I just stumbled across a NY Times blog post by Dick Cavett, the old host of 'The Dick Cavett Show', in which he laments the passing of Bobby Fischer, arguably the greatest chess player of all time. I've always been interested in chess, though I think I peaked at age 6 when I allegedly beat my uncle in a game. I actually don't remember that, but I'd like to think it's true.
As for Bobby Fischer, there's probably never been a more famous chess player in history (there's certainly never been a crazier famous chess player in history). When he died on January 17th, he was known as much for being an exile and an anti-Semite than anything else, but there was a time when he was arguably America's biggest celebrity. And he was at the height of his fame when he beat Boris Spassky to win the FIDE World Chess Championship in 1972. Maybe Garry Kasparov reached statistically higher heights, but Bobby Fischer set the emotional standard.
The blog post is great on many levels, as it delves into the many aspects of Fischer's sad and tortuous life. But the post--and the video of a 1971 interview embedded in it--highlight one aspect of Fischer's chess ability that I think illustrates a great and mistaken notion about "talent" and "ability", two things we often confuse.
Bobby Fischer was what we call a child prodigy. He was the Mozart of chess. He won the US Chess Championships when he was 13 years old! The real question is, how did he do it?
He obviously had talent. But what was that talent? Was it the ability to memorize outrageously complex positions? Was it the ability to think 9, 10, 11 moves ahead? Was it the ability to devise devious traps for his opponents?
No. It wasn't. He may have eventually been able to do those things, but those were not the talents that made him the greatest chess player ever. His talent was his obsession. He developed the ability to do all of the above things, but they didn't come naturally. They were painstakingly developed through intense and focused effort. The type of effort that most people simply can't generate. Borderline super-human.
Cavett says it better than I do:
"We assume that geniuses are blessed creatures who don’t have to work hard to achieve their goals. Hard for us, easy for them. But Bobby as a kid — IQ pushing 200 — put in 10 to 15 hours a day of brain power and heavy concentration that would kill an ordinary person. (Or at least me.)" (italics mine)
Fischer learned to play chess when he was six. He won the US Chess Championships at age 13. That's about 2,000 days, multiplied by 10 hours of quality effort a day. You know what that sounds like? That sounds like just about how much time Mozart spent playing the clavier, or John Stuart Mill spent studying, or Tiger Woods spent golfing. It's also about the amount of quality, focused effort-filled time that a normal expert would have spent at their hobby/occupation over 20-30 years.
Does this mean that prodigies are made, not born? Yes and no. Because the simple fact is you can't force a person to put in the quality of effort that Fischer put into his chess. That type of effort has to come from somewhere inside. It doesn't come from fear of punishment or hope of reward. It comes from love. Love in the form of need and at the mercy of obsession.
You can see the obsession if you watch the video. Fischer doesn't really feel comfortable discussing how he feels about chess. It's as if he just knows chess, not how to articulate chess. But one thing he does articulate well is that greatness isn't all talent. He says you need talent to be truly great (which we can take to mean his level), but he follows that by saying many of the top players aren't that talented; they've "just worked like dogs" and "they keep at it...they've got the character, they don't get distracted by other things in life until they've gotten what they wanted out of it." Their ability is a product of the quality of their efforts. He also alludes to this understanding of ability when asked if he's very athletic. His response: "Well, I haven't really developed myself too much in sports." Translation: No, but it's only for lack of effort.
I don't know what caused Bobby Fischer to slowly come unhinged. I don't know what caused him to isolate himself from the world and I don't know what drove him to despise Jews and America. But I do think I know what made him into a child prodigy and a World Chess Champion. He believed his effort would improve his ability. And then he worked longer, harder, and with a higher level of quality than any of his competitors. (Harder than anyone, at anything, ever?) You can call it talent or effort, motivation or love or obsession. Whatever you call it, it's what makes you a champion.