A 125-year study of chess matches suggests that we will not peak in this game for 30 years

There comes a time in everyone’s life when the brain and body reach their peak before they start moving to their height.

As muscle mass, strength and function begin to deteriorate around 30, new research on professional chess players suggests a slower and more gradual brain.

To analyze 125 years of expert chess games and track individual performances over a lifetime, scientists created a hump-shaped curve, a small speed bump that remains true across different pay generations of chess players.

In the early 20’s, performance on the chessboard appears to be rapidly increasing. At the age of about 35, at the age of 0, peaks are reached and at the age of 45, continuous decline begins.

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

Screen Shut 2020 10 21 hrs 4.55.48 hrsPeak performance age patterns in chess players from 1890 to 2014. (Streetmeter et al., PNAS, 2020)

While head brain function is probably somewhat different from task work, the results are consistent with other estimates for punitive skills, especially for chess.

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

The authors argue that “chess has a complex neural basis of automated processes involving the configuration of pieces and the identification of their relationships on the board, involving circuits of different brain regions.”

“The quality of a particular step reflects the ideal measure of performance in the demanding cognitive function of a sort that is gaining importance in the labor market.”

In addition, data from chess tournaments have been carefully recorded for decades, making it really useful for psychologists and neuroscientists studying cognitive skills over time.

Using data like this, a study prior to 2006 found that chess performance decreased at a much slower rate than other physical activities such as swimming.

New research is once again leading to a focus on this wealth of information about when we can reach our cognitive peak.

Analyzing more than 1.6 million individual moves in 5,000,000 chess games, the scientists assessed the skills of more than 20,000,000 players, 20 of whom were world champions between 1890 and 2014. A computerized chess engine was used to determine which moves were the maximum.

Throughout their careers, most players hit peaks at the age of 30, maintaining that performance for almost 10 years before their game began to deteriorate.

As they age, the authors also found similar swamp-shaped performance curves for the experience. Among the thousands of less experienced opponents, for example, there was a sharp increase in influence by the age of about 37.

This suggests that experience may change the age at which one hits its top performance, and this may explain why chess players have been at the top before and in the past century, as the graph below shows.

Screen Shut 2020 10 21 at 4.59.52 p.m.Age pattern of chess players from 1890 to 2014. (Streetmeter et al., PNAS, 2020)

The rapid spread of chess knowledge, the emergence of chess engines and the simplicity of the online play game have resulted in younger players gaining more knowledge and experience on chess than 125 years ago.

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

The study is based on professionals, so it presents an upper bound of cognitive influence over a person’s lifetime.

Still, the results are encouraging. The recent increase in chess skills in young people suggests that with proper equipment and experience top cognitive performance can be reached as early as possible, and the long tail of the turn suggests that we will be able to hold this skill for decades to come.

The study was published in P.N.A.S..