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Will Scrabble Have the Last Word on the IQ Debate?
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In my last article, “Scrabble Spells Doom for the Racial Hypothesis of Intelligence,” I argued that Africans should not be able to come anywhere near dominating the games of Scrabble (both English and French) or professional checkers, as they apparently do, if their real biological intelligence was anywhere near as low as their nominal IQ scores might indicate. Although these board games evidently require very high intelligence at the top competitive world championship level (not necessarily at the home level with your dad), and attract extremely nerdy math types, they have the specific advantage of not being too affected by the well-known learning/training resource gaps that exist between rich and poor populations.

My argument is therefore not against the low IQ score estimates for African nations (by Richard Lynn, et al), but whether this reflects some restrictive racially linked genetic cause. If it is indeed basically genetic, it should practically be impossible to find any area of relative cognitive performance of Africans that is inconsistent with this large IQ deficit with whites and other groups.

If, on the other hand, the cause is basically environmental (specifically, learning resource deficiencies), then some exceptions are bound to exist and these will predictably only be found in areas in which the cognitive challenges are high but the learning resource requirements (books, well-trained teachers etc) are extremely minimal. Performance on such cognitively demanding but bookless contests will far exceed even academic areas that are light on cognitive demands but heavy on book learning (eg soft subjects like sociology etc, where you still find no Africans at the top). The genetic Racial Hypothesis predicts that the gap should be even bigger in favor of whites as you go to the more naturally complex contests like Scrabble (see Spearman’s Hypothesis.) In short, if there was to be any exception to inferior African intellectual performance, it should have been in the softer fields where there are less of the gifted math types to contend with.

The Chess Question

Modern chess, like modern mathematics, does not have this book-free quality, which is why the differences in chess performance even among nations with similar nominal IQs are so large. Countries like the former Soviet Union invested heavily in the academization of chess, such that even great players like the American Bobby Fischer had to learn Russian just to keep up with their ever-expanding libraries of books. (The recent advancement in computer chess programs should make the future of chess quite different, especially as computing devices also become cheaper.)

However, as I noted in the Scrabble article, this is not merely an excuse for African chess performance (even putatively high IQ countries like Japan and Korea that have less exposure to the academic culture of chess, are not so great at the game and have no grandmasters). The easiest proof that Africans are also not biologically disadvantaged at chess is that in multiracial South Africa, there is only one chess grandmaster and he just happens to be black. Kenny Solomon only learned to play chess at the age of 13 and was exposed to only one chess book (just like the Zambian grandmaster, Amon Simutowe), a disadvantage that was faced by virtually no other grandmaster in any other part of the world.

South Africa's first chess grandmaster, Kenny Solomon.

South Africa’s first chess grandmaster, Kenny Solomon.

The quantitative argument here is that if there is a large average cognitive gap in potential chess ability between blacks and whites, this gap will be most conspicuous at the highest levels of performance. You have the opposite result in South African chess, contrary to what prominent racial hypothesizers like Gregory Cochran expect.

Blogging about a highly distinguished South African physicist of Jewish descent, Neil Turok, who believes that black Africans could academically perform as well as once-poor Ashkenazi Jews historically did when they became exposed to high quality education, Cochran calls him smart but “crazy.” Cochran then appeals to Turok’s common sense by asking him to look at his own personal experience with black South Africans on different brainy contests:

And he has no excuse …He grew up in South Africa: there are plenty of things he would have seen if this picture of the world were true, and he’s never seen any of them. Did black kids out-argue him, beat him at chess, …?

As Thomas Sowell has noted, it is always fascinating to see how confidently intellectuals speak about the direct experiences of other people that they don’t have themselves (like journalists telling “crazy” cops that they should have just easily shot the armed mad man in the leg instead of the head!)

