Time Magazine has an interesting profile of Magnus Carlsen, the youngest chess player to achieve a number one world ranking:
Genius can appear anywhere, but the origins of Carlsen’s talent are particularly mysterious. He hails from Norway — a “small, poxy chess nation with almost no history of success,” as the English grand master Nigel Short sniffily describes it — and unlike many chess prodigies who are full-time players by age 12, Carlsen stayed in school until last year. His father Henrik, a soft-spoken engineer, says he has spent more time urging his young son to complete his schoolwork than to play chess. Even now, Henrik will interrupt Carlsen’s chess studies to drag him out for a family hike or museum trip. “I still have to pinch my arm,” Henrik says. “This certainly is not what we had in mind for Magnus.”
Even pro chess players — a population inured to demonstrations of extraordinary intellect — have been electrified by Carlsen’s rise. A grand master at 13 (the third youngest in history) and a conqueror of top players at 15, he is often referred to as the Mozart of chess for the seeming ease of his mastery. In September, he announced a coaching contract with Garry Kasparov, arguably the greatest player of all time, who quit chess in 2005 to pursue a political career in Russia. “Before he is done,” Kasparov says, “Carlsen will have changed our ancient game considerably.”
One of the fascinating elements of Carlsen’s talent is that he’s learned the game by playing computer chess, matching his wits against advanced algorithms. The end result is a prodigy who’s amassed an unprecedented amount of deliberate practice at an early age, as he’s able to play multiple games on the same machine at the same time. Computers, in other words, have accelerated the pace of his chess education.
The article then discusses Carlsen’s semi-mystical chess “intuition,” which allows the youngster to “feel for where to place the pieces”:
According to Kasparov, Carlsen has a knack for sensing the potential energy in each move, even if its ultimate effect is too far away for anyone — even a computer — to calculate. In the grand-master commentary room, where chess’s clerisy gather to analyze play, the experts did not even consider several of Carlsen’s moves during his game with Kramnik until they saw them and realized they were perfect. “It’s hard to explain,” Carlsen says. “Sometimes a move just feels right.”
At first glance, there is something surprising about a teenager weaned on chess software extolling the wonders of intuition. It’s as if we expect Carlsen to act like his software, to be as explicit in his strategic decisions as Deep Blue, the IBM supercomputer. But that misses the real purpose of practice and the real genius of the human brain. When we practice properly – and this means engaging in deliberate practice – we aren’t just accumulating factual knowledge. Instead, we’re embedding our experience into our unconscious, so that even insanely complicated calculations – and Carlsen can regularly plan twenty chess moves in advance – become mostly automatic.
This is a truism of expertise. Although we tend to think of experts as being weighted down by information, their intelligence dependent on a vast set of facts, experts are actually profoundly intuitive. When experts evaluate a situation, they don’t systematically compare all the available options or consciously analyze the relevant information. Carlsen, for instance, doesn’t compute the probabilities of winning if he moves his rook to the left rather than the right. Instead, experts naturally depend on the emotions generated by their experience. Their prediction errors – all those mistakes they made in the past – have been translated into useful knowledge, which allows them to tap into a set of accurate feelings they can’t begin to explain. Neils Bohr said it best: an expert is “a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.” From the perspective of the brain, Bohr was absolutely right.
And this is why we shouldn’t be surprised that a chess prodigy raised on chess computer programs would be even more intuitive than traditional grandmasters. The software allows him to play more chess, which allows him to make more mistakes, which allows him to accumulate experience at a prodigious pace.