Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us



Expert Chess Players Are Smart. Yes, That Was Questioned

• September 05, 2013 • 4:00 AM


A new analysis rebuts the claim that there is no link between general intelligence and expertise in a specific arena such as chess.

Chess players: You can reclaim your intellectual superiority. It appears that you—or at least those of you who play the game well—are unusually smart after all.

Over the past couple of decades, a line of research has suggested there is little or no link between a person’s general intelligence level and their success at the classic board game. Chess bloggers have warily picked up on the disconnect between these findings and the popular perception of chess players as brainiacs.

“You are all sworn to secrecy – I mean it!” one wrote in 2007. “If word ever gets out it will be the end of one of the few perks we chess players have.”

Well, your smart-aleck status has been reinstated. A newly published analysis reports that, while the evidence isn’t absolutely conclusive, it seems clear that “chess expertise does not stand in isolation from intelligence.”

“Several studies employing psychometric tests of intelligence have revealed that expert chess players display significantly higher intelligence than controls, and that their playing strength is related to their intelligence level.”

“There are now findings that expert chess players display above-average intelligence, that their playing strength is related to their individual intelligence level, and that their performance in expertise-related tasks is also a function of intelligence,” writes University of Göttingen psychologist Roland Grabner. His study is published—where else?—in the journal Intelligence.

Thanks in large part to the research of psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, and the popularization of his findings by writer Malcolm Gladwell, conventional wisdom regarding superior ability has shifted in recent years. According to their school of thought, practice, practice, practice—10,000 hours, to be precise—really will get you to Carnegie Hall, or the World Chess Championship. Years of long-term focused attention, they argue, play a larger role than innate intelligence.

“Individual differences in general cognitive abilities such as intelligence have been frequently regarded to be entirely negligible for expert performance,” Grabner notes. But a close examination of recent research, he writes, disproves that notion.

“Several studies employing psychometric tests of intelligence have revealed that expert chess players display significantly higher intelligence than controls, and that their playing strength is related to their intelligence level,” he writes.

While there are several studies showing that playing strength in chess can be best predicted by the amount of time spent practicing, the assumption that expertise is developed “independent of any influence of cognitive potential is quite implausible,” he adds. “There is growing data suggesting that some individuals require more, and others less, deliberate practice to attain the same expert performance levels in chess.”

For the non-chess player, this research is interesting in that it informs the ongoing debate over whether expertise is essentially a matter of practice. As Gladwell, the best-selling author, recently wrote in the New Yorker: “The closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role preparation seems to play. In cognitively demanding fields, there are no naturals.”

Gladwell points to chess as a good example of that purported truism. But chess blogger Arne Moll, who has some sympathy for Gladwell’s views, notes that his argument is undercut by his apparent confusion about the various levels of chess expertise and accomplishment.

He criticizes Gladwell’s use of the famous Polgar sisters (three of whom became chess masters) as proof of the preeminence of practice, noting that although they all went through the same rigorous regimen, their skill levels ultimately differed significantly.

Grabner cites those same siblings as evidence of the importance of innate intelligence. “Even a reanalysis of the famous Polgar sisters case, which is often cited as proof that only practice matters, revealed that despite the engagement in similarly intensive practice, the three sisters displayed quite different trajectories of expertise development, and attained different levels of playing strength,” he writes.

In addition, Grabner adds, “comparing experts with notices of different intelligence levels, it has been found that both expertise and intelligence impact on the performance in expertise-related tasks. These studies suggest that expert chess play does not stand in isolation from intelligence.”

So it appears that (a) expertise is the result of a combination of innate ability and hard work, and (b) chess masters have a lot going for them intellectually. Some cliches, it turns out, are true.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.

December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?

December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.

December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.

December 16 • 4:00 PM

How Fear of Occupy Wall Street Undermined the Red Cross’ Sandy Relief Effort

Red Cross responders say there was a ban on working with the widely praised Occupy Sandy relief group because it was seen as politically unpalatable.

December 16 • 3:30 PM

Murder! Mayhem! And That’s Just the Cartoons!

New research suggests deaths are common features of animated features aimed at children.

December 16 • 1:43 PM

In Tragedy, Empathy Still Dependent on Proximity

In spite of an increasingly connected world, in the face of adversity, a personal touch is most effective.

December 16 • 12:00 PM

The ‘New York Times’ Is Hooked on Drug du Jour Journalism

For the paper of record, addiction is always about this drug or that drug rather than the real causes.

December 16 • 10:00 AM

What Is the Point of Academic Books?

Ultimately, they’re meant to disseminate knowledge. But their narrow appeal makes them expensive to produce and harder to sell.

December 16 • 8:00 AM

Unjust and Unwell: The Racial Issues That Could Be Affecting Your Health Care

Physicians and medical students have the same problems with implicit bias as the rest of us.

December 16 • 6:00 AM

If You Get Confused Just Listen to the Music Play

Healing the brain with the Grateful Dead.

December 16 • 4:00 AM

Another Casualty of the Great Recession: Trust

Research from Britain finds people who were laid off from their jobs expressed lower levels of generalized trust.

December 15 • 4:00 PM

When Charter Schools Are Non-Profit in Name Only

Some charters pass along nearly all their money to for-profit companies hired to manage the schools. It’s an arrangement that’s raising eyebrows.

December 15 • 2:00 PM

No More Space Race

A far cry from the fierce Cold War Space Race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, exploration in the 21st century is likely to be a much more globally collaborative project.

December 15 • 12:32 PM

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

December 15 • 12:00 PM

Gluttony and Global Warming: We’re Eating Ourselves to a Warmer Planet

Forget your car. Our obsession with beef and dairy has a far more devastating effect on the climate.

December 15 • 10:00 AM

The 2016 Presidential Race Has Already Started

And this is the most exciting part.

December 15 • 8:00 AM

The Second Life of Old iPods

Why is it that old iPods are suddenly cool—and pricey again?

December 15 • 6:00 AM

The Lifelong Consequences of Rape

The long-term psychological and physical effects of the experience are devastating. And they’re likely exacerbated by the shame our culture insists on perpetuating.

December 15 • 4:00 AM

Mating Mindset Interferes With Attempts to Stop Smoking

Taiwanese researchers find photos of attractive women put men in an immediate-gratification state of mind.

December 15 • 2:00 AM

Where Innovation Thrives

Innovation does not require an urban area or a suburban area—it can happen in the city or in a small town. What it requires is open knowledge networks and the movement of people from different places.

December 13 • 9:18 AM

The Damage Done: Can Distance Between a Mother and Daughter Be the Best Solution?

“The devastation kept me away, but the guilt kept bringing me back, ready for another round.”

December 12 • 4:00 PM

The Red Cross Has Been Serially Misleading About Where Donors’ Dollars Are Going

The charity has become closely associated with one remarkable number in recent years: 91. That’s the percentage of donor dollars that goes toward services, according to organization leaders. But it’s unclear where that number comes from.

Follow us

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

A Word of Caution to the Holiday Deal-Makers

Repeat customers—with higher return rates and real bargain-hunting prowess—can have negative effects on a company’s net earnings.

Crowdfunding Works for Science

Scientists just need to put forth some effort.

There’s More Than One Way to Be Good at Math

Mathematical ability isn’t one single skill set; there are indeed many ways to be “good at math,” research shows.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.