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Chess and the Limits of Intelligence

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A member of the Cambridge Brain Sciences community sent me a great question: is playing chess related to intelligence?

One of our cognitive tasks, Spatial Span, relates with many real-world pursuits—any activity that involves remembering and reproducing a series of positions will require similar brain regions. One such activity is chess. Chess masters "chunk" multi-piece arrangements into a single representation in memory, allowing them to memorize a huge number of chess configurations. Similarly, people who can think of several spatial positions as a single configuration may do better in Spatial Span.

In other words, cognitive performance tests and chess share some cognitive abilities, both in terms of raw brain performance and mental strategies that help with test scores.

A lot of intelligence tests rely on these abilities. It’s reasonable to propose, then, that people who are very good at chess are also highly intelligent. It may even be the case that excelling at chess requires high intelligence.


Intelligence Isn't Everything

We frequently emphasize that there is a lot more to cognition than intelligence—we think intelligence is more than one thing, and DNA only partially determines intelligence, for example.

But when you do measure IQ and chess skills together, what does the data say? This study—Does Chess Need Intelligence?—did exactly that. In a sample of children with a wide range of chess skills, those with a higher IQ did tend to play better. However, in a smaller sample of only highly-skilled players, there was no positive association.

It could mean that intelligence helps when you are starting to learn chess—it may even be required to pick it up—but among experienced players who stick with it, additional intelligence is of no use. At that point, practice is the biggest predictor of success.


Build a Foundation of Brain Power, Then Practice Practice Practice

This is true of many intellectual pursuits. Raw brain power makes them easier to pick up, but sticking with it and practicing is just as important in the long run. I believe that whether you want to become a chess master or just kick butt at everyday life, a multi-step approach is needed.

Brain power can be increased with good mental health care, good physical health, and good lifestyle choices—and that brain power will help with a wide variety of activities, especially when starting out. CBS Health helps measure those changes to cognitive performance. However, in chess and in life, long-term success also requires the motivation to stick with a pursuit long enough to become an expert.


This post was written by Mike Battista, a staff scientist at Cambridge Brain Sciences.


Originally posted August 29, 2017. Updated December 9, 2020.

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