Make Me A Genius

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Is a genius born or are they made? Make Me A Genius looks at the incredible life of Susan Polgar – the living test subject for her psychologist father who believed he could make his baby daughter a chess genius. With a grandmaster title to her name it’s hard to disagree with him. Words Matt Pomroy

The loose definition of a genius is a person of great intelligence, who shows an exceptional natural capacity of intellect, especially as shown in creative and original work. I say loose because a) the definition is from Wikipedia and b) nobody is really that sure, even the people who are supposed to be geniuses themselves. You’d think one of them would know.

But the one question that is pertinent is this: is it really natural? After all, nobody is born with the ability to play the piano or explain astrophysics or, in the case of Susan Polgar, play chess. Her father, Hungarian psychologist László Polgar, pondered this nature versus- nurture conundrum and decided that genius was ‘not born, but made’.

He wrote a book called Bringing Up Geniuses! that hypothesised it was possible to nurture a genius. And furthermore, it was something that any parent could do. He pointed out that Mozart received tutelage from his father at a very early age and thought that anyone, with the correct application, could turn their offspring into a genius.

A nice theory, but then he had a daughter of his own (Susan) and was able to test out his hypotheses. Some 38 years later, Susan Polgar is a grandmaster at chess. Make Me A Genius looks at Susan and her life, and the most amazing thing about her is that she appears to be a normal person despite her somewhat different upbringing. From an early age Polgar taught his daughter the complexities of chess, and by the age of five she was taking on adults, and beating them. Then she became the top female player in the world by the age of 15. At just 16, Susan had beaten her first grandmaster. But don’t be put off this documentary, thinking that it’s about chess – that’s just the medium in which her ‘genius’ is pursued. This is really all about the notion of creating a supermind and (as Marshall McLuhan once proposed) the medium is the message.

In a game of chess there are four billion choices for the first three moves alone, and Susan has committed to memory tens of thousands of possible patterns and scenarios. Every time she sees an arrangement of chess pieces on a board, she can now recall her back catalogue of memorised groupings, using instinct to tell her the right move, thanks to a childhood spent learning those scenarios. It is claimed that Susan now has total recognition of 100,000 chess scenarios.

It raises the question of whether she is a ‘genius’ or just very good at chess, having played it from an early age. Indeed, is there a difference?

Chess carries an innate sense of grandeur, but if she’d spent that time perfecting the art of, say, tennis (a very tough game to master) to the point where she became one of the best on earth, would people still care? After all, didn’t Serena and Venus Williams have coaching from their father from a very young age? Or take Ronnie O’Sullivan, the snooker player, who scored his first century break aged 10, his first maximum at 15 and was the youngest-ever winner of a ranking event at 17. But if you’ve ever heard him interviewed, you’d quickly realise he’s not the brightest waistcoat in the wardrobe, let alone a genius.

Some have also argued that a true genius is a person that can turn their hand to pretty much anything and solve the mental challenges of problems in more than one field. Susan would argue that she can speak seven languages fluently. Impressive, but cynics might point out that one of the seven is Esperanto, which is pretty much useless. A real genius might have seen the ever-growing Chinese population and realised that Mandarin would be a far more practical language to have.

It’s something of a moot point though; as what Susan has proved is that with stringent application from a very early age it is possible to be very, very good at something. While she may never have been able to apply the same process to, say, becoming an NBA-standard basketball player, due to her unavoidable physical limitations, it is proof that practise makes perfect if nothing else. And anyone can do it.

The documentary claims that ‘by understanding Susan’s brain we can unlock our own potential’. On paper that sounds like a bad advert for some memory aide from the Shopping Channel, but for the doubters, here’s the startling clincher: László Polgar proved that it was no fluke by repeating the same feat with her two younger sisters, Judit and Zsófia, who are now chess grandmaster and international master respectively, thanks to similar schooling from their father.

It’s a rallying call to pushy parents, but does raise a fascinating debate. Ultimately though, there’s one quote in the programme that truly resonates: ‘We need to start from the cold-blooded premise that almost everyone is a genius – not that almost everyone is worthless.’

While it’s debatable whether anyone could be groomed from a young age to become a genius, the notion that every child needs to feel special to become special is the overwhelming theme that rings throughout this excellent documentary.

From Time Out Magazine, November 2007

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