How Making Mistakes & Intuition Made Magnus Carlson Chess No 1
Grandmaster at 13, Number One in the world at 19: Magnus Carlsen
The latest issue of Time Magazine has a profile of Magnus Carlsen, the youngest number one world ranking chess player ever:
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.
Intuition – Key to expertise
According to Kasparov intuition is the key to Carlsens’ success – his ability to ‘feel’ what moves have potential and give him the edge over the long term – and which moves to avoid.
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.”
What built Carlsen’s intuition?
Carlsen doesn’t calculate in his head what moves to make running through countless possibilities using his reasoning ability, he ‘intuits’ them – some moves feel good, some bad, some look strong, some look weak. Why? Because he’s had huge amounts of practice on online computer chess. Computer chess is on tap 24/7, and Carlsen often plays multiple games simultaneously. With all this practice – and it has to be deliberate and focused – he builds up a bank of how he feels making certain moves based largely on all the mistakes he’s made in the past. Hundreds and thousands of errors – and the bad feelings they have caused – have become translated into accurate intuitions about what moves to make – that he can’t begin to explain.
Neils Bohr said it well: an expert is
a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.
Mistakes weigh in more than successes. We learn much more from feeling bad from cocking something up than when we breeze through. Successes shape our intuitions, but mistakes shape them more powerfully.
And this is why Magnus Carlson, raised on chess computer programs, can be even more intuitive than his elders – the traditional grandmasters. The software allows him to play more chess, which allows him to make more mistakes, which allows him to build his super intelligent intuitions at a rate of knots.
Make mistakes to build intuition!
- The highest experts have the most highly developed intuitions – intuition is valuable and we should try to build it to master anything.
- Lots of practice is essential for expertise. The practice has to be deliberate, focused and involve experimentation and risk-taking. During practice, we make predictions and form expectations about how things will turn out. And we need to make mistakes – lots of them.
- We have to learn to positively value mistakes, and the negative feelings that go with them! The more we explore through practice, the more mistakes we will make, and the more we can benefit from this in building our intuitions. Feeling bad through making mistakes – through failures – drives us to greater expertise and higher levels of excellence. This is true in chess and it is true in anything requiring expertise.
I’ve failed over, and over, and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed
Michael Jordan, professional basketball player.
If anyone has any experiences of building expertise through intuition and making mistakes, it would be great if you’d share it with us.
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