What it takes to be a great chess player

Insights from psychological science tell us how to excel at chess.

By Guillermo Campitelli

The world chess champion, Norwegian Magnus Carlsen, is 26 years old. He recently defended his title against Ukrainian-born Russian Sergey Karjakin, also 26. Both players have had remarkable achievements at very young ages. Karjakin was the youngest player to obtain the international master title just before turning 12, and the international grandmaster title at the age of 12 years and 7 months. Carlsen obtained the international grandmaster title at the age of 13. At 19, he was the youngest player to top the world ranking, and he obtained the highest chess rating in history at the age of 22, going on to become world champion the same year.

How can we explain those achievements? Or, more generally, what makes a great chess player? Given that chess involves numerous cognitive processes (perception, attention, memory, thinking, imagining) and that the outcome of those processes are observable in the moves the player makes, it is not surprising that psychology has extensively studied the game of chess. Here’s what psychological science has to say about how to become a great chess player.

1. Practice

Unsurprisingly, practice is the most important factor in explaining differences in chess skill. Research has shown that there is a correlation between the number of hours spent practicing chess and the skill level achieved. In a study of Argentinian chess players, we found that the national master who practiced least spent 3,000 hours to achieve that level. There is no evidence whatsoever of a player who, after learning the rules of chess suddenly became a world-class player. However, there is a huge difference in how much benefit people obtain from the same amount of practice. Some players require up to 30,000 hours to obtain the same national master level. Moreover, some players who practiced more than 30,000 hours still did not achieve that level. So, although abundant practice seems to be a necessary condition to achieve high levels of expert performance in chess, it isn't the only factor. Let’s examine some others:

2. Starting early

Children have extremely plastic brains, and they learn very fast. So, would starting to practice chess seriously at an early age provide any advantage? In that same study, we found that there was a relationship between the age at which players started to practice chess seriously and their chess skill. However, it's possible that the cause of this relationship is not the starting age per se, but that those who start early accumulate more hours of practice overall than those who start late. However, a statistical technique we used in the study shows that age is still a factor. Controlling for total accumulated practice, those who started practicing very young still tend to have a higher level of chess skill than those who start practicing later in life.

3. Cognitive abilities

Given that chess is an intellectual game, it would be surprising if highly intelligent people didn’t excel in chess more than less intelligent people. However, until very recently the results have been mixed, and this question was not settled. A recent analysis showed that there is a modest relationship between scores in general ability tests and chess skill. Importantly, this study corroborates a previous finding that the relationship of general cognitive abilities and chess skill is stronger in children than in adults. This finding indicates that, at lower levels of chess skill, general cognitive abilities are useful to be good at chess. But in order to keep progressing, specific practice is more important than general cognitive abilities.

4. Decision-making skills

In a single game of chess, each player makes around 40 observable decisions (i.e., chess moves) and numerous covert decisions, such as those about strategy. So it’s possible that people who are generally good at making decisions have an advantage at chess. However, this line of research has been neglected. A recent unpublished study investigated whether chess players are better decision makers than non-chess players. We found that this was actually the case, with chess players performing better than non-chess players in tasks requiring planning, cognitive reflection and decision-making under risk. However, it may be the case that playing chess made the chess player a better decision maker and not that their general decision-making skills made them a good chess player.

5. Emotions

In the recent World Championship match in New York, Carlsen and Karjaking played 16 intense games; some of them lasted more than 7 hours, and all of them were followed online by hundreds of millions of chess fans. It is well known that highly skilled competitors in all kinds of fields do not achieve their maximum level of performance as they choke under pressure. Certainly, chess is not an exception, and the ability of chess players to keep cool and maintain high levels of concentration over time is an important factor. Unfortunately, emotional aspects of chess skill have been completely ignored in the psychological science literature.

Conclusion

Becoming a good chess player requires thousands of hours of practice. Almost anyone can be a good chess player if they try hard and put in the time. However, the difference between good and great seems to involve more than just practice: good general cognitive abilities, decision-making skills, and starting to practice early are all important factors. Future research will hopefully reveal how individual differences in the ability to regulate emotions can influence performance in chess.

Dr. Guillermo Campitelli is a senior lecturer of psychology at Edith Cowen University in Australia. For updates on this research, follow the project on ResearchGate.

Featured image courtesy of Peter Miller.