My Brilliant Brain - Monday July 16

my brilliant brain
make me a genius (2/3)

Exploring the incredible inner workings of the human brain, this compelling three-part documentary series looks at a group of remarkable people and poses questions about the origins of genius: are these extraordinary abilities genetic, developed or acquired by accident? This episode focuses on Susan Polgar, the first female chess grandmaster, whose incredible story suggests that genius does not always have to be innate, but can be taught.

At 38 years old, Susan Polgar has reached heights that few women have ever equalled in the chess world. Despite the common assumption that men’s brains are better at understanding spatial relationships, giving them an advantage in games such as chess, Susan went on to become the world’s first grandmaster. Susan’s remarkable abilities have earned her the label of ‘genius’, but her psychologist father, László Polgar, believed that genius was “not born, but made”. Noting that even Mozart received tutelage from his father at a very early age, Polgar set about teaching chess to the five-year-old Susan after she happened upon a chess set in their home. “My father believed that the potential of children was not used optimally,” says Susan.

Throughout the rest of her childhood, Susan practised for hours, memorising thousands of moves and scenarios, and devouring books and stratagems. She took on the men in her local chess club at the age of five and began beating them. By the age of 15, she was the best female player in the world. A year later in 1985, she sensationally vanquished a male grandmaster for the first time. But Susan is not the only family member to achieve such incredible success – her younger sisters Judit and Zsófia are grandmaster and international master respectively, thanks to similar schooling from their father.

So how has Susan trained her brain to such a formidable degree? Chess is so complex a game that there are four billion choices for the first three moves alone. Susan has committed to memory tens of thousands of possible patterns and scenarios. Every time Susan sees a grouping of chess pieces on a board, she can browse through her back catalogue of memorised groupings, using instinct to tell her the right move. “We seem to heap a lot of praise on people’s calculating ability,” says former British champion William Hartston, “but we take for granted all sorts of mental abilities that are absolutely intuitive.”

Susan displays her skills as she takes on a friend at ‘Blitz’ – a form of chess in which players must complete their moves in just one minute. Susan uses her razor-sharp instinct to not only move her own pieces, but guess her opponent’s moves in milliseconds. “I have to trust my instincts, my recognition,” she explains. “It’s almost like guessing, but basing it on prior games and experience.”

In order to isolate the areas of her brain she uses when playing chess, Susan is given an MRI scan. There is an area at the front of the brain which deals with face recognition, allowing most people to remember a face in 100 milliseconds. Astonishingly, this is the very place where the experts find that Susan has moulded her recognition of 100,000 chess scenarios. Over years of childhood practice, Susan has hardwired these countless scenarios into her long-term memory and can recognise one in an instant – as quickly as someone might recognise the face of a friend or relative.

It is this lightning-quick instinct, coupled with a phenomenal memory and years of relentless practice, that have earned Susan the status of ‘genius’. Her story presents strong evidence to suggest that her father was right – genius may indeed be nurture over nature. “I really believe that if you put your mind to it,” reflects Susan, “you can achieve it, whatever it is”.

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  • shane

    This story gets so many facts wrong that I don’t trust a single word of it e.g. first GM, mistaking bullet for blitz, that susan is a genius (I dont think I have ever heard anyone refer to her as such, and if she is surely she’s not even the smartest person in her family); that after six ply there are four billion variations (cf. e.g. the conservative estimate here

  • Susan Polgar is not a genius, so her story suggests the exact opposite conclusion: that no matter how hard you work, to be a genius takes genius.

  • Village Chess Champ

    The idea of the programme is essentially a good one. Explore the inner workings of the human brain and see if it sheds light on the nature of genius. However this is where things start to go wrong.

