Am I Too Old For Chess?

Am I Too Old For Chess?

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I recently received a question from one of our fellow members. Since I've heard this question many times, I decided to share my opinion on the subject.

The question goes like this: "I am 25 years old and know only basic chess rules. Am I too old for chess?"

It is not a big secret that the average age of top players gets younger and younger almost every year. When Bobby Fischer became a grandmaster at the age of 15 years and 6 months, many people believed that this record would stay forever. Yet today we have at least 27 players who got the title before they celebrated their 15th birthday.

Fischer via Wikipedia. 

Jose Raul Capablanca learned the rules of the game at the age of four. Here is his first recorded game against the Cuban chess champion. While the adult player gave young Jose Raul queen odds, by the end of the game the future world champion kept his whole advantage.

I am wondering what would have been the result of the game had they played a regular game with no odds 

For more than 100 years Capablanca was probably the strongest four-year old chess player ever. Not anymore! Look at the clip from a Russian TV show about very young prodigies. Misha Osipov is only 3 years and 10 months and yet his chess skills are very impressive.

If you don't speak Russian start from 4:30 where he plays a game vs. Anatoly Karpov.

Despite all the questions the host of the show and Anatoly Karpov ask him, distracting from the game, the kid makes logical moves and doesn't blunder at all. He even refuses Karpov's friendly draw offer only to lose on time. At the end little Misha bursts into tears. Don't feel sorry for him as he has a very bright chess future; feel sorry for his opponents!

On the other end of the spectrum we have famous chess players who started playing chess relatively late. Mikhail Botvinnik learned to play chess at the age of 12. By comparison, the last world title challenger Sergey Karjakin was already almost a grandmaster at this age!

Here are two positions from Botvinnik's games. Try to find the best moves in both of them. A big bonus point goes to you if you know what makes them similar (besides the obvious point that both of them are taken from Botvinnik's games).

Unfortunately, Botvinnik missed the combinations in both games! In the first position he simply agreed to a draw offered by Smyslov. In the second position he played a different move, but nevertheless won the game some 28 moves later:

In his book of selected games, Botvinnik gives an identical explanation for his mistakes. Roughly translated it goes like this:

"My old chess illness, a weak tactical vision, reared its ugly head again."

In his books Botvinnik talked pretty frequently about this chronic "illness" of his. He even mentioned that it is typical for chess players who start playing chess late.

To tell you the truth, I was always skeptical about this Botvinnik's supposed illness. First of all, it is hardly possible for a chess player who is tactically weak to become many times the world champion. Besides, all the combinations that Botvinnik missed are not that easy to find.

I think Botvinnik was just too hard on himself! Look for example at the next gem and try to play like Botvinnik:

The latest age that I know when a future grandmaster started playing chess is 14 years old. This is when the future Olympic champion and Soviet co-champion Alexey Vyzhmanavin entered a chess section of the Moscow Pioneer Palace. He was a very aggressive chess player who never complained about his tactical abilities. Judge for yourself:

So, I don't see a direct correlation between the age when you start playing chess and your tactical abilities. Nevertheless, the sheer fact that I never heard about anyone who started playing chess at the age of 15 or older and became a grandmaster is quite telling. I see the problem of learning chess late is similar to learning a language.

I noticed that as the rule, people who learned a new language at the age of 15 or later cannot get rid of an accent. The new language practically never becomes their new mother tongue. I've seen people who had lived for more than 40 years in their new country, speaking grammatically perfect language, and yet had very noticeable foreign accents.

I guess something similar happens when you learn chess late. It simply never becomes your mother tongue.  Sure enough, you can learn many openings and practice your tactical and positional skills on a daily basis, but you'll still have a very heavy "chess accent." This accent could be seen when you suddenly make a blunder that players of your strength simply don't do.

Or sometimes you will have trouble to visualize a position clearly after just three moves into a variation you are calculating. This sad list could go on and on...I cannot explain the nature of this phenomenon, but I've seen it too frequently to ignore.

Which brings us back to the question if a person is too old to start chess at the age of 25. '

My answer is it depends.

If your goal is to become the world champion, then forget about it! If you want to become a grandmaster, while it is very unlikely to happen, who knows, you can be the first! If you are aiming for a master title, then it is a difficult, but definitely a doable task. After all, Oscar Shapiro became the oldest person to obtain the USCF master title at a very respectable age of 74! 

Finally, if your goal is just to enter the magical world of chess and enjoy the process of creativity and logic, then you can start playing chess at any age!

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