Handedness, practice and talent in chess
By Guillermo Campitelli and Fernand Gobet
What are the respective roles of talent and practice in achieving high levels of expertise? This question has recently attracted considerable attention in psychology in domains such as music, sport, and games (e.g., see Robert Howard’s recent contribution in ChessBase News). For many years, our research has studied many aspects of chess psychology, such as the role of mental imagery, the details of chessplayers’ decision processes, and the brain structures underpinning chess knowledge. We have also addressed the talent/practice question in a study whose results have just been published in the journals Developmental Psychology and Learning and Individual Differences . Here we highlight the most important findings.
We submitted a group of Argentinian chess players (three GMs, ten IMs, thirteen FMs, thirty-nine untitled players with international rating and thirty-nine players without international rating) to a three-section questionnaire. The first section had a number of questions related to practice issues (e.g., do you use databases? do you have a coach? etc.). The second part had a grid in which players had to report the number of hours per week they dedicated to chess (individually and in group) in each year of their chess career. Finally, players had to fill in a handedness inventory, which measured to what extent they were right-handed, left-handed, or ambidextrous.
We found a high correlation between the number of hours players had dedicated to chess and their current rating: non-rated players reported, on average, 8,303 hours of dedication to chess; rated players (without title) reported 11,715 hours; FIDE masters reported 19,618 hours; and international masters reported 27,929 hours. (The three GMs did not fill in this part of the questionnaire.)
It should be pointed out that there was a high level of variability in the amount of practice. For example, let us consider the number of hours of dedication that players needed to reach 2200 Elo points. The average was around 11,000 hours, but one player needed only around 3,000 hours while another player spent more than 23,000 hours to achieve the same level. Moreover, a few players spent more than 25,000 hours studying and practicing chess and did not achieve the level of 2200 Elo points.
As chess is a visuo-spatial game, one could expect that it engages the brain structures primarily devoted to visuo-spatial processing. These structures tend to be located in the right hemisphere. Given the way the brain is “wired,” the right part of the brain also controls the left part of the body. Thus, one would expect that there is a larger proportion of individuals that are left-handed, or at least ambidextrous in the chess playing population than in the population at large. In our sample, 17.9% of the chessplayers were left-handed or ambidextrous. This was significantly higher than in a control sample of non-chessplayers (10.2%). However, there were no significant differences between skill levels with respect to handedness.
Another possible predictor of chess skill might be starting age. Indeed, in his famous book on chess rating, Arpad Elo proposed that there should be a critical age for learning chess, after which it is much harder to reach high levels of skill – just like with language. Our data showed that there was a high correlation between the age at which players started playing chess seriously and their current rating. The average age at which players of each group started playing seriously was the following: non-rated players, 18.6 years; rated players, 14.2 years; FMs, 11.6 years; IMs, 10.3 years; and GMs, 11.3 years.
Almost all the players with titles started playing seriously no later than the age of 12. In our sample, the probability of becoming an IM was 1 in 4 for players who started playing chess seriously at the age of 12 or earlier, whereas for the players who started later than this age, the probability that they would become an IM was only 1 in 55.
Another interesting result was the rate of progress shown by players of different levels. There was a significant difference (around 80 Elo points) in the average rating between the titled players and the rated players after 3 years of serious dedication to chess. After the third year, the average gain was 7 Elo points per year for the first group, compared to only 1 Elo point per year for the second group.
The data on training activities also revealed noteworthy trends: 83% of the players reported playing blitz, 80% had a coach at some point, 67% used databases, 66% played against chess programs, 56% followed games “blindfold” without using a chessboard, and only 23% played blindfold games. Some activities tended to be performed more by the stronger players than by the weaker players: receiving coaching, using databases and playing blitz. Finally, stronger players tended to own more chess books than weaker players.
Together, these results suggest that practice is a necessary but not sufficient condition to achieve high levels of chess performance. That is, practicing thousands of hours of chess is a must, but it might not be enough. There are other factors that might contribute to the achievement of high levels of performance. We found that playing seriously from the age of 12 or earlier is also a must if one wants to become at least an international master. Finally, individuals who are left-handed or ambidextrous might have an edge in playing chess at the beginning of their career (this may be why they chose to play chess in significantly higher percentages than expected), but this edge may be later diluted by the amount of practice involved in developing a high level of expertise.
 Campitelli, G., & Gobet, F. (in press). The role of practice in chess: A longitudinal study. Learning and Individual Differences. Preprint available here. Gobet. F. & Campitelli, G. (2007). The role of domain-specific practice, handedness and starting age in chess. Developmental Psychology, 43, 159-172. Preprint available here.
About the authors
Guillermo Campitelli was born in Buenos Aires in 1972. He did a degree in Psychology at the Universidad de Buenos Aires and a PhD in Psychology at the University of Nottingham under the supervision of Fernand Gobet. After being a research fellow and lecturer at Brunel University (UK), he returned to Argentina to teach at the Universidad Abierta Interamericana.
Recently, he has been granted a research fellowship from the Argentine National Research Council. Until 1997 he was coach of a number of Argentine players that later became Grandmasters or International Masters. Since then, he has been an active researcher of the psychological processes underpinning chessplayers’ expertise, including memory, imagery, thinking and decision making. Among other things, he scanned the brain of Grandmasters and International Masters using functional magnetic resonance. Currently he combines his research and teaching duties with the psychological training of chess players for competition.
Fernand Gobet is Professor of Cognitive Psychology and Director of the Centre for the Study of Expertise at Brunel University, West London. He spent his first career as a chess player, playing for the Swiss national team and earning the title of an International Master. He then moved to a scientific career, receiving his PhD in psychology in 1992 from the University of Fribourg (Switzerland). After collaborations with Herbert Simon (one of the founders of Artificial Intelligence) and Adriaan De Groot (the father of chess psychology), he held research and academic positions at the University of Nottingham until 2003, when he moved to Brunel University.
Gobet has extensively written on expertise, the acquisition of language, and computer modelling. His book Moves in Mind (2004, Psychology Press), co-authored with Alex de Voogt and Jean Retschitzki, provides a systematic study of the psychology of board games, including chess.