In Delivering Happiness, Zappo’s CEO Tony Hsieh recounts how he, and every other Asian kid he knew, was forced to practice multiple instruments, often for hours each day. No TV, no playtime, no games, until homework was finished and music was practiced. I knew quite a few non-Asian parents who practiced this sort of child-rearing as well. As I’ve written about before, attaining mastery in something, anything, is an extremely valuable experience to go through. If that something is music, that’s great; I sure wish I was a master pianist. But, for the same amount of time invested, mastering a game would probably be a better payoff.
Born in 1943 to a single mother, a six-year-old Robert James Fisher learned how to play chess from the instruction manual in a chess set his mother bought him at a Brooklyn candy shop. Months later he was devouring chess books. Within seven years, Bobby Fisher was the U.S. Junior Chess Champion. Within 8 years he was the U.S. Open Champion. Within 9 years he was a grandmaster. Today, Bobby Fisher is considered one of the greatest chess players of all time. People say he was gifted, that he was a chess genius, that his mind had some innate aptitude for the game. I don’t buy that. Fisher lived chess since he was six years old. His mother worried about how much her little six-year-old was playing chess, but soon realized “it was the only thing that made him happy.” Not ice-cream or slip-n-slides or dinosaurs or robots. Chess. Live that way for a decade and you’d be good too.
The most interesting part about Bobby Fisher is that he didn’t do what so many other good chess players went on to do. He didn’t use his mind to make loads of money picking stocks or playing currencies or handling lawsuits or doing anything. His “skills” didn’t translate to other fields. We found out later that had much to do with him being totally crazy, but it does bring up an interesting question: is there something about chess, or the minds of those who are really good at chess, that makes them good at other things?
Garry Kasparov says no.
But the aptitude for playing chess is nothing more than that. My argument has always been that what you learn from using the skills you have—analyzing your strengths and weaknesses—is far more important. If you can program yourself to learn from your experiences by assiduously reviewing what worked and what did not, and why, success in chess can be very valuable indeed. In this way, the game has taught me a great deal about my own decision-making processes that is applicable in other areas, but that effort has little to do with natural gifts.
Chess is great because it’s complex. There’s tons of data to analyze in every game. There’s also quick feedback. Make a minor mistake in move 11, and you could be done by move 42. This feedback is important, because it helps you learn fast. If you put in the hard work and time to analyze your moves, you’ll discover that mistake at move 11, and you’ll never make it again. That’s why chess is such a great game: its competitive nature provides an incentive to put in the work to analyze both yourself and your play. It teaches you all the basics you need to be successful in anything: think ahead, work hard, analyze performance, tweak, repeat.
But think about most games. Basketball, or Monopoly, or backgammon, or Starcraft, or even Angry Birds. They all require you to think ahead, to some degree. They all require hard work to get really good at, though some more than others. They all require deep analysis to make significant improvement. The strategies involved in any game are also easily testable.
Teaching someone to prepare intensely, to think strategically, to engage in deep analysis, to test extensively, all of these things help produce great minds.
Music is wonderful, but it doesn’t require the same sort of hard work or analysis. It requires long work, but not the same kind of deep analysis that many games do. When you miss a note, you instantly hear it. No real analysis required. Now, making your kid learn the piano is still probably more valuable than letting him spent his summer getting three stars on every Angry Birds level, but the benefits that come from mastering a game could be far more helpful in the long run.