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Sumire Nakamura

Meet Sumire Nakamura, the world’s youngest professional Go player. Many say her precocious talent makes her a genius. But what is a “genius” anyway? And are they born, or made?

Nine-year-old Sumire Nakamura goes to primary school in Osaka, Japan. She also happens to be the world’s youngest professional Go player.

Go is an ancient Chinese board game that is 10 times more complicated than chess. It was invented around 2,500 years ago in China, but it is now popular across east Asia. Two players take turns placing black or white stones on a board. The aim is to control more of the board than your opponent.

Nakamura started playing Go when she was three, and was competing in tournaments by seven. Many consider Nakamura to be a genius for her precocious mastery of the game, but her talent did not come without hard work.

She was specially trained as part of a Japanese programme to produce “talented” Go players for international competition. She has also been mentored through hours of practice by her father, a professional player who won Japan’s national Go title in 1998.

So what is a genius, really?

An IQ over 140 is often regarded as “genius” level. But not all geniuses, especially artistic ones, will have a very high IQ, and not everyone with an IQ over 140 necessarily deserves the label “genius”.

The word “genius” comes from the Latin verb gignere, meaning “to give birth”. The Romans believed that each person was born with a unique spirit, called a “genius”, that their talents derived from.

The idea that some are born geniuses has persisted. Perhaps the most famous example is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who wrote his first symphony aged eight.

Now the idea has scientific backing. Last year, a study linked almost 1,000 genes to intelligence. The trope of the mad, tortured genius has a long history, and indeed, many genes linked with high intelligence are also associated with anxiety, depression and autism.

 Another school of thought holds that anyone can be a genius if they practise enough. In his 1993 paper, Anders Ericsson found that the most elite violin players had one thing in common: 10,000 hours of practice. The study did not find any examples of performers being naturally talented. 

Winston Churchill is commonly regarded as a natural wit and great speaker, but he was a nervous public speaker in his youth. He spent painstaking hours crafting his speeches and reading them aloud.

Clever clogs 

Is it good to be a genius? Many of those heralded as child prodigies have faded into mediocrity later in life, crippled by the pressure.

Besides, there is no universally accepted definition of a “genius”, although originality, extreme intelligence and creativity are common themes. Is it a meaningless label? Where does the line fall between being a genius and just being very clever?