Research

The interplay of talent and practice in chess

Merim Bilalić, Roland Grabner and Nemanja Vaci explain what chess development can teach about the development of skill and performance across lifetime and how you can benefit from participating in their new study.

How far you go in chess is neither determined by talent nor by study but how they work together.
How far you go in chess is neither determined by talent nor by study but how they work together.

Most people believe that both intelligence and practice are necessary to master a complex intellectual game such as chess. Arguably, there are very few laypeople, let alone researchers, who would argue that either of these factors does not play a crucial role. Yet both laypeople and researchers spend an extraordinary amount of time arguing for the supremacy of one factor over the other. This is an unhelpful and unproductive discussion in our opinion (Bilalić, 2017). Instead of focusing on the differences, we should investigate how these major factors complement each other. Here we present one of the first studies to look into how intelligence and practice come together to enable the development of chess skill over the lifespan (the full text of the study can be found here).

The research presented here is just the beginning of our research project, and is not limited to the roles of intelligence and practice in chess development. We are currently also investigating the role of other factors, such as personality, emotions, and motivation. We would greatly appreciate your help in gaining insight into the chess development process. Please take 30–45 minutes to complete the chess development survey. In return, we provide you individual feedback, which may help you understand factors influencing your own chess development.

The individual feedback may help you understand factors influencing your own chess development.

Intellectually more able people are quicker to grasp relations between objects in an environment. This gives them an edge when it comes to mastering a complex environment such as chess (Deary, 2011). Indeed, the studies point to intelligence being an important factor in chess skill, but the picture is more nuanced than a simple association across chess players. It turns out that intelligence is particularly important when people start learning the game – children and amateur samples regularly show robust associations between their chess skill and intelligence. In contrast, among established adult players, particularly expert level players (above Elo 2000), intelligence does not seem to influence the level of chess skill (Burgoyne et al., 2016).

One of the reasons for this differing influence of intelligence is the amount of practice players have accumulated. Theoretically, it makes sense that intellectually more able people will learn more and better than their intellectually less able peers when they are given the same amount of time. Practically, however, the amount of time that one invests in an activity depends on many different factors. Over the years, these differences in practice accumulate and possibly override other factors such as intelligence. In children and amateurs, where the differences in accumulated practice are inevitably small, intelligence may still exert considerable influence. In adults and established players, who had been playing chess for a long time, more practice may more than compensate for lower intellectual capacity. In general, the amount of practice is highly predictive of chess skill (Macnamara et al., 2014).

Intelligence is particularly important when people start learning the game. In contrast, among adult expert players, intelligence does not seem to influence the level of chess skill.

In our study (Vaci et al., 2019), we tracked 90 players of differing skill levels for almost twenty years. They were of different ages, which allowed us to investigate not only the beginnings and peaks of chess skill, but also the later stages of the chess career. We then checked how intelligence and practice influence chess skill across the lifespan on their own. For intelligence we decided to investigate numerical intelligence, which measures the ability to manipulate numbers and has been proven to predict chess skill better than other types of intelligence, such as verbal or spatial intelligence (Burgoyne et al., 2016; Gobet & Campitelli, 2007). The number of tournament games in a year was taken to be an approximation of practice. While it is clear that tournament games do not capture all possible practice, it has been shown that they are highly correlated with the total amount of practice activity (Howard, 2012).

We take two hypothetical groups of players, one of average intelligence (IQ 100) and another of superior intelligence (IQ 120), to check how the development of the players’ chess skill progresses. The figure below shows that, unsurprisingly, more intellectually able players (IQ 120) tend to be better than their average colleagues (IQ 100) when practice is held constant, that is, when they played the equal number of games. However, the differences are particularly pronounced at the peak, around 30 years of age, and particularly later in the career, around 60 years.

We can also take two hypothetical groups of players who practice more intensively, 60 tournament games a year, and less intensively, 20 tournament games a year, while keeping their intelligence the same (average). In contrast to Intelligence, how much players practised had the largest influence at the beginning of the career, between 10 and 30 years, and practice influence starts to wane afterwards as the career progresses.

More importantly, we can also see how intelligence and practice complement each other. Early, at age 20, intellectually more able players develop chess skill more quickly given the same low to moderate levels of practice. However, once players start practising intensively, for more than 20 games a year, the influence of Intelligence diminishes. In other words, the intelligence disadvantage can be easily compensated for with practice at the early stages of the chess career.

Once we move to age 35, when the players reach peak performance, we find a similar pattern of results. Lower levels of practice produce even greater advantages for intellectually able players than at age 20, but the advantage again vanishes as the amount of practice increases.

The situation is different in later stages, when players do not necessarily improve, but rather maintain their expertise. The differences in Intelligence do not decrease with practice as before, but increase instead. In other words, the amount of practice can’t compensate for the differences in intelligence in the later stages.

The not very surprising conclusion is that both intelligence and practice are important factors in chess skill development. On their own, however, they can only explain certain aspects of development. For example, practice has its strongest effect in the beginning of expertise development, whereas intelligence’s strongest effect is at the peak and in the later stages. Together, they explain the changes across the whole life span much better than they do on their own.

What does this pattern of results mean for chess education? The fact that practice has its strongest effect in the beginning of expertise development means that success is guaranteed even with little practice at the beginning. Small amounts of practice will inevitably lead to visible improvements. This makes chess a valuable tool for the development of healthy self-esteem in young children, for example.

Once people acquire more knowledge and become better at chess, practice often will not lead to noticeable improvement as it becomes more difficult to discover new ways of dealing with challenging situations that would improve performance. This is where other aspects, such as certain kinds of practice, long-term motivation, and Intelligence, come to the fore.

Our results indicate that intelligence and practice may have synergetic effects when it comes to fighting age-related phenomena such as dementia.

Finally, the results point to the importance of practice and intelligence in old age. It is well known that (intellectual) activity is beneficial in shielding against intellectual deterioration (Baumgart et al., 2015). Chess is certainly an activity that has all the components necessary for slowing intellectual decline in old age. Our results, however, indicate that practice may be particularly beneficial when combined with higher levels of intellectual capacities. In other words, intelligence and practice may have synergetic effects when it comes to fighting age-related phenomena such as dementia.

Our understanding of the individual factors and their interplay in chess development is in its early stages. The research presented here, for example, examined only practice and intelligence. It is certain that many other factors are important in the long road to excellence in an intellectual activity such as chess. We would greatly appreciate it if you would be willing to help us in this process (and possibly gaining insight into your own chess development) by filling in this 30–45-minute survey.

More about the Chess Development Study

Nemanja Vaci is Lecturer and Assistant Professor at the Department of Psychology, University of Sheffield. His research focuses on skill acquisition and performance changes across the lifetime.
Nemanja Vaci is Lecturer and Assistant Professor at the Department of Psychology, University of Sheffield. His research focuses on skill acquisition and performance changes across the lifetime. (photo: private)
Roland Grabner is Professor of Educational Neuroscience at the Institute of Psychology, University of Graz, Austria. In 2007 he won the Scientific Award of the Karpov Chess Academy for his psychological and neurophysiological research on chess expertise.
Roland Grabner is Professor of Educational Neuroscience at the Institute of Psychology, University of Graz, Austria. In 2007 he won the Scientific Award of the Karpov Chess Academy for his psychological and neurophysiological research on chess expertise. (photo: private)
Merim Bilalić is Professor of Cognitive Psychology at Northumbria University, Newcastle, a FIDE Master title and was U20 champion of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1996.
Merim Bilalić is Professor of Cognitive Psychology at Northumbria University, Newcastle, a FIDE Master title and was U20 champion of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1996. (photo: private)