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.’ 
:  ‘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, £12.99 ISBN 0 7134 8049 1)
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