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Chess & Intelligence: 19 Things to Consider (Links, Correlation,…)

Last Updated on January 25, 2024 by Gamesver Team and JC Franco

We know there’s some correlation between chess and intelligence, but it isn’t easy to define. The reason it’s difficult to define is that it is difficult to test. Of course, people have their opinions and theories, but many aspects beyond our general knowledge must be considered. So, if you’re looking for an answer to an undefined question, you’ve come to the right place.

To play chess, you need a decent measure of intelligence and cognitive skills. Intelligence and cognition have different definitions but are inextricably linked. Chess can benefit cognition and other aspects of a person’s mind, but it doesn’t make you intelligent.

When thinking of the relationship between chess and intelligence, you realize there are so many aspects to consider. The answer we’re looking for isn’t as black and white as the game’s components. While researchers and psychologists continue to labor and hypothesize, we can mull over the topic here.

These are 19 considerations regarding chess and intelligence:

1. It Appears That More Intelligent People Play Chess

Chess has an association with intelligence. That is, it is generally accepted that you need to be intelligent to play chess. Many psychologists, researchers, psychometrists, and the like have tried to find a definitive link between chess and intelligence. But it is difficult to test and conclude something when so many variables exist.

At a glance, it makes sense that people with above-average intelligence are likelier to play chess skillfully. This is because chess requires strategic thinking, problem-solving abilities, a good memory, and pattern recognition, to name a few skills. But is that intelligence? And do these clever people use their intelligence when they’re not playing chess? Maybe, but not in every circumstance.

2. Defining Intelligence In Chess Is Not As Easy As We Think

We get the impression that chess players are intelligent, but what is intelligence? Even psychologists have differing views on the definition of intelligence and have two schools of thought on the topic. The first school of thought defines overall intelligence as a combination of multiple intelligences. The second school of thought sees intelligence as a unitary concept. But which one is correct?

Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences theory proposes intelligence is a combination of nine types of intelligence. They are:

  1. Logical-mathematical,
  2. Spatial-visual,
  3. Intrapersonal,
  4. Interpersonal,
  5. Bodily-kinesthetic,
  6. Musical, 
  7. Verbal-linguistic,
  8. Naturalist, and
  9. Existential.

In 1998, Nicholas Mackintosh had a more unitary perspective of intelligence. His stance on intelligence focused on mental efficiency in reasoning, rationalization, coping, and acting purposefully. However, with time, Mackintosh also adopted the idea that other types of intelligence exist.

3. Chess Requires More Than One Kind Of Intelligence

If we use the Multiple Intelligences approach, we can see that different types of intelligence would be helpful in chess. For example, logical-mathematical and spatial-visual intelligence would definitely benefit a chess player.

However, inter- and intrapersonal intelligence are also helpful in chess. Interpersonal intelligence would help you to read your opponent and strike with a killer instinct. Intrapersonal intelligence would allow you to know your own limitations and set personal goals.

4. Intelligence And Cognition Mean Different Things In Chess

Cognition and intelligence are intertwined concepts, though they mean different things. Cognition requires thought, experience, and sensory input to acquire and process knowledge. Intelligence is a measure of how easily a person understands things and how they handle challenges or new situations.

In chess, cognition would be the process of learning how to play the game, practicing what you’ve learned, and exposing yourself to its various aspects. Intelligence in chess would be making sense of a challenge and using your knowledge to beat your opponent. 

5. Intelligence And Chess Practice Are Difficult To Separate

As much as some think intelligence is the defining factor of becoming a chess player, it is not. Instead, practice plays a huge role in becoming an excellent chess player. 

Furthermore, studies have shown that it’s almost impossible to separate the effect of intelligence and practice on a person’s ability to play chess. So, instead of fruitlessly trying to isolate the two factors, it is better to look at their combined effect on a person’s chess-playing ability. 

6. Intelligence And Practice Complement Each Other In Chess

As mentioned, looking at intelligence and practice in isolation is a fruitless exercise. However, seeing how intelligence and practice complement each other gives us better insight into the topic. 

In this study, it was found that practice affected chess players’ skill levels more than intelligence. However, the researchers suggested the following (paraphrased): 

“By practicing and developing the knowledge you’ve acquired on chess, it is possible to circumvent cognitive ability limitations.”

7. Playing Chess Could Improve Your Intelligence

Given that intelligence, cognition, and practice complement each other, it’s safe to assume that you can boost your intelligence by playing chess. You won’t necessarily jump by 10 IQ points, but you will develop the intelligence you employ when playing.

So, playing chess might improve your logic and spatial-visual intelligence. You might improve on a social level as you interact with opponents and learn more about yourself. Or you may even have a hint of existential intelligence peeking out, saying, “I was made for this,” or “How did I get here?” But it’s unlikely that chess will turn you into a walking encyclopedia.

8. Improving Your Cognition Can Improve Your Chess Game

Cognition refers to processing the knowledge or input we receive through our senses, experience, and thoughts. We can refine our cognition skills or “train our brain” to be better at chess, but it requires discipline and practice. Cognitive skills worth honing include the following: problem-solving, critical and strategic thinking, pattern recognition, and memory exercises.

9. Playing Chess Could Improve Your Cognition

Just as working on your cognitive skills can help you improve at chess, the opposite is also true. Evidence shows that playing chess won’t make you a wunderkind, but it will reinforce some cognitive skills. 

