Richard G. Petty, MD

Mastering Chess: Genes or Environment?

It is always interesting to look at people who have excelled at something to see what we can learn.

I recently talked about the new research indiating that there are some genes that have some impact on intelligence.

There is an interesting article in today’s New York Times, entited, “Nature? Nurture? Never Mind. Here’s a Sister Act to Watch,” by Dylan Loeb McClain. He has this to say:

“Siblings who are elite chess players are rare. The best known are probably the Polgar sisters of Hungary. Susan, the eldest, is a grandmaster and former women’s world champion. Sofia is an international master. And Judit, the youngest, is the best woman player in history.

Other notable chess-playing siblings have included the Byrne brothers, Robert, a grandmaster and the longtime columnist for The New York Times, and Donald, an international master who died at 45; and Gregory Shahade, an international master, and Jennifer Shahade, a two-time United States women’s champion, who were taught chess by their father, Michael, a master.

Why so few elite sibling players? Is it simply because it is highly unlikely for a single family to produce multiple elite players? Or do most siblings have different interests?

The questions go to the heart of a familiar debate: Is chess talent innate or nurtured?

In his popular book “The Immortal Game,” David Shenk said great chess players were made, not born, writing, “Cognitive chess research punctured the longstanding myth of the chess prodigy, the born genius.”

The best players, Shenk wrote, are the product of intensive study and training. He said the Polgar sisters, who were raised by their father, Laszlo, from an early age to be chess players, were a prime example.

Shenk recounts an episode years ago in which Susan was studying with an international master and they had a problem they could not solve. They woke up young Judit, who, half-asleep, found the solution immediately and went back to bed.

Aren’t the varying levels of talent among the Polgar sisters, who all presumably had the same training, evidence of innate differences? Possibly.

A pair of sisters who have been making a big splash lately do not seem to be separated by ability, at least so far. Nadezhda and Tatiana Kosintseva of Russia are ranked No. 14 and No. 24 in the world among women. But at the European championships, which concluded April 15, Tatiana ran away from a large field, finishing two points ahead of her sister.”

There is undobtedly some set of genes that increase the chance that someone will be good at some game or other, whether it is chess or golf. But there is also the family, school or club that can help someone to realize their true potential.

But even if the genes aren’t all there, you can still become highly competent if you have learned how to learn and if you have learned the arts of patience, perseverance and persistence.

Biology is not destiny!

Genius Genes

I have talked before about the fascinating topic of child prodigies, and the continuing debate about the contributions and interactions of nature and nurture.

There is an important new study published in the journal Behavioral Genetics that should be of interest to anyone interested in thinking, intelligence and optimizing the potential of children.

A team of researchers from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, has gathered the most extensive evidence to date that a gene that activates signaling pathways in the brain influences at least one kind of intelligence. They have confirmed a link between the gene, CHRM2 and performance IQ, that involves a person’s ability to organize thoughts or events logically.

The team found that several variations within the CHRM2 gene could be correlated with slight differences in performance IQ scores, which measure a person’s visual-motor coordination, logical and sequential reasoning, spatial perception and abstract problem solving skills. When people had more than one positive variation in the gene, the improvements in performance IQ were cumulative.

Typical IQ tests also measure verbal skills and typically include many subtests. For this study, subjects took five verbal subtests and four performance subtests, but the genetic variations influenced only performance IQ scores.

The researchers studied DNA gathered as part of the Collaborative Study on the Genetics of Alcoholism (COGA). In this multi-center study, people who have been treated for
alcohol dependence and members of their families provide DNA samples and investigators have isolated DNA regions related to alcohol abuse and
dependence as well as a variety of other outcomes.

Some of the participants in the study also took the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale-Revised, a traditional IQ test. Members of 200 families, including more than 2,150 individuals, took the Wechsler test, and those results were matched to differences in individuals’ DNA.

By comparing individual differences embedded in DNA, the team focused on CHRM2, a muscarinic receptor gene on
chromosome 7. The CHRM2 gene activates a multitude of signaling
pathways in the brain involved in learning, memory and other higher
brain functions. The research team does not yet understand how the gene
exerts its effects on intelligence.

Intelligence was one of the first pscyhological factors that attracted the attention of people interested in the interplay of genes and environmental influences. Early studies of adopted children showed that when children grow up away from their biological parents, their IQs are more closely correlated to biological parents, with whom they share genes, than adoptive parents, with whom they share an environment.

But in spite of the association between genes and intelligence, it has been difficult to find specific variations that influence intelligence. The genes identified in the past were those that had profoundly negative effects on intelligence – genes that cause mental retardation, for example. Those that contribute to less dramatic differences have been much harder to isolate.

The St. Louis team is not the first to notice a link between intelligence and the CHRM2 gene. In 2003, a group in Minnesota looked at a single marker in the gene and noted that the variation was related to an increase in IQ. A more recent Dutch study looked at three regions of DNA along the gene and also noticed influences on intelligence. In this new study, however, researchers tested multiple genetic markers.

