Most Popular Chess Myths: Part I

You undoubtedly know how it goes. As soon as you mention to someone that you are a chess player, they typically stare at you with awe and start spewing all sorts of cliches about the game. If you are tired of explaining that what you see in chess movies or read in books is not necessarily true, this is the article you can always send to your friends to educate them a bit about the world of chess and to back up your statements in case they don't believe you. Stereotypes are hard to combat!

Myth #1: professional chess players are the most intelligent human beings on Earth.

"I object to being called a chess genius, because I consider myself to be an all-around genius, who just happens to play chess, which is rather different. A piece of garbage like Kasparov might be called a chess genius, but he is like an idiot savant, outside of chess he knows nothing."
Robert James Fischer

Columnists often compare politicians or successful businessmen to "chess masters" or claim that politician A "is playing chess", while politician B "is playing checkers" as a way of showing who has the superior intelligence and strategic thinking. Such metaphors are beneficial for the image of chess, but are chess players as intelligent as they are perceived to be by the public?

A typical example of a political caricature revolving around chess.

In fact, probably not. To become a strong chess player, you have to possess a specific talent for the game and to train/practice with dedication for years in a favorable environment. There are quite a few top chess players who are not particularly bright or knowledgeable about anything else in life apart from how to move the wooden pieces. Also, if the only prerequisite of being a strong chess player were high intelligence, then we would probably see world-class academics become Grandmasters left and right. In reality, most of them, even those who like chess and play it as a hobby in their free time, have very modest chess skills as compared to less intelligent guys who have been pursuing chess professionally for years.

Bill Gates, who was the #1 richest man on the planet for many years, is also known for having an exceptionally high IQ. Still, when he confronts a world-class pro such as Magnus Carlsen over the board, you can instantly feel the insurmountable difference in their chess skills.

If you check out any chess forum, you will stumble upon threads created by chess neophytes who perceive themselves smart and expect to reach master level in a month or two just by reading a couple of books and playing some games online. They are in for a disappointment because one day, they are all bound to realize that mastering chess is much more complicated than they think it is. Consequently, many of them sigh and bow out once you tell them that they will have to invest years of hard work, and no one can guarantee you that you will earn a title in the end. This time barrier is a good filter for those who are not particularly interested in the game and view the master title as just another shiny achievement that can be put on one's resume to impress the potential employer or be used as a bragging right when hanging out with friends.

That being said, chess is still widely believed to be good for your brain at any age, but please don't expect to become smarter than Albert Einstein just by playing the game.

Myth #2: Grandmasters calculate dozens of moves ahead all the time.

"I see only one move ahead, but it is always the correct one."
Attributed to Jose Raul Capablanca

I am pretty sure that you have been asked how far you calculate in chess. Non-specialists believe that the stronger you are as a player, the further you calculate in any position. Of course, in some wild and ultra-sharp positions, the outcome of the game indeed depends on accurately calculating several very long and complicated lines. However, there are also many positions where you had better think in terms of plans and short-term operations, such as improving your worst-placed piece or preventing counterplay by your opponent. It is often enough to look just 2-3 moves ahead in such situations while going further would be just a waste of time and energy.

Anyway, what do Grandmasters know about calculating that club players don't?
a) To what depth should one calculate in this particular position? Sometimes there is a need to look many moves ahead. In other cases, 2-3 would suffice.
b) What candidate moves to consider? In other words, a GM sees more opportunities for both sides than a weaker player and tends to eliminate the undesired options more efficiently. For instance, a GM can spot a tactical resource that a club player won't even consider. Conversely, the club player might squander time on a dubious line that leads to complications ("calculating for the sake of doing so"), while a GM will quickly dismiss it based on superior positional understanding.
c) How to evaluate the positions being analyzed? Often the problem is not to calculate a line accurately but to understand who benefits from this transformation - theoretically and practically. At top level, quite a few games are lost due to misevaluation of the resulting positions, not miscalculation.
d) Grandmasters calculate faster and have a large bank of well-known positions to which they can refer when analyzing. When a regular GM starts thinking about how to convert an advantage in the endgame, a titan like Magnus Carlsen says that it's pretty much over already since for him the rest is a matter of simple technique.

Also, you should keep in mind that humans can't calculate ALL the continuations. Saying that you calculate "5 moves ahead" means that you can visualize and evaluate correctly the positions 5 moves ahead that you find critical. There is no insurance against missing something important.

Myth #3: the older you are, the stronger you are as a chess player.

"Age brings wisdom to some men, and to others chess."
Evan Esar

The general public tends to expect chess players to accumulate game knowledge year by year in a linear fashion. Therefore, in their opinion, the most dangerous chess opponent in the world is probably an elder with grey hair sporting a long beard. Someone like Gandalf from Lord of the Rings! Conversely, if you lose to a boy, some ageists will start mocking you: "Wow, you are an adult, yet you lost to this kid!". Obviously, this is a silly and inappropriate thing to do. If we are talking about casual games, then a gifted 8-yeard old kid who attended a chess club for three years is quite likely to be better at chess than a 70-year old professor of Mathematics who plays from time to time casually with his friends and grandchildren. This topic we have already touched upon when discussing Myth #1.

Someone like Gandalf might not necessarily be the scariest chess opponent in the world!

So, if a guy who looks like a wizard is not the toughest opponent in the world, whom should you fear the most? The answer is that looks don't tell much. To assess the threat, you had better be aware of the opponent's rating and some other details, for example, against whom, where and how it was achieved; how often the person plays chess, etc.

On a more general note, if you are curious to know at what age chess players usually reach their peaks, you may also want to check out one of our previous posts.

Happy International Chess Day! Make sure to check out our special present for you – a time-limited 40% off summer sale on the Play Magnus Plus Membership!