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, £12.99 ISBN 0 7134 8049 1)
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