A 125-year study of chess shows that we don’t peak in the game until our 30s

There comes a time in everyone’s life when the brain and body reach their peak, before it starts taking its toll.

While muscle mass, strength, and function begin to deteriorate around the age of 30, new research on professional chess players suggests that the brain actually ages slower and more progressively.

Expert analyzing 125 years of the game of chess and tracking individual performance over a lifetime, the scientists created a hump-shaped curve, a small speed bump that is true in various different generations of chess players.

In a player’s early 20s, performance on chess increases rapidly. The skill then reaches a plateau at the age of 35, peaks at the age of 40, and begins to decline steadily after the age of 45.

Accounting for factors other than age, such as the color of the chess pieces, the length of the game, the player’s generation, and the strength of their opponent, cognitive decline only slightly and statistically negligible after age 45 is.

Screen Shot 2020 10 21 am 4.55.48 pmPeak performance age patterns among chess players from 1890 to 2014. (Straitmatter et al., PNAS, 2020)

While peak brain performance likely differs somewhat by function, the results match other estimates for peak cognitive skills, even specifically for chess.

A lot of research on cognitive performance, however, relies on skills such as decision speed and working memory, but chess is different because it also depends on training and experience.

“In chess, automated processes related to the configuration of pieces on the board and identifying their relationships have a complex neural basis, involving circuits from different brain regions,” the authors argue.

“The quality of a particular move is thus gaining importance in the labor market in that it reflects an ideal measure of performance in a demanding cognitive task.”

Additionally, data from chess tournaments have been carefully recorded for decades, which is really useful for psychologists and neuroscientists studying cognitive skills over time.

Using data such as these, a study prior to 2006 showed a decline in chess performance at a much slower rate than other physical activities like swimming.

When we can hit our cognitive peak, new research once again provides this information.

Analyzing over 1.6 million individual moves in 24,000 chess games, scientists assessed the skills of more than 4,000 players, 20 of whom were world champions between 1890 and 2014. A computerized chess engine was used to determine which moves were the most optimal.

During the career, most players were found to be at their peak at the age of 30, maintaining that performance for nearly 10 years before their performance deteriorated.

Similar to age, the authors also found a similar hump-shaped performance curve for experience. For example, among thousands of less experienced opponents, performance increased rapidly until the age of 37.

This suggests that experience can change the age at which a person hits their peak performance, and may explain how chess players during the last century showed their peak before and after as the graph below shows Have been beating

Screen shot 2020 10 21 pm 4.59.52 pmAge patterns between generations of chess players from 1890 to 2014. (Straitmatter et al., PNAS, 2020)

The rapid spread of chess knowledge, the rise of chess engines, and the ease of online play mean that young players are accumulating more knowledge on chess and are more experienced than they were 125 years ago.

In fact, in the 1990s, when computerized chess games first became popular, chess performance among professionals increased rapidly.

The study is based on professionals, so it probably represents the upper limit of cognitive performance over an individual’s lifetime.

Nevertheless, the results are encouraging. Recent increases in chess skills among young people suggest that peak cognitive performance can be reached quickly with the right tools and experience, and the long tail of the curve suggests that we may hold those skills for decades in the future Huh.

The study was published in PNAS.


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