Why do chess players get worse with age? (look deeper!)

Players get worse with age since the competition is becoming younger. They are also less tolerant of the excessive physical and mental stress of tournaments that they can easily win if they are younger. The biggest of all though is they have a tendency to cling to outdated approaches.

We all know that athletes suffer a decline in their capability to compete in physical competitions for example.

But that also applies to chess which visually is non-physical, but evidence shows that older people most of the time have worse performance than younger ones.

I have wondered about this a lot for a long time and decided to write an article about it. What are the reasons why older players seem to perform in a not-so-great fashion against their younger counterparts?

This is an interesting topic since all of us will suffer old age at some point, so it will be helpful to learn the weaknesses that comes with it, here we go.

Does age cause a loss of mental capacity to play chess?

Older players suffer a decline in mental tolerance, strength, and concentration as they get older making it harder for them to compete in comparison to their younger self.

Mental cognition just like physical ones will be affected by age, unlike the popular opinion. We do not see people with the age winning spelling bees, puzzle-solving, or any memorization type game, it’s always the younger ones.

This because as someone ages they are more likely to lose part of the fluid and crystallized intelligence, which helps in these activities.

These learning greatly apply to chess where fluid (ability to learn) and crystallized (learned knowledge) go hand to hand.

Since these two components are weaker with older people, they are likely to forget things that they already learned and will have a harder time integrating new concepts.

I mean just look at the ailments of being old age like dementia or Alzheimer’s, such are mentally affecting conditions.

It will be harder to excel with a declining mental power unlike most of your competition (likely to be younger). Chess for the most part after all is a mental struggle waiting for a chance that the opposing player will make a mistake.

It’s hard for older players to focus on extended periods without being sleepy or being distracted by other matters.

It takes a lot of mental concentration to play against an equal or slightly stronger opponent, something that older people will have a harder time doing.

Chess games last typically for more than 40 moves (when both players are equal), which is quite an exhaustive number for a declining brain.

Every move for the 40 plus moves would have certain mental processing behind it, which is already a field of disadvantage.

And trust me, becoming a professional requires you to play against someone with equal or stronger capability most of the time. Even if the aging player is already at the top of the world, the competition will be more or less around equal the same strength.

This is why aging professionals still retire even if they can decently play, since the exhaustion may just get to them. Your brain is a ticking bomb if it is used to play in complicated competitions such as chess, it may be too hard for the said player.

Is there a physical-related reason why chess players get worse with age?

Chess competitions require players to sit for extended periods of time straight with little to no rest, older players will have a harder time excelling with this issue.

Most people don’t know this but chess is not only mental but also physical due to the nature of chess tournaments.

You will be required to sit for extended periods of time often with few breaks where the backbone gets weakened. Older players will naturally have lower physical tolerance for sitting in-game over an extended period of time, because of the weaker backbone. 

I mean there’s even a policy for employees providing a guideline to healthy hours of sitting. When you get to play in a classical tournament where there are some eight-game hours long each, it will be tiring at the end of the day.

Even players like Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana engage in other non-related physical activities just to ramp up their physical endurance. An aging player will likely to make mistakes if they are minding the pain on the back, or their legs.

Tournaments are ruthless, even younger players will have a hard time more so the older ones. There even has a trend demonstrating how many calories a participant burns during a chess tournament and it’s not pretty.

But generally, chess tournaments are just really physically and mentally stressful environment that requires a lot of endurance. An older player’s body can become so stiff during their games that it will be enough to affect their decisions.

It will proliferate the “I just want to get this done” mindset which older participants are more likely to suffer from.

Is the amount of competition the reason older chess players look worse?

Top players are becoming younger faster which makes them more likely to improve over the course of time, this makes older players unable to keep up with the competition.

I want to clarify, it’s not that older players will be beaten by younger ones all the time, they could in fact win occasionally. It’s just that the competition keeps getting younger and better at a faster rate making older ones look bad.

Chess players are getting stronger statistically speaking. See my other article on this.

Winning a game or two is not the issue, it’s winning consistently over the course of time to actually make progress. Even if an aged participant beat a younger one, the one who is young will have more time to improve and reach their peak.

An older one however is more unlikely to improve further than they already are due to their declining condition. I mean just look at the top 100 players list, at least 90% of them are people who we still consider young (30 years old below).

Older players can still play good chess, but will definitely be outcompeted by rising stars who still have hidden potential.

After all such players have already reached the horizon of their capability, while their competitors are just beginning to tap on their own.

Is a younger chess player naturally better than older ones?

Younger players have completely integrated computers and modern theories in their games, have fewer bad habits that need to be broken, and have higher ambition making them better than older players.

To be honest with you not long ago is the time that older participants can still excel due to their added experience and knowledge.

However with all the computer moves, databases, and theories, the game has turned into concrete memorization which favors younger players.

Experience and knowledge will give little to no edge if one can just a look at a computer and see the best move. The game has turned into something more of memorization and hard calculation, of who can outlast the opponent in a battle of attrition.

With these conditions, an aging player who has lesser physical and mental capacity will be unlikely to keep up with the ones who have all those things.

Any trace of experience will be futile in the hands of a hard computer, you can only beat an engine by playing another engine move.

Adding to this an aged player will have a certain understanding/habits that are hard to break, younger generations are more likely to adapt to the change and improve.

The only thing that is permanent in this world is change, an aging player will have a calcified understanding of chess unlikely to improve it.

These are the things that have once been proven before, so it’s no wonder that experienced players will keep doing it again and again. However we all know that chess today looks very different than before, the game is evolving.

Those who refused to let go of outdated knowledge will get left behind, which old players are. On the other hand, younger players will learn chess in its updated version, making it really easy to keep up with the change.

There’s another factor here, motivation; younger players after all have the ambition to keep pushing for more, older ones will have less inspiration in their pursuit since the window keeps getting smaller.

When you are aging there’s always that creeping feeling of uselessness, that the work you put in will only be used for a little time.

Someone of old age also doesn’t expect to reach the peak of their strength since they are likely to have already passed it. Someone who is still developing on the other hand knows that every effort will have fruition for a long time.

This means that they are more likely to put in the work to improve since the benefits can be enjoyed longer. While the mindset of an old player is “when would I retire?” the younger player will ask “what things can I improve on?”.

Do older chess players look worse because they have other responsibilities?

Older players will have more responsibility in life making them unable to put in the work to improve, unlike in their younger years.

This I think it’s one of the largest reasons why older players seem to fall off the stage beside the mental/physical capability. People will have more responsibilities as they get older taking away the time invested mastering chess.

When you are young you have time, time to study, and engross in chess without a family and work. Grandmasters who are top of the world will be overwhelmed between putting food on the table and studying chess concepts.

If you want to know about the monetary problem that regular grandmaster faces then this article (will open in a new tab) will explain it.

As for top players who already have money, there are other responsibilities that might be more important than chess (family). This is a pattern to all individuals where they start focusing more on their families beyond 40 of age.

Naturally, someone who is younger with time, along with fewer obligations will excel more since they put more effort into chess. Aging players on the other hand are likely to be consumed by other things that they don’t have enough time to compete anymore.

Do you now know why aging chess players seem to get worse with age?

Suffering a decline in any of our personal pursuits will naturally come with an increase in age. I mean just look at other sports or any form of competition, we just need to be in the best condition to perform.

And being old is not exactly the best condition, so we have to accept that old chess players will never be the same again. That doesn’t mean that they are no longer good players anymore, it’s just that there are better ones who are younger.

So I think we need to appreciate the young players of today since they will become old with time as well. Let’s enjoy the arts that they perform while we still can, sleep well and play chess.