I’ve been heavily into chess recently, and I’m trying to improve in every way I know how; reading books, following courses, memorizing openings, analyzing games, doing puzzles. I’m an “adult improver”, as we’re known in the chess world. I may get very good, but I will never be a grandmaster, or even an international master. The only chance I had to be a grandmaster died at around the age of 10, and maybe my chances of being an IM died a few years after that.

So here’s my claim. There are some fields (chess, language, music, etc) where you need to have started studying at a very early age in order to be world-class. It follows that the same pattern would hold for other pursuits, and a ton of potential is left the table by not taking advantage of this period of time.

The incontrovertible evidence, chess edition

People that haven’t studied chess much will probably object to my claim that it’s impossible to achieve these titles as an adult. I spent a lot of time being resistant to the idea too; can’t you learn anything at any age? No, and the evidence in chess is clear. There have been about about 1800 grandmasters, some achieving their titles as young as 12 years old. Forty achieved the title before the age of 15. On the other hand, exactly zero current grandmasters started chess as an adult. There are millions of active players, unlimited learning resources, more rated tournaments than ever, and still no “adult improvers” have reached into that upper echelon.

This isn’t just a matter of kids having more time, there are plenty of smart, dedicated adults that spend most of their free time studying and playing chess, that don’t achieve the amount of improvement in 10 years that a talented kid can achieve in a year. The 12 year old grandmasters don’t have an edge in time spent studying; at most they’ve been studying for 8 years, and there are plenty of adults that have been studying for decades.

And the difference here is stark. Magnus Carlsen is currently rated 2865 FIDE. Let’s say the maximum ELO an adult improver has achieved is 2400. Magnus Carlsen would win 95% of the time. This is being generous to the adult improvers; I’m not aware of any cases where an adult improver has actually achieved that high of a rating. If you’re a tennis fan, that’s the same difference in skill as Rafael Nadal vs. Paul Jubb. “Who’s Paul Jubb”, you ask. Apparently an incredible tennis player, but he’s no Nadal.

It’s probably not just chess

Education doesn’t become specialized until people go to college, and isn’t applied in any way until we start working, by which point our brains are incapable of learning skills to the level we’re talking about. So here’s the thought experiment; because of this, how many fields are lacking their Carlsens?

Are there potential Magnus Carlsens of AI safety research, that would make Eliezer Yudkosksy look like a patzer? Are we missing out on those because no one gets exposed to the concepts involved until they’re well past this critical period of learning?

Would a teenager that started programming at the age of 5 outclass me as easily as Rafael Nadal outclasses Paul Jubb? I consider myself to be a very good programmer, but I’d put my money on the teen.

What do we currently do with these critical 5-10 years, where you can learn skills to a level that adults can only dream of? Besides math and reading, kids spend most of their time being quizzed on history, geography, foreign language, etc. These are virtually never used, and almost entirely forgotten. To not use this critical time to learn any skills seems to be both a disservice to the kids, and a loss for society.

Lazlo

I’ll end with one of my favorite anecdotes about childhood learning; Lazlo Polgar. A researcher from Hungary, he had studied geniuses throughout history, trying to find patterns. He came away with a bunch of theories about how geniuses are made. He wanted to go further than finding patterns though, he decided to test his theory. He’d pick a field, have a kid, and turn them into a genius in that field. He actually started approaching women with this proposition.

Shockingly, he found someone that was into it. They chose chess because the rankings were objective. They had a daughter, Susan Polgar, who went on to become the top ranked female chess player in the world. She qualified for the men’s world championship in 1986, the first woman to do so. She became a grandmaster 5 years later.

Just a fluke, you say. Well he had a second daughter, Sofia Polgar. She became the sixth highest-ranked female chess player in the world. At the age of 14 she beat several grandmasters in a tournament in Rome.

But there’s more! He had a third daughter, Judit Polgar. She managed to overshadow the achievements of her two sisters, by becoming the strongest female chess player of all time, bar none. She was the youngest player to break into the top 100, and the youngest at the time to become a grandmaster, at the age of 15.

Lazlo believed that all healthy children are potential geniuses. I think he’s right, and that potential seems to be thrown away.