Daniel M. just sent me this fascinating chess study. Enjoy!

Does Chess Need Intelligence? – A Study with Young Chess Players

Merim Bilalic and Peter McLeod
Oxford University
Fernand Gobet
Brunel University


Although it is widely acknowledged that chess is the best example of an intellectual activity among games, evidence showing the association between any kind of intellectual ability and chess skill has been remarkably sparse. One of the reasons is that most of the studies
investigated only one factor (e.g., intelligence), neglecting other factors relevant for the acquisition of chess skill (e.g., amount of practice, years of experience). The present study investigated the chess skill of 57 young chess players using measures of intelligence (WISC
III), practice, and experience. 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.

Key words: Chess, Intelligence, Practice, Children, Verbal ability, Visuo-spatial ability, Speed of processing, Memory span.

It is widely acknowledged that chess is the king among (board) games. This special status is most likely a result of the intellectual aura which surrounds it (Holding, 1985; Newell, Shaw, & Simon, 1963). 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. This notion is not only shared among lay people but also among some researchers – recently there has been a surge of research based, if not entirely then at least partly, on the assumed link between intelligence and chess (Howard, 1999; 2001; 2005a; 2005b; Irwing & Lynn, 2005). Given this common conception about the role of intelligence in chess, it is remarkable how unsuccessful the search for intellectual ingredients of chess skill has been. Despite being an apparently obvious example of a purely intellectual activity, for more than a century researchers have largely failed to connect success at chess with any intellectual ability (e.g., Binet, 1966/1893; Unterrainer, Kaller, Halsband, & Rahm, 2006).

In this study we present new empirical evidence that highlights the difficulty of relating intelligence to success at chess. We will firstly consider the sparse positive evidence for the influence of intelligence on chess skill. We will then describe the studies which failed to
uncover the often assumed link between intelligence and chess skill. Next, possible reasons for the lack of evidence for this influence will be considered and important trends that provide clues for solving the chess-intelligence paradox identified. Finally, we will present a study that addresses the problems and shortcomings of previous studies.

1. General intelligence and visuo-spatial abilities in chess – positive evidence

A common theoretical view is that besides general intelligence, chess requires a high level of visuo-spatial ability (e.g., Chase & Simon, 1973a; 1973b; Frydman & Lynn, 1992; Howard, 1999; 2005a; 2005b). Calculating variations/moves, that is imagining potential moves and representing future developments, has been thought to be one of, if not the main factor of chess skill (Aagard, 2004). Given that no external help is allowed, chess players need to do these transformations in their mind’s eye (Chase & Simon, 1973b). At first sight, these
transformations seem to resemble the popular mental rotation task (Shepard & Metzler, 1971) which taps visuo-spatial ability.

It is thus fitting that Frydman and Lynn (1992), who administered the WISC to 33 young elite Belgian chess players (mean age 11; the average rating was slightly below that of an average adult chess player; see the discussion of the Elite subsample in the Results section
for an explanation of the rating system in chess), found that the sample of talented chess players had above-average IQs (about 120) and their ‘Performance IQ’ (as measured by half of the subtests) was considerably higher than their verbal IQ (as measured by the other half of the subtests). The “stronger” players had higher performance IQ scores than the “weaker” ones, which led Frydman and Lynn to conclude that visuo-spatial abilities are essential for successful chess playing. Similarly, Horgan and Morgan (1990) demonstrated a relationship between intelligence as measured by Raven’s Progressive Matrices and improvement in chess skill. The 15 best players from the sample (performing roughly at the level of an average adult player) scored higher on the Raven’s Progressive Matrices than the average for children of their age. Stepwise regression analysis showed that 65% of variance on the current chess rating was explained by the rating in the previous year, 77% when the Raven’s test score was added to the regression, and 87% when the number of games played was added.

Here is the full study.

What do you think of this study?

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