Saturday, March 17, 2007

Are Chess Players Stupid?

In answer to the question "Does chess need intelligence?" you might expect scientific research to come up with an answer along the lines of "Yes, but especially in visualization and memory." In their recent study of young players, however, a team of psychologists indicated the correct answer might just be: "No." Bilalić, McLeod & Gobet write:
Our results highlight how difficult it is to find an unambiguous association between intelligence and chess skill. When we tested the whole sample of children, some of whom had just recently started to play chess, we found a moderately positive correlation between intelligence and chess skill thus confirming some previous studies ... But when we examined the role of intelligence among highly skilled young chess players we found not only the same absence of the association between intelligence and chess skill that is usually reported among adult chess players ... but also that smarter children had actually achieved a lower level of chess skill.

It's not exactly the same as saying the more stupid you are, the better you are at chess - I hope.

Anyhow. The article is chocabloc with such interesting, often counter-intuitive stuff ("visuo-spatial ability ... was arguably the worst predictor of chess skill among all other abilities we used in this study ... we believe that the common view of the great importance of visuo-spatial ability is a myth" and "Holding (1985) speculated, on the grounds of the observation that many remarkable chess players were journalists and that there was no evidence that visuo-spatial ability is connected with successful chess playing, that verbal ability is more important for chess than visuo-spatial ability" particularly intrigued me) and well worth a read.

Note. The PDF of this article available via the above link is actually a close-to-final draft. The original is available via Science Direct, but will cost you. The copyright publishers insist on does not apply to drafts of academic articles - hence many academics get around this problem by providing a draft on-line, often only with one or two differences from the finished product: a missing comma or two, that kind of thing.

24 comments:

ejh said...

Our results highlight how difficult it is to find an unambiguous association between intelligence and chess skill

It's also very difficult to establish an unambiguous definition of "intelligence", which renders this even more difficult.

ejh said...

Incidentally, it's a lovely spring day in Spain and I intend to spend the whole afternoon cooped up in some building in Zaragoza playing chess. Would anybody care to comment on the "intelligence" involved here?

Tom Chivers said...

Well they deal with different types and definitions of intelligence in the article. Actually I think the journal it's published in is called 'Intelligence' and part of the motivation for this research comes utilising or otherwise concepts of intelligence, and not just a fascination with chess in itself.

Good luck in your tournament! If the weather is nice again tomorrow, you will enjoy it even more if you won a chess tournament the day before.

Anonymous said...

Well at least you won't get hay fever Justin.

It looked quite bright here earlier but now I'm ready to go out the sun has gone in.
(Jonathan B)

ejh said...

What tournament? A club match, relegation struggle.

Sciurus said...

Interesting post, I guess I will take a look at the article.

There was an interesting somewhat related discussion on the chess improvement mailing list at Yahoo earlier this week. Basically, the discussion was about fear of playing chess. One reason for people to avoid playing chess is that chess skill is often related to intelligence - losing a chess game makes many people feel really stupid.

May be the next time I lose a chess game, I just take it as a sign that I am statistically "smarter" than my opponent, whatever being "smart" means :-)

ejh said...

Of course now we have computers to check your moves, you can feel really stupid even after winning....

Tom Chivers said...

Sciurus - I'd not thought of it that way: but I think from now, I shall do so. Maybe therefore I ought resign our correspondence game :D

Goran said...

"...observation that many remarkable chess players were journalists and that there was no evidence that visuo-spatial ability is connected with successful chess playing, that verbal ability is more important for chess than visuo-spatial ability"

This sounds logical. Rowson explained in "Chess for Zebras" how chessplayers are actually subconsciously telling a story about the game in progress.

Tom Chivers said...

But I think Rowson means meta-narratives, no? Like - "I am attacking like Tal!" - and sees them as bad things?

I dunno. I can think of more than one good chess player with a very powerful visual intelligence...

Jonathan B said...

Also,
I'm not convinced the link between journalists and chess players is as strong as suggested.

Tom Chivers said...

There are many question marks hovering above all this stuff. But interesting ones, imo.

I am frequently amazed how many very strong chess players are naturally talented writers. Short, Keene, Kasparov, Donner instantly spring to mind, but there are many more. Then there's New In Chess, the fine articles of which are perhaps but a shadow of Dutch literary chess writing - who knows...

ejh said...

I don't think any of these except possibly Donner can be classed as a talented writer, though all have written well about chess. It's not the same thing.

Anonymous said...

Kasparov may or may not be considered a talented writer but he didn't bother his arse to write the "Kasparov against the World" book he published a few years ago.

At least I assume "Garry Kasparov with Grandmaster Danny King" follows the convention of really meaning, "actually written by ..."

(Jonathan B)

Tom Chivers said...

I guess it depends on the criteria you apply beforehand, how tight you want your terms to be.

Natural. Short and Kasparov are 'raw naturals' in the sense they just write it how they would pretty much say it, it seems to me, and it comes out highly readable. I would say Keene and Donner are more deliberate writers, who've tailored their natural talents in certain ways. Donner toward cultivating various effects like comedy and outrage, as well as reaching for something more ambitious at places; Keene at dramatic rhetoric (of course.)

As for the 'writer' part. I think if you write goodly about anything, you're a good writer. On the other hand, this is a weaker criteria than, say, being a writer by vocation.

ejh said...

I think I mean "are they a good writer compared to good writers"? Not just "do they write better English than Glenn Flear?" or "do I enjoy their annotations?".

Tom Chivers said...

I would probably drop Keene from my list in that case then, maybe Kasparov too. Depends if you're willing to concede some journalists are good writers, or not. Although Kaspy's new 'Life Imitates Chess' book might demand a rethink of that, who knows (yet). . .

ejh said...

I think some journalists are good writers, but I think they're better than Short!

Jonthan B said...

In any event, isn't the claim of the research that writers make good chess players and not that chess players make good writers. This is not necessarily the same thing.

Tom Chivers said...

What these guys try to do is divide up intelligence into different types, and use chess as a way to test their definitions, or the operationalisation thereof. One guy originally speculated that due to the fact some chess players are journalists, chess might primarily use verbal intelligence - not visual. Then this research tested that. They're not trying to literally make a social psychological statement along the lines of "writers make good chess players" or vice versa.

Anonymous said...

They measured visual spatial memory, simply ones ability to recall what one has seen, not visual spatial intelligence. It is already well known that even grandmasters cannot accurately recall a position if the pieces are randomly placed on the board. Visual spatial intelligence is something different and relates to one ability to manipulate and mentally rotate objects among other things, and this was not tested.

Tom Chivers said...

"I am convinced that the reason the Englishman John Nunn never became world champion is that he is too clever for that." - Magnus Carlsen.

Tom Chivers said...

. . . and, more here.

Anonymous said...

the thing that's annoying about board games like chess, that take themselves so super serious, is they consider themselves to be smarter than you if they're good at it but actually they are just freakishly competitive nerds. If they were actually intelligent they'd get sick of always trying to win a child's board game and do something actually intelligent.