    The basic premise repeated again and again thoroughout the series of programme seems to be that “genius” is either nature or nuture and uses a series of case studies to investigate which one it is. The problem with this is the genius in each of these fields are a complex combination of aptitude, knowledge, technique, practice, patience, discipline and many other qualities. Susan Polgar the subject for this episode is a Chess Grandmaster. A very strong chessplayer but not the best ever by any means or even the strongest woman ever to play chess, that title goes to her kid sister, Judit. Nobody is born with the knowledge to play chess no matter how good they were at a young age. Chess or indeed any skill must be taught and therefore involves an element of nuturing. The interesting thing is how easy it can be to nuture the talent of some over others…this i believe is the essence of genius. Genius can indeed be looked at as what should be the normal level of our performance but all of us being underachievers due to poor teaching, laziness, lack of encourage or support at an early age. It always makes me laugh when they unveil the new youngest grandmaster. If we taught our children and encouraged them like these few then such “genius” would be commonplace. We systematically give our children very low expectations and marvel at those that seek to use the brain to its full potential. Genius is indeed ordinary.

  • Tobias Nordquist

    Susan Polgar is NOT the first female GM.

    Her is a correct list;

    Player – Country – Born on – the year they become GM
    Gaprindashvili, Nona USSR – Georgia 3rd May 1941 1978
    Chiburdanidze, Maia USSR – Georgia 17th January 1961 1984
    Polgar, Susan Hungary 19th April 1969 1991
    Polgar, Judit Hungary 23rd July 1976 1991
    Cramling, Pia Sweden 23rd April 1963 1992
    Xie Jun China 30th October 1970 1994
    Zhu Chen China 16th March 1976 2001
    Antoaneta Stefanova Bulgaria 19th April 1979 2001

    First time I was hearing this “Susan was the first female GM” was in her TECH-speech a couple of weeks ago. Now I am getting sick of this lie hearing it day in and day out wondering why?

  • shane

    There is one further observation to be made. I don’t know what a genius is. But the producers have chosen their definition, so it’s worth examining whether the definition is useful or useless.

    The mode of demonstrating genius is MRI scan. But the comparison made is with the average reading on such a scan. It is difficult to think of a less demanding and frankly less bogus way of measuring genius.

    On that basis, all specialists would be geniuses. That isnt a useful definition.

    Every one of the best 1000 players in the world (at ANY activity) are going to have MRI scan results like that, compared to the general population. Genius requires, minimally that you are “off the scale” for that 1000 people, not for the population as a whole.

  • hpaul

    From your story on chess player Susan Polgar:
    “Susan went on to become the world’s first grandmaster.”

    You left out a word: “the world’s first female grandmaster.”
    There were hundreds of male grandmasters before Polgar.

  • ETJ

    …and don’t forget about India’s GM Koneru Humpy! According to the latest Chessbase article (, GM Koneru Humpy was the youngest woment to ever receive the men’s GM title: it occured in 2002 when she was only 15 years old!

  • Greg

    I agree that the MRI test is a good tool for recognizing brain activity but it will be challenging for the brain experts to interpret
    when she is having her most insightful thoughts. I would suggest that if she is recorded during bouts of play with ordinary coffee house players her brain waves will be as ordinary and pedestrian as someone thinking of their lottery numbers while working on an assembly line.
    The test should be done while she is playing her peers where her limits of thought would truly be stretched. Then upon completion of the game she would consult with the brain wave analyst indicating whether she had any seminal thoughts and at what move and then correlating the results.

  • Morolt

    Susan Polgar is the first woman whose rating makes her a grandmaster among men. In fact shes one of the top 7 or 8 players in the world, male or female. There are many women grandmasters whose ratings would make them no more than masters or international masters (but not grandmasters) among men.

  • Thor

    Lightning, or bullet chess, is a sub genre of blitz chess. It’s not a mistake to describe 1-minute chess as blitz. Especially not in a presentation aimed at the broader public.

    While it’s true that Chiburdanidze and Gaprindashvili were the first female Grandmasters, they did not earn the title on the same terms as men. They were awarded the titles for becoming Women’s World Champion – glorified WGM titles so to speak.

    Having said that, Judit Polgar would have been a more interesting case-study. Or maybe Kramnik, Anand, or Topalov – although I doubt any of them would be inclined to participate.

  • Anonymous

    Why not Judit Polgar? All Grandmasters are, of course, very strong, but come on, GM Susan Polgar has never even managed to crack 2600 rating. Judit has been to 2737 and is still over 2700. Ratings aren’t everything, but Judit is literally in a different league (the SuperGrandmaster area). Note I have nothing but respect for GM Susan Polgar – and indeed all GMs – but I don’t know that she’d qualify as a genius. There are quite literally over a hundred players in the world who are demonstrably stronger than she is, including at least one woman (and possibly two… just how strong is India’s Koneru Humpy, after all?).

