I would like to second what Spengler says in reply to David Brooks on the subject of genius. It is obvious that Brooks has never met any true geniuses and has no idea what he is talking about on this subject. 

There is at least one person alive today in my own field of theoretical particle physics who almost everyone recognizes as a genius. His name is Ed Witten. Most physicists would laugh in your face if you told them that Witten is just the product of ordinary talent—or even unusual talent—and hard work from an early age. There are many hundreds of extremely talented people in this field of physics, brilliant people, and most of them have worked very hard from early on to develop their skills and knowledge. But I doubt that any of them are under the illusion that they could have come anywhere close to Witten in ability, no matter how hard they had worked or young they had started. 

Another good example of a genius who utterly disproves Brooks’s thesis is someone I have written about before on the First Things blog: the great chess player Jose Raul Capablanca (1988—1942). Many (including several world chess champions) have expressed the view that Capablanca was the most naturally gifted player of all time. When Jose was four years old, he was watching his father (a weak amateur) play chess with one of his friends. Jose had never seen a game of chess before or been taught its rules. After watching a few games, he accused his father of cheating, because his father had made an illegal move. His father was astonished and asked him, “What do you know about it?” Little Jose said defiantly, “I can beat you!” And so he proceeded to do! At the age of twelve, Jose won the championship of Cuba. But after that, his parents only allowed him to play infrequently, so that he could focus on his schoolwork.

He resumed playing a little when he went off to college (at Columbia University’s Engineering School) but still not against world-class players. The first strong opposition Capablanca ever faced was Frank J. Marshall, the U.S. champion, in a match in 1909. Capablanca, not only had relatively little playing experience up that point, but by his own admission had never even studied the openings. Marshall, on the other hand, was one of the top five or six players in the world. Nevertheless, Capablanca utterly crushed him, winning eight games to one with fourteen draws.

What was astonishing about Capablanca was how little he worked at the game. There has probably never been a grandmaster who worked as little as he did. He didn’t study openings, or read chess books, and he played relatively infrequently. By the time he won the world championship in 1921, he had played in only two strong international tournaments (San Sebastian 1909 and St. Petersburg 1914). What astonished everyone was the fantastic speed at which he played. One grandmaster said of him:  “What others could not find in a month of study, he saw at a glance.” It was often his custom at tournaments, even when playing top opponents, to stroll around the tournament hall watching the games of others. When it was his turn to move, he would walk back to his table, glance at the board for a few seconds, make a move, and then resume his stroll. His opponents, though spending hours thinking, would be crushed.

One famous English player, after suffering this treatment, complained, “Maybe he is justified in having this contempt for us, but he doesn’t have to show it.” At the St. Petersburg 1914 tournament all the top contenders for the world title were attendance. In the evenings they played many “lightning games” against each other (that is, with extremely fast time limits of only a few minutes for the whole game). “Capa” crushed all of them, one after the other, spending on average one-fifth of the time on his moves as they. There is a tone of awe in the way the other champions have spoken about him. “Chess came as naturally to him as breathing,” said one. “Chess was his mother tongue,” said another.

I agree with Spengler that it is mediocrities who feel threatened by the idea of genius. The truly talented recognize genius when they see it, and know the difference between what they have and what the genius has.

Articles by Stephen M. Barr


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