Genius in chess




 Intelligence, creativity and genius

Most people I know like to think of themselves as intelligent. I know I do. In public houses, in academia and ‘in the dime stores and bus stations’ a great deal of debate goes on as to the true nature of intelligence. It can be a touchy subject given the way human beings often entangle their sensitive self-esteems in the subject. Even so, for the sake of clear communication it is necessary to have a stab at defining what is meant, and what I mean, by the terms intelligence, creativity and genius. Only then will we move on to the central theme of this book: chess genius.

There are almost as many definitions of the word ‘intelligence’ as there are people trying to define it. So much so that ‘he’s intelligent’ often means no more than ‘he agrees with me’. When I put this to the York based computer security expert and chess hacker, John Andrew Clark, he replied in just the right tone and with his usual lightning wit, ‘I wouldn’t disagree with that’. 
    According to Wechsler (1975), intelligence is often viewed by computer scientists as the ability to process information, by psychologists as the ability to deduce relationships, by educators as the ability to learn and by biologists as the ability to adapt to the environment. Binet and Simon (1916) defined it as ‘the capacity to judge well, to reason well and to comprehend well’. Terman called it (1921) ‘the ability to carry on abstract thinking’, while Freeman (1955) regarded it as ‘the extent to which [a person] is educable’ (although in reality this also depends on the educator). Whichever of these definitions you might prefer, one thing is clear: having more of ‘it’ will not do your chess any harm. When I use the term ‘intelligence’ in this book I shall mean a synthesis of all of the above definitions, with emphasis on the one that best suits my meaning at the time!

    IQ tests, it is widely agreed, usually fail to capture the essence of intelligence. A way of getting round this problem is to define intelligence as ‘the ability to score points in IQ tests’. This method, already a rather dubious compromise, still leaves the problem of standardising proper tests. There are other problems. A number can be used to measure a single dimension only, but is it possible to reduce intelligence to a single dimension?

    Most modern theories of intelligence involve greater complexity, for example: Spearman (1927) formulated a two-part theory with cognitive performance depending on a general factor (g) as well as factors specific to the particular task. Cattell (1963) also used two factors, ‘fluid’ and ‘crystallised’ intelligence. Fluid intelligence relates to speed and soundness of neurological functioning and is probably hereditary. Thurstone (1938) broke intelligence up into seven primary abilities: two involving words (understanding and fluency), space, number, inductive reasoning, memory and perceptual speed. As I understand his categories, the last three would be the important ones for chess. Guilford (1967) created an even more elaborate model with three dimensions having six, five and four factors respectively, resulting in no less than 120 different components to overall intelligence. Quite how many of these would be important for chess is not entirely clear; my guess is at least twenty.

    There are other approaches, too, which I will not go into here. The point is that IQ scores cannot ‘capture’ the full scope of human intelligence. Whenever you project from a multidimensional reality down on to one dimension, you are bound to lose information. Be that as it may, IQ can still be useful as a means of communication. Using phrases like ‘very intelligent’ or ‘very, very intelligent’ amounts to sloppy communication, lending itself to misinterpretation. Using numbers (IQ 120 or IQ 150) is relatively more precise, as long as one is aware of their meaning and limitations.

     What is IQ? Intelligence quotient was originally defined as 100 times mental age divided by chronological age, but now it is more common to assess IQ on the basis of the statistical distribution of scores. For this purpose it is assumed that the overall distribution of human intelligence follows a ‘normal’, bell-shaped curve (mean 100, usually with a standard deviation of 15). There is, however, good reason to question whether the real distribution accords with this theoretical model. Apart from the fact that the population is changing there is a bulge at the lower end (caused by brain damage) and, according to the empirical evidence, there are also more very bright individuals than the theory predicts. Still, the normal curve (with mean 100, standard deviation 15) is a good enough approximation and will be taken as the ‘truth’ whenever IQ is referred to in this book. Although any single test measurement of an individual’s IQ is quite likely to be inaccurate, the overall distribution may be regarded as reasonably reliable.

     There is some confusion between pure ‘intelligence’ and the ability to act intelligently (which could be the result of knowledge or education). I find the following analogy a good way of conceiving this. Imagine a large number of differently shaped buckets in a garden. They have different ‘genetic’ properties: some are narrow, some are broad, some deep, some shallow and they have different overall capacities. Now imagine a hose is used to distribute water randomly over the buckets. They each end up with a different amount of liquid, which can be thought of as their education. Some are luckier than others and receive more than their fair share of water (a good environment, a rich family). The shape (character) can effect how easy it is for water to fall inside the bucket - broad at the top would be best. It is possible for smaller buckets (less genetic capacity) to end up with more liquid than some of those with larger capacity (higher IQ), and thus appear more intelligent. It is relatively easier to test how much liquid is in a bucket than its actual capacity. Some buckets quickly fill up and can take no more (‘brain death’ in its non-clinical sense).

    The model is far from perfect. Motivation is one rather important factor that is missing - but then buckets are not people.

    Returning, for an instant, to our noble game, what, you may very well ask, distinguishes intelligent thought at the chessboard? I would suggest the following general features: taking a definite direction, initiative, strong practical sense, good reasoning, judgement, concentration, resistance to emotional forces, adapting (fluid values), auto-criticism, a strong sense of purpose and the effective solving of problems that arise. Greater speed of processing is also characteristic of higher intelligence.


It is a great deal easier to pin down what is meant by creativity than what is meant by intelligence. The label ‘creative’ is usually reserved for activity or work which satisfies two criteria: 1) perceived ‘newness’ (or originality) and

2) effectiveness - it must ‘work’.

