Judit Polgar is one of my favourite examples of how people make it to an expert level in anything. Only those that follow the chess world would have any idea who she is – Judit is the greatest woman to ever play chess and the only one to have ever made it into the top 100 players of the men’s division. She achieved the title of grandmaster at 15 years 4 months old, the youngest person ever at the time.
Judit was raised by a father who was actually conducting a social experiment. His goal was to show that people could make exceptional achievements if trained in a specialist field from a young age. “Genius’s are made, not born”, he said. He sought out a woman that was amenable to his goal and they got busy with the task of procreating. He and his wife had three daughters – Susan, Sofia, and the youngest Judit. Susan was the eldest of the sisters, she was 5 1/2 years older than Sofia and 7 years older than Judit. All were brought up playing chess, but Judit, according to her sisters, was by far the most passionate and obsessive, and interestingly, not the most naturally gifted of the three.
And it was that passion and obsession that made Judit the greatest of them at an early age. Initially separated from her sisters while they trained due to her young age, Judit came to be woken from her sleep to help them solve problems with their coach. By age 5 she had defeated a family friend without even looking at the board. Judit was a pioneer in chess in that she would play in the male division of tournaments rather than the female. “These other girls are not serious about chess”, she said. “I practice five or six hours a day. But they get distracted by cooking and work around the house.”
In that statement lies the secret of her expertise. When we look at the figure of 10,000 hours to achieve mastery of a field, we can see that with Judit’s practice time (and that isn’t including her time spent in tournament play), she would have reached this figure well before she was 10 years old. When we look at those figures, far from being astonishing, it is little wonder that Judit accomplished everything that she did. If we look at Olympic level judoka from Japan who begin training at primary school, they would not be hitting such a level of mastery until almost double the time that Judit did with chess. They may be training with the same frequency (or close enough to it), but when we look at time spent she is far outmatching them.
Her relentless approach to chess was not lost on her opponents, many of whom were double and triple her age and international masters/grandmasters when she defeated them. David Norwood, a British GM described her as “this cute little auburn-haired monster who crushed you.” US Champion Joel Benjamin said “It was all-out war for five hours. I was totally exhausted… You make one mistake and she goes right for the throat.”
And finally Garry Kasparov, widely considered the greatest player of all time (who incidentally Judit also managed to defeat): “the Polgars showed that there are no inherent limitations to their aptitude – an idea that many male players refused to accept until they had unceremoniously been crushed by a twelve-year-old with a ponytail.”
If you want to get the full rundown on her, check her out at wikipedia. What I’ve given is the briefest of summations and her full greatness and achievements will knock your socks off.