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On Chess: chess for all ages

Two people looking at chess board in St. Louis
Austin Fuller | St. Louis Chess Club
Chess is unique among sports because anyone can play at any age.

One of the best things about chess is that it is one of the only sports that can be played by any individual at any stage of life. In sports like soccer, basketball and baseball, a person’s career peak is around the ages of 20 to 30. In chess, it’s different.

Although chess does require some physical endurance, the skill and experience usually come from playing many years. As a result, it is not surprising that most world champions were over the age of 30 by the time they won the crown. Nevertheless, in the past 15 years, we have seen a shift in the top of the field, with more youngsters climbing their way up faster than ever.

Let’s take, for example, the most dominant figure in chess today, and one of the youngest world champions in the history of chess: Magnus Carlsen. Carlsen became the world champion in 2013 at age 22, beating veteran player Viswanathan Anand, who was 43 at the time. If you think about it, it is quite incredible that someone half the age of his opponent was able to beat him in a fair, non-physical competition. Shouldn’t the 21 years of “extra” knowledge give the edge to the more mature player?

Currently, one of the most exciting tournaments is being played in Berlin, Germany – the Candidates Tournament. The winner of the tournament will be given the opportunity to dethrone Magnus Carlsen from his reign as a world champion. Eight players are fighting for this honor: Sergey Karjakin, 28; Levon Aronian, 35; Ding Liren, 25; Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, 32; Alexander Grischuk, 34; Fabiano Caruana, 25; Wesley So, 24; and Vladimir Kramnik, 42.

As you can see from this list, the “youngsters” and “experienced” players divide the tournament evenly. It will be fascinating to discover which player from which decade will win the tournament. As of now, the Russian Vladimir Kramnik is leading after three rounds. He is not only the senior of the field but was also chosen as the wild card by the organizers. 

The fluctuation in age in chess occurs not only at top level tournaments but at local open events as well. The Saint Louis Chess Club in the Central West End hosts numerous events during the year which attract people of all generations. One of the biggest open events is the Thanksgiving Open hosted at the end of November. At last year’s Thanksgiving Open, the youngest competitors were just 8 years old, while one of the oldest competitors was 65.

Since becoming a full-time professional chess coach and advisor, I have received countless requests and questions about private lessons. One of the most common inquiries is whether someone older can become a good player and even achieve a title. The answer to this question is, of course, yes! According to the Boston Attention and Learning Laboratory, our ability to sustain attention improves with age, reaching its peak around age 43. In addition, the ability to learn and understand new information occurs around age 50. 

Today I am 30 years old but feel like I am in my 20s. Thanks to a healthy diet, regular workout routine, fine sleep, lots of love and the mental stimulation of chess, I believe that the pinnacle of my chess career is yet to come.  As an international master with one GM norm, I have full confidence in myself and my abilities to conquer the grandmaster title in the future. Although I won’t be able to become the youngest grandmaster in history, becoming the most senior grandmaster in history is quite an achievement as well.

Vitaly Neimer is an international master and currently the resident grandmaster at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis.