Are chess players smart?
“Administered the French Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC) to 33 tournament-level 8–13 yr old Belgian chess players (4 girls and 29 boys). The mean full scale IQ was 121, verbal IQ was 109 and performance IQ was 129. Results suggest that high levels of general intelligence and spatial ability are necessary to achieve a high standard of play in chess.”
It’s the only study I’ve found dealing specifically with this subject – there are a few others on spatial ability in particular, but this is seemingly an area where very little work has been done.
I’d have liked some loose IQ-rating relationsship, all that’s freely available is an abstract with the above information and a little more. This study remarks that the study also found that:
“there was some evidence that better players had higher performance IQ scores than the weakest players (top third = 131 vs. bottom third = 124).”
So quite young tournament chess players are significantly smarter than average (an average of 121 is much closer to the average IQ of a classroom filled with university students than it is to a primary school classroom average – the top third’s score of 131 is Mensa level) and smarter chess players play better chess than chess players who’re not as smart. That’s not much, I’d like to know more. To know more about this would make it easier to know exactly when to decide that decreasing returns have kicked in. I don’t expect to ever get a norm. But should I give up the attempts to improve my rating 300 points before I get close to that, or perhaps 6-7-800(?) points before? [update: this question made more sense when I asked it than it does now – see also my update at the bottom of the post; I at this point feel reasonably sure that an ELO rating of 1900-2000 ought at least to be achievable..]
My own estimate, given the chess players I have met and talked to with a chess rating that high, is that I’ve yet to meet a 2000+ guy who could not become a member of Mensa without even trying. There’s no way I’d be able to compete with the really smart ones playing this game. But how close could I get if I worked hard? More data would be nice. And no, I won’t get that answer just by playing and studying – the point is that I’d like to have some idea as to when I’ve reached the MC>MB-point before having spent the many hours working without improving enough to justify the costs. If there were good data available it’d be easier to form realistic expectations conditional on ‘inherent characteristics’ known to be important to performance, and thus not get hurt by a large gap between expectations and results.
Anyway, the closest you can get to an answer to the initial question given the data from the study is this: ‘Young Belgian children who play tournament chess are significantly smarter than average.’ I think, based on my own limited experience, that it’s safe to say that most tournament players with a rating above, say, 1600, have a higher than average IQ – and that players above 2000 are usually smart people, i.e. people with a high IQ. I’d consider a rating of 2000+ to be a stronger indicator of high IQ than a non-specific Master’s Degree.
Update: For what it’s worth, my performance rating in the last tournament I played in ended up at ~1800, after having crossed the 2000-mark for a brief period of time.