The Age Factor

5,122 ELO worth of live commentary: top English players Trent and Short

During the recent London Candidates Tournament, live stream commentators GM Nigel Short and IM Lawrence Trent spoke about a “peak” age in chess ability, particularly amongst the chess elite (2700+).

With the World Championship match coming this November, many people look at the 21 year age gap between Vishy and Magnus, wondering if youth is a major asset in chess.

 There has been much talk about this topic in recent weeks, but I was intrigued by this particular debate, especially considering two points:

  •  many consider Vishy (43), the current world champ, to have been performing relatively poorly in the past couple years – he nearly lost the 2012 World Championship to (at the time) World #20 Boris Gelfand
  • the hype of the 2900-bound World #1 Carlsen (22), the 2013 World Championship contender


The Tiger from Madras: Despite showing brilliant opening prep against World #2
Lev Aronian earlier this year at Tata Steel, Anand's recent results have been mediocre

Considering that the youthful Magnus Carlsen, the overwhelming center of modern chess attention and media, is 100 rating points higher than the World #7, many believe that chess ability may resemble a bell curve when controlling for age, and that the young are much more energetic and better fit to sit at the board for 6 or 7 hours at a time.

But why is this?  Do older players make more one-move blunders?  Are younger players more inept at checking the latest and greatest chess theory online?  Speaking about the former World Champion he dethroned in 1985, Garry Kasparov has mentioned that Anatoly Karpov, relatively inactive nowadays, is now a "shadow" of his former self.


"Shadows" of their former selves? K vs K 25 years before and after


Let's face it - chess is not nearly as physically grueling as most sports (this looks more painful than this).  In fact, most high level professional athletes "retire" well before their 30th birthday.

Cases such as the legendary Viktor Korchnoi (who at 82, still competes at the 2500 level), or the current World Champion whose age nearly doubles the World #1's argue against the fact that older age has too much of damper on natural chess progression.

As the old proverb goes ... "Old age and treachery will overcome youth and skill" ...


Old age and what!? Ex-world champion candidate GM Viktor Korchnoi

We may be able to examine competitive high stakes poker as a comparison to chess in this regard.  Afer all, both are competitive games requiring minimal physical activity, instead demanding quick, sharp, and accurate mental calculations.

Additionally, technology has served a huge significance in both chess and poker. Online poker (though banned by the DOJ in the US in April 2011) led to a mass influx of young and smart online card players to make a buck or two.

The ability to play at dozens of tables at once online allows good players to multiply their advantage and make tons of money - and let's be honest - how much more likely is it for a 17-year-old to be behind that online poker avatar than a 45-year-old?


Houdini, the Strongest Chess Player on Earth

In chess, the advent of super strong engines like Houdini, Critter, and Rybka; Nalimov Tablebases (which have completely solved all basic endgames); huge databases like Chessbase; and hundreds of places to play chess online (, ICC, the ICCF), make the Internet and computers invaluable resources to chess players of all levels.

In recent years, youth has dominated the poker scene, in massive tournaments, big buy-in cash games, and online sit-and-go's. Older poker players, even "legends" like Doyle Brunson (79) simply struggle to compete with the amount of knowledge and experience that these "young guns" have from playing millions of hands annually online.


"Multi-tabling" to a Guinness World Record: 27-year old Randy Lew played
23,493 hands in 8 hours (nearly 50 hands a minute) on over 25 tables at a time

The average age of the current top 5 poker players, according to the Global Poker Index, is only 27.8 (note: the GPI only takes into account results from Live Poker Tournaments, an important but not all-encompassing part of the poker world).

All in all, young people, either through the benefits of online poker or because of the temperamental upsides of youth, have shown a much more capable ability to play poker.

To highlight the fearlessness and skill of some of the top young pros, watch 26-year old Tom Dwan win by bluffing with the worst hand in 6-figure pots here, here, and here.


Poker: Quite a different age demographic then and now

Some interesting chess stats:

  • 6 of the top 10 players in the World right now are in their 20s
  • The oldest player in the top 100 is Nigel Short (47, World #54, 2697)
  • There are 6 players in the top 100 under 21, including 2 2700-players
  • World #5 Sergey Karjakin (23) holds the youngest GM-title record at 12 years, 7 months, almost 3 years younger than when Bobby Fischer broke the record in 1958
  • World #9 Hikaru Nakamura (25) has played over 100,000 games over the Internet alone, once achieving a 3750 ICC Blitz rating (not a typo!)


Some defense for "the old guys":

  • The 2012 World Championship match was between Vishy Anand (43) and Boris Gelfand (44) 
  • On the Live Ratings, World #2 - #5 are each at least 30: Aronian (30), Kramnik (37), Topalov (38), Anand (43)
  • The average age at the recent Candidates tournament was 33.5
  • For players above 2730 on the Live Rating List, there are as many players in their 30's and 40's as those in their 20's and teens (yes, Anish Giri, 2733.1, is only 18)



Some key questions I hope to answer in part 2:

  • what is the peak age in top level chess?
  • what reasons cause this eventual downfall?
  • how does this relate to the rest of us (beginners, amateurs, chess fans, "lesser" masters)
  • how much does rating inflation matter when calculating peak chess ability


In part 1 we've briefly discussed the concept of a "peak" chess ability dependent on age and some background information towards why this may be true.  In part 2, I plan to show several graphs and figures which give may evidence to such a peak age.  In the meantime, here is the first of these graphs.


This is the rating history graph of Georgian GM Zurab Azmaiparashvili, who achieved a peak FIDE rating of 2702 when he was 43, perhaps older than most of us would have expected!


A Bell Curve?



And finally, a famous mating attack from Nigel Short, the oldest player in the top 100.



















Please leave questions and comments below.  Part 2 should come in the next couple weeks.


  • 3 months ago


    At 73 Chess challenges my mental decline. I am becoming even virtuous in good habits of living just to prevail, somewhat, in games of tournament settings. Chess requires fitness and endurance (suffering). Experience, if you live through it, always matters.

  • 3 years ago


    Love the article. You put serious thought into the content and presentation.

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