Lies, hypocrisy and genius: the wizardry of chess

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Lies, hypocrisy and genius: the wizardry of chess

Emanuel Lasker, World Chess Champion from 1894–1921, once asserted that lies and hypocrisy do not survive long on the chessboard. Maybe not on, but I fear they are increasingly patrolling the perimeters. In a previous column, I demonstrated the familiarity with chess of the German genius, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832). He is the author of perhaps the most flattering remark ever made about chess when, in his 1773 play tz von Berlichingen, he described chess as “the touchstone of the intellect” (“Probierstein des Gehirns”). Another Goethe masterwork is his Dichtung und Wahrheit (completed 1830) which I translate as “Fantasy and Reality” or, more literally, “Composition and Truth”.

Goethe has been rated as the person with the highest Intelligence Quotient (IQ) in recorded history. IQ is a concept that is often mistakenly assumed to have begun with a desire to limit peoples’ freedom by classifying their intellectual capacity. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In the early part of the 20th century, a Frenchman, Alfred Binet, observed that virtually all students were from the upper classes. Feeling this to be intrinsically unfair, he attempted to devise tests that would be “class free”, and that would enable any child to advance through the academic system on intellectual merit alone. As a work of deep social conscience and considerable intellectual rigour, he selected basic abilities, such as vocabulary knowledge, ability to manipulate numbers and short-term memory, testing massive sections of the population in each of these skills. Those who scored averagely for any age group were given a score of 100, those scoring below or above being given scores below or above 100 depending on how far they deviated from average. Thus a score of 70 was particularly low, a score of 130 especially high (in the “genius“ range).

Binet was well aware that his methods could not grasp the totality of a person’s mental endowments, but only in the last few decades has the IQ test begun to gather its own momentum. For a number of years it has been assumed that intelligence quotients are a reflection of an innate ability and are unchanging. Work by many researchers has shown that the IQ score can be seen much like a high-jump bar. Whatever score you achieve may be considered “the height you can jump at the moment”. With appropriate training your score can go, should you wish, either down or up! So, who were the greatest historical IQs?

The most in-depth work on this topic appears so far to have been done by the ambitious C. M. Cox, who wrote in Genetic Studies of Genius (1923) about historical figures and their probable IQs. Cox had five different psychometricians estimate the historical great brains on the basis of biographical data between their ages of 17 and 26. Cox then averaged the scores of the five psychometricians and, using his own psychometric and historical knowledge, presented an estimate of their most probable IQs.

The following table shows the top 25 IQs of the Great Brains (according to Cox):

Rank Name IQ
1 Goethe 210
2 Leibnitz 205
3= Newton 190
3= Pitt (younger) 190
5 Galileo 185
6= Da Vinci 180
6= J. S. Mill 180
6= Hume 180
6= Erasmus 180
6= Descartes 180
6= Bacon 180
6= Dickens 180
6= Milton 180
6= Michelangelo 180
15= Coleridge 175
15= J. Q. Adams 175
15= Kant 175
18= Tennyson 170
18= Faraday 170
18= Handel 170
18= Raphael 170
22= Sam Johnson 170
22= J. S. Bach 170
22= Mozart 170
22= Disraeli 170


The scale by which Cox measured these IQs would have the top 2 per cent threshold (eligibility for entering MENSA, the high IQ Society) as an IQ score of 138, hence, in order to judge how frequently the all-time top scores would occur in the human population, the next table is critical:

IQ Ratio in Population
150 1 out of 300
160 1 out of 3,000
170 1 out of 30,000
180 1 out of 100,000
190 1 out of 1,000,000
200 1 out of 10,000,000
210 1 out of 1000,000,000


In a later estimation, Tony Buzan, educationalist, psychologist and inventor of Mind Maps, recalibrated conclusions on the record historical IQs as follows: there were, of course, some startling omissions from the Cox list, such as Shakespeare. There was also no excuse for leaving out Einstein, since his special and general theories of relativity were already well known in 1923.

So, the top 10 IQs of the Great Brains according to Tony Buzan were as follows:

Rank Name IQ
1 Da Vinci 220
2 Goethe 215
3= Shakespeare 210
3= Einstein 205
5= Newton 195
5= Jefferson 195
5= Edison 195
8= Archimedes 190
8= Aristotle 190
8= Brunelleschi 190
11= Copernicus 185
11= Franklin 185
13= G. Eliot 180
14= J. S. Mill 180


It is interesting that the Cox analysis and Tony Buzan’s totally independent enquiry both produce an identical number of IQ record holders of 180 or above: 14. It would be fascinating to hear from readers of TheArticle who wish to play the game with their own views and speculate on the highest human IQs in history.

