Chess is now a young man’s game

Here are the latest ratings.  You have to go down all the way to #61 (Nigel Short) before you find a player older than 40.  It didn’t used to be that way.  For instance in 1963 Mikhail Botvinnik was world champion at age 53.

The game is more competitive, more players come from countries where chess is relatively new (China and India will give you young stars, not old stars), and there is great value from training with computers.  If you didn’t start training with computers until you were thirty-five years old, you are at a serious disadvantage. 

Consistent with these hypotheses, there are also more and more prodigies in chess.  Can you think of any other reasons for the falling ages of top chess players?  I also see a general principle operating: the more exact a "science" the game becomes, the smaller is the value of accumulated experience relative to sheer skill.



Being from India, I'd like to point out that Chess isn't a 'new' game in India. Some accounts believe that it started here.

However, what's likely is that Anand's success has only spurred a lot of competitive playing, which earlier many people didn't bother about, or take seriously. A parent in India would have not previously encouraged their wards to take up competitive chess seriously, but now it's 'accepted' to encourage a career in professional sports.

In response to your question, I'd like to say that the nature of the game at the highest level has changed, due to computers. Most players, when preparing for matches, actually have teams of players and computers who analyse the competitor comprehensively. What this does is reduce the edge that human intuition/accumulate experience as you've said. My assumption is that human intuition is directly related to experience.

A happy new year to you!


Can you think of any other reasons for the falling ages of top chess players?

The Internet makes it easy for people, especially young people, who want to improve their game to find challenging human competition. Would-be chess prodigies no longer face the problem of being the undisputed master of their local club and having no one interesting to play with.

I'm with Dibyo -- computers have short-circuited the path to obtaining experience. I suppose you could say that at least in tactics, computers have brought the game closer to an exact science.

So, Tyler, how did you get to be such a prodigy
that you were the youngest ever New Jersey state
champ without playing against computers? Or
did you?

Another interesting development in chess is the revelations that have come out of computer-generated endgame tablebases. "Playing chess with God", forced wins that take 517 precisely necessary but seemingly random moves, with no rhyme or reason discernible to any mortal human even as it unfolds right in front of your eyes.

The Flynn effect?

"I also see a general principle operating: the more exact a 'science' the game becomes, the smaller is the value of accumulated experience relative to sheer skill."

But I seem to recall you mentioning offhandedly in our Macro I class that many of us in the room probably had a better understanding of macroeconomics than did Keynes himself--not because we were more skilled, but because the intervening years had produced a division of labor in the discipline which greatly compounded our accumulated experience. Or am I misremembering?

Why do most mathematicians (and economist) achieve success and fame for work done before they were 40?

but who paid attention to kids fifty years ago? I think we're looking at the Beckerian quantity-quality tradeoff here.

Of the top sixty players, three are from India (b. 1969, 1981, and 1986) and four are from China (b. 1987, 1983, 1985, and 1989). I don't know how much of a shift there has been, but, while all but one of these guys are pretty young, there aren't enough to make a dramatic shift on their own, unless of course young players are better at playing other young players (perhaps due to the shift in tactics caused by computer training).

Dibyo: While it's not a new game in India, it may be new for Indians to start playing professionally (allowed them to spend more time playing=more practice) or internationally (allowing them into the rankings?)

I suspect this is even more true in China. China probably has always been somewhat keen to prove to the world their people are the best at chess, along with everything else, but they probably only trained the few they thought were worthy. Increased wealth and a less controlling government allowed anyone interested to play and rise up through the ranks, rather than just the government's chosen ones.

it used to be that youth was wasted on the young, but now we leave that to computers.

there is another hypothesis. maybe we just now happen to have a strong generation of chess players, whereas the preceding generation's talent went nowhere.

if this were a conversation about "writers" rather than "chess players", i imagine the dialog would be quite different.

I think that Ericson's (sp?) "10,000 hour rule" is very applicable to chess proficiency, with its heavy emphasis on pattern-recognition and the requirement to memorize long chains of moves and countermoves.

Computers can accelerate the accumulation of experience, plus improve the quality of practice. A young Grandmaster-to-be can play whatever ELO rating he/she likes many times per day, and even mix up the styles at will.

Putting aside even the vigor of youth and technological advances we find that there is a fundamental advantage to being young: you learn the best stuff. As theory evolves, after a certain point, experience becomes counterproductive. A prodigy today who's read two books (the latest and best) on will more rapidly come up with optimal moves then the prodigy of 30 years ago who's read 10 books on the subject, 7 of which are of mostly useless in current lines of play. Put another way, accumulating theory makes modern instruction innately superior to past instruction.

A simple example might be the old Evans Gambit. If you learned to play in the mid-19th century you probably studied this opening quite a bit. If you learned to play in the mid-20th century then you probably have looked into a few lines of the Lasker Defense but not "wasted" much of your time on the opening in general. {Perhaps by the mid-21st century the Evans will have completed it's comeback though}. Repeat this process for opening line after line and what you find is that the head of the new player is full of modern "optimal" ideas while the older player's head is only one third so filled.

um, the comment about writers is dumb. chess is not only a game of skill, but one with zero chance. that is, it might as well be math (it's not longer anything close to an art (yes, yes, at it's highest level, math is an art, etc.)). and it's clearly just the ability to (i) learn from SW (the ability to play SW at the fisher level, and then take back moves and play things out until you either find a way out or realize why what you did was wrong is invaluable) and (ii) play as many games against great competition as you can stomach (the ICC and others are truly stunning). finally, for those who think they love chess, but haven't tried bughouse, please, please do. it's the greatest game ever (very social, great fun, makes you think in different ways that will end up helping your trad games).

Jimbino, the top ranks of chess have ALWAYS had a paucity of women. I remember looking over a list of US rankings in Chess Life & Review probably 30 years ago and noting that if I had been female my rating would have put me in the top 10 women in the USA.

As a male, though, I wasn't even in the top 1000.

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