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.

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