If the first and only chess grandmaster in South Africa is a black man from a poor community (in a country that has had some pretty strong Jewish chess players), as is the only South African to reach super-grandmaster ranking in professional Anglo American checkers (Lubabalo Kondlo), then perhaps Turok’s personal experience as a kid playing chess and checkers with black South African kids may not be as obvious as Cochran boldly presumes. After all, Cochran himself believes that if there is a large ability gap between two groups, this difference will be most conspicuous at the highest levels of ability (like reaching grandmaster level?)

At this point, I am willing to wager that it is not Neil Turok who is “smart but crazy.”

The Scrabble for Africa?

Professor James Thompson, a British psychologist from University College London who has kindly critiqued a number of my IQ articles, responded to my Scrabble article with his own craftily titled “The Scrabble for Africa.” African interest in board games was indeed quite influenced by the European colonial period that followed the famous “scramble for Africa.” France was at the time a dominant force in the game of checkers and the countries in Africa today that have given the toughest challenge to the historical state-sponsored Russian dominance of the game are all former French colonies. Scrabble is a more recent game.

In The Scrabble for Africa, Dr. Thompson acknowledges that this line of research could plausibly pose a problem for the racial genetic hypothesis, although he proposes a statistical test to save it from immediate falsification:

I will take Nigerian IQ70 as the estimate to be disproved, and the Rindermann estimate of African intelligence of IQ75 (which makes allowances for sample deficiencies) as the best estimate for Africa as a whole.

If Nigerian IQ is 70 there will be 5,764 Nigerians with an IQ of 130 and above. Some of them will play Scrabble. If really good Scrabble playing requires an IQ of 140, then there will be 278 Nigerians able to excel at this game.

If Nigerian IQ is in fact at the Rindermann estimate for Africa of 75, then there will be 22,362 Nigerians with an IQ of 130 and above, and 1,336 Nigerians with an IQ of 140.

It is always good when someone puts up a statistical model that could potentially refute their own hypothesis if their calculations or assumptions are wrong; it makes everyone’s job easier. In the past when I have corrected the assumptions in the statistical calculations of HBD enthusiasts, they have not contested my corrections, and yet they have still soldiered on with their unwavering faith!

So, all I have to do (again) is see if the math does indeed work to defend Thompson’s favored genetic hypothesis.

Omitted Conditions

Before we even look at the omissions in Thompson’s calculations, it is surprising that he does not see that these small numbers of high IQ people in the Nigerian population (particularly if top level Scrabble requires IQ 140) makes it highly unlikely that such a large fraction of them would commit themselves to playing Scrabble, as the best means of taking advantage of their supposedly rare intellects in a very poor country.

And yet even these small numbers of high IQ potential Scrabble champions are still gross over-estimates when we factor in the omissions in Thompson’s calculations:


Dr. Thompson forgot that his final estimates include Nigerians with that IQ at all ages. Thus, even a 2 year old with an IQ of at least 140 is included in his estimate of how many Nigerians can play “really good” Scrabble (remember that your IQ score is only measured against your peers in age or close age range). The only people whose IQ is applicable for these calculations are the adult Nigerians (all of these world class players are safely above age 20-25).

One therefore has to factor that in by looking at the demographics of Nigeria and excluding at least all the toddlers. Dr. Thompson’s final estimate will have to be cut down by more than half!

But the missing cuts don’t end there.


The second factor he does not consider is that all of these top Scrabble players are men. His final estimate includes both males and females who would be above that IQ. The number would have to be cut down further (and there are fewer males than females in Nigeria, like most countries, so it has to be cut by more than half here again).


Dr. Thompson himself also tells us that half of these top elites have left Nigeria for greener pastures in the West, according to a report he found in the Economist, but for some reason he does not include such a large factor into his calculations. What should make this factor even more significant is that most of those Nigerian emigrants have historically been male, which reduces even further the men available in Nigeria to play Scrabble at that IQ.

The female share of US immigrants from selected countries of birth, 1980-2013. Source:

The female share of US immigrants from selected countries of birth, 1980-2013. Source:

So, we have approximately 30 men or less in Nigeria who are supposedly the African equivalent of Manhattan Project scientists, and just about all of them – there were approximately 30 Nigerians on the world top 100 list in 2015 – have decided to dedicate themselves to Scrabble? Life can’t be that depressing even in Nigeria!

