Too Smart to Become the Chess World Champion?

Magnus Carlsen became a chess grandmaster at the age of thirteen and is now, at nineteen, the youngest player ever to be ranked no. 1 in the world. The natural assumption is that Carlsen’s success is largely due to his incredible intelligence. In this recent interview with Der Spiegel, however, Carlsen himself claims that one can be too smart to succeed at the game:

SPIEGEL: Mr Carlsen, what is your IQ?

Carlsen: I have no idea. I wouldn’t want to know it anyway. It might turn out to be a nasty surprise.

SPIEGEL: Why? You are 19 years old and ranked the number one chess player in the world. You must be incredibly clever.

Carlsen: And that’s precisely what would be terrible. Of course it is important for a chess player to be able to concentrate well, but being too intelligent can also be a burden. It can get in your way. I am convinced that the reason the Englishman John Nunn never became world champion is that he is too clever for that.

SPIEGEL: How [is] that?

Carlsen: At the age of 15, Nunn started studying mathematics in Oxford; he was the youngest student in the last 500 years, and at 23 he did a PhD in algebraic topology. He has so incredibly much in his head. Simply too much. His enormous powers of understanding and his constant thirst for knowledge distracted him from chess.

SPIEGEL: Things are different in your case?

Carlsen: Right. I am a totally normal guy. My father is considerably more intelligent than I am.

I highly doubt that Carlsen is just “a totally normal guy.” I don’t think anyone can become a grandmaster (much less the no. 1 player in the world) without having unusually high intelligence at least in some ways. However, he may be on to something here. The key variable, however, is not so much intelligence as insufficient specialization.

A person like Nunn who is interested in many different fields may never devote enough time to any one of them to achieve true greatness. The interesting question is whether extremely smart people are especially likely to underspecialize. The idea that there is a correlation between intelligence and underspecialization is at least plausible. Very smart people might have a taste for variety in intellectual stimulation and may more easily get bored with any one subject.

The issue of underspecialization interests me because it’s been a problem in my own career. I’m interested in many different political and legal issues, so I don’t have the patience to focus all or most of my work on just a few – even though that’s usually the best path to academic success. In academia, we often speak of the importance of having a coherent “research agenda.” Unfortunately, I’ve got three or four of them. In my mind, they are all interconnected (the common theme, as I see it, is the superiority of “voting with your feet” over political processes controlled by ballot box voting). But few other people see it that way.

Of course, I’m not nearly as smart as Nunn (or Carlsen, for that matter). In my case, the underspecialization is probably caused by factors other than being too smart. Maybe it’s caused by not being smart enough! Still, the difficulty of avoiding underspecialization is a problem for many people, and may be more likely to be an issue for the highly intelligent or highly educated.