Many grandmasters get out of the game before their 50th birthday, but why is that? Do younger players have a competitive edge?
Chess is often thought of as a game of wit, wisdom, and intellectual prowess, so it would stand to reason that the older and wiser a player is, and the more time he or she has had to practice, the better they’ll be, right? After all, chess isn’t baseball – it’s a mind game that doesn’t depend on a healthy, young, or athletic body for success. Well, that may be true only up until a certain point. Remember, chess is also a game rife with child prodigies, and new records for youngest grandmaster and youngest World Chess Champion are being broken left and right, almost as fast as you can blink! Some scientific data has shown that there is a steep dropoff in chess skill after players reach a certain age. This article will examine whether or not that’s true and, if so, what may be causing it.
Is it True? Research Points to Yes
Recent research has shown a marked decrease in chess skill after a certain age. The “sweet spot” uncovered by these studies appears to be somewhere between the ages of 25 and 38, after which skill deteriorates slowly at first, and then faster and faster as more time goes by. The 2013 World Chess Championship in Chennai was proof of this phenomenon, where a 22 year old Magnus Carlsen handily beat reigning champion Viswanathan “Vishy” Anand, a player more than 20 years his senior.
But Wait, it Gets Worse
Several studies have been done over the years to try and pinpoint the effects of aging on the chess skills of competitive chess players at the highest levels. One in particular has stood out from the rest, and that was a study from 2015 entitled “Selection and the age – productivity profile. Evidence from chess players” that was printed in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization.
What was so unique about this study in particular was that it pointed out the obvious-once-you-mention-it bias that many previous studies had when it came to studying the results of older chess players. You see, the majority of these studies would only take into account older chess players that were still active in competition. On the surface it seems to make sense, but when you think about it, you’ll realize that this leads to a bias that gives older players better results than they really achieve. Why? Because only the best older players continue playing past a certain age. Players that begin “feeling their age” in their chess game will automatically remove themselves from competition, and thus, from these studies. When the researchers corrected for this bias, they found that the peak chess playing age is actually even younger than previously thought – a tender 21!
They further discovered that an average competitive player’s skills will deteriorate so much with age that, at the age of 40, they will be at roughly the same competitive strength as they were when they were 15 (assuming they were competing then.) It’s discouraging and somewhat counterintuitive to read, but the numbers don’t lie! So, how does this happen? There are a few theories:
Your Brain May Use More Power Than You Realize
One of the things that gives younger players a potential competitive edge is the theory that extended, intensive thought and concentration can actually use up your body’s fuel reserves faster than normal brain activity would. This may be why, after a gruelling chess match or a long day of studying, you feel so tired and exhausted. After all, the brain makes up only about 2% of our body weight, but it uses more than 20% of our resting metabolic rate, and that’s just during normal day to day activity. It makes sense that that percentage would spike after spending hours each day bent over a chessboard.
Your ability to supply the brain with necessary resources, and to bounce back after a particularly exhausting chess match in time for the next one greatly decreases with age. Without being properly fuelled, the brain can’t work as well, and chess results suffer. Because of this, chess actually does depend on a healthy body more than most people realize, and the effects of aging on the body can translate to the brain, which in turn comes to light on the chess board.
But It’s Not All Bad
This may all seem like discouraging news to those of you who are on the far side of that peak age range outlined above, but try not to be too sad. For players that are not at the very highest levels of chess competition, the difference in playing skill is usually negligible. If you’ve enjoyed a friendly game of chess every now and then, getting older is no reason to stop playing. After all, there’s a 100% chance that your opponents are getting older right along with you.
And for those few top players in the world, the effects of aging upon your chess game are inexorable, it’s true. But there is some silver lining. This research may just give you a golden opportunity to retire early at the age of 35 or 40 and spend the rest of your time doing whatever you like!
The gradual skill deterioration in aging players also keeps things fresh in the arena of competitive chess. It ensures that new players are always climbing their way to the top of the charts, and that each year of defense for a reigning champion makes it harder and harder for him to hold on to the title. This way, no one but the best of the best players remain at the top for very long, and more players get to experience the thrill of overtaking a reigning champion.
A Young Person’s Game
So, it would seem that chess is a young person’s game after all. However, that certainly doesn’t mean that older folks can’t enjoy it. For most of us who are not defending world championship titles, the gradual decline in chess skill as we age simply isn’t that noticeable and won’t end up mattering too much at all.