    Not to mention, this article has misleading and false information in it, which seems to be the norm for non-chess writers: they have no idea what they’re talking about and can’t get it right to save their lives. Sorry about the harsh comment, but I’m quite sick of it.

  • Anonymous

    “In fact shes one of the top 7 or 8 players in the world, male or female.”

    This is an astonishing falsehood. I say astonishing because it is open, common knowledge and easily proven wrong. GM Susan Polgar apparently has never even broken into the world top ONE HUNDRED, much less top 7 or 8. I must presume that you are mistaking her for her younger sister Judit, who has been top 8 a couple of times. Susan Polgar has never even managed to reach the rating list 2600 mark; the world’s top 20+ are all 2700+, literally in a different category than Susan. Advice: Check your facts!!

  • Perhaps a better candidate for the show would have been Judit Polgar instead.

  • Joseph TOH

    ‘Nobody is born with the knowledge to …”do anything”… no matter how good they were at a young age. Chess or indeed any skill must be taught and therefore involves an element of nurturing.’

    Everyone is born a GENIUS! It’s a matter of whether one uses a car to go to the supermarket or choose to walk! Many just walk! They have not realise their potential.

    No matter, everyone is still a GENIUS! Looking at where each and everyone now stand from the day they were born, one should be amazed at one’s ingenuity of what one is now!

    Excellence at chess proves nothing! Definitely not a genius!!! Just a mere specialisation sculptured to the highest degree. Many who excel in it are good for nothing except play the game. Of course there are many also who prove otherwise. They do not just spend their time chasing after glory in chess. These are the true GENIUSES! True GENIUSES are those who can bring forth their potential to other areas of their life!

    That being said, there is nothing wrong with the game of chess. It is an excellent TOOL that can be use for nurturing one’s potential because of it’s mind expansive qualities when one is in pursuit of excelling at it.

  • Bernard Baptiste

    I am so surprised at the pettyminded and often confused comments made by many. The whole purpose of the programme was to look at the development of human abilities and to explore the myths caused by our commonplace attitudes to people of what on the surface appears to be extraordinary ability. Susan Polgar was chosen because she is simply a normal woman, who was an unexceptional child, until her father decided to give her the assistance she needed to develop one of her abilities. The whole point of the programme was to show that the development of all human abilities is available to all of us without recourse to any naturally special neurological equipment. Judit, was also a product of this process which does not in any way make her a more worthy candidate at all. Judit has been top 10 in the world, because of the habits ingrained from early childhood and her capacity and love of her art. To know what is right you must know what is wrong. The only way you can distinguish between the ordinary and the brilliant is to compare the two in action. It would matter not one jot whether this expert person was Vishy Anand or Susan Polgar, the result would be the same. Someone’s talent has been developed and someone else’s talent has not been, and that is all. The question which needed to be asked, and this programme went a long way to answering it,was: is it hard work and a supportive environment whichihelps develop ability? Or is it something which would appear anyway, no matter what the environment? The answer is definitely hard work and support as the work needed to be done cannot be done if it isn’t done. As long as the signposts are clear, the destination will be arrived at, everything else has to be delusional. It is usually only sport where genetic difference at the start makes a massive difference at the end, but the scope of the human brain is vast and we can understand most of it, in principle. The details will come later; it doesn’t matter how much later, it will come later. Without the appropriate genetic landscape I am never going to run 100 metres in less than 10 seconds. I will run as fast as I can run and that is all. This is not the case with human intellect. The dogma of ignorance we like to peddle as intelligent criticism is criticism but certainly not intelligent. Jesuit Priest, Ignatius Loyala once said: “Give me the child of seven and I will show you the man”. Show someone the right way to do something and they will do that exceptionally, tell the lies and delude them and we all suffer.

