Who are the smartest chess players

Chess study: From this age onwards, intelligence no longer increases

A team of researchers from Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland analyzed 24,000 chess games over 125 years in order to obtain information about the intelligence of the players.

The focus was on the development of intelligence over time. How clever were chess professionals in 1900? And how intelligently did they play in 2014?

They also compared the players of the same age, for example the 30-year-olds in 1900 with the 30-year-olds in 2014. The researchers found astonishing results.

It would take a lot of time to look at all the chess games that an international team of researchers has just evaluated for a new study. The scientists analyzed 24,000 professional games, consisting of around 1.6 million moves made by chess professionals between 1890 and 2014.

The researchers from Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland pursued two goals: They wanted to know how the intelligence of the players developed in the course of their lives; and they wanted to find out how the cognitive abilities of the early chess professionals differed from those of their peers. To find out, for example, they compared a 30-year-old player from 1900 to a 30-year-old player from 1980 or 2014.

Chess is perfect for this type of intelligence research. "We used data from games in professional chess tournaments because chess is a prime example of a cognitively complex task," says Uwe Sunde from the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich. The German is co-author of the study that has just been published in the “Proceedings” of the US “National Academy of Sciences”.

At what age did the players make particularly clever moves?

To find out how clever the chess players acted then and now, the researchers compared their real moves - all of which had been neatly recorded - with the "optimal" ones suggested by a chess computer in each individual case. They looked: When did the players' moves deviate from the ideal solution of the computer? And how often did the pros act as cleverly as the computer suggested?

With the help of a mathematical model, the scientists succeeded in creating a precise course of performance for each player. They were able to see at what age their “test subjects” made particularly clever moves, at what phase of life their skills improved and at what age their cognitive abilities declined. What they could also determine was how the average level of player intelligence had developed over the course of the 125 years examined.

From around the age of 35 we don't get any more intelligent

Two things the researchers found are particularly exciting. Firstly, people's cognitive abilities are obviously age-dependent. First of all, we are continuously getting smarter; then, around the age of 35, the development of our cognition stagnates. Second: The players of a certain age - let's take the 30-year-olds as an example - are more intelligent today than the 30-year-olds 120, 80 or 15 years ago. In relation to the general public, this means that we are cognitively better today than our peers in the past.

But why is it that today's 30-year-olds have better cognitive skills than 30-year-olds 100 years ago? The researchers have a plausible explanation for this. “The conditions under which people grow up today have a decisive influence on the development of their cognitive abilities,” says economist Uwe Sunde. These modern conditions naturally also included the rapidly developing digital technologies. In order to deal with them, modern humans are forced to keep up cognitively. No generation of our ancestors was ever required to perform to this extent.

Whether it goes on and on, whether people are becoming more and more intelligent - your model cannot predict that, says Uwe Sunde. He also points out a weakness of his study: it stems from the fact that chess professionals traditionally end their careers around the age of 50, they do not take part in competitions for the rest of their lives.

The fact that the data does not cover the entire life span of the “test subjects” could lead to a bias of the result. If it were different, the players would have participated in the chess tournaments their entire lives and the researchers would have been able to evaluate all of these games - then the average intelligence curve would probably have dropped even more at the end, says Uwe Sunde.

This article was published by Business Insider in April 2020. It has now been reviewed and updated.