World's Best Chess Players Deny Brilliance

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Like math and music, chess is one of the those pursuits everyone typically associates with genius and high IQs. Everyone, that is, except two of the world's very best chess players. In two recent pieces, retired champion Garry Kasparov and the current top-ranked player, 19-year-old Norwegian Magnus Carlsen, each disavowed having particularly high intelligence.

Here's Kasparov--by some measures the greatest player in history--shooting down the idea that chess gifts translate into "general intelligence":

The moment I became the youngest world chess champion in history at the age of twenty-two in 1985, I began receiving endless questions about the secret of my success and the nature of my talent. ... I soon realized that my answers were disappointing. I didn't eat anything special. I worked hard because my mother had taught me to. My memory was good, but hardly photographic. ...

Excelling at chess has long been considered a symbol of more general intelligence. That is an incorrect assumption in my view, as pleasant as it might be...Where so many of these investigations fail on a practical level is by not recognizing the importance of the process of learning and playing chess. The ability to work hard for days on end without losing focus is a talent. The ability to keep absorbing new information after many hours of study is a talent.

Carlsen is even more blunt. He shrugs that his chess talents, which led him to become the youngest top-ranked player in history, don't guarantee an especially high IQ:

SPIEGEL: Mr Carlsen, what is your IQ?
CARLSEN: I have no idea. I wouldn't want to know it anyway. It might turn out to be a nasty surprise. ... I am a totally normal guy. My father is considerably more intelligent than I am. ...
SPIEGEL: You became a grandmaster at the age of 13 years, four months and 27 days; and there has never been a younger number one than you before. What is that due to, if not to your intelligence?
CARLSEN: I'm not saying that I am totally stupid. But my success mainly has to do with the fact that I had the opportunity to learn more, more quickly. It has become easier to get hold of information.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.