities to produce a “rounded personality” with an Indian immersion in a single activity in pursuit of excellence in that domain. He argues that this latter route doesn’t in the end disadvantage a child – citing Praggnanandhaa as a high-profile example of someone who’s chosen willingly to devote the greatest part of his childhood to the game, and who now reaps the rewards in the form of a stimulating and life-expanding access to different cultures, cuisines, languages etc in his life as a young chess professional. This is a route now taken by an ever-growing number of other young Indian masters. Professionally, I’ve always been struck by the paucity of documentable evidence behind western media horror stories of children ‘force fed’ a restricted activity diet becoming strange and lonely adults: just as women aren’t assaulted by poor street lighting or by ‘inappropriate attire’, children aren’t damaged by the activities they love and choose to immerse themselves in. (That’s assuming they’re driven by intrinsic motivation of course, not by parents’ transferred ambitions!) Our ambivalence about or overt hostility towards ‘hothoused’ children (and their parents) perhaps reflects a projection based on an unacknowledged awareness that we could maybe have done more to support our own.
Of course this isn’t a course which is deterministically restricted to players of Indian or Asian “Tiger mother” origin: Magnus’ comment in an interview prior to his match with Karjakin springs to mind: “It was no accident that it was me rather than my peers in Norway that made it. They may have had chess training once a week … like a normal hobby. But it was something I wanted to do every day, so it was natural that I surpassed them”.
Learning trumps performance
Ramesh attributes his alignment with the principle that you shouldn’t be driven by your wish for results, but by the wish to learn, to the Indian scriptures. As a young player he rejected the injunction of the Bhagavad Gita to do your duty without worrying about the consequences. He saw this as nonsensical and counter-productive: without ambition, what’s the point of pursuing something? But with growing maturity he began to realize that his chess shortcomings arose from a pressure to perform. Failure brought doubt, which in turn brought a desperate desire to lurch forward – like a gambler chasing lost winnings. He now recognizes that peak performance requires you to be “slightly aloof” – to avoid tying yourself to the outcome of a game. He sees this a lot in children: “They want to emulate what Pragg or Gukesh or Nihal have achieved, and they are chasing good results. This puts tremendous pressure on them, and they are unable to handle a loss or a slight drop in rating points …. Their focus is not on learning”.
This is something GM Peter Wells and I address in some detail in our book on chess improvement, but it’s gratifying to see it expressed so lucidly by a legendary coach, alongside his conviction that the trick is to convince children to want “… to learn difficult things in chess”. In fact learning happens best at the intersection between past learning and novel, probably challenging material. This is why Ramesh refuses to coach “like a hotel” – where the student tells what they want to learn and the coach delivers it! He relates this conviction to his emphasis on visualisation training – a skill which is difficult (even aversive) at the beginning, but which grows incrementally with persistence, and which reaps huge dividends over time.
Learning ability trumps talent
One of my all-time favourite chess quotations is now embedded in the Chessable Science White Paper, and it comes from a Chess24.com interview with former world champion (and Chessable author), Vladimir Kramnik: “I think the definition of talent, and of talent in chess, is the ability to learn.” In this assertion Kramnik finds himself in lockstep with contemporary understandings of talent development – that talent is the fruit of a dynamic interaction between within-child factors, probably at least partially of genetic origin, and a sustained engagement in the process of learning. That ‘ability to learn’ can be an acquired skill – or more likely conglomeration of skills and dispositions – it doesn’t spring fully-formed into the world. But it’s crucial. Without an ability to learn, all the genetic providence in the world will fail to result in developed ‘talent’.
Ramesh is in total alignment with this view: “I believe this learning ability is also [alongside a capacity for hard work] a part of talent”. He goes on to assert that learnability is learnable – that a coach can make someone better who is not very good at learning – through motivation, inspiration, patience, and removing the fear of failure or judgment. He again cites Pragg as someone who combines these qualities – “… very good learning ability, a passion for the game and the capacity for hard work”. And from a young age Pragg wasn’t afraid of losing games: “If he loses a game, he can quickly come out of it, in like five minutes”.
Take-homes for our Chessable practice
My reflections on this inspirational interview with RB Ramesh tend of necessity to be of the abstract, big-picture form. But is it possible to operationalise the insights of an experienced and hugely successful chess coach in our own daily engagements with our Chessable schedule? I believe it is, and here are a few practical Ramesh-inspired lessons to guide us:
- Structure your daily routine so that it maximises your opportunities for practice: two or three shorter sessions with maximum focus and concentration can be more useful than a longer session with the likelihood of fatigue or distraction.
- Aim to clear your reviews every day. Yes of course life gets in the way, but still: prioritise it.
- Choose to do the difficult things: identify your weaknesses and work on courses that will remedy these.
- It’s not (just) about the numbers of XP-points you earn. It’s quality, not quantity. Don’t fetishize these points as having intrinsic value – they’re just a marker of time and effort invested. When you work hard and well, the XP-points will come anyway, as a secondary gift.
- Try not to be frustrated by repeated fails in the same line. Reframe these as opportunities to master a tough skill, and welcome the many opportunities the SRS MoveTrainer technology gives you to do this. If you’re a PRO user, the Difficult Moves feature can be a real boon here.
- Notice when you’re growing your learning-to-learn skills – when you sense that you’re showing more persistence, resilience and stamina during your Chessable sessions. A very visual clue is the shading in your daily Activity schedule – are you more regularly – even routinely – putting in deep-blue sessions?
All good wishes as you sweat it out en route to creating your own talent. You’re worth it!
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