Study on chess players shows why they’re both important


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Even for someone who is super smart, becoming a skilled chess player takes a lot, a lot of practice. Likewise, practice is not everything. New research in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that understanding how practice interacts with intelligence is crucial if we are to understand how a person came to the top of their game.

In an article published on Monday, an international team of researchers presented the results of a longitudinal study that gathered data on 90 chess players in their lifetime. By examining how these factors influence each other, they showed that the smarter players benefit more from training. Perhaps more importantly, they conclude that there is such a complicated interplay between intelligence and practice when it comes to becoming more proficient, that the effects of these two factors simply cannot be disentangled.

To test how intelligence and practice contribute to a player’s skill level, the team used several data points collected over at least 20 years of a chess player‘s career: the Elo Lifetime Ratings of the Chess Player. player as well as the results of three intelligence tests and the number of games they played. This first factor – which is based on tournament wins – is considered a reliable indicator of a player’s skill level, while the latter two are used as measures of intelligence and training.

“The current results support the hypothesis that intelligence and practice are, unsurprisingly, important factors in the acquisition and retention of expertise when considered separately,” write the study authors, supervised by Nemanja Vaci, Ph.D., postdoctoral research assistant in applied statistics. at the University of Oxford.

“However, their explanatory power lies in the way they complement each other. Individually, they can only explain certain parts of the development curve. Together, they explain changes across the lifespan much better, accounting for about 47% of the variance.

Over the course of a lifetime, intelligence and practice are impossible to disentangle as factors that contribute to a chess player’s skill level.Unsplash / Vlad Sargu

In comparison, 34 percent of the variance in skill levels of chess players could be explained by practice, while intelligence could only explain 5 percent.

In other words, while intelligence and practice may partly explain the skills of a chess player, the combined effect of the two factors is much more important in predicting a player’s Elo ranking during of his life.

While this finding may seem rather intuitive and perhaps even obvious, it complicates the popular assumptions of intelligence researchers and specialist researchers. Researchers in each field have claimed that intelligence or practicality is the only factor determining a person’s skill level – limited to a large extent by the fact that it is much easier to analyze statistics when there are only two variables to consider rather than three.

The researchers recognize several limitations of the study, including the fact that informal practices such as studying past games and other types of reading are not taken into account, nor the age at which they started playing. Future studies on the subject would do well to take these factors into account.

“Despite these limitations, our study confirms one of the central tenets of virtually all theories of intelligence – smarter people should benefit more from the same amount of practice than less intelligent people,” they write.

By following the careers of chess players over several decades, the researchers also observed a similar effect in the way their skill levels decline with old age: they observed that practice alone cannot guarantee that players will remain proficient in the game. old age. The smarter a player, the more training helped them stay sharp as they got older. On the flip side, practice hasn’t done as much to help less intelligent players stay so sharp for that long.

“Above all, our study highlights how unsuccessful it is to focus on just one factor of human skills development,” they write.

“Intelligence and practice are closely related, which makes it difficult to separate the 2 and determine the exact influence of each factor. Instead, it is much more advisable to identify the circumstances that can help people acquire and retain important skills.

Summary: The relative importance of different factors in the development of human skills has been widely discussed. Expertise research indicates that focused practice may be the sole determinant of competence, while intelligence researchers emphasize the relative importance of abilities, even at the highest level of competence. There is indeed a large body of research that recognizes the role of both factors in the development and retention of skills. However, it is not clear how intelligence and practice combine to enable the acquisition and retention of complex skills throughout life. Instead of focusing on the 2 factors, intelligence and practice, in isolation, here we look at their interaction throughout development. In a longitudinal study that followed chess players throughout their careers, we show that intelligence and practice positively affect the acquisition and retention of chess skills. Importantly, the non-linear interaction between the 2 factors revealed that the smarter individuals benefited more from the practice. With the same amount of practice, they learned chess skills faster than less intelligent players, achieved higher peak performance, and stopped the decline at an older age. Our research demonstrates the futility of examining the relative importance of closely related factors in human development.

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