  • Anonymous

    It seems like most of the comments being made are not based on anything but opinions and hot air! I mean genetics, and any of the other areas of science referred to in the comments as they relate to human ability in chess, or other pursuits, are based on research supported by a rigorous adherence to the scientific method! Chess prowess is a nice area for study and contemplation, because we have our rating systems and competitive results to give some sort of metric! As an example of how powerful it is to have such a nice way to look at performance and ability, consider what would happen if GM Susan Polgar had to face GM Anand and or World Champion Kramnik in a rapid chess format? Certainly, it would be interesting to witness such a competition for various reasons, but is there anybody out there who would be willing wager against Anand or Kramnik? Nope, I didn’t think so, because we all know from their ratings and competitive performances that GM Polgar would not fare too well. To me, this makes me want to look more closely into what makes the players at the extremes of chess performance/ability (that is, GM’s) differ when compared to their own kind? By the way, have any of you ever considered why certain GM’s stop competing except in rare instances? I think it’s because they respect the performance/ability of the current crop of top GM’s enough to know what would happen! Many of the GM’s are trying to survive, and they need their ratings and reputations to stay in tack, so that they can continue to sell books, teach students, or do other chess related activities that leverage their former glory!

  • Khalsa Knight.

    Susan Polgar is no genius. She is a Grandmaster of which there are hundreds. She has never been anywhere near International Grandmaster rating. She is not the first woman Grandmaster.
    The subject matter for this documentary would have better been her sister Judit Polgar who has Super Grandmaster rating and regularly competes with the top players in the world, or even Humpy Koneru, the youngest female grandmaster now rated 2600 elo.
    I personally would have chosen Magnus Carlsen, who at age 16 is a Super Grandmaster and recently came second in a tournament for Super Grandmasters. He is a real genius and a force to be seen in the future.

  • All of you upstairs know nothing about being a genius, cause you’re all just average patzers who can’t recognize a genius, such as Ms Polgar is, was and always will be. She is more a genius than Judit will ever be.

  • Xargon

    What is a genius?

    The genius of Aladdin lamp?
    Anybody who has specific talent above the average?
    Anybody who has worked hard on a special technique?
    Genius = brilliant mind ?
    Genius-born or genius-made?
    A semigod or an idol?
    A scapegoat (“chivo expiatorio”) of society?
    A simple excuse to justify what I don’t dare to do?
    All of that?
    A bit of all that?
    Nothing of all that?

    It is very difficult to say but it is all is very debatable.

    I believe that Susan Polgar has done very much to make chess more popular.
    She also has a successful sports career and she is a very good example of human possibilities when the human being works hard on a certain art.
    It is also true that Judith (like other chess-players) has major achievements in competitive chess than Susan. However, Susan is above the general average.

    But anyway, where is the border line between genius or no-genius?
    Does is matter?

  • Steve Mc

    The series is 3-fold

    1. To discuss the concept of what is a “genius”
    2. To look at real life cases where “genius” “could” be applied
    3. Provide in TV bite sizes and laymans terms some of the concepts of psychology and neurology.

    These 3 things seem to be lost on some of the comment posters, who instead could possibly be subject to a program on “the internet and how to express your inner anxieties and demons” 😉

  • Richard Paul-Jones

    STOP IT! It’s not about chess or rankings or the first this, the first that, grand-super-genius masters of the universe. It’s about how the damn brain works. Get a grip. Love someone, anyone.

  • Merlin

    Personally, I find it hard to use the label “genius” solely on the basis of a single skill that someone has developed, often after long years of study and conditioning.
    It’s just that some people have a knack for a certain field, or, in this case, the understanding of the game with a great deal of theory and a set of basic principles.
    People can train their brain endlessly in this respect if they enjoy this and if they are encouraged from an early age.
    In my opinion this is not where the concept “genius” is applicable; it is much more a matter of becoming an expert in the field after long experience and study.
    The concept of genius is applicable however, when new methods and thoughts are introduced that are overwhelming in their power, intricacy, or in their long range effects.
    In chess would this be most visible in the mid- and endgame, where most often no theory and “face” recognition can be applied any more from memory.
    But yes, also on occasion when a new startling move is invented for a chess opening – nothing is purely black and white in this respect as far as I am concerned.
    On the other hand I think that by becoming an expert, with all the years of training, people have more chance to invent such a new opening move, or have more chance to become a true genius in their field of work.
    Besides that field, I think it will become very hard to maintain that status of true genius if someone derived his or her ingenuity (“geniusness”) solely from study and experience (memory training).