Randomly assuming that Nigeria may have IQ 75 instead of 70 still doesn’t fix this reductio ad absurdum.

And it gets much worse when you take this analysis to the other African countries with much smaller populations. I don’t know why Dr. Thompson neglected to show us how his calculations would work on Gabon (the country that was most prominent in my own rough statistical argument), which has less than 2 million people and an IQ of 64 but regularly produces top world championship Scrabble players. As a defender of your hypothesis, you should normally tackle the hardest cases to show how they happily survive the biggest hits from the opposition. The math fails miserably for Gabon, even without a single correction to his assumptions.

The Biggest Mistake?

If there is any chance of saving Thompson’s calculations, it becomes obliterated when you discover (through reverse engineering his concealed steps) the Standard Deviation he employed in his calculations: he apparently used a wrong SD for the distribution of black IQ (wrong, at least according to hereditarian IQ literature itself, assuming blacks in Africa are like blacks in America.)

Under the “correct” black SD, there should actually be no Nigerians who exist at the 140 IQ level. This is not just a problem for Scrabble, it also implies that there should be no Nigerians at any level of intellectual achievement that requires IQ 140. It means no single Nigerian can ever win the National Merit scholarship, for example, as it requires just about that level of IQ. The fact that there have been such Nigerians, like National Merit winner, Justin Otor (Igbo), who also attended one of the most selective gifted schools in America, or Saheela Ibrahim (Yoruba), whose equivalent SAT scores would put her well above the National Merit threshold despite writing the SAT when she was only 14 or 15, is of course a statistical anomaly for the racial hypothesis. And all those Nigerian students in the UK who achieve the highest GCSE score in the whole country and proceed to Cambridge Med School, like Chidera Ota and her sister, would have had to achieve that by some other mysterious means, not high intelligence. (African witchcraft, perhaps?)

Dr. Thompson has in the past criticized my endless use of such concrete examples of high achieving black Africans because he assumed I was making the common street fallacy of offering tail-end performers as sufficient evidence against the racial hypothesis (“here’s one black guy who is smart, so you’re wrong that blacks have lower average IQ”). In fact, my endless examples have two purposes: firstly, these stories seem to be much more common among Africans than native black Americans, which should not happen if the IQ gap between black Africans and black Americans is 15 and biological (hereditarians believe the partial white genes in black Americans gives them a lot of that cognitive advantage).

Wouldn’t it be strange if Ashkenazi Jews had much fewer real-world academic achievements despite having a 12 point IQ advantage? So, why isn’t it strange that every year when Harvard and all the other Ivy League Colleges strangely admit the same lucky black kid, it is almost always an “African” kid (eg 2016 and 2017)? Why was the first black Harvard Law Review president a child of an African, as well as the first female black president of the same prestigious journal (2017)? Suddenly racial hereditarians will blame something other than “genes” since those are pointing in the wrong direction for them!

The second reason we use these concrete examples of achivers is that they also perform at a level where they simply should not exist in the real world, statistically speaking, given their population IQ, standard deviation, etc.

The right standard deviation for the distribution of black IQ, according to hereditarian literature, is 12, not 15 as Thompson’s calculations assume. Racial hypothesist Gregory Cochran pointed this out to his loyal fans at his popular blog, and some of these followers have since attempted to dutifully correct Thompson’s habitual use of 15 instead of 12 for blacks. The original source for SD 12 is the exhaustive hereditarian Bible itself: “The g Factor” by Arthur Jensen. It’s what is experimentally found for black Americans on different tests.

If Thompson is consciously electing to assume that continental African SD is more like that of white Americans (15) than black Americans (12), then that counter-intuitive choice would pose even bigger problems for the racial hypothesis since it theoretically treats American blacks as cognitively representative of blacks everywhere, except with the advantage of partial whiteness (which should in fact raise the SD). Cochran himself has frequently argued that the failure of black Americans to make significant intellectual achievements in a developed country (where they have lived for hundreds of years) is proof of the black race’s lower genetic intelligence. This argument would be automatically falsified if the SD of black Americans was that much lower than black Africans. After all, the smaller gender SD gap is also proposed as a likely explanation for the conspicuously lower female intellectual achievements.

