Dominic Lawson discusses five books on chess
Do you have to be very clever to be good at it?
It would be difficult to be strong at chess if you had a subnormal IQ, but you certainly don’t need an IQ of above average. I’m sure you could find very strong grandmasters with IQs around about the 100 mark, which is the average. It was always said that [late chess grandmaster Bobby] Fischer had an IQ of 180. I don’t know if there is any evidence for that. It wouldn’t surprise me, but I don’t know what the proof is.
What I have noticed in very strong players, though, is an extraordinary degree of concentration. You really do have to concentrate very hard for long periods. There is a very boring phrase for that, which is hard work. That’s often underestimated, while the idea of effortless genius is greatly overestimated. And if it is hard work — and it is — then you must get something really quite special out of it, to put yourself through it. You need to really hate losing. Someone once said, “Chess is a battle between your aversion to the pain of losing, and your aversion to the pain of thinking.” Because hard thinking is stressful and difficult. Quite often, the reason why, as we get older, we lose more games of chess — certainly in my case — is that you begin to get more pain from thinking than you do from losing. Also, if you’re a young person, you’re probably rejecting other ways of occupying your time, which most people would think are more pleasurable, whether it’s watching: Teen Idol: or playing football or having a drink. It has to really excite you, so motivation plays a huge part. That’s often described as natural ability, but it may actually be a description of something that is more like desire, a really huge desire.
Associate Professor of Economics, North Carolina State Univ.