  • Sean, London

    In my opinion you could define a genius by giving some one a task/problem to solve which they have had no experience of in the past. A genius will find the solution much much faster than the average. ie a genius will reside above 99.99% out of thousands of candidates who have also had zero prior experience on the same task/ problem.

    You have to compare like with like. How many times have you seen a genius look like a dumb ass when given a task outside of his/her arena of speciality ?

    That is the mark of a true genius.

  • Merlin

    Dear Sean,

    Though I agree with you in certain aspects of your post, I think it’s not easy to define a “genius”.
    Though the documentary speaks of excellent memory skills on the one hand, on the other hand sublime creativity seems to be put forward as the true norm for ingenuity.
    Fast thinking concerning a certain problem is one thing, but deep and slow thinking can produce even better results in some cases.

    Of course someone cannot have lost his/her marbles and become an expert at the same time, but expertise without its context is by itself no indication for genius.
    I seriously doubt if an expert can be called a genius, just because he/she has learned techniques and skills that were already known.

    Many times a win or a loss during a chessgame is not produced by an intellectual imbalance between the players, but merely by an imbalance of the knowledge between players (or just a mistake).
    There are geniuses that cannot play chess or cannot read symphonies of Bach, simply because they lack the specific knowledge.

    The main importance I think is how quickly a person can pick up this knowledge, how a person can apply it, and whether a person is inventive or not.
    In chess we see several young teenagers who have become a grandmaster, or can play the piano very well – they have picked up the knowledge quickly and can apply it.
    But besides this aspects of insight and memory, the inventive part is still unclear, as well as the matter of learning as fast outside their specific field of interest.

    The age matters, as well as the environmental settings in which something can be learned.
    At a young age, the brain pick up things more easily and faster than at an older age.
    A child must be encouraged and supported to learn in order to maintain motivation and enjoyment, while an adult most likely has to have lots of time and must see purpose for mastering a specific field.
    Over the years the environmental and psychological settings will change for a person, so it is difficult comparing adults with children if you are looking for genius in the first place.

    So what you do as a researcher, is that you look for hard indicators of genius, and those can be found primarily in the skills of infants.
    But then again, you only have two indicators: the amount of insight and learning rate concerning a specific field of interest.

  • Anonymous

    Suz is a genius. Period.

  • Jay Stallings

    I am not sure, but I think that Susan Polgar was the first to ever EARN the title of GM. She is the first one on the list to have reached a 2500 rating, a requirement to earn the GM title. I think it was awarded to Nona and Maia (who may have sinced earned it – I don’t know). I think that Susan has one of the most amazing minds I have ever encountered. Her adeptness at Blitz (I believe she swept the U.S. Open Blitz Championship last time she played), her command of about 7 or 8 languages, and her general conversation (I have had a couple of meals with her and Paul Truong) are reason enough for me personally to consider her a genius.

  • Arif

    Dear Richard,

    You have written the arcticle very well. It was a great plaesure reading and understanding your point of view.

    Excellent work!!!!


  • Anonymous

    please visit the following websites of school for genius psychologics, where individuals are trained to be a genius.,,

  • Anonymous

    Geniusness cannot be defined in single word.Perhaps a person can be termed genius if he can use his brain in every field of life with equal ease.A person who is extraordinary in a single field is not a genius and i think susan polgar displays an image of extraordinary person but not genius.There is hardly any person who is good in all spheres of life.Geniusness should be studied keeping in mind the overall performance of a person but not just in a single field as is the case with susan polgar.

  • Anonymous

    I wonder why it is so hard for people to accept the hopeful idea that genius can be created. Do you people honestly believe Mozart for example would have been the genius he was if he had another father? One who did not teach him? What about Tiger Woods? Do not pin me on the examples, because there are many more people like that. Genius has to start somewhere. So it starts with parents (secretly) teaching their kids and then pretending to the world that they did not. It seems to me people like the idea that genius cannot be made because it would lead to the general public demanding that education in school be adapted so that more kids have a shot at a better trained brain. We wouldn’t want that now would we?

  • Faeq

    Its simply too late to protest anything about it……but people who are genius, the must show some thing to come up for the challenging level

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