Fat Tail?

Fat chance.

Under the racial hypothesis, you cannot explain the presence of Africans at such high levels of cognitive performance even if you assume a “fat tail” – the idea that there are more people at the highest ends than a strict Gaussian distribution would allow. If a statistical fat tail can help Gabon to reach such high levels of performance, why doesn’t the fat tail of white women players (of any cognitive game) also come to their rescue since they are supposed to have even more of them at that level of cognitive ability than any African country? Or more directly, why doesn’t the fat tail help the white (male) children who are supposed to be the IQ equivalent of African adult brains and who, according to some hereditarian bloggers, are supposedly more passionate with the same board games than adults?

Finally, if the fat tail is helping Africans here, then logically, it should also help them achieve at the top of other (academic) areas, where such an IQ would be useful. If you claim that it only works with cognitive games and not academic fields, then that’s a concession that learning resource deficits are the only explanation for lower African IQ or scholastic test scores, which means you can’t also use intellectual achievement comparisons as your evidence for cognitive differences. The same argument goes for why proposing an outlier subpopulation can’t work. You have to decide whether you want to have your cake or eat it.

IQ 115 for Scrabble Champs?

Thompson and others may now just insist that “really good” world championship level Scrabble has to take only around 115 IQ or less since at IQ 140 or even 130, the math doesn’t look good for them; the show has to continue!

And then of course I will be obliged to reply by pointing out once again that you can’t just ignore all the empirical evidence that makes such a “low” real IQ implausible for the top Scrabble champions:

  1. The “really good” top of the Scrabble world has a gender gap that is similar to the gender gap in top level physics, mathematics, economics, or even musical composition etc: as you go very high in all such cognitive performance, the gender gap grows sharply. That gender separation does not happen at any activity requiring IQs as low as 115, which in fact sometimes favor women (eg college graduation rates?).And no, the gender disparity at higher levels is not because women are less competitive. Girls in high school are just as competitive as boys when it comes to other challenging cognitive contests like the Spelling Bee, even slightly outperforming the boys. But when they try to bring that same energy to Scrabble, they fail to understand why they can’t “outspell” the boys any more, despite their higher interest in this word game. No one understood this until it was realized that competitive Scrabble is in fact much more like a math test than a spelling bee contest, and math has never been the greater strength of the fairer gender, especially at the most selective levels. Thus, the best ever American kid in Scrabble (Mack Meller) also just happens to be the best kid in KenKen, the Japanese math game with no words (I think he might also be Jewish).
  2. The extreme over-representation of Ashkenazi Jews at the top of Scrabble achievement also follows the same pattern as in physics, mathematics, etc. The New York Times has reported that most of the American Scrabble champions have been of Jewish descent. I also investigated this question further and, using one or two of Ron Unz’s selected Jewish names in an article he wrote about stealth ethnic bias in elite college admissions, I found a large over-representation of Jewish names among the Scrabble club players of North America.This large list has over 14,000 players (almost ten times the number in Nigeria, according to an email I received from the Nigerian Scrabble Federation, which should dispel the silly suggestion by some HBD bloggers that Africans just have higher participation on this American word game, despite their alarmingly low literacy rates; France apparently also has more players – 16,000 – than all African Francophone countries combined, as the official International French Scrabble website indicates; Senegal, historically the most active African country in French Scrabble, only has 750 club players, which makes the statistical calculations even more impossible for the racial hypothesis).On the American list, the name Cohen/Cohn/Cohan appears 38 times; names with “Gold-” appear 70 times while (probably mostly Jewish) names ending in “-stein” appear 110 times. By contrast, the most common surname in America, ‘Smith,’ appears only 104 times. (Note: I’m still patiently waiting for someone to explain to me how a 3 IQ point gender gap prevents Jewish white women from reaching Jewish white male performance on any cognitive contest, but a 45 IQ point gap does not stop African men to challenge same Jewish men!)
  3. The over-representation of math majors on top level Scrabble. Since the population of mathematicians or math majors in the world is extremely small, due to the simple fact that math is not simple, what is the probability that they could be over-represented at the top of any other field that does not require similarly high selective levels of (mathematical) intelligence? It’s mathematically impossible.
  4. Following from the logic of 3, the very fact that you have a world champion (among a handful of world champions) who was a twice Putnam Prize winner should close the case, statistically speaking. The number of Putnam Fellows is tiny even among the tiny group of math majors, which means that you logically shouldn’t have any of them winning any other popular “prize” that does not result from exactly the same unique mental advantage required to win the Putnam. In short, a Putnam Fellow statistically has zero chance of distinguishing himself on any popular contest in which an IQ of 130 (or even 140, really) would be sufficient for distinction. This is more evidence that our 140 IQ may itself be a conservative estimate for world championship level of play.
  5. Finally, some cognitive psychologists (who did not have our arguments above) have actually tested some top Scrabble players of the US and found them to score extremely highly on different professionally conducted cognitive tests – scoring significantly above students of an elite college. In fact, as one commenter in our last article keenly observed, the authors of that paper apparently used wrong SAT scores for their control group of students, by forgetting that SAT correlation with IQ has changed over time. This means that the (older) Scrabble players in their sample had significantly higher IQs than was assumed from their older SAT scores, which makes their superior cognitive scores actually unsurprising.


