We banned TV shows with kids in beauty contests. What about Mensa’s brain contests?

June 12, 2013

TV review of Child Genius Channel four

“This will split the critics” I thought, watching Channel Four’s first episode of Child Genius yesterday evening.

A bunch of very bright per-teenagers were competing in the programme to find Britain’s top child genius. The producers had no trouble sticking to the guidelines from countless quiz and celebrity shows. Mensa , the high IQ society, provided dubious cover for the methodology.

Was the show watchable? Enough to keep our domestic group from voting with the remote. Compelling? In a guilty voyeuristic way for me. Convincing? Only if you believed genius can be measured and ranked. It’s about as convincing as The Apprentice is in identifying business genius.

Hero villains

The parents were set up as hero villains and could have also been ranked on a tiger mother scale. Some were up there in the near crazed obsessional league. One or two looked more bemused than bullying.

Chess and genius

I watched because of the news that Josh, a per-teen chess prodigy , ould take part. My interest in these rare creatures began when I had the fortune to be utterly outclassed in a competitive chess game by English prodigy Nigel Short, who was thirteen at the time. Many years earlier, I had had more success as a schoolboy playing against Brian Josephson, who was already considered the brightest kid ever to have come out of the Welsh valleys, and who later won a Nobel Prize in theoretical Physics.

Chess is a field that reinforced the view of the need for ten thousand hours of study for a child to develop into a grand-master. Josh’s mother is a born again ten-thousand hours acolyte. As often happens, a dominant idea resists scientific evidence that challenges it. So I won’t try, although the notion at very least it could benefit from a Richard Dawkins to provide a contrary explanation of giftedness.

Then there’s Einstein, Newton and Mozart

A thought experiment. The young Einstein, Newton, and Mozart are brought together to compete in the international all-time child genius TV show. What’s that? Mensa flunked them Einstein and Newton before they got into the televised bit, as slow, possibly of low IQ. That’s what their school teachers thought. But, hey, their teachers didn’t have the help of Mensa to identify their potential genius. Mozart, by the way, had been wowing them musically since the age of four, and was given special dispensation to appear.

Bobby Fischer takes on the world. This is personal

July 31, 2011

A new film explores the psyche of Bobby Fischer, one of the greatest chess players of all time. This not a film review, but explores his chess genius to see what it tells us about the processes of creativity and leadership

The movie [released in July 2011] was Bobby Fischer takes on the World. The title makes play with an English expression which implies that here we have someone who was at odds with the whole of humanity.

Genius is a loosely used term

In Bobby Fischer´s case it refers to the exceptional talent he revealed at very early age. The attention he received even as a child bears comparisons with the fame heaped on youthful prodigies such as Mozart in music, and Gauss in mathematics.

Nature versus nurture again

There is still a lively debate around whether extreme talent is mostly innate, or whether it can be induced in a wide range of people by intensive effort under the influence of a mentor or parental figure. The recent advocates of this view include the father of the chess-playing Polgar twins each of whom attained status of grandmaster. Richard Williams has been quoted as selecting a tennis career and developing the great talents of his tennis playing daughters Serena and Venus.

The Cuban prodigy

Long before the arrival of Bobby Fischer, Chess had its earliest child prodigy in the Cuban Jose Capablanca who was to become World champion highly regarded for the clarity of his thinking in his play. Legend holds that Capa learned chess at the age of three, through watching his father play friendly games at home.

Heir to Capablanca?

In one respect Fischer could be seen as heir to the great Capablanca. At its best, his play is also marked by moves of an unexpected and beautiful nature. They could be said to be acts of creativity. The logic is obvious, but to others only after the event, when the moves of a game are re-analyzed by grandmasters and published in the leading chess magazines.

Bobby´s coming of age

His early promise was fulfilled in astonishing fashion as he moved from schoolboy talent to win the US chess championships at the age of twenty. It was the manner of his winning which produced headlines far beyond chess. He won with eleven straight wins. The 11:0 score line has never been equaled, before or since. The statistics are enriched by the style with which he demolished his opponents, including the strongest American chess players of the day.

Game of the century

One of his victims was the strong master Robert Byrne. Their match has been called the game of the century for the brilliance of Fischer’s play. His creativity is shown in moves which later were to appear as puzzles to be solved as training exercises for young chess-players. The first unexpected move must have come as a great shock to his opponent. Two or three other similarly brilliant moves took the result completely away from Byrne.

A pattern of excellence

For me, the pattern of excellence is of someone able to see beyond the conventions of the day. Chess players operate with sets of principles which guide them to find strong moves, and protect them from making weak ones. Most players operate by finding moves which conform the those principles such as ‘concentrate your forces towards the centre of the board’; ‘coordinate your pieces so that they support each other’. Fischer’s brilliance was in knowing when the principles did not quite apply because of specific circumstances in the game.

Byrne, playing white and had the first-mover’s advantage. He must have thought at first that his young opponent had blundered. Too late, he would then have seen that the shift to what looked like a weaker position had mysteriously revealed structural flaws in the disposition of his own pieces.

As the game drifted out of Byrnes’ control, Fischer uncorked another brilliant move. Not as radically original as the first, but still startling to all but the strongest players studying the game afterwards. The contest was as good as finished.

Creativity and leadership

The pattern of creative brilliance was to be repeated regularly throughout his brief but spectacular career. He went on to defeat Boris Spassky for the world championship. By then, he was showing signs of the mental illness which dogged Fischer for the rest of his life.

For me his creativity has something in common with that which marks the actions of great leaders who transform the way others act and think.


To Boylston Chess Club’s blog which has a wonderful set of images of chess players, including the one above, my all-time favourite for its echoes of Leonardo’s Adoration of the Magi.