Sunday, January 9, 2011

Is Puberty Killing USCF?

While reading GM Nigel Davies website, I found a link to an article, The Expert Mind By Philip E. Ross, from the August 2006 issue of Scientific American. Learning it would cost $7.95 to read the article, I did some research and found a copy that was free at:
After reading the article I did a little more digging, finding a blog by John Horgan, The Scientific Curmudgeon, at The Center for Science Writings at the Stevens Institute of Technology ( ). John writes that, " Phil Ross is an old friend, with whom I worked at Scientific American in the 1990s." He also writes, "Phil has written a lot about chess; as his bio points out, he plays himself, and his teenage daughter Laura is “a master who outranks him by 199 points.” I remember Laura Ross. She was invariably called "That cute little Laura Ross." Whatever happened to her, I wondered. Reading on I found the answer.
(Question from John Horgan) Do you think geneticists will ever find a “chess gene”? And if such a gene exists, do you think Laura might have it?
Phil responded:

If she has it, then I must conclude that its expression begins to diminish slowly at puberty and ends oh, about now. She hasn’t played a competitive game since winning $6000 at the U.S. Championship, back in February. Last week she bought a guitar, and since then, she’s been plinking away at it nonstop.
But wait! That provides a genetic explanation why so many chess masters have been good at music:
* Philidor, first master of modern times, was also a famous composer in his day, and his bust still stands in the Paris Opera
* Smyslov, World Champion 1957-58, was forced by the Commies to go into chess instead of opera singing, which is what he really wanted to do
* Taimanov, best known now for losing to Fischer 6-0, was one of the leading four-handed pianists in the world (he lost that string to his bow when the other two hands divorced him).

I was struck by the comment, "...its expression begins to diminish slowly at puberty..." I thought back to all the child chess players I've known who have given up the game during, or after puberty. There are too many to count. I thought of 2007 Georgia champion Xiao Chang in particular. A look at his USCF Ratings History Graph shows he first played in a USCF tournament in 2001 and played in his last tournament game about six years later in 2007. I recall reading a column by GM Andy Soltis in Chess Life in which he wrote that most chess players peak about six years after taking up the game. Xiao played in the 2007 US Junior Invitational in June, finishing in third place a half point behind Ray Robson and a full point behind the winner, Marc Arnold. He then entered the Under 2400 section held in conjunction with the World Open. He drew his first three games, then won his next two. Unfortunately, he then lost three in a row and withdrew before the last game. His losses were to Tegshsuren Enkhbat, who tied for first, Renard W Anderson, and Jim H Dean, all seasoned Masters.
Sometime later Xiao made a visit to the Atlanta Chess and Game Center, aka the House of Pain. Xiao Cheng had previously inflicted a great deal of the pain at the House! During conversation I asked him why he had stopped playing chess. He was honest and forthright when he told me he had given up the game because he had won in every section he had played until playing in that Under 2400 section at the World Open. The simple fact of the matter is that he had never experienced loss and he was not prepared for it when it came. If you take a look at the Rating History Graph for Xiao, you will see that his graph goes up, peaking at 2358, until his last tournament, when it heads downward.
I cannot help but wonder if the pressure placed on these children is too great at too young an age. They have not had to deal with the obstacles placed in their path and have not learned they must go over, under, around or through them. When they fall they do not get up. Is it really that big a deal to continually having ever younger Masters or Grandmasters? If you think about it, it is only a big deal if we consider it to be a big deal. It would be a much bigger deal if a player in his 50's earned the GM title!
Then again, the pain of losing can be too great even for seasoned veterans. Consider another former Georgia Champion, Stephen Muhammad, the former Stephen Booth.
Something similar happened to him around the same time Xiao experienced his crisis. He had won, or tied, for first in the Georgia State Championship in 1999, 2002, 2003, and 2007. He peaked at 2468 in late 2006. Stephen was middle-aged, finding success rather late for a chess player these days. He played in the 6th North American FIDE tournament in Oct/Nov of 2007, winning 4 games, but losing 5, something to which he was unacustomed. He then played in the Atlanta Open at the House of Pain, losing to FM 'Big Head' Todd Andrews in the last round and has not played in a USCF event since. I would really like to see the game that ended a career!
I asked a former Georgia Chess Champion, Bob Joiner, why he had stopped playing backgammon. "I was losing too much," was his honest answer. I played backgammon for one reason-money. I cannot help but think of a quote by Euwe I found on Tim Krabbe's wonderful website, Chess Curiosities ( )"Whoever sees no other aim in the game than that of giving checkmate to one`s opponent will never become a good Chess player"

1 comment:

Parx said...

This was very interesting. I wonder what happened to a few of the young guns back when I used to receive my weekly clock-cleaning at the House of Pain. Anthony R.? I think he went on to play at GaTech. Kazim G.? That little demon made me look foolish, managing a double-rook sacrifice while holding a drippy slice of pizza in the other hand.