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Why are some players seemingly 'naturally' better at chess than the majority?

Of course intelligence plays a part, but there are plenty of 'clever' people that are not very good at chess and some 'not clever' people who are chess prodigies.

What exactly about these people/their upbringing makes them this way and why is it so unheard of for people who are not naturally skilled (eg. people who haven't won tournaments as children) to become a top player?

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5 Answers 5

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Of course intelligence plays a part, but there are plenty of 'clever' people that are not very good at chess and some 'not clever' people who are chess prodigies.

IQ is generally regarded as having 3 or more components, visuo-spatial ability, verbal reasoning and numerical/mathematical ability. People differ in the amounts of each of these components. Pattern recognition, which has a lot to do with visuo-spatial ability, is the key factor for chess ability. So, somebody could be very high in visuo-spatial ability and low in the other components thereby appearing to be not clever yet very good at chess, and vice versa.

Why are some players seemingly 'naturally' better at chess than the majority?

I think the key to being very good at chess is to love it. If you really love it then what looks like hard work to other people will look like having fun to you. You will work hard without realising it and become very good. That said, you are unlikely to enjoy chess unless you start with good visuo-spatial ability / pattern recognition. So, that probably comes first.

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    Careful that IQ != intelligence. IQ is a tool to help find outliers (retarded or very intelligent people), it is not a scale to describe how smart a person is, nor is useful to describe everything what we could call intelligence. Otherwise the answer is valid, people are good at different stuff and not everything is useful the same way when you're playing chess.
    – Jemox
    Oct 9, 2023 at 12:30
  • @Jemox please be aware "retarded" is an outdated term that is generally considered offensive. Oct 11, 2023 at 4:01
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Of all positive chess features, by far the most characteristic and important is the chess-professional memory. In a contrasts to amateurs, the top players remember tens of thousand of chess patterns, of whole games, etc.

The research studies showed that in the case of the extraordinary talented players the chess info goes straight to the stable part (and stays there!) rather than to the temporary part of the brain's memory storage.

A time ago, after a neat combination I won a game against a raw beginner, and it was all that there was to it. To my surprise, my partner was truly impressed and he went from one person to another around the place, and he was showing the game to the others; he was also able to show the combination by setting the position where that sequence started. This shows that that youngster had a huge chess potential. (No, I never met my partner again, I cannot provide any follow-up).

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    And that is exactly what Fischer decried: That with extraordinary busywork and memorization you could, even with non-genius talent, rise to the top tier in chess. Oct 9, 2023 at 15:26
  • Memory can set the top player aside from the average Grandmaster, but when it comes to talented players compared to the average chess population, it barely makes any difference.
    – David
    Nov 14, 2023 at 16:01
  • referring to research without citing concrete papers ._. Nov 15, 2023 at 0:25
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I once had a book by GM Jonathan Levitt, titled Genius in Chess. He describes how he played a series of games against Alexei Shirov, got demolished, and while nursing his ego he asked himself the question: just why was Shirov rated 200 points above him?

Eventually he came up with the following:

  • 50 points: superior physical condition
  • 50 points: superior opening preparation
  • 50 points: superior motivation
  • 50 points: talent

He resolved to work on the first three points. Result: he dropped from 2500 to 2450, while Shirov shot above 2700.

Conclusion: at top level, talent separates the great from the very good.

Here's a quote to this effect about Carlsen, illustrating the effect of talent:

But Kasparov says Carlsen's mastery is rooted in a "deep intuitive sense no computer can teach" and that his pupil "has a natural feel for where to place the pieces." According to Kasparov, Carlsen has a knack for sensing the potential energy in each move, even if its ultimate effect is too far away for anyone - even a computer - to calculate. In the grand-master commentary room, where chess's clerisy gather to analyze play, the experts did not even consider several of Carlsen's moves during his game with Kramnik until they saw them and realized they were perfect. "It's hard to explain," Carlsen says. "Sometimes a move just feels right."

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    This is an interesting anecdote, but imo doesn't answer the question. OP's question, or at least my reading of it, is what exactly makes a talented chess player talented.
    – xLeitix
    Oct 9, 2023 at 11:06
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    You can't draw too much of a conclusion based on one anecdote. Maybe Levitt's limit of 2500 is due to talent, but this might not apply to others. Maybe there's some other unconsidered factor. Maybe the way in which Levitt tried to improve the first three points was not effective, but effective ways exist.
    – NotThatGuy
    Oct 10, 2023 at 15:30
  • "He resolved to work on the first three points. Result: he dropped from 2500 to 2450, while Shirov shot above 2700. Conclusion: at top level, talent separates the great from the very good." This is the best example of a non sequitur I've ever seen. What if the fourth point on the list was "wearing more expensive clothes"?
    – David
    Nov 14, 2023 at 16:02
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Actually, quite a lot of serious scientific research went into this. A major component seems to be: deliberate practice.

See this great Veritasium video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5eW6Eagr9XA

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  • Exactly. This is seen throughout every skill/game/ability humans develop. The only thing that makes a master in anything is practice. That youtube video is a great summary of it. There's two schools of thought, fixed mindset, or growth mindset (opentext.wsu.edu/theoreticalmodelsforteachingandresearch/…) those with a growth mindset perform better on tasks because they know when they practice more, they get better. Those with a fixed mindset don't get better as they quit when they fail, and stop practicing. (Which implicitly suggests skill is nothing but practice).
    – JJrodny
    Oct 11, 2023 at 14:43
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Anything you learn while young, you learn better and deeper than something you learn as an adult.

Consider the way we learn languages.

As a child we listen and we learn. And later we just know what is the right way to say things. We cannot explain it, beyond "It just sounds right".

Compare that to learning a foreign language as an adult. You have to learn rules that doesn't make sense, and that you constantly forget. You learn vocabulary but will usually mess up the subtle distinctions. Trying to keep everything straight while talking is a constant battle.

Most human children have a part of the brain that is will eagerly grasp any language it comes across and learn it. Language learned this way become part of the permanent fundamental wiring of the brain.

Most human children, probably, do not have a part of the brain that is eager to learn chess.

However, some children get interested in chess at an early stage while the brain is still very flexible, and they repurpose other parts of the brain to process chess. Parts of their vision center is now a chess vision center. Parts of their memory is a dedicated chess position memory. Some part of something becomes a dedicated chess move analyzer.

All this is part of the permanent fundamental wiring of their brains, below the level of reasoning.

As adults they will "just know" that some positions are strong and others are weak. They "just know" what will turn their weak position into a strong one. They "just know" what will turn the opponents weak position into a lost one.

And they remember. Every position in every game they have played and very many games others have played and analyzed openings too.

This is not to say that these fundamental "hardwired" skills are everything. But they form the basis on which everything else is built.

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