These criteria depend on value judgements. In a sense, all human actions are new (given that no two events are completely identical in the real world), so it can only be ‘newness’ in a wider sense that counts. Thus it is a judgement rather than a fact whether something qualifies as ‘new’. I dread to think how many times I have had the black side of the sequence:

1 e4 e6 2 d4 d5 3 Nd2 c5 4 exd5 Qxd5 5 N(g)f3 cxd4 6 Bc4 Qd6,

yet every time there is something different. Maybe a different opponent, a different tournament position or just a different mood. If you want a solid game and do not object to a draw, these moves are better than if you are in a ‘must win’ situation. Still, even though there is something ‘new’ about my choice to play these moves, it would not be enough to satisfy the first criterion. Now if I were to play (as Black) the moves 1 e4 h5? 2 d4 a5? 3 Nf3 d5?, it might very well count as ‘original’ since I suspect the concept, such as it is, has never been played before. However, Black is probably completely lost after these fine moves, so they should not be called ‘creative’ since the second criterion is not satisfied. It is not enough just to do something different, it must also work.
    A more debatable issue would be Mike Basman’s advocacy of 1 g4 and related moves. Is this creative? I would say that Mike’s whole treatment of the opening is definitely original. To my knowledge, no master strength player has ever played quite like him before. In this case, the second criterion is the tricky one. Does the ‘killer Grob’ work? Certainly, Basman is known throughout the chess world for his unusual opening play and has probably sold a fair number of his books as a result, so in one sense it has worked, but what about in the stricter sense of the logic of chess? My opinion is, I am afraid, that 1 g4 wastes White’s advantage and an early ...g5 by Black could very well be a losing move. In other words, it does not work and I would not call it ‘creative’. Original and interesting, yes, but not creative.

    Another question deserves attention: is it still possible to be genuinely creative in chess? Many will have heard the Indian proverb, ‘chess is a sea in which a gnat may drink and an elephant may bathe’, but, regardless of what elephants and gnats do in it, does the sea of chess have sufficient scope for real creativity? Kasparov puts it well, simultaneously attempting to distinguish himself from the throng of average grandmasters, ‘I think it is very important for somebody to develop chess and not just try little moves here and there.’

    As a player who has done little more than ‘trying little moves here and there’, you might think I should take offence at this remark, but, in fact, I agree with the World Champion. It is very difficult to come up with ‘big’ new ideas in chess. The grand strategies of the game have already been thought out. Let me turn the tables on Kasparov and ask: in what way has he developed chess? He might reply with his personal motto - ‘If not me, then who?’. Let me answer: Morphy, Lasker and his ‘theory of Steinitz’, Nimzovich and the hypermoderns, the Russian school with its emphasis on dynamics (of which Kasparov is the leading exponent) and, lastly, the computer. These have been responsible for the major shifts in chess thinking.

    Seventy years ago, Capablanca was occasionally coming up with whole new strategic approaches to certain types of position. But today? I am not convinced that anybody does more than tinker with, rearrange and manipulate the known ideas and elements. On a lower level, ‘minor’ creativity is rife, even essential to good play, but major new conceptions are incredibly rare. Perhaps the 16th game of the Moscow, 1985 Kasparov-Karpov World Championship match (analysed in Levitt and Friedgood’s Batsford book Secrets of Spectacular Chess) is an example of a completely new, medium sized strategic concept.

    Weaker players may find these comments surprising, since they come across ‘new’ (to them) ideas all the time, but players well schooled in the heritage and literature of the game will know how unusual it is to come across something entirely new on a high level. ‘Novelties’ must be played (unless the whole game replicates an earlier game) and some will be more important than others, but that is on a lower level - ‘the little moves here and there’ level.

    This is not to detract from the merits of chess the sport. The same criticism could easily be made of other sports. What creative, new ideas have emerged in snooker or boxing in the last decade? In some fields it is possible for creative geniuses to revolutionise the way we think, in others it is not. Einstein changed modern physics with his theories of relativity, but did Bach change music in a similar way? It has been argued that the originality of Bach lies in the way he exploited the complexities of elements in an existing tradition (Bailin, 1985). I think the same can be said of Kasparov. Both are very original (plenty of ‘little’ innovations), both are geniuses in their respective fields. It is still possible to be creative in chess, but only within the existing framework.

    Perhaps I should write ‘but only on top of the existing framework’, since creative thought nearly always builds on what has gone before. This thought is hardly original - Bernard of Chartres once wrote, ‘We are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than they, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size’. Isaac Newton said something similar some five hundred years later. It might not be entirely fair to describe Kasparov as a ‘dwarf’, but Steinitz, Lasker and Alekhine are amongst the giants upon whose shoulders he stands.


‘Genius’ is another widely used word with at least three different meanings:

1) Anybody with an IQ above a certain level, perhaps 160.

2) Somebody who is just damn good at something. This is the meaning of the word in comments like ‘Eric Cantona is a genius’ or ‘Steve Davis is a genius’. The person in question need not (but might) have sufficient IQ to qualify by meaning 1) as well. The skill could be a purely physical one, though, normally, mental attitude will be crucial to the development of that skill.

3) A productive creator. People who create values and move the whole culture. This is the hardest way to be a genius since these guys (historically they usually have been male, but who knows what the future will bring?) are always ‘damn good at something’ and usually have a high IQ, too. In this meaning the ‘something’ is typically in one of the fields: science, maths, music, art or literature. The distinction between these last two meanings is, perhaps, a little arbitrary, though often type 3) work has an influence outside its own field.

So what is meant by the term ‘chess genius’? I would say that ‘genius’ is being used here essentially in its second meaning. A chess genius is somebody who is damn good (relative to the person making the comment) at chess. There is also a little bit of the third meaning, in that chess is a thinking skill where high standards of intellectual excellence are required. Within the limitations expressed in the final paragraph on ‘creativity’, top players are constantly finding new ideas and ‘creating values’ in a small way. Later I will argue that the chess greats would generally satisfy the first meaning of genius, too! Perhaps the last word should be given to Bobby Fischer (who, incidentally, scored 187 on one IQ test): ‘Genius. It’s a word. What does it really mean? If I win I’m a genius. If I don’t, I’m not.’
Extract from Genius in Chess J. Levitt, 128 pages, Batsford, 1997


