Talent is Overrated, by Phil

A letter to Kye Hedlund, 7/17/10

Dear Kye:


Thank you for sending me the article, “The Expert Mind” from Scientific American.  The opening paragraph really hit home as it immediately reminded me of Perry’s MCV approach where we only look one move ahead to determine the right play or cube decision.




“A man walks along the inside of a circle of chess tables, glancing at each for two or three seconds before making his move.  On the outer rim, dozens of amateurs sit pondering their replies until he completes the circuit.  The year is 1909, the man is Jose Raul Capablanca of Cuba, and the result was a whitewash:  28 wins in as many games.  The exhibition was part of a tour in which Capablanca won 168 games in a row.  How did he play so well, so quickly?  And how far ahead could he calculate under such constraints?  “I see only one move ahead,” Capablanca is said to have answered, “but it is always the correct one.”



The rest of the article is in line with the conclusions in the book, “Talent is Overrated.”  Basically, the expert mind simply has more knowledge (in backgammon and chess, more positions) stored in long-term memory which it is able to access quickly and appropriately to apply to the position at hand.


My theory is that in backgammon, even if you do not have the exact position “on file” the expert has one or two that are close enough so that with a little interpolation (counting shots, entries, numbers that bear off or make the prime, estimating gammons, etc.) he can adjust for the position at hand.


So rather than his having simply a greater ability to analyze a “new” position from scratch (which he might also have over the average player), the “expert’s” biggest edge is his store of knowledge from disciplined practice over the years that he can call up as needed to fit the situation.  That knowledge might be a position, or it might be one of Walter Trice’s formula that apply, or simply a rule of thumb that has been effective most of the time.


Both the article, and the book, point out the proof of this using examples from famous scientists, composers, musicians, and even athletes, all of whom demonstrated “true greatness” only after about 10 years of extensive practice and study.  (Some of the subjects studied include Kazparov, Bach, and Tiger Woods.)

Phil Simborg