Let's Do It All Over Again
February 19, 2011 7:05 AM   Subscribe

Why do we enjoy prodigies? Barney Ronay asks in reference to the latest footballing wünderkid, Raheem Sterling while Gary Kasporov reflects back on the life of perhaps chess' most interesting one, Bobby Fischer.
posted by yerfatma (29 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Garry Kasparov's (note spelling) article is brilliantly written and moving. (Did he really write it? In English? I've never known of a chess grandmaster who was a good prose stylist, especially in another language.)

Like Kasparov, I also treaured my copy of My 60 Most Memorable Games. I remember the shock of pleasure at recognizing what Fischer had seen with certain moves, but also the overall directness and precision of his play.
posted by argybarg at 7:17 AM on February 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Why do we enjoy prodigies?

Better interface than compuserves.
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 7:23 AM on February 19, 2011 [9 favorites]

The Raheem Sterling video made me wonder what happened to Freddy Adu. Answer: yikes, currently being loaned out to a second division Turkish team.
posted by afx237vi at 7:42 AM on February 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Why do we enjoy prodigies?

We do?

I'm not sure that "enjoy" is the correct verb here....
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 8:09 AM on February 19, 2011

Why do we enjoy prodigies?

We do?

I'm not sure that "enjoy" is the correct verb here....

No, I think that's right.

No empirical evidence is needed to show that humans appreciate the elegance of other humans. I think Kissinger said it best about soccer:

"The great field generals like Zinedine Zidane of France or Franz Beckenbauer of Germany are blessed with the uncanny skill of distributing the ball among their teammates in a manner that seems unimaginable in the abstract and self-evident in execution. Soccer at its highest level is complexity masquerading as simplicity."
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 8:46 AM on February 19, 2011 [5 favorites]

We enjoy prodigies because we imagine that they will continue to get better in the following years in the same way their more average peers will, and transform from great for their age to greatest of all time. In fact, prodigies are more often just early bloomers, and they don't progress dramatically. Being a prodigy means being cursed with unfairly high expectations, which is why it often turns out badly for them.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 8:52 AM on February 19, 2011 [4 favorites]

I think part of the reason Prodigies don't grow to be super-geniuses is that the school system just isn't really setup to educate them at such a high level. The other is probably the idea that "I'm so smart, I don't need to try hard" which trips up a lot of people.
posted by delmoi at 9:15 AM on February 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

I read that as "Why do we enjoy pierogies?", and my reaction was, "Duh! Because they are delicious!"
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 9:21 AM on February 19, 2011 [4 favorites]

I did enjoy prodigy. It was a lot better than compuserve, and no way was I going to stoop to the level of aol.
posted by crunchland at 9:24 AM on February 19, 2011

posted by crunchland at 9:25 AM on February 19, 2011

We enjoy prodigies because we imagine that they will continue to get better [...] and transform from great for their age to greatest of all time. In fact, prodigies are more often just early bloomers, and they don't progress dramatically.

You know, I was counting one-hit wonders recently and I realized that the original 'Star Wars' was the only good movie that George Lucas ever directed unless you count 'American Graffitti'.

(And then there's the Wachowski Bros., and the splash and crash that David Twohy made with 'Pitch Black' and 'The Chronicles of Riddick', not to mention the career of 'Boiler Room' director, Ben Younger.)

As a middle-aged cynic, I think that the child-prodigy thing may be over-rated, b/c there's seldon anywhere to go but down.
posted by vhsiv at 9:37 AM on February 19, 2011


Early-blooming is just a component of the child prodigy. Lack of progression can just as easily be due to environmental deficiencies. Prodigies may be expected to handle normally difficult developmental stages without the support other children are provided. I'm sure you recognize the multitude of factors that could be involved, but I wanted to comment because sometimes the child prodigy is emblematic of nothing more than society's inability to handle diversity.
posted by polyhedron at 9:55 AM on February 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

I enjoy the writing of both Barney Ronay and Garry Kasparov, so I was delighted to see them together on MeFi. Thank you.
posted by grounded at 9:58 AM on February 19, 2011

The American had crushed two other Soviet grandmasters en route to the title match...

