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Expert Chess Players Are Smart. Yes, That Was Questioned

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

“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.