The book

The author

  • David Shenk is the national bestselling author of five previous books, including The Forgetting ("remarkable" - Los Angeles Times), Data Smog ("indispensable" - New York Times), and The Immortal Game ("superb" - Wall Street Journal). He is a correspondent for, and has contributed to National Geographic, Slate, The New York Times, Gourmet, Harper's, The New Yorker, NPR, and PBS.

    More info here.

    Contact David.

    Follow on twitter.

    Speaking inquiries here.


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April 20, 2007


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Jan Newton

Hi David,

What a fascinating project. I wish you good luck with it and with your new book.

The kind of stuff you're posting here usually makes my eyes cross and puts me to sleep - but I have to say you've really caught my attention and have yet to put me to sleep. Maybe it's your ability to relate these concepts in "plain English" - that's not exactly put the right way, but I think you get what I mean. It is a gift you have, being able to render quite complicated concepts and research into understandable, interesting prose.

I wanted to just add my two cents worth - not apropros necessarily to this particular post but appropriate in general to your research theme. If I understand you correctly, then the Polgar sisters (Susan, Sophia and Judit) are the perfect test cases that prove your thesis. I just finished reading Cathy Forbes' 1992 book "The Polgar Sisters - Training or Genius?" and found it fascinating. Now I'm reading Susan Polgar's new book "Breaking Through" which basically covers the same time period (and more) that Forbes' book covered, but from Susan Polgar's own pespective. From what I've read so far, Susan P. has very little to say about the "experiment" that Laszlo Polgar undertook in training up three chess prodigies. But I would not expect her to - it's well known the Polgars did NOT look kindly on Forbes' book back in 1992, and have not forgiven Forbes to this day for, in their view, portraying Father Polgar as a sort of Dr. Frankenstein (not true) and the Polgar sisters as some sort of freaks (also not true).

Following the line of my thought about chess geniuses, Bobby Fischer is another example - although he was self-taught/self-motivated. If you haven't read Frank Brady's biography of Fischer in his early days (way prior to the infamous/famous World Chess Championship Match with Boris Spaasky), I highly recommend it. Although it was written in 1965 (and caused a permanent breach in their friendship), it contains the kind of insights and information that only a close friend could have. When he was about 6 years old, Fischer and his older sister Joan, taught themselves how to play chess from reading the instructions on the back of a box a chess set came in - Joan had bought the game to amuse themselves during the hours they were alone together while their single mother worked and left them alone. At about age 12 Fischer said "he just got good" - but that's not true. He had been intensively studying and playing chess for years before he "just got good." Practically from the moment he and Joan taught themselves the moves of the pieces, Bobby was "hooked" and studied everything about chess that he could get his hands on, included quite advanced theoretical books from the library. He taught himself Russian so that he could read the analysis in Russian chess magazines - the most advanced information available at the time, in those long-ago pre-internet days. The rest is, as we know, true history.

Josh Waitzkin is another child chess prodigy - made famous by the semi-fictional movie "Searching for Bobby Fischer" after Fred Waitzkin's 1984 book of the same title. I think Josh would certainly be someone worthwhile to study further - he seems to be an adept at just about anything he touches. Now, of course, he is no longer that cute little seven year old from 20 plus years ago, he's a grown and quite accomplished man. He did not pursue chess as a full-time living (he earned his IM title but did not pursue further) but he's been involved for a number of years in the "Chessmaster" software program. He's also still very cute :)

And there's Alexandra Kosteniuk. I've been a fan of hers since I started reporting news about women chessplayers back in 2001. She earned a WGM title when she was barely 14 and has since earned a male GM title, something only 10 or so women chessplayers have managed to do. Alexandra is currently rated number 5 on the Women's FIDE list with an ELO of 2515 but, with that ELO, she does not rank in the top 100 players (the cut-off there is an ELO of 2622 currently). I read her book "How I Became a Grandmaster at Age 14" a few years ago and so the details are blurry, but I do remember a very young Alexandra (4 years old?) saying something like this "Poppa, I'm tired, I don't want to play anymore" - but of course Poppa didn't listen to her, and made Alexandra continue to practice. In no way do I mean to depict A's father as a heartless monster, but he certainly was the driving force behind A's learning chess and was constantly there pushing first Alexandra and later, Oxana, the younger sister, to incessantly practice and play.

I've written about your research at our new Goddesschess blog ( I think, in these days and times, your work in this book will be vitally important and may, perhaps, inspire many public school systems to adopt the techniques that you will be writing about. You and the research mentioned here have inspired me to write an article about chessplayers (trained or genius?). I hope to have the article finished and published at Goddesschess soon - but you know how these things go - it always takes much longer than one thinks :)

I can't tell you how much I look forward to your upcoming book. If it's anything like your "The Immortal Game", which is simply fabulous (I've still got about a third of the book to go, sorry for taking so long reading it but you know about press of other business), I hope it's a run-away best seller.

All the best to you, David.


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