Whatever the outcome of the IQ race, it is clear that Goethe comes out either at, or near, the top, and, as we have seen, Goethe was mightily exercised by the question of: What is truth? Strikingly, as one learns from Goethe’s recorded conversations with his companion and editor, Johann Peter Eckermann (Gespräche mit Eckermann, 1836), the great man was deeply suspicious of the media of his day, which he regarded as both superficial and biased. Goethe even advised against reading newspapers. Coincidentally, while I was in the process of writing this column, “Fact and comment: a letter from the Editor” by Daniel Johnson appeared here on July 27th 2021, making it clear that our Editor viscerally shares Goethe’s passion for objectivity, balance and truth. Something must be in the air!

For example, I am concerned that woke groupthink is hard at work, busily eroding the boundaries between fantasy and reality, and chess is not exempt. The signs are passim, and the Runes are clear. Thus, George Orwell’s insights are being revived more and more frequently. As he wrote, all too ominously, “in a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.

Meanwhile, on July 25th in his piece, “Communism as a Religion”, Laszlo Solymar resurrected an important statement by Bertrand Russell, lambasting Communism, which he dismissed as a series of beliefs, “held as dogmas, going beyond, or contrary to, evidence and inculcated by methods which are emotional or authoritarian. Not intellectual.” Even the most cursory haruspication could deduce that the harpies of wokism are circling. Truth in manifest areas is under threat.

Chess is not escaping the infection. International chess is undoubtedly a sport, a mind sport. In order to be recognised (which it is) by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) the World Chess Federation, FIDÉ, is obliged to subscribe to regulation by WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency. There is, though, just one irritating anomaly: cheating in chess, when it does occur, has nothing to do with drugs. No known drug has been shown to improve chess ability. Yet, routinely, utterly pointless drug tests are still being foisted on chess competitors in FIDÉ events. The main cheating problem in chess is, however, illicit access to computer analysis. On this topic WADA is, as one might expect, silent.

WADA has banned Russian athletes from World Championship competition for previous drug offences. In December the Russian Grandmaster Ian Nepomniachtchi will challenge World Champion Magnus Carlsen for his title in Dubai for a $2,000,000 prize. Because of FIDÉ’s Faustian pact with WADA, without which IOC recognition is impossible, Nepomniachtchi cannot compete under the Russian flag, even though he is Russian and no one has ever accused him of drugs related, or indeed any other transgression or violation.

The Chess Grandmaster Ian Nepomniachtchi. Photo by Malte Ossowski/Sven Simon/DPA/PA Images

Now inspect this recent FIDÉ press release: “FIDÉ can confirm that, due to the WADA sanctions against Russia, Ian Nepomniachtchi will not be allowed to play under the Russian flag at the World Championship match in Dubai.

This ban forbids Russian athletes and event organisers to display publicly the flag of the Russian Federation, the name ‘Russia’, (in any language or format), or any national emblem or national symbol of the Russian Federation, including on their clothes, equipment, or other personal items, at any event under the denomination ‘World Championship’.”

There was further controversy regarding the use of Russia’s flag in another mind sport last week. Polish official Jacek Pawlicki removed a Russian flag during the fourth round of the Women’s 10×10 World Draughts Championships final between Tamara Tansykkuzhina and Poland’s Natalia Sadowska. The removal of the flag was blamed for disrupting Tansykkuzhina’s concentration, leading to her making an error, which caused her to lose the game. The World Draughts Federation later apologised for the incident, but said it had been instructed to comply with the decision by WADA.

In my opinion, the flag subterfuge is hypocrisy, forced upon FIDÉ and chess players by a regime which ignores factual circumstances. Given the choice between fantasy and reality, fantasy wins every time.

I conclude with a cri de coeur on behalf of the inventor of Wizard Chess (see Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone), J.K. Rowling. She is now being widely excoriated for her belief that women are biologically, not surgically or hormonally, defined. If her view — which is surely shared by the great majority of humanity — had prevailed, the hormonally correct former male, Laurel Hubbard, should not have been permitted by the IOC to compete in the weightlifting section of the Tokyo Olympics, or indeed any other competition which would deprive a female athlete of her “berth” right.

I must admit that all my efforts to reconstruct the thrilling game of wizard chess in the first Harry Potter film have come to nought, but fortunately the strong International Master Jeremy Silman acted as consultant to the movie (which had a slightly different title in America) and here is a link to his explanation of the wizard chess moves.

Additionally, here is a recent victory by Nepomniachtchi, demonstrating that, come their title clash in December, the Russian Grandmaster, whatever flag he chooses to sail under, is by no means devoid of chances.


Ray Keene’s latest book is Chess for Absolute Beginners, written in conjunction with the artist Barry Martin


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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 97%
  • Interesting points: 99%
  • Agree with arguments: 96%
62 ratings - view all

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