"Crushed" is an inadequate description.
Fischer continued his domination in the 1971 Candidates matches. First, he beat Mark Taimanov of the USSR at Vancouver by 6–0. "The record books showed that the only comparable achievement to the 6–0 score against Taimanov was Wilhelm Steinitz's 7–0 win against Joseph Henry Blackburne in 1876 in an era of more primitive defensive technique."

Less than two months later, he astounded the chess world by beating Larsen in their Denver match by the same score. Just a year before, Larsen had played first board for the Rest of the World team ahead of Fischer, and had handed Fischer his only loss at the Interzonal. Garry Kasparov later wrote that no world champion had ever shown a superiority over his rivals comparable to Fischer's "incredible" 12–0 score in the two matches.
[emphasis added] Chess statistician Sonas concludes that this victory gave Fischer the "highest single-match performance rating ever". ...

Only former World Champion Petrosian, Fischer's final opponent in the Candidates matches, was able to offer resistance in their match, played at Buenos Aires. Petrosian played a strong theoretical novelty in the first game, gaining the advantage, but Fischer played resourcefully and eventually won the game after Petrosian faltered. This gave Fischer an extraordinary run of 20 consecutive wins against the world's top players (in the Interzonal and Candidates matches), a winning streak topped only by Steinitz's 25 straight wins in 1873–82. Petrosian won decisively in the second game, finally snapping Fischer's streak. After three consecutive draws, Fischer swept the next four games to win the match 6½–2½ (+5=3–1).
I am aware of no equivalent feat of domination in any other competitive game. They called the apparent paralysis affecting his opponents "Fischer Fever".

You have to imagine a baseball team winning its division series and then its league championship series with 8 consecutive shutouts.

Then you have to imagine it facing the defending champions in the World Series, losing the first game by taking a wild-ass gamble, forfeiting the second game by a prima donna-ish refusal to play, then winning the next four games in dominating fashion.

Kasparov in his prime was arguably a better player. Certainly his achievements, considered in total, are larger.

But there will never be another Fischer.
posted by Joe Beese at 10:09 AM on February 19, 2011 [5 favorites]

What polyhedron posted above is congruent with my experience. Fitting a square peg into a round hole benefits neither the peg or the hole. Worse, though, is the situation of gifted kids, especially those in the arts, whose parents or "guardians" are supported by their earnings... sincerely, Billy Quizboy, former child prodigy
posted by jtron at 10:39 AM on February 19, 2011

Prodigies give us pure genius in undiluted form. Yes, Fischer worked hard at chess and Mozart practiced music and studied it from an early age, but you don't get to be that good that young without there being something else. It wasn't hard for Mozart to write music like that - it was hard for him not to.

Perhaps prodigies make us feel better about our own lack of awesomeness. If we see someone who became a great painter, singer, musician, scientist, etc at a late stage through hard work then it reminds us about what we could have done if we hadn't spent so much time reading MetaFilter. But a prodigy? That's the luck of the draw. I can admire that without thinking "That could have been me", because it couldn't have been.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 10:55 AM on February 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

I remember reading an article about prodigies and super-geniuses (maybe linked on Metafilter), and if I recall the lack of ability to thrive as an adult was the result of three factors:

1) Prodigies were generally forced abnormally quickly through developmental stages without proper peer and familial support, and were often required to face situations they weren't emotionally or psychologically mature enough to handle

2) There is a "sweet spot" for intelligence, where you are extremely smart but not so smart that it makes it difficult to interact with people of lesser intelligence to you. Many prodigies fall into the latter category, and the problems with social interaction are exacerbated by the first point.

3) Burn-out due to the pressures of aggressive adults around them.
posted by Anonymous at 11:02 AM on February 19, 2011

We love stories of apparently effortless accomplishment. Prodigies operate in the same mental space as the idea "real artists" don't practise their art, it just arrives via their muse, that we can win the lottery, that someday my prince will come.
posted by rodgerd at 12:03 PM on February 19, 2011 [4 favorites]

I'm not sure anyone ever "enjoyed" Bobby Fischer. Ever. And not just when he was older.
posted by tommasz at 12:24 PM on February 19, 2011

Rodgerd has it about right.