The lead investigator in St. Louis, Danielle Dick, had this to say,

“This is not a gene FOR intelligence, it’s a gene that’s involved in some kinds of brain processing, and specific alterations in the gene appear to influence IQ. But this single gene isn’t going to be the difference between whether a person is a genius or has below-average intelligence.”

“One way to measure performance IQ may be to ask people to order pictures correctly to tell a story. A simple example might be pictures of a child holding a vase, the vase broken to bits on the floor and the child crying. The person taking the test would have to put those pictures into an order that tells the story of how the child dropped the vase and broke it and then cried.”

“If we look at a single marker, a DNA variation might influence IQ scores between two and four points, depending on which variant a person carries. We did that all up and down the gene and found that the variations had cumulative effects, so that if one person had all of the ‘good’ variations and another all of the ‘bad’ variations, the difference in IQ might be 15 to 20 points. Unfortunately, the numbers of people at those extremes were so small that the finding isn’t statistically significant, but the point is we saw fairly substantial differences in our sample when we combined information across multiple regions of the gene.”

Most experts believe that there are at least 100 genes that could influence intelligence, but it is unlikely that any one gene is going to be the ONE determinant of how smart someone is. After all, IQ itself has very poor predictive value for anything much in life apart from achievement in high school. The many genes involved probably have small, cumulative effects on increasing or decreasing IQ, and the key will be to understand the interaction between environmental influences and these genes. We already know that childhood nutrition, socio-economic status and emotional and cognitive environments have a profound influence on intelligence and achievement. Altogether too many children have all the mental machinery but do not even realize the possibilities open to them.

It is also clear that early influences will have a lot to do with the repertoire of intelligences that a person has. In the book and CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose I spend some time discussing Howard Gardner’s important concept of multiple intelligences. Many of us have skills in certain domains and it is a terrible mistake to assume that because a child is not very good at logical or verbal tasks, that they are not smart. After all, how many brilliant musicians, computer scientists and entrepreneurs never finished high school or college?

There is clearly more than a gene deciding our intelligence and success at certain activities. The genes may give us the machinery and the fuel, but there are clearly many other factors. I’ve always been a very keen chess player and I once had a friend who was a nationally ranked contract bridge Master. He would destroy most normal mortals at any card game: including me! Even when we played scratch games of contract bridge he would always try to avoid partnering me: he told me that I sucked too badly! 8-(

He also had a hobby: he built and designed all kinds of board games. He used to get upset that whatever the game, if it was played on a board, I almost always won. But here’s the interesting thing: our IQs were virtually identical. But he was murderously good at card games but not at anything involving a board: another refinement of intelligence. I probably did well with board games because I could plan and visualize in three dimensions. My friend had a phenomenal memory for cards that I simply don’t possess.

As the owners of some establishments in Las Vegas once discovered to their glee….

“Intelligence is quickness to apprehend as distinct from ability, which is capacity to act wisely on the thing apprehended.”
–Alfred North Whitehead (English Mathematician and Philosopher, 1861-1947)

“Intelligence is the ability to find and solve problems and create products of value in one’s own culture.”
–Howard Gardner (American Psychologist and Professor at Harvard, 1943-)

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
–F. Scott Fitzgerald (American Writer, 1896-1940)

“To the dull mind all nature is leaden. To the enlightened mind the whole world sparkles and burns.”

–Ralph Waldo Emerson (American Poet and Essayist, 1803-1882)

“It is the sign of a dull mind to dwell upon the cares of the body, to prolong exercise, eating and drinking and other bodily functions. These things are best done by the way; all your attention must be given to the mind.”

–Epictetus (Phrygian-born Greek Stoic Philosopher, c.A.D.55- c.A.D.135)


There’s a nice article at a website that I like a lot. This one recommends adopting an approach of examining our capacity for work in four different ways: physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual.

There are powerful reasons for using multidimensional perspectives to help people not just function at their best, but also to be resilient in the face of adversity. I would like to add two things to this article.

First is an exceedingly useful concept is the “complexity quotient” (CQ), which measures our ability to adapt to changing complexity. It is another way of thinking about a person’s “capacity.” Successful leaders, winning athletes and healthy individuals are extremely flexible and have a high CQ. They can raise their game and adapt quickly. On the other hand, they also have the ability to let go when the pressure is off. After recovering from a mental breakdown, the psychologist Carl Jung was known not only for his remarkable scholarship, but also for his extraordinary ability to relax and to become childlike and to think up all sorts of games for his children. These are signs of a well-rounded, balanced and integrated personality. Sometimes we see people in whom this ability goes haywire, and they overcompensate with drugs, alcohol or risky sexual behavior.

Second, I think that it’s valuable to also add the capacity of your relationships and your energy. Robust, dynamic and supportive relationships can enhance your capacity for work and play, and they buffer you from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. We do not usually think about the capacity of the subtle systems of the body, but they are there and very real. Strengthening them with techniques such as breathing, yoga or qigong, can dramatically improve your quality of life and capacity for effectiveness and enjoyment.

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