You can achieve anything if you put your mind to it, they say. But as it turns out, that doesn't apply to becoming a chess grandmaster.
A new study reported in the journal Intelligence suggests that cognitive ability is one of the main factors that enables people to become good chess players. That might sound fairly obvious, but psychologists have long debated the role of skill versus fundamental intelligence, much like the wider “nature versus nurture” debate. This new research could be a key pawn in that discussion.
The researchers from Michigan State University carried out a meta-analysis of 2,300 academic articles on chess skill, particularly ones that included objective chess skill – such as the Elo rating – and a measure of cognitive ability. It also broke intelligence down into separate types, such as comprehension, knowledge, short-term memory, processing speed, numerical ability, visuospatial ability, verbal ability, and fluid reasoning.
"Chess is probably the single most studied domain in research on expertise, yet the evidence for the relationship between chess skill and cognitive ability is mixed," lead author Alexander Burgoyne said in a statement. "We analyzed a half-century worth of research on intelligence and chess skill and found that cognitive ability contributes meaningfully to individual differences in chess skill."
The study found that chess skill correlated "positively and significantly" with most measures of cognitive ability. One of the most considerable correlations was with numerical ability, which was much stronger linked than verbal ability or the ability to identify visual and spatial relationships.
Higher cognitive ability was especially important for younger chess players or casual and low-level chess players. That said, it also found that practice can still play a meaningful role. Particularly among high-end players, the difference in intelligence became smaller, which suggests that trained skill must play a factor.
"When it comes to expertise, training and practice certainly are a piece of the puzzle," said Zach Hambrick, a Michigan State University psychology professor, in the statement. "But this study shows that, for chess at least, intelligence is another piece of the puzzle."
He added: “Imagine that a genius can become a skilled chess player relatively easily, whereas a person with average intelligence may take longer. So the idea is, as you practice more and develop more skills and knowledge about the game, you may be able to circumvent limitations in cognitive ability.”