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His finalist year: 1989
His finalist project: Figuring out if creativity can predict chess expertise
What led to the project: Tamir Druz's mother and father grew up in the Soviet Union where "chess was pretty much a national pastime," he says. As immigrants to New York City they taught their son the game, and by his senior year at The Bronx High School of Science, Druz was the captain of the chess team.
The more he became involved in competitive chess, the more he began to wonder: "What made a great player great? What made one player better than the next?" He got to know many elite players, and his observations made him think that neither bookish intelligence nor the ability to memorize lots of information had much to do with anything.
So he decided to determine what did matter. He built various tests of people's abilities to think in different ways, and gave these tests to chess players of varying levels during breaks in competitions. He discovered that the best predictor of chess expertise was not whether people could necessarily think a certain play through 20 moves ahead, but rather how "flexible" they were in considering "a wider and broader array of possibilities." The stronger players possessed a type of creativity where "they were more open to looking at options that, on the surface, might not appear to be especially promising." Elite chess players would contemplate many moves and, rather than "dismissing most right away, they instead gave everything its due time in the spotlight."
He entered his results in the 1989 Westinghouse Science Talent Search and was named a finalist.
The effect on his career: Druz took the lesson of his Westinghouse project—that thinking broadly can give you an edge—to heart. He'd always been interested in finance and markets, and because he planned to enter that field as soon as possible, he wanted to use his college years to study something that could give him a broad perspective on how systems worked, rather than simply studying economics. So he went to The Cooper Union in New York City and earned a degree in chemical engineering in 1993, then to the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania for his MBA. In 1994 he joined the Manhattan office of Booz Allen Hamilton, the consulting company, in the energy and chemicals group.