Prodigies: the preserve of music and chess?

This short blog post is inspired by a statement I read this week in the publisher’s blurb for what looks to be an interesting book, Music and Chess: Apollo meets Caissa  (Achilleas Zographos, Milford: Russell Enterprises 2017). This is not a review of the book – you can expect one of those in due course – and, with one book to my own name, I know better than to attribute what you read in the blurb to the author of the book. It is printed on the back cover, and also on all the websites from which the book can be purchased. Here it is:

It has long been recognized that there are only three major areas of human endeavor which produce prodigies: music, chess and mathematics.

Is this true? I found myself wondering (a) whether this assertion is justified, and (b) whether it does indeed demonstrate an innate connection between these three fields in particular.

I shall have to leave to one side the question of definitions of the terms “prodigy” and “major areas of human endeavour”. After all, this is a piece of advertising copy rather than a philosophical proposition. But the more I looked at it, the odder it seemed.

Are there prodigies outside of music, chess and maths?

If “prodigy” means someone who attains mastery of a field at a very young age, it seems to me that there are other “areas of human endeavour” which produce this phenomenon. I can think of three straight away:

  • Sport in general. Even without turning to womens’ gymnastics in the 1970s, when it seemed that mastery of the sport was the province only of pre-pubescent girls, exceptional talent in many sports shows itself very early indeed. I remember reading an anecdote of John McEnroe’s father throwing a baseball for his five-year-old son to hit in Central Park, when a passer-by asked whether the talented midget worked in a circus. Wayne Rooney was the top goal-scorer in his father’s local pub football league at the age of nine.
  • Acting. The number of incredibly talented child actors is long indeed. Shirley Temple was the highest-paid actress in Hollywood before retiring at the age of 22 and becoming a diplomat (American Ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia). Mark Lester, Macaulay Culkin, and more recently, Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson all demonstrate that exceptional talent can show itself early and stay with its owner into adulthood.
  • Romantic poets. They may not have been children, but the whole movement of Romantic poetry in the early nineteenth century was certainly the province of teenagers: Keats, Shelley, arguably Byron, Wordsworth and Coleridge, all produced their best work in their teens or perhaps early twenties.

Are the greatest musicians and chess players always child prodigies?

Capablanca aged 4, Chess Notes 6521
Capablanca aged 4 (from Edward Winter’s Chess Notes no. 6521)

It is undeniable that some of the greatest musicians, and some of the greatest chess players, were also child prodigies. In chess, the clearest example is the third World Champion, José Raul Capablanca (1888–1942), whose ability was reported in the Cuban press before his fifth birthday.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mozart by Louis Carrogis (1763) wikimedia commons
Mozart with his father and sister. Painted by Louis Carrogis when Mozart was seven years old.

In music, the obvious candidate is of course Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791), who learned to play the piano at three, was touring Europe with his father as a soloist before his tenth birthday, and composed his first symphony at the age of nine. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

However, these two are not typical. Indeed, Richard Réti was of the opinion that Capablanca’s exceptional talent (his predecessor as World Champion, Emanuel Lasker, and his successor, Alexander Alekhine, both rated him as the greatest player of all time) stemmed from the fact that he learned the game so early, so that it was like a “native language” to him. Much the same could be said of Mozart. But many other great chess players learned the game later: for instance, Emanuel Lasker (eleven), one of his challengers for the World title, Carl Schlechter, (thirteen), another World Champion, Mikhail Botvinnik (twelve). Equally, while most musicians begin playing early in life, exceptional talent may not show itself until much later. Had Beethoven died at the same age as Mozart (35), he would have left just three symphonies, no operas, and only one set of string quartets.

When do artists reach their peak?

While some chess players and some musicians do show exceptional talent as children, this does not mean that they attain the greatest heights at that age. While most sportsmen and sportswomen reach their peak in their twenties or thirties (as I believe is true for some mathematicians), this hardly means that they are prodigies when they do, or have to have been prodigies in order to excel. Bobby Fischer learned the game of chess at the age of six, was hailed as the best player in America when he was thirteen, but did not become World Champion until he was 29. Chess and music are both reassuring (to people like me) in that age can be defied by the greatest exponents: Emanuel Lasker, having held the title of World Champion longer than anyone else (27 years), returned to competitive chess at the age of 66, having lost his fortune in Hitler’s persecution of Jews; he attained third place at the Moscow tournament of 1935, remaining unbeaten, defeating Capablanca (who came fourth), and ending just a half-point behind the winners (Botvinnik and Salo Flohr). The pianist Alfred Brendel caused dismay in the world of music when he announced his retirement at the age of 75, still considered by many to be the greatest living performer. The composer Havergal Brian produced his thirty-first and thirty-second symphonies at the age of 92.

Are chess, music and maths linked?

To me, the most irritating aspect of the statement with which I started this post is that I agree with its basic contention, which is that there is cognitive similarity between the intellectual skills and mental stimulation that chess, music and mathematics all provide. But I don’t think that this guarantees that talent in any of these fields must necessarily show itself in childhood. Nor do I think these are the only “areas of human endeavour” in which prodigies occur. Nor do I think that some competence in any of these fields is impossible for those who, like me, attempt in their middle life to apply the hard work and practice to these activities which they were incapable of mustering earlier on.

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Author: Robert Samuels

I teach music for The Open University and play chess for Cowley Chess Club in the Oxfordshire Chess League.

4 thoughts on “Prodigies: the preserve of music and chess?”

  1. I think the word ‘prodigy’ is used where there is some opportunity for performance, so people can marvel at ability in the very young. Clearly chess and music, and indeed sport and entertainment generally, pass this test. Mathematics would be the odd one out, though presumably an acclaimed maths prodigy could find some outlet for performance, perhaps through feats of mental calculation.

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    1. There’s a story told of Euler aged about six or seven, I think: the teacher of his class, wanting to take a break, told the children to add up all the numbers from one to a hundred. As the class murmured about how long this was going to take them, Euler walked to the front, with the correct answer written on his slate. He had immediately worked out that since 1+100=101, 2+99=101, 3+98=101 etc., the answer is 50×101, or 5050.

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