Friday, May 21, 2010

Kasparov on Talent

The “freestyle” result, though startling, fits with my belief that talent
is a misused term and a misunderstood concept. The moment I became the youngest
world chess champion in history at the age of twenty-two in 1985, I began
receiving endless questions about the secret of my success and the nature of my
talent. Instead of asking about Sicilian Defenses, journalists wanted to know
about my diet, my personal life, how many moves ahead I saw, and how many games
I held in my memory.
I soon realized that my answers were disappointing.
I didn’t eat anything special. I worked hard because my mother had taught me to.
My memory was good, but hardly photographic. As for how many moves ahead a
grandmaster sees, Russkin-Gutman makes much of the answer attributed to the
great Cuban world champion José Raúl Capablanca, among others: “Just one, the
best one.” This answer is as good or bad as any other, a pithy way of disposing
with an attempt by an outsider to ask something insightful and failing to do so.
It’s the equivalent of asking Lance Armstrong how many times he shifts gears
during the Tour de France.

This is from an article in the New York Review of Books purportedly reviewing the book Chess Metaphors: AI and the Human Mind - by Diego Russkin Gutman.

He underlines how thre ought to be (and there is not) increased emphasis there on human creativity with more and more technical progression.


  1. More than a technical obsession, it is suggestive of this being a strong case of e-adichaan kaapi mentality or if you want a inglees version "Cargo Cult" mentality (Feynman in Surely you are joking Mr.Feynman). The Feynman version drives home the point very effectively. The savants have tried telling the world "Chase the goal, not the path".

    This is almost akin to the damage caused by Iceberg's - the visible and impressive portion is not the one that does the damage. The submerged 90% does it. However to be fair this is a fairly deep problem and it's not clear if even deep awareness will do anything to rid us of it. Perhaps it's inevitable that the visible 10% of the Iceberg is the target of all attribution fallacies.

    I don't think it's limited to common people and is quite pervasive. My pet theory of sanyasam - a man who saw the light got so immersed in the process that he didn't notice that he hadn't eaten for a long time, didn't notice that he had been living in a jungle for a long time, and his dirty clothes had acquired a kaavi colour.

  2. Pet theory makes perfect sense.

    To operate every step consciously is not quite a possibility. Dafaulting to some set-path is at some stage inevitable. We often feel conscious of one step more than the next guy, that's all.

  3. To operate every step consciously is not quite a possibility. Dafaulting to some set-path is at some stage inevitable. We often feel conscious of one step more than the next guy, that's all. Very well put. In some cases awareness doesn't help at all.

    Also our actions are guided by "Social Proof" so much, and it's such a powerful force that it could be regarded as the gravity as far the habits of mind go - there's little that you can do to escape it or at least that seems to be the conventional wisdom.

    It's for this reason that I find the Sages and Saints much more fascinating of late than scientists and intellectuals. What's that elusive degree of freedom that they latched on to that helped them get beyond all of this ? At some level the most contrarian intellectual is also subject to this force. Incidentally Social proof also has so much bearing on what we were discussing w.r.t to your next post.

  4. Kasparov's conundrum is classic!

    Reminds me of the outrageously funny Ian Frazier and his book "Dating Your Mom", particularly this essay entitled A Reading List For Young Writers that was also excerpted in The New Yorker.

    In it, Frazier recounts how he resorted to listing half a dozen books to humor aspiring young writers insistent upon a silver-bullet solution to great writing. He cleverly closes with the caveat that reading those books would, at best, open the youngsters up to the ineffable joys of, well, reading. Whereas Writing, he ventures, is this mysterious process that pretty much eludes any and all attempts to pare it down to its nuts and bolts.

    Likewise Kasparov's genius-moves, I guess.

    Talk of chess takes me to that poolside scene in (the opening minutes of) "The Unbearable Lightness of Being." (Know you're a fan of Kundera's writing; have you seen the Kaufman adaptation of his book?)

    A bored Tomas wanders in to the pool area of the small spa town he's arrived at to perform surgery. Six gentlemen (of assorted ages) are sitting in the pool, playing chess. The focus of the entire scene seems to be the color black: Tomas is suited in black; the move on the board is the bishop to the black square next to the black King; the gents are wearing black swim trunks... and finally, the idyll of the scene is shattered in the instant Teresa, in her black bathing suit, dives into the pool!

    Her big splash upsets the arrangement on the chessboard, and I was immediately intrigued by the poetry powering that whole sequence: the impact from the woman-in-black, pulsing with life, toppling the Black King, inanimate in every way (yes, Tomas-the-statue, crouched over the chessboard, is instantly smitten!).

    The men scramble to put the pieces back to the squares they belong, and in the process, get into a spat coz one of them shifts the King piece to the white square adjacent to the black one that was its original position... Perhaps an indication that things are in flux politically, emotionally...?

    A favorite line of mine is from Tomas, when he is hanging out at a night club with Teresa, Sabina and some friends. The Russians are at an adjacent table, wining and dining; there's an air of unrest in the room. Friends drag Tomas into a conversation that meanders into morality and politics, and how the Russians are gonna change everything; and Tomas, in a bid to downplay things (or maybe he genuinely believes that things coudn't be as bad as folks are foreseeing) calmly observes that morality *has* changed since the days of Oedipus (an earlier scene shows Tomas gently slipping the Sophocles opus into a sleeping Teresa's hand).

    The implication that if Oedipus had lived in more "modern" times he wouldn't have gouged his eyes out in guilt from finding out that he was in fact doing his mother, was interesting beyond belief.

  5. P.S: Now here's a bit of history on this comment! Originally, I'd typed it ALL up last Friday, and just as I was going thru the "labor of love" that's your submission process here (lol @ my impatience but you'll see why in a second), my IE browser started to reboot -- no kidding!

    Sure, I was frustrated to no end and all that, but was able to chalk it up to the fact that it was indeed the AI gods teaching my painfully human mind an all-important lesson in humility. Din't I, merely minutes ago that very day, gang up with Muppet and "lecture" you on the topic? "How dare you doubt Dagalti's humility", the Internet gods seemed to glare and say, before they made me pay! LOL

    Sorry saar. Lesson learned. :-)

    P.P.S: But seriously, by prempting the boss on his absolutely delightful take on all things Oedipal, just what was I hoping to achieve (other than an "I said it first" sense of hubris)?

  6. Haven't heard of Frazier, thanks for the mention. You mention morality changing over time, but imagine the prospect of it being cyclical. It is quite reasonable to imagine that Cain killed Abel over Eve !

    I find pretty much every change over time is quite unnerving. Nowhere is this more apparent than in comedy where the solemn is made fair game for potshots over time.

    Here is one that has me in splits every time:

  7. Coming closer home to Tamil cinema, talk of chess reminds me of another board game, Parama Padam (or Snakes & Ladders, if you will) that's the crux of the KB movie "Poi".

    It was so nerve wracking, watching Father (Balachander) and Fate (Raj) play their game as the poor pawns out there suffer and suffer and suffer. Kamban yemaandhaan indeed, and as for us, the poor audience, nanna Kozhumbo Kozhumbu nu kozhambinom, illa?

    Avar yen saar andha Ek Duuje Ke Liye template-a kattindu azharaar, eppa paathaalum? Sudhdhama pidikkala.

  8. //nanna Kozhumbo Kozhumbu nu kozhambinom, illa?//

    Kalki was my last straw. After that I have followed the Dravid'ian dictum on what to do with balls well outside off-stemp: "well left"