Are chess players intelligent?

Aronian — Van Wely, Wijk aan Zee 2014

Black to move and mate

Solution: 38...Bd4+ and White has no defense against the mate on the first rank. For example, 39. cd Qb1+ 40. Ne1 R:e1+ 41. B:e1 Q:e1 mate.

There is an old story about a lively debate that supposedly took place at the Marshall Chess Club in New York City in the early 1960s.  One of the debaters vociferously argued that chess players were obviously smarter than the general population.

However, the discussion ended suddenly when his adversary simply responded, “Then how do you explain Bobby Fischer?”

I am not aware of any studies showing any correlation between chess strength and I.Q.  I don’t know anyone who admits to being a member of Mensa, but I suspect that very few of them are actually strong chess players.

Conversely, I know of many chess players rated over 2000 who have never distinguished themselves in any other intellectual activity.

Still, chess players, especially strong chess players, tend to be capable of mental feats that appear miraculous to the general public. For example, most chess players rated over 1800 can play “blindfold” chess, where the player is told the moves, and plays without actually having a board and pieces in front of him.

My wife is amazed that I do not write down possible entries in Sudokos; I keep the possibilities in my head until I am sure of the number to enter in a particular square.

The newest world Champion, 23-year-old Magnus Carlsen, solved complex jigsaw puzzles before he was 2, built advanced Lego models at the age of 4, and knew the area and population of all of Norway’s 430 municipalities at the age of 5.  Although he worked very hard to become a Grandmaster by the age of 13, and ultimately to become world champion, Carlsen clearly had tremendous talent, both for chess, and for other intellectual activities.

Training, a supportive family, and hard work alone could not have produced a champion; consider the talented Polgar sisters whose father set out to train them to be chess wizards.  Although Sofia became an International Master, and Zsuzsa a Grandmaster, only Judit had the talent to reach the highest levels of international competition.

Gates – Carlsen

Recently, Carlsen played an exhibition match against Bill Gates on Norwegian television. Gates is obviously a very successful businessman, and, while the extent to which intelligence is necessary for such success is another question, he is obviously not stupid.

Carlsen needed all of 12 seconds and nine moves to checkmate Gates (who played White) (a video of the game is on Youtube). 1. e4 Nc6 2. Nf3 d5 3. Bd3? (this move shows that Gates knows nothing about chess openings) Nf6  4. ed Q:d5 5. Nc3 Qh5 6. 0-0 Bg4 7. h3 Ne5 (Carlsen would normally not play a move like this — he described it after the game as “a cheap trick,” but he correctly believes that Gates will fall for the trap by taking the Bishop) 8. hg Nf:g4  9. N:e5?? Qh2 mate. 

Chess strength

If native intelligence is not the sole, or even the main, determinant of chess strength, what is?  There are many players who study very hard and very long and whose ratings never change.

In the Capital District, there are about 20 players, including myself, rated over 1800, who have been playing a long time, who were or are experts at one point, but who have not made it to master.  Why not?

The current issue of Chess Life has an article by a man in his early 40s, describing his efforts to become a master over the next few years (he has also established a blog,  In 2011, when he was rated in the 1500s, he established a goal of a rating of 1800, by the end of 2012, an expert rating of 2000 by 2015, and to become a master by 2020 (a rating of 2200).

He achieved a rating of 1721 in 2011, but, in three years, he has yet to break 1800. I would not be optimistic for him.

When I closed my law office last year, I decided to seriously attempt to become a master.

First, I spend about an hour a day solving tactical and endgame problems on a website,, that I would highly recommend.

Second, I carefully analyze all of my games, with the aid of a computer, to see what I did right and what I did wrong.

Third, I do “solitaire chess” or “guess the best move”  exercises, where I play over a Grandmaster game trying to guess the moves made.

Fourth, I try to review three to five high-level chess games a day.

Fifth, I try to do some formal study, some of openings, some of endgame theory, and some through books of general instruction. If I had more time, I might review some theoretical texts that have been written by great players over the years.

I would like to study 20 to 30 hours a week, but rarely do that much.  Certainly, there is enough material to study 50 to 60 hours a week for the next few years. But, even if I do spend this time and effort, it is by no means clear that my rating will improve. Although I  still believe that I have the ability to improve, it is possible that I have reached my maximum strength.

Tata Steel (Wijk aan Zee)

The 76th Wijk aan Zee (Netherlands) tournament (now known by its current sponsor as the Tata Steel Chess Tournament), one of the strongest annual chess events, was won by Levon Aronian, who is the only player in the world to be rated over 2800 besides Carlsen. Aronian clinched first place before the last round by scoring eight points in the first 10 rounds.

The American Hikaru Nakamura, ranked third in the world behind Aronian and Carlsen, tied for 8th-9th place with a score of 5-6.

This week’s problem

In the 11th and last round of the Tata Steel Chess Tournament, Aronian played the strong Dutch player and hometown favorite, Loek Van Wely. Aronian described the game as his most interesting game in the tournament.

Although he had clinched first place, he was playing hard for a win, had broken through Van Wely’s Dutch Defense, and had missed forced wins on moves 35 and 37, before making a time pressure mistake on move 38, which permitted Van Wely to force mate.