Cognitive profiles in chess

One of the topics I find extremely interesting is cognitive profiles. Mostly because of how it ties in with how human intelligence works. In my blog posts [1] and [2] I present the theory, that mathematical and spatial IQ depends on pattern recognition via brain size, while verbal IQ and top down conceptual thinking depends to a large degree on sequence handling via the creation of synapses .

This theory explains several phenomena quite nicely, but it still is only a simplified version of what is really going on. It owes a lot to evidence due to the peculiar cognitive profiles of Ashkenazi jews, very verbal, very conceptual, but not that attuned to spatial patterns. Interestingly, Ashkenazi jews are also extremely, almost absurdly, successful at chess with almost 50% of world champions having Ashkenazi ancestry.

Chess ability also has two components that roughly correspond to pattern recognition and sequence handling: Positional understanding and calculation.
Positional understanding is an intuitive feeling for how the pieces should be placed, which squares might become weak and where many moves down the lines hidden dangers might surface. Calculation is the act of simulating likely future sequences of moves in your head to find tactical strikes, mating sequences or just a way to keep the balance.

Both positional understanding as well as the ability to calculate precisely and deeply is a necessary prerequisite to being a strong chess player. If your positional understanding is weak, you will never get a position were your calculating ability will be useful, you will basically start on the back foot and get deeper into trouble until something gives. If you calculate badly, you will miss tactical strikes both for you and your opponent. You will lack the ability to finish your opponent off in a winning position or to hold on in a bad one. Your overall playing strength is probably more determined by your level of positional understanding, but really you need both abilities.

Players are usually classified into positional players or tactical players, which roughly reflects which ability dominates their chess style, though this is also partly influenced by character – more aggressive players often play more tactically, less risk-taking players focus on positional considerations. And it changes with age, likely as the character does, with young men playing more tactically and aggressive and calculating better, and old men playing more positionally and cautious and calculating worse.

Conceptual thinking also has an analog in chess – strategic thinking or planning. Strategy in chess means working out a longterm plan of action that still has to implemented by precise calculation. As such it is somewhat difficult to separate it from calculation, at least in practice.

These chess analogues allow us to test whether my conceptual framework for cognitive abilities still holds in a different modality from verbal, mathematical and spatial IQ. Specifically we can take a look at the many Ashkenazi top players and assess whether sequence handling and pattern recognition make sense as the two basic dimensions of human cognitive ability or whether verbal IQ and mathematical/spatial IQ are different concepts altogether.

Let’s take this list of World Champions: Steinitz, Lasker, Capablanca, Alekhine, Euwe, Botvinnik, Smyslov, Tal, Petrosian, Spassky, Fischer, Karpov, Kasparov, Kramnik, Anand and Carlsen.

Which of these are most famous for their positional acumen? Capablanca, Karpov, Carlsen, Kramnik, Smyslov come to mind.
Which are famous for their calculating skills? Tal, Anand, Kasparov, Alekhine are the most unambiguous. Lasker and Fischer also make sense.
Famous strategists? Steinitz, Lasker, Botvinnik,

Petrosian is a complicated case, because he was a very cautious, i.e. positional player. But it seems his greatest strength was actually calculation (at least according to contemporaries, like Fischer). Euwe I also can’t quite place, he is a bit of an outlier, beating an out of form Alekhine for a one year stint as world champion. Fischer was head and shoulders above his contemporaries, he was great at everything, but I would tend to put him with the calculators. Spassky was a great attacking player, so maybe a calculator, but he was also very well rounded.

Who of these players is famous for extensive opening preparation? Steinitz, Alekhine, Euwe, Botvinnik, Fischer, Kasparov, Kramnik, Anand.

Now, these are subjective choices, but for now they’ll have to do. Let’s compute some p-values of how fitting these characteristics are for our conception of the Ashkenazi cognitive profile being very strongly tilted towards sequence handling.

The most striking result is that of the players with an otherworldly positional sense, not a single one has Ashkenazi ancestry. Given that we have 7/16 Ashkenazi champions, the probability for that to occur by chance is (9/16)^5 = 0.056. Goddammit! We have missed the coveted 5% significance threshold.

Anyway, 4 out of my 6 calculators have Ashkenazi ancestry and all of my three strategists. Among the opening preparation specialists no clear pattern is visible, so once again we fail to find Ashkenazi grit in chess. Ashkenazi players likely don’t dominate the calculator category, because calculation is not a pure form of sequence handling. Instead it is mixed with a form of pattern recognition – the ability to see tactical motives.

Overall the chess analogy to verbal and math/spatial IQ seems to work beautifully, at least within this narrow window of one ethnic cognitive profile. However, my theory would also predict that NE-Asians are positionally strong, but my impression is that they are rather on the tactical side. So there is still a lot of room for further investigations.



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