Characteristics of a chess genius

Psychologists have tended to concentrate their studies on the type 3) geniuses of the classification given above. It is interesting to survey some of their results, building up a character profile of the ‘typical genius’. Many of the findings for more general geniuses (pertaining to their background, attitudes, values and personality) apply very well to the great chess players (who may, indeed, have figured in some of the research). 
Probably the easiest way of dealing with this issue is to break it up into various components by tackling the question: ‘what does it take to become a chess genius?’. This is the sort of question that seasoned chess professionals get asked all the time by ravishing blondes at parties. Should you stumble into such an onerous situation yourself, my advice - and this is clearly the most useful advice in the book - is not to give a straight answer. The straight answer is a little too technical and boring - if you feel adventurous, try something like ‘phenomenal sexual prowess’ instead. Alternatively, the following might help:

Intelligence (High IQ)

I will be dealing specifically with the relationship between chess talent and IQ later in this chapter; here it is just worth considering some more general results. In many fields it seems from the empirical evidence that creative achievement is not well correlated with IQ. To be more accurate, researchers have found that above a certain level (IQ about 120), there is no firm relation between higher IQ and higher measures of creative performance. IQ 120 has been regarded as corresponding to the level of general skill at which people are able to manage their particular ability effectively. 
    Interestingly, these results did not hold for mathematicians for whom it was found that there was a stronger correlation between IQ and creative performance, even above the 120-level. I suspect the same would hold for chess. Different fields have quite widely varying average IQs for their acknowledged leading geniuses. Cox (1926) gives the following figures (the number in brackets is the number in the sample considered):
    Philosophers (22) average IQ 173; Scientists (39) 164; Fiction writers (53) 163; Statesmen (43) 159; Musicians (11) 153; Artists (13) 150; Soldiers (27) 133.

    In my opinion (as you will see later) the top chess-players would be up there with the philosophers! They may even cohabit the same ivory towers.

    Looking at the question from the opposite direction, there are many examples of very bright people who are not creatively productive. Creativity depends on the direction as well as the level of IQ and high IQ is not a sufficient condition for achievement. It should be remembered that all of this research depends on quantifying ‘creative achievement’, something which is easier to do in chess than practically any other field I know.

Hard Work

Unfortunately, there seems no alternative to this component of chess genius. You cannot inject yourself with chess experience - you have to gather it gradually through hours of play and study. ‘Book’ study is not essential to becoming strong - there are a number of examples of players reaching as high as grandmaster strength based almost entirely on playing experience - but it usually helps. Like learning a language, practice helps you develop an ‘active’ vocabulary and a balance between study and play is to be recommended.
    If you take chess seriously then you are generally working hardest when you play. The brain is at its most intense, which may explain why ideas seen in books are not remembered as well as ideas seen in play. If you insist on not getting a good balance between study and play, then it is best to err on the side of playing too much! Nobody ever ‘got good’ without playing.

    Are there any short cuts? Outside the field of chess, a lot of people will try to convince you that there are. Lateral thinking, ‘mindmaps’, Transcendental Meditation, secret books and precious gemstones... all of these and many more will help you be more creative, it is claimed. Profound insights into your inner nature and your future can be read in the position of the stars or by mystics who have never met you...I do not wish to pour scorn on all of this - perhaps prompting thought about these questions can be useful, however unscientific the process may be - but I remain sceptical to say the least. Everybody likes to be taken seriously, and what better way is there than by having some secret, easy access to a deep and special understanding? The truth is that real understanding and apparently ‘easy’ insights only come to those who have done the hard work. Back in the world of chess, clear, deep ‘vision’ and insight into positions only come to relatively strong players with a wealth of experience and a store of patterns and ideas in their head. There is more about such feelings of ‘inspiration’ and why they come about in the section on vision.

    There are some methods which are more efficient than others, however. Studying the games and thoughts of top players may help you learn some ‘tricks’ that facilitated their success (look out for them), but there is no easy way. If you want to be a chess genius, you’ll just have to do the hard work. ‘99% sweat’ and all that, though personally I prefer mineral water.

Motivation and Values

To do all this hard work, one has to be motivated. Persistent, long-term, internal motivation is needed, not just a desire to win trophies, money or glory. Typically, achievers are greatly concerned about their creative performance, often to the exclusion of other, more normal (commonly held) life-goals. Their own creative development is their highest goal and, consequently, their values are different from those prevalent in the society around them. Given these objectives, it should not be surprising if their behaviour appears (to the outside world) neurotic or even maladjusted. 
    ‘He who cares wins’ - I once saw Nigel Short wearing a T-shirt with this written on it - and it is clear that chess really matters, in a deep way, to its leading exponents. In his book ‘Hereditary genius’ (1869), Francis Galton (a cousin of Charles Darwin) described this sort of attitude very succinctly:

    ‘But I mean a nature, when left to itself, will, urged by an inherent stimulus, climb the path that leads to eminence and has strength to reach the summit - one which, if hindered, will fret and strive until the hindrance is overcome, and it is again free to follow its labouring instinct.’

    Driven by their strong, persistent desire to excel, most players go through a phase of manic self-criticism. They seek and destroy any potential obstacles to their progress. Careful analysis of their games reveals weaknesses and characteristic mistakes - discrepancies between ‘chessboard reality’ and the player’s internal model of it. Less motivated people gloss over and ignore such anomalies, preferring to alter the facts to fit their model (such dogma or superstition is often resorted to as a defence mechanism by people who simply cannot cope with more information) rather than altering the model to fit the facts (the scientific approach). Meticulous self-analysis is part of the hard work and consists precisely of this sort of facing up to reality. ‘Wannabe’ chess geniuses are advised to get tough and ruthless about their own shortcomings. Botvinnik advised his pupils to publish notes on their own games, since this forces one to be objective.

    The very way you describe your errors can also be crucial. Explaining them away in terms of chance (‘he was lucky’) or some external cause (‘it was noisy’; ‘I had a cold’) is not likely to help you improve. You have to accept responsibility and describe your errors in terms of choice (‘I picked the wrong move’) - this is the approach that leads to the best results. Notice that the different ways of describing the same reality (in terms of chance, choice or cause) lead to the responsibility for the error falling in different places - it is amazing just how many political arguments come about because of nothing more than such a shift in descriptive paradigm.

