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Chess and the Limits of Intelligence


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

One of our cognitive tests, Spatial Span, relates with many real-world tasks—any activity that involves remembering and reproducing a series of positions recruits 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, Spatial Span performance can be increased by thinking of several moves as a single configuration.

In other words, cognitive performance tests and chess share some cognitive abilities, both in terms of raw brain performance and 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. Read more about how our C-Score is different from IQ, for example, or how we think intelligence is more than one thing anyway.

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, but it requires making healthy lifestyle choices, both for a boost in today’s cognition and a lifetime of brain health.

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