The Research Player

This article is part of a series entitled 20th Century Chess Greats. See also:

  1. Mikhail Tal: The Deep Dark Forest
  2. Bobby Fischer: The American
  3. Tigran Petrosian: The Iron Fortress
  4. Mikhail Botvinnik: The Research Player

In a previous article, I addressed the classic nature vs. nurture dichotomy, in which skill is attributed to both genetics and environment. I noted that, while talk of nature often concerns only genetic inclination towards talent, we might also consider genetic tendency towards drive, which prompts the skill-seeker to alter her environment such that she might increase her skill beyond that which her combination of environment and natural talent would otherwise allow.

For example, Fischer became a great player only because the three stars aligned. His environment led him towards chess; his talent, presumably, brought strong results early-on; and finally, his incessant drive allowed him to keep studying long after most would-be champions would have put the board away.

Today, I advance an even stronger argument: perhaps, natural talent doesn’t even exist; perhaps we’re dealing only with environment and drive. Natural talent is simply an apparition, a phantom, often confused with natural drive, but not even existing in its own right. Or, more profoundly, perhaps the existence of natural talent is not scientifically-supportable, and, whether or not it exists, we need not believe in it.

Mikhail Botvinnik: electrical engineer, computer scientist, and 6th world chess champion

Mikhail Botvinnik was the first and perhaps the most influential great player to come out of the 20th century Soviet chess school. His pupil, Garry Kasparov, went on to become one of the best players of all time. In fact, the entire Soviet instructional style was reformatted such that all students would learn chess the way Botvinnik learned it [1].

Every Soviet player had a reputation. Tal was reckless. Petrosian was conservative. Botvinnik, however, was perhaps the only player whose reputation more describes his style off-the-board than over-the-board. Smyslov was intuitive. Korochnoi was precise. But Botvinnik was prepared.

A Ph.D. in electrical engineering, Botvinnik was a senior fellow at Russia’s Research Institute for Electrical Energy. He wrote a computer program to coordinate maintenance of the USSR’s network of power stations, and another one to manage the USSR’s entire economy. He was a pioneer in the field of computer chess.

And, when Botvinnik prepared for tournaments, he brought with him his characteristic scientist’s discipline. He would spend weeks studying the intricacies of one particular opening, developing strong and inventive ideas that lasted well into the middle-game. He didn’t study all openings, but he studied many in incredible detail. “You don’t have to know that which everyone knows,” he once said, “but it is important to know that which not everyone knows.” He filled entire notebooks with ideas, crossing out some and highlighting others. Then he’d copy his favorite analyses into new notebooks, for the sake of organization.

Botvinnik’s approach earned him massive success. He held the title of World Champion for 13 years (though they were non-consecutive) and earned his place among the best players of all time. Here, a young Botvinnik beats strong Czech grandmaster Salo Flohr. Playing with the black pieces, Botvinnik employs the fundamentally-flawed Stonewall Defense—but wins anyway, because he had studied it so well!

Botvinnik played countless incredible games like this one. But above all, his contribution was his approach to chess itself: Botvinnik immortalized the notion of the research player. Success in chess, Botvinnik taught us, comes not from superior calculation, or heightened intellect, or divine insight. It comes from preparation. Moreover, Botvinnik gives us hope that, with due preparation and sufficient research, we can all play like a world champion.

Perhaps Botvinnik really was incredibly intelligent, and would never have become world champion otherwise. But how might we test for this? How can we possibly parse apart, with scientific rigor, intelligence and hard work?

As proof that intelligence exists, one might point to variance in IQ test scores, and the fact much of this variance seems attributable to genetics. A 2004 meta-analysis reports the heritability of intelligence as 0.85 for those 18 and older [2]. And, though the extent of the heritability of intelligence is debated, few would put it at zero. Intelligence must exist to at least some extent, right?

In response, I argue that, perhaps, IQ test results are reflective more of a history of critical thought (mediated by drive) than of some innate intelligence. Indeed, IQ test score improves with practice, just like SAT score does. It’s likely that we’re practicing for an IQ test every time drive compels us to think thoroughly through a difficult problem. To this, one might argue that being genetically-assigned a “drive quotient” is just as bad as being genetically-assigned an intelligence quotient. In response, however, I repeat my argument from The American: just as poor intelligence (if there is such a thing) may be overcome with drive, poor drive can too be overcome by resilience, and so on. As conscious beings, we’re in charge of our fate—and we’re in charge of the extent to which we possess that construct called intelligence.

Suppose, for argument, that none of this is true, and that intelligence is very real, and that lack of intelligence is insurmountable. I disagree with this outlook. But even if it were correct, life would be best lived believing that it’s not. No matter the extent to which intelligence limits us, it’s undeniable that practice helps us. So we may as well practice as if our potential knows no bounds. There’s no sense in dreaming of being a Fischer, if only I had the insight, or dreaming of being a Tal, if only I had the wit. I’d much rather follow the strategy of Botvinnik and, no matter what the ultimate outcome, choose to live life as a research player.


  1. Chess: Advanced Thinking Techniques. USC SLL 299 course reader. By IM Jack Peters
  2. Genetic Influence on Human Psychological Traits

One comment on “The Research Player

  1. Ben says:

    In what sense are we ever free? How can we make sense of the complex interplay between genes, free will, and physical laws?

    Philosophical compatabilists — who assert that physical determinism and free will are compatible — define free will non-metaphysically. Law courts discuss defendants acting “on their own free will”. Political philosophers embrace “political liberty”. The point is clear: Dealing with freedom, we don’t consult physical laws, but rather pinpoint something that feels and acts like freedom. When we discuss free will, we may simply refer to this intuitive freedom. Physical determinism has been excused from the picture.

    Where do genes fit in? Genes both push us in certain directions and constrain us in certain ways. Simplifying the picture further, we might desire to refer not to these genes’ directions and constraints, but rather to the directions and constraints’ subjective manifestations within our minds. We’re left with a single, entirely mental arena: gene-driven directions and constraints, and a free will ruling over it all.

    How can these directions and constraints be meaningfully defined subjectively? Our mind furnishes us with desires and aversions. Above all, our mind commands us to listen to them, by inducing pleasant or painful subjective states. Through the mechanism of these internal signals — and our compulsion to follow them — our genes can exert their influence.

    Now we can begin distinguishing the influence of genes from the power of free will. In certain genetic dictates, the signal is strong: we must reproduce, and we can’t run 26 miles. In other situations, the higher decisive will seems to play a stronger role. I choose to study for my test, and I refrain from drinking alcohol. Perhaps all of our decisions have both a genetic and a willed component. The balance between the two, however, differs.

    Now our task reduces to that of determining where along this spectrum — how low- or high-order — the fruits of intelligence lie.

    How can we begin to objectively measure the position of some given trait? Josh, you’ve suggested using phylogenetics. The later that a particular faculty appears within the biological phylogenetic tree, the higher-order it is. We might also, of course, use hereditability statistics. The less heritable a characteristic is, the higher-order it is. (But is the drive to overcome genetics heritable?) It remains to be determined which of these methods, if any, most appropriately aligns with the influenced freedom which we meaningfully perceive and use.

    Whether or not we can find a perfect biological correlate, though, we still feel our faculties of free will perpetually at work. We make our own decisions. We know what we can do. We know what we can change.

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