    With regard to top players, one can almost speak of a religious commitment to the game, especially in the way chess becomes the central theme of life, around which everything else may or may not find its place. It seems to me that the way the human brain works creates a desire for some such ‘central theme’ to which other things can be related. This could help explain the popularity of belief in god through the ages. Noticeably, the vast majority of strong chess players are either atheists (some of them quite aggressively so - Nigel Short once said that ‘anyone who believes in God is an idiot’) or agnostic. There are some notable exceptions, e.g. Mecking and, some of the time, Fischer.

    According to Adriaan De Groot (Thought and Choice in Chess, 1965), chess has even less religious types than among scientists. He argues that this is due to the nature of successful chess thinking. You need to remain fluid and flexible, De Groot writes, ‘sceptic and relativist through and through’ to be able to think effectively at chess. You cannot be a dogmatist. Absolutely, Professor De Groot - dogma and superstition are for patzers and we’ll be sticking to that, rigidly!

    At higher levels of play, the aesthetic component of motivation becomes increasingly important, but I will not go into this here since I have written at length about it in Secrets of Spectacular Chess.


As is well known, a fair degree of physical fitness is needed to maintain good concentration for the duration of a competitive chess game. As Fischer puts it:
‘Your body has to be in top condition. Your chess deteriorates as your body does.’
The schedule of top class players these days, as they shoot off round the world playing tournament after tournament, is even more demanding than the strains of a single game and the fitness of the young stars enables them to soak up competitive experience at great speed.
    One should not overstate the case, however, since a majority of human beings, even if they are not currently fit enough, at least have the potential to reach the necessary good condition. The World Champions have not all been paragons of physical splendour, though they usually have stamina.

Good Teaching

Is it necessary to have a great teacher to become a great player?
The strict answer to this question is ‘no’, but it certainly can help. Many strong players have emerged from the ‘Botvinnik school’, or under the tutorage of the renowned trainer, Mark Dvoretsky. In science Ernest Rutherford and J.J. Thompson trained, between them, no less than 17 Nobel laureates. Six of Enrico Fermi’s pupils also won the Nobel Prize. This shows just how useful a great teacher can be. It is likely that it is not so much a matter of specific technical information, but a style of thinking and working, values, attitudes and standards that are conveyed. Still, there are a number of players who have ‘made it’ without a personal coach, so clearly it is possible. They can pick it up from books, or, as Miles once said, from their opponents. Getting a teacher is strongly recommended, however, since it can make the learning process that much more efficient. The great advantage of a great teacher is that much time can be saved. Failing that, follow the advice of the mathematician, Abel: ‘study the masters, not their pupils’. Better make that ‘grandmasters’ if you can, though some of the best writers and teachers, let down by a lack of competitive drive (or maybe they are just nice guys), never fulfil themselves as players.

Although it is rare for common discussion, or ‘normal thought’, to require more than three or four steps in an argument, certain chess positions involve a great deal of intricate thinking before they can be grasped. The brain can only do this if it is able to build up a powerful intensity, which is why concentration is so vital. Two World Champions emphasise it:
  Alekhine:  ‘One trait more than any other determines one’s strength at chess: unshakeable concentration, which has to cut a player off completely from the outside world.’ 
Kasparov:  ‘The ability to concentrate is the basis for everything else...
Few people realise that the ability to focus one’s thoughts during the decisive moments of a game is just about the most important quality a chess player can possess.’ 
    Good concentration and the ability to resist emotional forces are traits that are strongly linked to intelligence. Practical advice is easy to formulate, but hard to put into effect. Focus on the game; let nothing unsettle your inner calm - neither noise, nor pretty girls walking by, nor spectators, nor other peoples’ games, nothing. As Botvinnik put it, ‘I only think clearly when my mind is calm’. It is all too easy to seek distractions (or possible excuses), both internally and externally. Don’t do it!

Character and Background

Other aspects of character and background are difficult to be specific about and the following thoughts are all subject to the usual provisos about false generalisations. The typical chess genius, though one should avoid clichés like the plague, would be a slightly neurotic, Russian, Jewish male from a broken home. Is there anything in this? Some of the statistical evidence supporting these stereotypes is quite striking so it is worth looking for possible reasons why. Let us consider them in reverse order:
    Relatively few top players come from ‘normal’ family backgrounds - divorce or early death of a parent is much more prevalent amongst the chess greats than in the general population. In fact, this applies to other fields too and creative (and also psychologically disturbed) types are three times as likely to have lost a parent before the age of sixteen. Winston Churchill once wrote that ‘solitary trees, if they grow at all, grow strong’. It seems emotional turbulence is likely either to do real damage and/or make a child tougher. I think it is fair to characterise top players as being emotionally tough with strong egos (in the original, Freudian sense of the word), so one can begin to see possible reasons for the surprising statistical results. Several players have proved, however, that it is possible to overcome the disadvantages of a normal home (Karpov, for example), so you need not despair if you have not, as yet, suffered suitable deprivation. 
    Male dominance of the chess world is almost absolute. Of the sixty-five players above 2600 on the January 1996 list, Judit Polgar (tenth with 2675) is the only woman. I will not attempt to explain the lack of creative women here, since others have tried elsewhere and it is too peripheral to the subject of this book. On a positive note, Judit clearly demonstrates (for the first time) that it is possible for a woman to be megatalented at chess. Women’s chess is definitely improving.

    Disproportionately many creative people in general, and chess players in particular, are indeed Jewish. This has a lot to do with the sort of values typical of the Jewish home environment, with emphasis on learning and intellectual skill. Similar reasons could explain the large proportion of successful players from middle-class backgrounds. There is no need for explanations based on genetic advantage, although there is also no (logical) reason for ruling out this possibility. It is clear that ‘you don’t have to be Jewish’ to succeed!

    Why are the Russians so good at chess? Another old chestnut, perhaps, but the statistics are again hard to ignore. Plato wrote that ‘what is honoured in a country will be cultivated there’ and chess culture was certainly way ahead in the former Soviet Union. The absence of other forms of ‘culture’, in particular the escapism of American ‘Starsky and Hutch’ style television, may also have contributed to the more pragmatic and down-to-earth qualities (such as willingness to work) useful to chess success. It is also clear that, with other avenues blocked, a higher percentage of the intellectual elite turned to chess in Russia. In my opinion, another key explanation is the sheer professionalism of a whole generation of Soviet masters before Fischer led the way for the Western players to catch up in the seventies and eighties. This professional attitude (which budding talents might wish to adopt) can be conveyed by words like ‘seriousness’, ‘determination’, ‘toughness’ and a mean competitive approach - not giving anything away, materially, positionally or psychologically. One should not forget the other ingredients - work, work and work.