The researchers were surprised that the Scrabble experts scored a standard deviation on cognitive scores above the students with similar SAT scores, and yet their recentered SAT scores would suggest that this is exactly how they should perform on the cognitive tests (they thus inadvertently proved that SAT scores are quite highly correlated with real cognitive ability). The actual average IQ score of these elite Scrabble players, derived directly from their SAT scores, would be approximately 145. An anonymous commenter in 2015 independently calculated that the elite American Scrabble players have average IQ of 143!

It should also be noted that these high IQ Scrabble players in the sample only represented the top 2 percent in selection, which is lower than the top world championship group that the top Africans face. Thus, the sample had 23% women. Since Scrabble is a math game, as we’ve noted, it is interesting that the gender ratio in this selective Scrabble sample was quite exactly the gender ratio for the famously selective “Study for Mathematically Precocious Youth” (see Thompson, 2016)? Just another coincidence?

The Mind Sports Academy, the organizers of world championships in several cognitive games (including Scrabble, chess, Go, etc) have decided to build a more robust rating system that compares player strengths within one cognitive game and across to the other “mind sports.” Their current top ten Scrabble ratings for Team USA apparently has quite a few Ashkenazi Jewish “suspects,” but no women:

A little side note: the highest ranked name in this top ten list by Mind Sports Academy is actually a Nigerian immigrant; and he happens to be the only American who makes it to the top ten list of the world (but that's totally besides the point!).

A little side note: the highest ranked name in this top ten list by Mind Sports Academy is actually a Nigerian immigrant; and he happens to be the only American who makes it to the top ten list of the world (but that’s totally besides the point!).


We can ignore all the statistical arguments and actual testing evidence indicating that the world champion level players would exceed IQ 140 or perhaps even IQ 150 (since Putnam Fellows have won, but no women have won), and conservatively assume that only IQ 130 is needed for such extreme distinction. There should still (statistically) be no single person from African countries like Gabon. And yet they exist, constantly outperforming math professors and computer scientists from the developed world. That’s a statistical problem for the racial hypothesis but it is not a problem at all for the alternative hypothesis: the African nominal national IQs are artificially depressed by more than 30 IQ points due to an extremely deficient cognitive environment. To defiantly ignore the strong significance of these obvious resource gaps, you probably have to be very smart. And crazy.

The Race/IQ Series
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