Intelligence vs Practice: Which Is More Important for Chess Improvement?

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Chess, Chess Pieces, Glass, Reflection, Chess Set

It’s the age-old question: which is more important, nature or nurture? Are we born with innate talents that define our maximum potential, or is the environment in which we’re raised and the education to which we’re exposed more crucial in determining our ability? The same debate has been raging in the world of chess for many years as well, with proponents of both sides putting forward the case for intelligence over practice and vice versa.

Indeed, there has been a body of scientific research conducted into the issue, revealing that the relationship between the two is highly complex and indeed inextricable. Still, there is enough evidence to suggest that while improvement is accelerated when both elements are in play, one is more pertinent than the other… but which one?

The case for intelligence

There is a strong belief in many circles that having a high aptitude for grasping the science behind chess is imperative in truly mastering the game – and it’s not hard to see why. After all, you can study chess openings employed by champions until the cows come home, but unless you understand why you’re making those moves and how to exploit them after the fact, you’re unlikely to improve your game overall.

Similarly, a higher IQ can help older players stay sharper for longer. Of course, practice is necessary in either of those scenarios, as well, but greater intelligence is certainly a catalyst for attaining levels of ability that are simply closed off to a less astute mind.

The case for practice

On the other hand, much scientific evidence points towards the idea that practice plays more of a defining role than any innate acumen. In a recent paper published in the journal of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers tested the ability, intelligence and practice of 90 chess enthusiasts across their whole lifetimes.

The findings demonstrated that some 34% of the variance in players’ ability levels could be attributed to practice, while just 5% rested on their intelligence. That’s a huge discrepancy and one which clearly highlights how practice has a much bigger bearing on chess improvement than intelligence does.

The importance of both together

Having said that, it is important to point out that the very same study concluded that each individual element could only account for a relatively small proportion (under half) of the entire developmental curve of a player’s ability. When taken together, they were found to be responsible for some 47% of the variance in their skillsets over time.

Therefore, in the words of former Grandmaster Vladimir Kramnik, “I think that the definition of talent, and of talent in chess, is the ability to learn.” Intelligence is certainly a key component, as is the educational process which expands that intelligence – but it is the combination of these two and the willingness to put them together which is pivotal in chess improvement.

Though practice perhaps plays more of a defining role in determining a chess player’s maximum potential, it is most effective when combined with an astute intelligence.

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