    Some people think too much (neurotic), some people think too little (intellectually lazy). Top achievers usually come from the neurotic side of the balance point, but not as far as the more extreme point of being incapable of dealing with stress. They are born worriers. I was struck by Alexei Shirov’s enormous capacity for worrying - he seems to carry concerns around with him for a long time and is constantly bothered by something or other. Kasparov is hardly the laid back type, either. There are very few exceptions. Michael Adams seems distinctly unneurotic, but I find it hard to think of others. Competitive advantage often comes from spotting something that the opponent misses and you are more likely to do this if you soak yourself in concerns about the position and keep on worrying about them. Worrying is closely related to having a good sense of danger.

    There are many other traits that could be considered in this ‘profile’ of the typical chess genius. Confidence, coping with failure and the ability to overcome unconscious blocks are all important aspects in the fruition of talent but for which there would be an even larger number of 2600+ players. If you do not fit the sort of image coming across, do not worry (not too much anyhow). There are plenty of exceptions and this is little more than opinionated speculation! I will finish this section with just one more common characteristic: independence. Hating being told what to do, a habit of doing intellectual work alone for long periods (are women as happy as men about doing this?), self-reliance... Fischer is, as usual, a good source for a quote: ‘I like to do what I want to do and not what other people want me to do. This is what life is all about, I think.’

Energy and Libido

We are back to good, old, phenomenal sexual prowess again, clearly an essential component to chess success - you cannot become even a FIDE master without excessive levels of testosterone saturating body and soul... Just kidding of course, but strong ‘drive’ does help. Top modern players do seem to pump a lot of energy into their games (anybody who has played Kasparov live will testify to the ‘force’ radiating from him). You could just regard this as the ‘unshakeable concentration’ spoken of by Alekhine, but I suspect there is something more physical about it than that. Pseudo-Freudians might mutter the words ‘sublimated libido’ at this stage in the discussion and that seems a reasonable way to describe it. What befalls all this diverted sexual energy? 
    We move on now to more technical, chess-specific qualities like the perception of patterns and ‘vision’. What is going on inside the head of a strong chess player?

Extract from Genius in Chess J. Levitt, 128 pages, Batsford, 1997


IQ and Chess strength
Back in 1988, there was an impressive chess festival in the small industrial town of Saint John, Canada. Two large and very strong Open tournaments were combined with the complete set of seven Candidates’ matches in the World Championship cycle of the time (Karpov was to join the seven winners). The English contingent were all on good terms and in good cheer (Nigel Short was making mincemeat of Sax in his match, likewise Jon Speelman of Seirawan) and usually formed, combined with certain selected ‘foreigners’ (like Spassky), a massive eating party which the local restaurants struggled to accommodate. I have a fair recall of the conversation on one such evening. Nigel Short was asked what he thought his IQ was. He was not sure, but (far too modestly) proposed 130 or 140. John Nunn, his second, suggested that with a little training, Nigel could knock his score up to at least 160. Speelman was not impressed by IQ tests generally, and everybody saw the inadequacy of any test which depended on how much practice you had had at the type of questions involved. 
    At this point, some bright spark (me) suggested that it might be a better measure of intelligence to do two tests and see how much the person improved. Quick as a flash, Nigel replied that this was a very bad idea since you could do deliberately badly in the first test! It took me a few seconds to grasp his meaning - that you could artificially inflate the difference in your scores and thus score better in the proposed test.

    Everybody was fairly impressed by this quick and crafty answer and the conversation moved on. The story illustrates something important about the nature of the chess mind - how good it is at short cuts (no pun intended) and tricky ways round things. Mathematicians are usually less devious in their thinking - it is important to find direct ways to prove things.

    There is a story about a Turkish reformer who wanted to discourage women from wearing the veil. Instead of attempting to forbid it directly (the mathematician’s approach), he issued a decree that all prostitutes must wear veils. This indirect ‘trick’ proved the workable, effective way to his objective and shows the sort of thinking which chessplayers are often rather good at.

    In chess too, it is the result that counts, not how correctly it is derived. ‘Players’ like to try things out, and not to study other people’s work diligently. Chessplayers are good thinkers but not always good students, as many university dons have found to their annoyance!

    I discussed what is meant by intelligence at the start of the book (just after the introduction), and later gave it as a typical characteristic of the chess genius, but so far I have not really answered the question: ‘how strong is the connection between chess ability and IQ?’. There are many reasons, some of them simply common sense, to believe that the two are strongly correlated. (A correlation of zero means that two things are entirely independent; a correlation of one means they are entirely related or dependent on one another. Mathematically speaking, all things are correlated somewhere between zero and one.) De Groot considered several of these reasons, and the next paragraph summarises some of his conclusions.

    Spatial intelligence - especially the ability to perceive possibilities for movement - is clearly crucial to chess thinking, as is the capacity to build up a system of knowledge (knowing that) and experience (knowing how). This system must be stored (memory) and well managed - rules, analogies and operating principles must be constantly abstracted, adapted and improved (perhaps not always on a conscious level). Chess thinking often involves a complex, hierarchical structure of problems and sub-problems, and the capacity for retaining such complex structures of data (not getting confused), and for keeping objectives clear and well organised, all correlate with having a high IQ.

    Before offering, very tentatively, my equation linking potential chess strength with IQ, I would like to say a little more about the IQ scale. Assuming, somewhat incorrectly as pointed out earlier (and it is true that from a false assumption you can deduce anything, but this sort of false assumption should be seen as just an inaccurate approximation), that intelligence follows the ‘normal’ distribution (mean 100, standard deviation 15), then how many really bright people would there be? The mathematical/statistical implications would be as follows:
16% above 115; 2.3% above 130; 0.13% above 145 and 0.003% above 160.
This would correspond to there being approximately the following numbers of people above the given levels in England:
1,150,000 above 130; 65,000 above 145 and 1500 above 160.
This should give you a fair idea of the way the normal distribution works, though remember that these are underestimates of the actual numbers. It is very difficult to generalise about the type of characteristics people have at different levels of intelligence. The following attempt to do so, an excerpt from Choice Mathematics (book one) by Kevin of the Teachers, is certainly quite provocative: ‘There appears to be a hierarchy of abilities and traits in those of high intelligence as follows, suggesting an order for teaching intelligence.

