Points of Reference

| 5 | Fun & Trivia

(This story was written for the U3A Nepean web site. U3A is the “University of the Third Age”.  If you don't know what that is, you can learn about it here: )

We've all heard the old saw that tells us our brain slows down as we grow older. But is it true? And if it is true for some people, does that make it true for everybody?

Not a chance!

We in U3A have found that exercising our brains, even in informal study groups, keeps them alert and pliable, and makes us more confident to discover other frontiers to tackle.

Of course, while some of us enjoy cruising down the mental highway with the windows wound down and the radio playing others take a more high powered approach—like George Bernard Shaw who was still writing plays in his 90s and Bertrand Russell who wrote his extraordinary autobiography at age 93.

Once in a while we need an external point of reference in our lives so we can assess realistically how we are performing.

In November 1983 it rained. It rained a lot. In fact it rained so much that water had to be released from Warragamba Dam to relieve the pressure; and that happened just a few days before the Nepean Triathlon was held.

The Triathlon organisers were faced with a dilemma. The water flooding into the Nepean had come from well below the surface, and at that depth it was icy so that even in a relatively short swim (800 metres) the risk of hypothermia was high. In fact, many people were affected by the cold that day. Some pushed on, some needed assistance when they left the water, and a few were taken to Nepean Hospital for treatment.

One of the early hypothermia warnings, and one of the more dangerous ones, is the mind's tendency to slip into a dissociative state before the loss of reality can cause swimmers to slide beneath the surface. If nobody notices, they will probably drown.

I knew all this and, as a reference, I worked out simple square roots in my head as I swam. Had I reached the point where I became confused I would have headed straight for the shore.

Triathlons are twenty years in the past now, and these days I like to have an external reference point to keep watch on my mental acuity. U3A gives us all an option to stretch our mental processes by learning or teaching, but my favourite pastime for half a lifetime has been chess. Since I've played tournament chess on-and-off for the past 35 years the changes in my competition rating over the period allow me to assess my status.

Lately I've been playing Internet chess on a site called and last week Englishman brian104ukk,  suggested that we try to find out who was the youngest player on the site, and who was the oldest  . And guess who that happened to be! (My regular over-the-board chess club is at Rooty Hill RSL on Monday nights but I can't claim to be the oldest there. That distinction belongs to U3A chess tutor Ken MacGillivray.)

Anyway back to and the reason I wrote this story. I naturally pretended to be offended at being singled out this way and American chess author, Bill Wall, came up with the following list of players who still manage to pick up a piece in their arthritic fingers and place it to some effect on the chess board.

  • Enrico Paoli was playing master chess until he died in 2005 at the age of 97.
  • Viktor Korchnoi, born in 1931, is still playing Grandmaster chess at 76. (Korchnoi was a challenger for the world championship during the 1970s and this year surprised a number of players, some more than 50 years his junior, by winning an international grandmaster tournament.)
  • Oscar Shapiro first became a chess master at the age of 74.
  • Grandmaster Arthur Dake was still playing chess at the age of 90.
  • Harlow Daly won the championship of Maine at age 85.
  • Edith Price won the British Ladies Championship at age 76.
  • Robert Scrivener won the Mississippi championship at the age of 80.
  • H.B. Hinton of Adelaide was still playing chess at the age of 103.
  • Jared Moore (1893-1995) was still playing postal chess at the age of 100.
  • Vassily Smyslov (former world champion) won the Staunton Memorial at Groningen at the age of 75.

So there you have it -- this old chess player's belief that there really is life after retirement. Our brains won't atrophy when we reach 60 unless we make a practise of sitting on them.

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