The Ricky S Story: A Chess Parable

  • NM danheisman
  • | Jan 29, 2014

When I was in high school, our school had no chess team, so I would frequently travel after school to our arch-rival high school and hang out with their strong team.

One of the players on the arch-rival's team was Ricky S. Ricky was a year or so younger than I and was a very special student; he was extremely smart and, moreover, one of his hobbies was schoolwork!

It was rumored that his class was once given an assignment to write a 25-page term paper. Ricky was so enthusiastic he turned in a 125-page term paper, but was devastated when the teacher only gave him a "B", explaining "Ricky, it was an excellent paper, but I assigned a 25 page paper and you did not follow directions. I did not appreciate having to read a 125-page paper!"

All the kids used to tease Ricky for being so smart and, for the most part, he took it very well. However, there was one problem: the school had a 5-man chess team and Ricky had trouble making it as 5th board!

This is not surprising when you consider that the other players on the team were not exactly dummies, and all had greater interests in chess:

1st board: a member of MENSA, now a lawyer in DC. USCF 1800

2nd board: became a psychiatrist. USCF 1650

3rd board: played 100+ slow games against me (Dan) when he missed a year of school due to rheumatic fever, and played in USCF tournaments,


But for Ricky chess was more of a hobby. Therefore, for all his brilliance, he wasn't (yet) as good as his teammates.

One day Ricky quit the chess team. I can't remember if I asked him why or just heard from one of his teammates, but Ricky's reply was "I just got tired of the other kids asking 'Ricky, if you're so smart, how come you're not so good at chess?'"

What those questioners didn't understand is that, like most other very complex tasks, becoming good at chess is not just innate, but takes quite a bit of time and practiced study (see Developing Young Chess Masters: What are the Best Moves? and The Improvement Feedback Loop [and links therein]). For Ricky, that study was not as much fun, so his lack of development was not surprising. For more on this, see Chess, Learning, and Fun.

I've always written that chess is a combination of intelligence and knowledge, with your intelligence helping you develop your innate skills. As anyone who has given the matter any thought should expect, players who are intelligent but have never develped their "chess skills" are usually still fairly weak players. For example, a leading string theorist physicist Ed Witten is USCF 1700, a respectable rating, but not stellar. And players with very little skill but are highly read (or practiced) in chess are usually not as strong as highly skilled players who are also highly practiced.

Moreover, just pure "IQ intelligence" is not the only aspect of your intelligence used in chess. You can score less than genius in an IQ test and still have good chess traits. Many tests of chess players and IQ have resulted in a variety of conclusions. See both Traits of a Good Chessplayer and Every Good Chessplayer for more on these subjects.

So, whenever I hear someone mention that a "smart" person should be good at chess, I always remember the cautionary tale of Ricky S.


  • 3 years ago

    NM GargleBlaster

    I claim to be stupid all the time with varying degrees of success.

  • 3 years ago


    The word talent being misused again... (Not by NM Heisman I would add. Nice read.) Same debate over on IM Silman's latest article.

    Define intelligence however you want, it is something that develops within a person's brain during their lifetime. The idea of multiple intelligences is a good model.

  • 3 years ago


    Witten could probably reach a comfortable 2000 if he wasn't so busy being the smartest man on Earth.

  • 3 years ago


    They already wrote it!

  • 3 years ago


    Although I helped various scholastic chess programs, I was never convinced that developing chess intellegence aided in the developement of any other areas of study; smarter students were attracted to chess, chess didn't make them smarter. I think Krajkov nailed it when he said chess was a talent. 

  • 3 years ago


    Lots of relevant themes to this in Waitzkin's Art of Learning, a recommended read if anyone here was considering it.

  • 3 years ago


    to become good at chess you must practise 

  • 3 years ago


    Thanks for sharing the personal anecdote, it brings home the fact that people have to work at chess in order to be an above average tournament player, and work very hard indeed to get to higher levels.

    While smarts don't directly and automatically translate into chessplaying ability, I have to say that I have yet to run across an above-average tournament chessplayer that is of below average intelligence.

    Innate chess skill generally correlates with the brain's ability to process mathematical operations (i.e. geometry), but this doesn't necessarily carry over to IQ (although that itself is increasingly considered an inaccurate measurement of intelligence). It's interesting to note that both child prodigies and idiot savants can be found in the fields of mathematics, music, art and chess, all areas which depend on the brain's ability to unconsciously process mathematical relationships.

  • 3 years ago

    NM Petrosianic

    intelligence is quite specific to an endeavor and not especially generalizable.  i knew one of the former top (if not the top) mathematicans in the country in addition to his being a member of a US physics team  [i heard he became a professor at MIT immediately out of high school] or in the world played for my high school chess team and although he could do massive square roots in his head quickly, he found chess to be quite challenging, and had difficulty making good moves quickly, and I even once beat him in 10 moves despite me being at the time approximately a 1300 player strength.  

    The point is different problems require different skill sets that require different approaches or also different intelligences to attain a solution.

  • 3 years ago


    The fact regurgitating is simply a game played in public education to maximize our test scores. 

    As to intelligence being a subjective concept... I don't mean to sound offensive when I say this but it's a careless statement.  Think about it: not everyone can become GM.  Ask a retard to attend college courses and major in a STEM or even a useless like English lit or philosophy.  Intelligence in a nutshell is the ability to comprehend objective reality.  It is one's ability to apply knowledge, comprehend, and understand.  Not only this but to obtain such knowledge in a reasonable time. 

    Heck, most of the applicants to MIT and Harvard are quite smart, yet get rejected anyway (in the Ivies' cases however subjective criteria such as "character" are also used, this unfortunately has anti-Semitic roots if you read "The Chosen" by Jerome Karabel)

    Does being intelligent entail sucking up to power and following orders?  Depends on the situation, but the truly intelligent (and observant, and sometimes a bit lucky too since opportunity may not always present itself) will find a way out of that situation and impose the coercion instead of having it imposed on them eventually. 

  • 3 years ago


    being "smart" (however you define it) and good at chess have little if any causal relationship (a slight correlation maybe but nothing more).

    hanging out in the luxembourg garden here in paris i am witness to the fact that chess players come from every walks of life and degrees of intelligence. in truth, to become a chess expert you need to book up and master pattern recognition; intuition also helps but that's not 'intelligence', it's talent.

    somehow people keep thinking "if i"m good at chess that must mean i'm intelligent" (or rather, "he's so good at chess he must be intelligent!") when in fact it doesn't.

    i don't get this obsession with the empty notion of "intelligence": is intelligence regurgitating facts you were obliged to learn at school or being an autodictact? or a mixture of both? is it "being intelligent" to suck up to power and follow orders or is real intelligence found in the mind of he who is his own boss and thinks for himself?

    ultimately, intelligence is a subjective concept which cannot be translated objectively => nobody would readily claim to being stupid would they?

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