 IQ (S.D. = 15) Attributes
185  High natural neuro-kinesthetic control; high curiosity drive; anti trivia; in a hurry
180  New creation
175  Knows intelligent (and right!)
165  Formalisation; beginnings of self confidence; less hiding
160  Interest in logic; paranoia; minor creation; recognises good work; art; music
150  Trivial formalisation
145  Below this level and often above is everywhere found a slavery to conditioning’


If this is true, then I guess all us slaves to our conditioning had better hope that the conditioning is good conditioning! Now that the vast majority of readers are feeling suitably outraged, it is time to present the ‘Levitt Equation’. I stress that this equation is subject to a number of reservations and should not be taken too seriously.

The Levitt Equation

Elo ~ (10 x IQ) + 1000  
    The meaning of the ‘~’ symbol can be taken as ‘given many years of intense effort, will tend to equal approximately’. That is to say that a player with an IQ of Y, after many years of tournament play and study will tend to have a chess Elo rating of about 10Y + 1000.

    It is easy enough to translate this into British Chess Federation (BCF) grades, should anybody prefer to use the English system rather than the international one. Using the standard conversion:
Elo = 8 x BCF + 600    

    and combining this with the ‘Levitt Equation’, one gets (after some basic algebra):
BCF ~ (1.25 x IQ) + 50

    This no longer has the round numbers of the original, and thus loses some of its appeal. What do these equations imply? Assuming, for the sake of speculation, that the formula is correct, there would be many conclusions:
    1) To become World Champion (about 2800 standard these days) you would need an IQ of about 180. I suspect many of the World Chess Champions do have IQs of this order. Could this be why darts commentators get so excited by this number?
    2) A person of ‘average’ intelligence, IQ = 100 by definition, could expect to reach about Elo 2000 (or BCF 175). As a group, chessplayers are likely to be above average IQ, since chess will appeal more to those who are initially successful at it, so perhaps the ‘average chessplayer’ could expect to reach (after sufficient work) a slightly higher level.
    3) Strong grandmasters (Elo = 2600+) are likely to have an IQ above 160.
    4) In England, only a tiny fraction of those with sufficient talent to reach 2500 actually do so. The majority never spend enough time at the game to even begin to fulfil their potential. On the 1st January, 1996 there were eighteen English players 2500 or above on the Elo list. This compares with the estimate of some 24,000 with IQ over 150 in the population as a whole (so the fraction is less than one in a thousand). Assuming, again somewhat incorrectly, that genetic intelligence is uniformly distributed across the planet, one could use the fraction who ‘make it’ as an indicator of the degree of chess culture in the respective country. Iceland, with all the necessary assumptions, would have just over 100 people with IQ greater than 150. Yet at least half a dozen of these have reached 2500. Call it one in twenty - this is more than fifty times better than England. Perhaps it is simpler to forget about IQ and just compare the number of grandmasters and the size of the population, but Iceland does show what can happen if you hold a major World Championship match in a small country. It seems that after making allowance for the limitations imposed by ‘nature’, there is still enormous scope for ‘nurture’ to make a difference.

    You cannot, of course, use the equation to deduce a person’s IQ from their chess rating since the precondition of the necessary years of effort and study may not apply. One could try writing the equation with the ‘<‘ symbol (meaning ‘less than’) rather than the ‘~’. I.e. Elo is less than (10 x IQ) + 1000. Then no preconditions are needed, but I feel this equation would be misleading since most players probably could go higher than this equation would imply is possible, given sufficient motivation. Perhaps Elo < (10 x IQ) + 1200 would be harder to falsify.

    There are a number of possible objections to the Levitt equation:
    1) You do not like the whole IQ concept, perhaps because you think it is impossible to bring human intelligence down to one dimension (a number). I have some sympathy with this.
    2) You think it ‘politically incorrect’ to rate humans with a number. I have no sympathy with this view. If it were possible to do it accurately then I think it could certainly be a good (useful) idea, the trouble (and danger) is that it may not be possible to do it accurately. People do not generally object to measuring height with a number, so why get all emotional about intelligence? As a friend of mine (who wishes to remain nameless) put it, ‘people with small ones often say that size doesn’t matter’. And yes, he was referring to intelligence!
    3) You do not think the numbers in the equation are right, in that you think chess requires either more or less intelligence than the numbers imply. You could be right in either direction, I do not know. At least the numbers (10 and 1000) are simple to remember. I think they are about right, in as much as it is possible for such numbers to be right.
    4) You think that if there was a formula, it would not be of the simple, linear type. Almost certainly correct - but it is just an approximation.
    5) You might agree with the Venezuelan Ministry of Education’s findings that study of chess in schools leads to an increase in IQ scores. This could complicate matters, but only if you are concerned with implausible levels of accuracy.
    6) Other objections. Yes - there are one or two other major problems, as will be explained in the final section of this chapter.

Extract from Genius in Chess J. Levitt, 128 pages, Batsford, 1997


Advice on improving your game
You have assessed your talent and your ego is still intact. Three out of twenty on the multiple choice is not that bad, really... what’s next?

Parents of promising, young juniors and aspiring club players often ask how one should work on chess. While I hope the earlier chapters have not destroyed your confidence in your own ability, anybody reading this book is likely to want to make the most of their ability, whatever its level, and in this final chapter I want to offer some general tips on improving your game. They will be pitched at the audience of serious club players.

It may be best to get individual advice from a teacher rather than accepting such general advice. Each individual has his or her own weaknesses and strengths and it is particularly important to work on your weaknesses (in that your game is as weak as the weakest link in the chain). Be that as it may, you may find such general advice useful. If not, you can always copy Oscar Wilde: ‘I always pass on good advice. It is the only thing to do with it. It is never any use to oneself.’