Then there's the freak factor. Mozart's juvenile work - not exactly earth-shattering had it been written by an adult. If prodigies can't keep raising the bar after twenty five, well, who the hell cares anymore?

Or, to put it another way - what have you done for us lately?
posted by IndigoJones at 12:27 PM on February 19, 2011

To be clear, surely you're not suggesting Mozart didn't keep improving at a breathtaking rate, because (to my ears) he most certainly did. His juvenile work is astonishing only for the age, and the uncanny grasp of 'music'. But the later symphonies, concertos, operas, or the requiem mass? Holy hell.
posted by hincandenza at 2:42 PM on February 19, 2011

I am aware of no equivalent feat of domination in any other competitive game.

It's happened in Go a few times. Go Seigen (Wu Qingyuan) was a player of the mid-Twentieth Century and was at least a stone stronger than anyone else of the era. His closest competitors, who would go on to dominate the era immediately following Wu's, were all beaten down to sen-ai-sen (taking black in two games out of three) or worse handicap.

Then he got hit by a motorcycle.

In the Nineties, a Korean, Yi Ch'ang-ho (or Lee Changho) emerged and was unrivaled. He's won nearly twice as many international titles as anyone else in history, has won every international tournament at least once, and has a winning record against almost all of his opponents... although it's hard to say he's as strong (by comparison) as Go Seigen was, since a younger Korean, Yi Se-tol, has been just as strong in the 2000s as he was during the 90s.
posted by sonic meat machine at 3:51 PM on February 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

The piece that opens Amadeus is Mozart's Symphony No. 25. He was 23 when he wrote it.
posted by kirkaracha at 5:44 PM on February 19, 2011

I find it surprising that Kasparov didn't give a mention of David Edmond's and John Eidinow's riveting account of the Fischer-Spassky match in Reykjavik: Bobby Fischer Goes to War: How the Soviets Lost the Most Extraordinary Chess Match of All Time. It's a fascinating profile of Fischer (especially Spassky...who emerges as a tragic figure...a master who respected his rival, even befriending and helping him later in his life), going really in-depth into his past, his eccentricities, and many surprising revelations about his family...I dare not spoil anything because it really is a highly recommended read for fans (and non-fans) of chess.
posted by chicofly at 11:46 PM on February 19, 2011

It's Wunderkind, actually. (A sort of "greengrocer's umlaut"?)
posted by aqsakal at 1:06 AM on February 20, 2011

To be clear, surely you're not suggesting Mozart didn't keep improving at a breathtaking rate

Good Lord no, absolutely not. My only point is, had he died at age ten, would anyone really be listening? Save as a curiosity?

Sorry to be unclear
posted by IndigoJones at 5:02 PM on February 20, 2011

18-year-old prodigy Kit Armstrong

Even if he couldn't play a note, the intricate music he writes for piano and chamber ensemble would mark him out as a composer to watch. Meanwhile his research in algebraic geometry and topology has taken him way past PhD level. [via Roger Ebert]
posted by mecran01 at 8:56 PM on February 20, 2011

I am aware of no equivalent feat of domination in any other competitive game.

Marion Tinsley. A checkers playing monster. I've seen it suggested that at his very best he was literally not beatable (i.e. played perfect checkers or near enough to ensure at least a draw). I believe that only one human ever beat him twice (Chinook, a computer program, beat him twice).
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 1:27 PM on February 22, 2011

In Matthew Syed's Bounce, he has a chapter on prodigies. He feels they just got their 10,000 hours in early. Mozart had a live-in coach, and while he was composing and performing at an early age, his first real masterpiece (Piano Concerto #9) was composed when he was 21, after 18 years of intensive training and practice. (See Google Books- p55-58)
posted by MtDewd at 1:08 PM on February 23, 2011

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