Chess is something of a cerebral sport. It’s a battle of minds, wits and wills, right? So, it ought to follow that if you’re already pretty smart, you ought to be pretty good at chess, right?
Can you be smart and bad at chess? Yes, you can be smart and bad at chess at the same time. Being smart doesn’t automatically give you a special talent at chess. It just means you have the potential to be good at it. No matter how smart you are, you will still be bad at chess without practice, learning, and some dedication.
The link between chess, talent, and intelligence is fascinating. Let’s take a deeper look at what the science knows.
Can You Have A High IQ And Be Bad At Chess?
Yes, though people with high IQs don’t tend to boast about being bad at things, it is very easy to infer that there are many individuals with high IQs who aren’t great chess players.
If we were to assume a high IQ represented just 1% of the population of the world (and, in fact, of course we can define a “high IQ” as any IQ above average which would allow for 49.9999% of the world to get in on this act) then there are 7 billion people on the planet and thus, 70 million high IQ individuals.
Then let’s assume that those who are “good at chess” are happy to join FIDE to pursue their game at a competitive level. There are only around 780,000 FIDE registered chess players.
That leaves us with the equivalent of 1% of all high IQ individuals in FIDE even if we assumed that the entire membership of FIDE was drawn from that pool of the top 1% (and no such evidence exists – weak evidence suggests that most grandmasters have an IQ of 120 or more, which does not place even the best chess players in the “top 1%”).
Therefore, around 99%, at least, of high IQ individuals aren’t good enough to play chess competitively. Some of these people are likely to be good players anyway – many people play chess as a hobby and don’t want to compete.
But all of them? That’s incredibly unlikely and therefore, there are some people out there with a high IQ that are bad at chess.
Are All Chess Players Smart?
This is a much harder question to answer because firstly, there is no measurable definition of “smart”. Do we mean brighter than average? Do we mean top 1%? Where exactly is our cutoff line between smart and not smart?
Even assuming an individual does not have a particularly high IQ, is it not smart in its own right to take up a sport which challenges the mind?
However, a paper published by the American Council on Science and Health, suggests that while we cannot assume that chess players are smart by definition, we can certainly prove that it is the case.
The researchers wanted to know if they could compare two groups with respect to IQ and whether certain groups were more likely than others to be smarter. They initially thought about studying college students but then realized that as colleges select on the basis of intelligence, this would lead to an almost by definition group of people who were smarter than the background level based on IQ scores.
So, they turned to chess. Chess has no entry criteria. You choose whether or not to play chess and no-one forces you to. Thus, the question became “do people who play chess of their own free will exhibit higher levels of intelligence than those who don’t play?”
The answer was surprising – chess players were smarter than those who don’t play chess. More incredibly, they were smarter at everything than those who didn’t play, they showed better scores in all cognitive traits.
Not only do chess players solve problems better than others, but they are also better at being creative and at verbal reasoning!
This suggests two things. The first, is that playing chess may make you smarter than not playing chess. (It doesn’t prove this, but it does suggest it). The second, is that playing chess well is almost certainly a function of intelligence and that you can’t just “train” winners in chess, they need to be intellectually capable to begin with.
So, the answer is a cautious “yes”, all chess players probably are “smart” when compared to their peers.
Does Playing Chess Make You Smarter?
We now enter thorny ground because it appears that while playing chess does make you smarter, no-one wants to admit it. This piece in the Singapore Times says that it doesn’t make you smarter. It then admits that “We carried out a review of all the studies in the field. Our results showed some moderate effects of chess instruction on cognitive ability and academic achievement – especially mathematics.”
We’ve found that meta-analysis of a broad range of studies is possibly the best way to get insight into the impact of anything and while the educators are “cautious” because they want to compare it to other activities – this is ridiculous.
If playing chess makes you brighter than your peers, it doesn’t matter if playing bridge or tennis also makes you brighter than your peers – chess playing still makes you brighter.
Thus, while nobody may want to admit this in academic circles (where for whatever reason there is strong resistance to the idea of teaching students chess as a compulsory subject and thus, explains why nobody wants to admit that chess has clear benefits) we will – yes, chess playing makes you smarter.
However, there is no effective measure from any study that predicts how much smarter you will become from playing chess and would warn against expecting any miracles.
Does Being Intelligent Provide An Advantage When Playing Chess?
Yes. This one is much easier to answer thanks to Michigan State University’s meta-analysis of 19 studies which included over 1,800 participants and an additional 2,300 articles on the skill of chess players.
There is no doubt that there is a correlation between being intelligent and being good at chess. This again does not mean that all intelligent people are good at chess but rather those intelligent people who play chess tend to do better at the game than their slightly less intelligent peers.
You would probably expect this to be the case, chess is, after all, an exercise in creative problem solving and thus intelligence ought to be a help.
This may be good news or bad news if you want to become a professional chess player, however. It means that categorically – training in chess is probably not enough to become a great player, you will need a natural aptitude for the game too and that appears to be measured in intellectual ability.
Can you be smart and bad at chess? There appears to be a relationship between intelligence and your potential skill as a chess player though this is not cut and dried and there is evidence that suggests that some intelligent people do really struggle with playing chess. However, having potential and fulfilling that potential are two very different things and thus, it is completely possible to be smart and to be bad at chess.
In fact, we’d suggest that not only is it possible, it’s quite common too. Though there are millions of people on the planet playing chess (and nearly a million of them are registered with FIDE) there are many more people who don’t play chess than do. Many of those people are very smart and yet, if you asked them for a game, they would be terrible as they would have no skill or understanding of it.