‘If you don’t know where you’re going, you sure as hell ain’t going to get there’, is another old saying with some truth in it. Just as it is bad to drift without a plan when handling a particular game position, so it is bad to drift without some ‘strategic’ overview of how you are going to improve your game (assuming that is your objective). Why are you going to be stronger in six months time than you are now? Where will you play during that time, what work will you be doing on your game? If you do not have answers ready to questions like these, then it may help to bring the process under more conscious control.


It is important to have a plan of improvement. This plan should be balanced in several ways. Firstly there is the question of a balance between playing and studying. This balance can be very different for different people, but you should ask yourself which side of the balance point you think you are on. If you are not playing enough, play more! If all your time on chess is spent playing, try studying more. Secondly, there should be a balance between work on chess in general (picking up new ideas from external sources) and work on your own games (self-analysis of the way you are thinking). Most players improve the most when they go through an intensely self-critical stage where they analyse their own games in detail and genuinely care about every error they make. Try writing notes to your own games, complete with comments about what you saw and what you didn’t, if you do not already do so. Thirdly, within the field of general study, there should be a balance between work on the various aspects of chess. Back in the days when I was working on my game in a purposeful manner, I used to break things up something like this:

The easiest way to work on openings is directly after you have played a competitive game. See how much of it was theory; find out how to avoid any difficulties you might have got into. What would have happened if your opponent had played that annoying move which was worrying you at the board? Your next opponent might. Human memory cannot be relied upon and you will need some system for information retrieval. A computer can be used for this as well as for its analytical abilities. I recommend keeping an A4 file as well. This is far superior to an exercise book because of the added flexibility. Make clear, precise notes to help you remember the ideas you need to know.

Strong club players and above should not be without ‘E.C.O.’, and also specialist books on the openings that are central to their repertoire. Spend the money - it will save you time. Anybody wanting to compete internationally will be at a disadvantage without a computer database. Chessbase for windows is a good one.


Working on endgames need not be the drudgery many imagine it to be. The theory involves many surprisingly beautiful ideas (and studies), and once you get into it you will probably enjoy it. Endgames do not come up that often in practical play, but studying them, as pointed out earlier in the book, has several indirect benefits. Many players improve a great deal when they study the ending. I suspect that this is due to the fact that they are especially well motivated at the time (sufficiently to study endgames), rather than due to the specific technical knowledge gained. If you are serious about improving your chess, you should have no difficulty working on the endgame. The best way is to read a book. Keres’ Practical Chess Endgames (Batsford) can be recommended; it was written with care and love by a leading player and is well worth the effort even if it is a bit humourless. If you just want to have a laugh, try reading Kingpin instead.

Working on endgame studies is probably better for your tactics and calculation than actual endgame play. I recommend Endgame Magic by Beasley and Whitworth (Batsford) as a superb introduction to the joys of studies.


Your results may well be more responsive to this type of work than any other. Tactics decide games most of the time. Work on ‘White (or Black) to play and win’ combinations in papers, magazines and the like. There are books with hundreds, even thousands, of such positions. Try working systematically through such a book, doing a dozen positions every day. In a few months you will be a tactical wizard.

Working on problems and studies is another enjoyable and effective way to sharpen your tactical eye. Going over your own games with a computer should help you find tactical opportunities you are missing, and is another excellent way of improving this aspect of your game.


Playing over games is the best way of picking up patterns and improving your general play of the middlegame. Pick a (strong) player who has a style you like and go through a selection of annotated games. Studying the games of a Capablanca, Alekhine, Fischer or Kasparov is bound to improve your play! You will develop a better instinct for typical moves in typical positions...Books are the traditional method, but going through games on a computer screen may also be profitable.

I suggest writing down your plans for improving your game on a piece of paper. Break it into the four categories listed above. Is there a good balance? Work especially on whatever you think might be a weakness.


Make use of all the possible methods: computers, videos, audio tapes, books. Do not forget that a good openings file based on pen and paper technology can also make a real difference to your opening play, as suggested earlier. If you find it difficult to concentrate on books, you may find that videos are easy to watch and learn from. There is much more information in a book, but the video may help get you going.

Remember thou art but human. You cannot expect to learn masses of variations, database fashion. Be effective in the way you work. Know your limitations. This sounds obvious but is not well applied. For example, tests have shown that one hour lectures are not well matched with the brain’s capacity to learn. Concentration wanes after about twenty minutes. Still, university education is based on this empirically unsound method. So much attention is placed on the subject matter, that the nature of the human learning process is forgotten. It is as though the information exists in some abstract sense and the human brain does not. Don’t make the same mistake - use methods that work for you.


Chess players are generally quite mean with money. Be prepared to invest in your future as a player! If a book is useful, get it if you can. If you are actually going to read it, then the money should not be a consideration unless you are on the poverty line. A 200 page book costing £15 will take at least 20 hours to read (I do not believe it is possible to read chess material properly more quickly than this). That is less than a pound an hour! Computers are a more serious investment. Think about how much time you spend on chess, how important it is to you. If you are serious about improving your game, it is likely to be worthwhile. The computer will also prove useful in other ways, if it is not a specialist chess computer.You may well win back your investments in prize-money. Besides, spending the money will give you an extra motivation - you will have to justify it! Given that good form depends on motivation, this is not to be sniffed at.


‘Study the masters, not their pupils’ (Abel).

A number of classic books can be whole-heartedly recommended:

Lasker’s Manual of Chess, by Emanuel Lasker (Dover); an interesting read on many levels, which will give all readers a deeper understanding of chess.

Think Like a Grandmaster, by Alexander Kotov (Batsford); a well written instructional book which will convey a number of insights. In my view, you should be at least 1600 strength to benefit fully from it.

My System, by Aron Nimzovich (Bell); Nimzovich’s well crafted book explains his chess philosophy (some of it rather idiosyncratic) elegantly. In my view, you should be at least 1800 strength to benefit fully from it.

