The best chess players peak between the ages of 35 and 45, according to a study

The best chess players play at their best between the ages of 35 and 45, according to a scientific paper published Monday that discusses game-based performance data of world chess champions and their opponents.

Playing strength increases rapidly until elite players are in their 20s and shows slower growth around their 35th birthday. Their performance deteriorates after the age of 45. The data also provides evidence that the general level of play has increased over the years.

The article, titled “Life Cycle Patterns of Cognitive Performance over the Long Run” and published in PNASuses chess as a way to estimate life cycle models of cognitive performance.

According to the researchers, chess is particularly suited to this type of research due to the availability of direct measures of cognitive performance that exhibit variation within individual over a sufficiently large age spectrum and comparable between individuals and over time.

Moreover, chess has already been used in psychology and neuroscience as a paradigmatic cognitive task that combines processes related to perception, memory and problem solving. According to the authors, the quality of a particular move reflects an ideal measure of performance that can be measured against an objective, non-time-sensitive benchmark: the evaluation function of a chess engine.

The authors created a database of more than 24,000 matches at standard time control played between 1890 and 2014 by all world champions, from Wilhelm Steinitz to Magnus Carlsen. More than 1.6 million move-by-move observations were made, which provided insight into the performances of the world champions and their respective opponents.

The researchers only considered the phase between move 10 and move 100 to exclude most “book moves” and did not consider games that lasted less than 20 moves. A total of 4,294 players (20 world champions and 4,274 opponents) were observed, and 3,422 players were omitted because less than five matches were observed for each of these players. For the engine, Stockfish 8 was used.

Performance throughout the life cycle. (The dotted lines represent the limits of the 95% confidence interval). Picture: PNAS.

The results confirm the hump-shaped profile of performance throughout the life cycle, as shown in previous literature. On average, players played about 50% optimal moves at their peak (i.e. around age 40) and 60-year-old players score 4% lower than older players. 35 years.

By looking at the time periods that gamers lived, the researchers found that average performance was significantly higher for birth cohorts born later. The increase in performance of players born after the 1970s compared to players born around the 1870s corresponds to approximately eight percentage points (from 44% optimal movements to approximately 52% optimal movements). Players born around 1960 already exceeded 50%. When the year of birth is 1990 (Carlsen’s case), it even exceeds 55%.

Researchers have also attempted to determine if and how these dynamics affect an age-performance profile. What they noticed is that the increase in performance is more pronounced in the youth for more recently born players, especially for those under 20.

Another finding is that the average number of strokes per game has increased significantly over the past few decades. This, and the aforementioned increased performance in young players of recent times, could reflect improvements in preparation and training tools thanks to more powerful motors.

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