Sunday, December 14, 2008

Matthew Effect in Chess

Jennifer Shahade has written an interesting review of Malcolm Gladwell's book, Outliers. I saw a video of one of his speeches where he talks about the "Matthew" effect. In a nutshell, the effect is seen in certain activities such as hockey in Canada, where a disproportionate number of professional players are born in the early months (January, February, March) of the year. The explanation is that the grooming system for young players favors those who are largest, strongest, and fastest for their ages. Since Jan 1st is the cut-off for birth in hockey, those with early birthdays are generally more developed than their age peers. They are singled out as "talented" and groomed with coaching, encouragement, more playing time, and so on, which perpetuates into "excellence." Jennifer (who incidentally had the misfortune of being born December 31st) tracks a similar occurrence in chess (on a small sample admittedly), but it's clear that age effects are quite possible in a competitive game such as chess where cognitive development and practice time are so critical in acquiring various skills and knowledge necessary for skillful play. There's a body of research that supports the notion that higher level chess invokes memory of positions and themes rather than purely calculation. This would imply directly that having had, say 9 months more practice than your opponent would have an important impact on relative winning chances. And at younger ages, those extra 9 months would be a larger proportion of total practice time and so would have progressively larger impact. This would logically lead to the conditions necessary for the Matthew effect to occur as young players deemed to be talented and successful are encouraged to continue while their birthday-challenged peers might gravitate towards other activities.

I read this with some interest since I have found that in my limited personal experience, there does appear to be a bias in chess towards birthday beneficiaries. Of course I don't mean to say that age is the only factor and all credit to the students and their respective supporting organizations and families. It's an interesting problem, with probably no easy solutions. Players could be grouped into smaller buckets to limit the effect but that would probably split the field up too much.

The other observation that I made recently is that the vast majority of top scholastic chess players are playing rated tournaments weekly. Malcolm makes the point in his book that practice time is a necessary requirement for excellence. There are almost no cases of "born" field geniuses. My guess is that chess is that way as well. There may be differing aptitudes for learning, but at the end of the day, it appears that those who play the most are the most successful.

In some ways that's a little disheartening because it basically means that in order to play at the top level, even in scholastic chess, the time involved would crowd out other worthwhile activities. I guess at the end of the day, nothing can replace passion for the game. There is simply no way to stay at or near the top without extreme dedication. I suppose I will continuously question whether the effort is commensurate with the value of the experience.

2008 National K-12 Championship

We just finished the K-12 Nationals in Orlando Florida. Richie scored 5.0/7.0, tying for 2nd place on points and receiving 6th place on tie breaks (there was a cluster at 6.0 and a cluster at 5.0). Since the top 10 finishers received (very large) trophies, this was a very nice result. I have been emphasizing the importance of work so I was hoping that some concrete gains would reinforce this concept with the kids. Richie was so happy with his trophy. He was "a little" nervous going into the final day since he knew he needed to win both games after a slight upset loss on the 2nd day. He managed to pull it off, though. Congratulations, Richie!

Alyssa scored 2.5/7.0. The competitive bar is much higher for 2nd grade, so I was actually glad that she wasn't completely swept. Actually she managed a first round win versus a much higher rated opponent which really boosted her confidence. I think she has been improving by leaps and bounds recently and is now on par with Richie. Considering the gap between their play as recently as a few months ago this is pretty impressive. I guess there was just a small aspect of her play that changed which made a big impact.

Heading into the event, I had found that there were at least two 1000+ rated players in the Kindergarten section. There turned out to be one more that I missed because he was 6 yrs old already. All three of these strong players, Arun Khemani, Awonder Liang, and Zane Ice, finished tied for 1st place. Congratulations to them! We met Arun's father (Arun finshed 1st on tie breaks) in the skittles room. He recognized the kids from our blog and we had a nice chat. I expect we will see more from these young talents in the future.

We decided that it was too much distraction for Richie to keep game scores. I didn't see many Kindergarten players writing moves so this wasn't unusual. Unfortunately this means it's hard to really analyze what has been going on in his games. Alyssa kept all her scores and that will certainly lead to further insights into playing strengths and weaknesses.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Ready for Nationals

We have started on an online program of instruction with NY Chess Kids. So far I have been pleased with the way the online lessons have turned out. I have written in the past about some of the advantages. The technical execution of the lessons is very smooth. It's virtually the same thing as having a live lesson but more efficient. It helps that the instructor has a prepared lesson plan each time and all game scores and tactics pre-loaded into a database from which he teaches (and gives us afterwards). We have one recorded lesson which is a good example.

Alyssa seems to have benefited the most. She has gotten much more focused recently and I think she realizes that there's a direct correspondence between her win ratio and the effort she puts into following the lessons. In a recent tournament game she got to apply one of the first lessons which was drawing with a K vs. K + Pawn. She probably wouldn't have been able to do that a few weeks ago. Alyssa's rating has shot up a few hundred in recent tournaments and the quality of her games has improved noticeably.

We have been stepping up the number of tournaments and lessons they have been getting ahead of the National K-12 Scholastic Championship in Orlando, Florida on Dec 12th-14th. This will obviously be our first national event so everyone is looking forward to it (and to Disneyworld afterwards). I looked a few past events and current top player lists and my best guess is that Richie will be somewhere around 5th-15th highest in rating for the kindergarten section but there's a lot of variance. There's definitely at least two much higher rated 5 year olds. Alyssa, of course, will have an uphill battle but with her recent strides I'm hopeful she can enjoy the tournament. She recently toppled an 800 rated player who probably got frustrated with the resistance she put up while a piece down and eventually blundered away the lead. If she plays with that kind of fighting spirit, I'm pretty confident she won't get zero points at least.
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