Does Chess Need Intelligence?

I recently started picking up chess again, the “king of board games”. Interestingly enough, there has also been a wave of chess players starting to stream on Twitch, drawing in a relatively high number of viewers. The “chess” category on Twitch has been averaging many thousand concurrent viewers a day (spread over multiple channels), at one point even peaking at 156'000 concurrent viewers.

One of the most popular chess channels on Twitch would be the one of Chess Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura, reaching up to 30'000 concurrent viewers when streaming tournament games or the like. In fact, as I’m writing this, he’s streaming the Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour Finals versus Magnus Carlsen with 20'000 people watching online. However, Hikaru has been streaming for multiple years and has therefore built a rather large fanbase, which should also be taken into account.

But today’s story isn’t about chess streams — what I find more interesting is the notion that the best chess players surely must all be “geniuses”. As always, I looked into the available research on this and once again found an interesting paper!

Image for post
Image for post

The Research

In 2007, Merim Bilalić, Peter McLeod and Fernand Gobet published a paper that investigates how intellectual ability and chess skill might be related, based on the fact that chess is known to be an intellectual hobby. The authors provide us with a very nice explanation of how that reputation came about in the first place:

While in other competitive activities, especially traditional sporting ones, people can always blame their failure on lack of luck or find a rationalization (e.g., so what if he can run faster than me — I can do many other things better than him), it is more difficult to come up with such excuses in chess. One has the same set of pieces as the opponent, luck does not play any role, and if one loses one can only blame oneself, one’s intellect, or lack thereof. Not being smart is more hurtful than not being able to run fast, as many chess players will testify.

The research that attempts to find an association between chess skill and intelligence has been rather unsuccessful though — and it dates all the way back to 1893 (!):

The very first empirical investigation of chess by Alfred Binet (1966/1893) set out to examine exactly how expert chess players envision the chess board and anticipate moves when they play blindfold chess (chess without the help of external board). Contrary to his expectation that chess players would have a concrete and detailed image of the board and the transformations that are taking place during a blindfold game, even the very best players reported that their representations were abstract without clear encoding of the board and pieces (but see Fine, 1965).

Beyond that, researchers tested for visuo-spatial ability, visual memory ability, general intelligence, digit span (memory capacity), general memory capacity and fluid intelligence, but the results all ended up the same: In the mentioned categories, chess players did not display significantly better ability or performance than non-chess players. So you can basically tell your friends that you’re as smart as the best chess player in the world—awesome! (I don’t recommend doing this)

A really interesting finding was one that showed how expert child chess players were reproducing briefly presented chess stimuli worse than novice child chess players, despite having better memory capacities (which were measured beforehand). It has also been found many times that “experts’ huge advantage over weaker players (or non-players) in recalling chess positions disappears when the positions are scrambled, that is, they no longer make chess ‘sense’.”

Image for post
Image for post

So, what is it that distinguishes the great(est) chess players from all others? Here’s the answer:

… most of the current theories of expertise assume that chess skill depends more on knowledge (e.g., stored patterns of chess configurations, chunks and templates) than on analytical abilities such as search or calculation of variations … It has been estimated that chess experts have between 10,000 and 100,000 chunks stored in their memories … These constellations are connected with common moves and plans which are responsible for successful chess playing. In order to acquire such a large number of chess position patterns, prolonged training is a necessity for every chess expert.

Multiple hundred thousand chunks stored is impressive by itself, but either way, it turns out to come down to the amount of (focused) practice and the years of experience. In fact, these are the factors that the authors I mentioned at the beginning controlled for in their study to get a clearer picture — previous studies failed to do this properly. Bilalić et al.’s sample consisted of primary and second school children, some of them being “star players” (up to a rating of 1835) and others just being “beginners”. However, all of them took part in a chess club in their schools at least once a week and had been playing for about four years at the time. The results turned out to be the following:

Although practice had the most influence on chess skill, intelligence explained some variance even after the inclusion of practice. When an elite subsample of 23 children was tested, it turned out that intelligence was not a significant factor in chess skill, and that, if anything, it tended to correlate negatively with chess skill. This unexpected result is explained by a negative correlation between intelligence and practice in the elite subsample. The study demonstrates the dangers of focusing on a single factor in complex real-world situations where a number of closely interconnected factors operate.

The conclusion is basically that, while intelligence seems to not be the most influential factor, it should not be dismissed altogether either. As always, more research is needed — so, until then, you should probably wait with telling people that you’re as smart as the best chess players in the world…

Psychology student from Zurich, Switzerland with interests in STEM and various other things | Website:

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store