My 60 Memorable Games, by Bobby Fischer (Faber); a really outstanding collection of annotated games. Suitable for all players. The same can be said of works by Alekhine, Reti, Capablanca, Nunn and Kasparov.

Simple Chess, by Michael Stean (Faber); a clearly written instructional book which will help players think more clearly about a range of positions. Suitable for all players below 2300 strength.

Secrets Of Chess Tactics, Secrets Of Chess Training, Positional Play, Technique for the Tournament Player, by Mark Dvoretsky and, in some cases, Artur Yusupov too (Batsford); an excellent series of training books very suitable for all players rated above 2000. Heavy, but solid and accurate material with a number of Russian insights thrown in.

The Informator series is a good source for up-to-date theory and is suitable for players above 1800. Concentrate on games in your specialist openings and annotations by the likes of Kasparov, Shirov and Ivanchuk if, like most people, you cannot cope with the whole thing.

Openings books vary enormously in quality. Nunn, Gallagher, Burgess, Chandler and Wells can all be relied upon for their conscientiousness as authors. Others too no doubt, I cannot claim to have read that many. Some people seem to enjoy actually reading openings books, but if you want to treat them primarily as reference works - fair enough. You should get the books covering the openings you play, whatever your level but especially if you are above 2000 strength. Weaker players may choose to make do with something like BCO2 by Keene and Kasparov (Batsford), but one day they will want/need more detail.

I tend to recommend the Comprehensive Chess Course by Pelts and Alburt (available through Batsford) to young juniors and beginners. It is an excellently put-together course. Chris Ward’s Opening Play - the Batsford book, that is, rather than the moves he makes - can be recommended to players below 1600 wanting a general guide to opening principles. Some of the move he makes can also be recommended. Naturally, I also endorse my own book, Secrets of Spectacular Chess, (co-authored with David Friedgood - again published by Batsford) to as many people as I can. Other people seem to like it too...

Over the years hundreds of people have asked me what books they should buy. The above is offered in the spirit of helpful advice rather than in the spirit of advertising. My apologies to the authors of many a good tome not represented.


Is it worth paying for one to one chess tuition? It can be, though you might wish to consider the following points:

1) Having somebody go through detailed technical stuff with you can be inefficient and expensive. Some things are easier learned from books. I was reading a politics newsgroup on the internet recently (uk.politics.misc) and a certain Sam Saunders (talking about general education rather than chess) expressed it very succinctly: ‘The influence of teachers has nearly all been indirect, and in the best instances they have been, not "deliverers of knowledge", but "managers of the learning process".’ Quite so. General guidance, looking over your games and the like, can be very useful. It can help identify problems and stylistic weaknesses, thus saving time. Things which can be done on your own should be done on your own. If you are not motivated to work on your own, seeing a teacher probably wont help.

2) It is important not to become dependent on your teacher. It is essential to be able to think for yourself in chess, to analyse independently and form your own opinions. There is a danger of developing a lazy mentality if the teacher always explains everything and makes things too easy. A good teacher will be aware of this danger, and will not spoon-feed the pupil.

3) Pick your teacher carefully. Other things being equal, the stronger the player, the better. However, other things are not always equal. Look for a teacher with a sound teaching technique, by which I mean somebody who has the patience and motivation to care about the way you think. If you are making a persistent mistake, the teacher should work backwards until the source of the error is located, correct it, and then work outwards again. A good teacher should give you both negative and positive feedback as well as, especially in chess, telling you how he or she perceives the position. ‘Perception training’ can be a very effective method of teaching chess. A good teacher should also ask you plenty of questions.

Naturally, a good teacher has to be totally perfect...

To finish with another Oscar Wilde quote, ‘None of us are perfect. I myself am peculiarly susceptible to draughts.’ Methinks he means draughts of the windy type rather than checkers. No self-declared genius would prefer draughts to chess, surely?

Extract from Genius in Chess J. Levitt, 128 pages, Batsford, 1997









Fantastic Post, thank you DeepNF3
Do you expect a cat to read that much? Wink

wow u really did your home work on this well done and thank you its very insightfull, but it is alot to read though might have to read it a couple of times to fully understand it in its full context but thanks anyway....Cool

Did you just quote the whole book?
Wink frenchduke, I came accross a webpage that had quoted "this" from the book, I thought it was a good idea to post it to our forums, I am going to buy the book myself it seems very interesting
One thing I don't agree with in the article is grandmasters having an IQ of above 160. Chess is not directly proportional to your IQ.
Hahah, I'm not debating the merit of it, it just seemed bloody huge tis all :p
I admire this kind of brain sharing!

Hmmm.......,it make sense.



That took a while but worth it in my opinion.

How interesting.

Wow.. that was very interesting.  Does a person qualify for being intelligent if they say they read ALL that post?  

Kidding seems that most chess sites I have been to are compacted with highly intelligent people. Often they can be spotted just by the way they talk, and the words they use.  Others, are quiet, with only a few laughs aimed at the others who boast that they are intelligent. 

I really do think alot of the titled chess players are smarter.  It really doesn't mean much to me, though.  Some of these people are professionals in other fields, and others  seem to have mental handicaps.  I've worked at a chess site where I have been around savants. What does this all really mean?

What is man's intelligence really.  God looks at man's wisdom and laughs.  Why are the most brillant scientists still denying there is a god?  I"m sorry, but I'd rather be me, with my small brain and believe in a Creator, than to be the most brillant man/woman on earth and deny the existence of God.


That's not a post, that's a book.

kaspariano wrote:
...back to good, old, phenomenal sexual prowess again, clearly an essential component to chess success ...

HA.  its fun sometimes how in the middle of a tome, someone tries to say something crazy.


I like it, err well. not sold on the "prowess" idea. but that post was quite a mouthful.  some thought provoking thoughts in there...

we could have a whole troll thread on the quote though.


I reckon "genius" and "chess" are words that don't belong together. It's a game. Many of us devote much time and respect the greats,but it's still a game. To say any chess player was/is a genius is just as bad as saying a footballer,snooker player or darts player is a genius -it's ridiculous. Chess players and "greats" use brain muscles. It utilises the lower brain muscles IMHO - but still great fun..




that post was way too long to read


If you like long "genius" posts here is one....