Some of the cognitive skills it could benefit are:

  • Analytical thinking, 
  • Concentration,
  • Convergent thinking, 
  • Creative thinking, 
  • Critical thinking, 
  • Foresight, 
  • Intuition, 
  • Logical reasoning, 
  • Logical thinking, 
  • Problem-solving,
  • Strategic thinking, and
  • Systemic thinking.

10. Chess Is Just A Game, And Anyone Can Learn It

As much as we elevate chess as a game for clever people, it is just a game. Anyone can play it if they are determined enough to learn. Equally, anyone can learn to play basketball, excel at a video game, or ride a horse. You might not be great at it initially, but you can be with practice.

11. Even Magnus Carlsen Said He’s Not A Genius

In an interview, Grandmaster Magnus Carlsen was asked if he was a genius. He responded that he’s a “totally normal guy,” albeit chaotic and lazy. In fact, he went on to say he’s not a disciplined thinker or particularly organized. Those aren’t quite the attributes we would expect from a Grandmaster, but that’s what he said. You can read the transcript of the interview here.

12. Chess Intelligence Shouldn’t Be Compared To Overall IQ

If you haven’t come to this conclusion yet, I’ll tell you. A person’s ability to play chess does not mean they have a high IQ. It means they are good at chess and probably have practiced a lot. An intelligent person has a good balance of the multiple intelligences. Additionally, they can apply their knowledge beyond the chess board in everyday life.

13. Motivation Mediates Intelligence And Chess Skill

Motivation in any sport or aspect of life is linked to performance. For example, a motivated chess player will dedicate time and effort to practice and learn more about the game. As we know, practice and dedication will help a player refine their chess skills. This, in turn, will sharpen their cognitive skills, which are intertwined with what we call intelligence.

14. Chess Promotes A Flow State In Some Players

Being in a flow state is when you have a deeply gratifying sense of intense involvement. Flow usually occurs when facing a challenging task. For example, suppose a chess player is in a flow state. In that case, it means they’re enjoying the challenge and problem-solving task of beating a worthy opponent. 

Flow increases motivation, skills development, and performance. This cognition display can even be viewed in electroencephalograms (EEGs), depicting heightened theta waves. So these chess players are in the zone, and their brain is enjoying the hard work. They enjoy it so much their awareness of anything else disappears, almost as if they are in a time warp.

15. Chess Uses Both Hemispheres Of The Brain

Chess doesn’t just exercise our brains’ left or right hemispheres; it uses both. For a long time, there was a myth that you could only play chess well if you were “left-brained.” Thankfully, science has debunked that theory. Instead, studies have shown that you use both hemispheres of your brain when playing chess.

Additionally, another study showed heightened activity in the precuneus and caudate nucleus of intermediate players. The precuneus is located in the superior parietal lobe, where high-level thinking and perception occur. The caudate nucleus in the subcortical region is responsible for habit formation and being goal-directed.

16. Male And Female Chess Players Are Equally Intelligent

This point may come as a surprise since chess is so male-dominated. However, studies have shown that boys and girls who start playing chess are equally matched regarding cognition and skill. The same is valid for adult chess players, but the lack of female representation at higher levels creates a misconception.

The main reason there aren’t as many women playing chess as adults is that it’s more difficult for women to pursue a career in chess. Because of their child-bearing status, potential female Grandmasters often have to forego a career in chess to look after their families. 

17. Chess Appeals To Some People With ASD

You may discover a person on the Autistic Spectrum is great at chess and wonder how it is possible. People with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) struggle with different aspects of development and functioning. However, it does not mean they are not smart.

People with Asperger’s Syndrome are ASDs who might obsess about chess. While ASDs might lack certain “acceptable” behaviors, they have the wherewithal to play a decent game of chess.

18. Playing Chess Protects Against Dementia

Dementia is the progressive loss of intellectual functioning that comes with old age or brain disease. In a study published in 2019, scientists showed that chess can help to delay the onset of dementia and reduce cognitive decline. 

19. Playing Chess Helps Reduce Symptoms Of ADHD

Researchers have shown that chess, as part of a “Multidimensional Treatment Model,” can help reduce the symptoms of ADHD (Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder).

A hundred students with mild ADHD took part in the study in 2016. Results showed a 41% decrease in their hyperactivity and inattentiveness after the treatment.

All Things Considered

For a long time, people have questioned the correlation between chess and intelligence. Much research has been done to find a concrete answer, but no results are conclusive as there are many aspects to consider. 

What we do know, however, is that to be good at chess requires cognition and practice, which are intertwined with intelligence. Additionally, chess is an excellent brain activity that keeps the mind active.

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This article was co-authored by our team of in-house and freelance writers, and reviewed by our editors, who enjoy sharing their knowledge about their favorite games with others!

JC Franco
Editor | + posts

JC Franco serves as a New York-based editor for Gamesver. His interest for board games centers around chess, a pursuit he began in elementary school at the age of 9. Holding a Bachelor’s degree in Business from Mercyhurst University, JC brings a blend of business acumen and creative insight to his role. Beyond his editorial endeavors, he is a certified USPTA professional, imparting his knowledge in tennis to enthusiasts across the New York City Metropolitan area.