Chess – An Older Person’s Game?



We return to the fascinating world of science in today’s post, as we look beyond the myths to find out whether chess is really an older person’s game.

Of course, we hear the contrary very often indeed. How do the myths compare to the reality of the situation?

Let us see what Professor Barry Hymer, the Chessable Science Consultant, has to say on the subject…

Chess Older Person's Game
Photo by Юлія Вівчарик on Unsplash

Chess – An Older Person’s Game?

By Professor Barry Hymer

In an age of chess meritocracy, when the tools for chess improvement are readily accessible to most people irrespective of age, geography or cultural advantage, the fruits are already in evidence. Prodigies of astonishing strength are more numerous today than they’ve ever been, and not only in the traditional European hotspots.

Lifetime Repertoires: Queen\’s Gambit Declined

The average age at which the highest levels of chess expertise are being reached is dropping, seemingly by the day, so I thought it might be fun to have a look at the other end of the continuum – at the scientific evidence around the effects of ageing, and to try to distinguish between myth and reality. Indeed, as the great philosopher of science, Karl Popper, taught us, “Science must begin with myths and with the criticism of myths”.

Myths and Reality

There are a lot of these around. Here are a few:

Myth: 

Old age is associated with loneliness, depression, eccentricity, irritability, loss of libido and senility. 

Reality: 

  • Older adults tend to be happier than younger respondents (Lacey et al, 2006); 
  • Depression rates are highest in adults aged 25-45 (Ingram et al, 1999), whereas the happiest group is men aged 65+ (Martin, 2006); 
  • Happiness increases through the late 60s (Mroczek & Kolarz, 1998, Nass et al, 2006); 
  • Even beyond 85, three-quarters of this population group don’t experience significant memory problems (US Dept of Health and Human Services, 2007); 
  • At 80, general intelligence and verbal abilities show little decline from younger ages, though the mental manipulation of numbers, objects and images is more prone to age-related decline (Riekse & Holstege, 1996); 
  • A good diet, exercise regimen, and engagement in intellectual activity might inhibit or even compensate for minor age-related decline in prowess (Whitbourne, 1996). 

Moreover, in these and related areas (like sexual interest and activity), health tends to be a better predictor of engagement and performance than processes related to ageing per se (Laumann et al, 2010).

Personal Motivation

Myths aside, there are two particular motivations for this blog post. First, by way of full disclosure, I am now of an age that makes me attractive to national covid vaccination programmes and to researchers looking to fill vacancies in their ‘old age’ study sample brackets – commonly beginning at age 60. So there is clearly some self-interest at play here. Second, and rather more importantly, I was struck recently by a glance at the demographic features of the respondents to the first phase of a science research study we’re conducting in partnership with researchers at the universities of Sydney and Harvard.

Older Chessable Members

Over 1200 Chessable members aged 18 and above were interested and altruistic enough to complete a short online questionnaire about their typical chess study practices. The median (most common) age bracket for our respondents was 41-50 years, followed in roughly equal numbers by those aged 51-60 and 31-40. Next, again in roughly equal proportions, were those aged 18-30 and 61-70. But we were also delighted to attract the attention of a sizeable number of chessplayers aged 71-80 and a smattering of individuals still working on chess improvement in their 80s.

What does this demographic suggest? Well, in itself it says nothing that allows us to draw any conclusions about the relationship between rate of improvement and age (we’d need to employ much more sophisticated metrics for that), but a great deal about the lifelong hold that our favourite game has on people, and on their attraction to new tools that support their continued learning.

Counter-Evidence

So here’s some counter-evidence for the belief, evidenced for instance in research undertaken by Panek (1982, p.105), that “… older people have great difficulty learning new skills” – a stereotypical view endorsed by over a fifth of psychology students in this study. Really? Are our venerable Chessable respondents outliers? Like my late father, who in his 90s experimented happily with different pc operating systems until he settled on Ubuntu, and evolved his lifelong love of photography by trading in his old Leica and Pentax cameras for ever more sophisticated versions of Adobe Photoshop?

The myth (and associated social stereotype, richly evidenced in art history) that chess is a game in which grizzled ‘beardies’ draw on their decades of accumulated experience to trounce callow youngsters was exploded years ago, of course.

Chess: Old vs. Young
Photo by Alex Perri on Unsplash

The median age for world championship candidates since Botvinnik’s time is 25-34, with some memorable exceptions: Anand-Gelfand in 2012; Korchnoi, frequently, of course; and Smyslov-Ribli in the 1983 Candidates’ Semi-Final, when the sublime Smyslov (peak rating: 2620 – discuss) was in his roaring sixties – though he went on to lose to the 21-year-old Kasparov in the Candidates’ Final.

Smyslov’s fifth game in his match against Ribli is the sort of game I’d like to win when I’m old enough.

Vasily Smyslov - Zoltan Ribli

Vasily Smyslov – Zoltan Ribli
Game 5, Candidates’ Semi-Final Match
London, 1983
White to play

28.Rxe6+! fxe6

29. Qxg7+ Nf7

Chess Old Person's Game

30. d6+! Rxd6

31. Nd5+ Rxd5

Winning the Black Queen

32. Qxb2 with a winning position (1-0, 41).

Beards, Wisdom and Trolls

But alongside the myth of the wise old greybeard (wisdom peaks at 25, then remains relatively stable until 75 according to research conducted by Paul Baltes and colleagues using the parameters of their ‘Berlin Model of Wisdom’), are we at risk of succumbing to a myth at the other extreme – that beyond the age of 35 we might as well reconcile ourselves to a steady decline in playing strength, and either retire with dignity from the chess world, or turn our chess energies to writing, coaching, TD-ing, or snarky trolling on websites and chess forums?

Both the experience of our Chessable community, and some interesting recent research, would contest this myth. In an interesting and by-no-means incontestable paper (Life cycle patterns of cognitive performance over the long run), the authors use chess performance – as so often in the scientific literature – as a handy proxy for their wider claims. They document performance revealing a hump-shaped pattern over the life cycle, increasing sharply until the early 20s and then reaching a plateau, with a peak around 35-45 years of age and a sustained decline at higher ages. 

Refuting the ‘Doomsters’

Grist to the age-doomsters’ mill, surely? Not necessarily. It could be important to distinguish between the experience of elite players, as in this study, and the vast majority of chess improvers. As a fascinating (albeit non-peer-reviewed) recent study suggests, stronger players peak earlier than the rest of us – and have further to fall. In fact players rated 1700-1999 seem to peak, on average, at 58 years of age – not their dotage, but hardly their first flush of youth either. 

Chess Brain Power

But all attempts to arrive at definitive and generalisable pronouncements based on research evidence must reckon with this truth: even the best designed research, conducted meticulously and with huge sample sizes, has little to say about the individual. The research speaks to probabilities, not individual realities. We do not need to rail against the likelihood that age can indeed bring with it slow ravages to our memory, energy levels, processing speed and the like. And we don’t need to cling desperately to the hope that activities like chess might keep Time and Alzheimer’s at bay (they might, and they might not, but despite the claims of some products, the evidence for benefits when baseline measures are controlled for is sparse). 

The Relevant Tweets

Instead, as our Chessable membership reveals, when it comes to a choice between what ‘the science’ says about our prospects for improvement beyond the age of 35, and the lived realities of players engaging productively and systematically in the best processes of chess improvement, I’ll put my money on the latter. As we learn from a truism much-loved by birdwatchers: when the bird in the book doesn’t match the bird that you see in the bush, trust the bird in the bush every time.

As always, I’d welcome feedback to [email protected] 

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