What are chess players good at?

Posted by David Smerdon on Feb 25, 2010 in Chess, Non-chess |

Besides chess, obviously.

Recently, the Sydney Morning Herald published an article on ‘The Sulky Mozart of chess’, our very own world number one, Magnus Carlsen. The article delighted in quoting quirky facts illustrating the freaky intellect of this prestigious prodigy, including Magnus’ ability to quote the area, population, flag and capital of every country in the world by the age of five.

Well yeh, okay, that’s pretty good.

But that’s not to say that all chess masters are genii (of the non-Stargate type). Probably one of the most common stereotypes I hear from my friends about chess grandmasters is that we all must be ridiculously intelligent, John-Nash-style number freaks who occasionally slip into Russian accents and debate the answer to infinity divided by infinity over a glass of moderately-aged tawny.

Unfortunately, much like the rumour that grandmasters prefer a chess puzzle to a date, it’s simply impossible to typecast the lot of us. Certainly, particular elements of intelligence (such as memory, pattern recognition and backward-induction) are fairly common across the spectrum, but are chess players really more intelligent?

To some extent, I think it comes down to how you define ‘intelligence’. I have a feeling we (as in, chess grandmasters – I wonder what the collective would be?) would do alright from a pure IQ-benchmark. Most IQ tests focus on complex reasoning and pattern recognition, nothing particularly out of the ordinary for us. However, a lot of grandmasters, and Carlsen is no exception, would do very poorly on a simple high-school maths exam. And if you start including ‘EI’ (‘Emotional Intelligence’) and ‘Social Intelligence’ measures, well, I’ve no doubt you’d get a different result entirely. A task such as ‘Walk into a cocktail party and, by observation alone, guess which participants are couples’ would probably be beyond the capabilities of top chess players who would be more likely to guess Prada and Armani as new variations of the Sicilian Defence.

Which begs the question: if chess players are selectively intelligent, what else are we good at?

Or not good at, for that matter. Certainly if the World Cup was anything to go by, Fashion Designer would not be high on the list.

One ‘career’ that chess players have been incredibly successful at is, of course, poker. The skills of a professional poker player aren’t actually that distinct from those of a professional chess player, and many of my former opponents have proven that to quite the profit. Another area of translation is trivia, derived from the memory aspect. If you ever have the opportunity to quiz Grandmaster Ian Rogers on his knowledge of music trivia from practically any genre or era, make sure you do – I promise you’ll be astounded. In fact, probably the only person who would have been able to best Ian at it was former world champion Bobby Fisher, who, I believe, was at one stage the world’s foremost expert on hip-hop trivia.

Investment banking is another area where chess skills apparently translate to some extent. I have a feeling that, in the merger and acquisition prime of the 1980’s, a couple of British investment banks went on a bit of a splurge of hiring chess grandmasters (whether financially trained or not…) to work at their firms. I’m not sure how it turned out, but hopefully someone can shed some light on this. In any case, grandmaster and former US Champion Ken Rogoff is currently a professor at Harvard University, so there might be something there.

And… that’s about it. Well, unfortunately, that’s about all I can think of for now. Any thoughts? Are chess players good at anything else?!


Feb 27, 2010 at 7:45 pm

From crude observation, many chess players seem to be found in law, IT, maths, financial services. Music was reputedly another overlap. Also I wonder about language skills: Rogers as a journalist, Nabokov. Then you can get blends of the above, eg Treasury staff. (No doubt there’s a long tail of other occupations.)

Social skills may be a bit lower than average, hence the geeky impression. And, yes, personal presentation could often be improved, your comment re Armani and Prada refers.

Mar 3, 2010 at 9:23 am

Much like how intellectual property isn’t really property, emotional intelligence and social intelligence aren’t really measuring intelligence. As you admit, chess players would likely do well (compared to a random sample) on standard IQ tests. That’s because chess players* have a higher than average IQ. No need to be modest or cover it up by claiming deficiencies in other areas that have nothing to do with brains. As for a math test, I’d wager if you took a group of chess players and a group of very sociable and empathetic folks, selected them on the basis of identical math knowledge, and then put them in a room and taught them calculus (for example), the chess group would score higher on a calc quiz later that day. Why? Because real intelligence is a better indicator of ability to learn than EI/SI.

* – I don’t count people who have played and studied chess for years yet have a rating under 1000.

David Smerdon
Mar 5, 2010 at 6:24 pm

Very good points you make. Having said that, EI and SI seem to be rewarded a lot more in modern society than perhaps in those of the past, at least financially. Unfortunately, Paris Hilton continues to make more than my high-school maths teacher…

Suthikshn Kumar
Mar 26, 2010 at 8:15 pm


I was recently seeing this discussion on what are chess players good at. I think
they can be good programmers. Chess players think and analyze logically. So do
computer programmers. From a very young age, you start building your analytical
skills while playing chess. Then you master the chess notations which look like small programs. You learn
such abstract concepts of strategy, planning, threats, opportunties, position, material etc.
Abstraction is an important concept for programmers.
The “zugzwang” in chess equates to a case of infinite loop in programming!

Regards, SK



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