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

October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.

October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.

October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.

October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.

October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.

October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.

October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?

October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.

October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.

October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.

October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?

October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.

October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.

October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.

October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.

October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?

October 29 • 4:00 AM

Racial Resentment Drives Tea Party Membership

New research finds a strong link between tea party membership and anti-black feelings.

October 28 • 4:00 PM

The New Health App on Apple’s iOS 8 Is Literally Dangerous

Design isn’t neutral. Design is a picture of inequality, of systems of power, and domination both subtle and not. Apple should know that.

October 28 • 2:00 PM

And You Thought Your Credit Card Debt Was Bad

In Niagara County, New York, leaders took on 40-year debt to pay for short-term stuff, a case study in the perverse incentives tobacco bonds create.

October 28 • 10:00 AM

How Valuable Is It to Cure a Disease?

It depends on the disease—for some, breast cancer and AIDS for example, non-curative therapy that can extend life a little or a lot is considered invaluable. For hepatitis C, it seems that society and the insurance industry have decided that curative therapy simply costs too much.

October 28 • 8:00 AM

Can We Read Our Way Out of Sadness?

How books can help save lives.

Follow us

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

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