Although chess is a game played on a board chequered with 64 black and white squares, most of the battle takes place deep inside the mind. It may be unsurprising then to see that over half of the top 10 players in the world, according to the latest rankings by the World Chess Federation, are nineties babies.
Being in their 20s, their brains are operating at optimum power, more readily equipped to handle demanding chess games. The road to becoming a chess Grandmaster is fairly linear and the careers of the greatest players often start early. As children they are precocious chess players and become chess prodigies in their teenage years.
Magnus Carlsen, the current top chess player who holds the world record for the highest chess rating, earned the Grandmaster title aged 13. Hou Yifan, the current world’s best female player, was a Grandmaster at 14 years.
Nigel Short was no different. He started playing chess at five-years-old alongside his older brother after they were both taught by their father. At 19-years-old he became a Grandmaster and was Britain’s number one chess player. His rankings have slipped since, but he remains in the world’s top 100 players at number 69, which is no easy feat considering he’s now 50-years-old.
Chess games often last hours and take a lot of calculation and energy. “Quite often there isn’t necessarily any difference in moves between a 20-year-old and a 40-year-old in the first three hours. But after that mental fatigue starts to creep in for older players.”
“Games of chess can be easily blundered by one move, and if the lapse of concentration is more likely to come from older players then they’re more likely to make mistakes,” he said.
Perhaps this explains why he thinks he has become a more irresponsible player in old age. “I have a lower boredom threshold now”, he says. Not that he’s bored with the chess, but he prefers more interesting positions these days. “Taking more unnecessary risks can be detrimental to your results”.
A team of scientists from the University of Konstanz, Germany, found that the difference between a good chess player and a great chess player was a matter of biology. In the brains of Grandmasters, the frontal and parietal lobes located just behind the forehead were activated when they played chess. But less superior chess players used the medial temporal lobe more.
The difference in brain activity showed that Grandmasters played chess in a special way. Whereas normal chess players used the power of analysis to decide what move would be best, superior chess players had another talent: memory.
It was proposed that their brains worked a little bit like a computer algorithm, recalling previous chess moves and flicking through their memories to visualise various combinations before deciding on a chess move. As the brain ages, its processing speed slows down and declines.
Short believes that the idea of a chess brain behaving like an algorithm is a bit too simplistic. Whilst he does believe that memory is very important in chess it isn’t the most important factor to becoming a great chess player. “Chess is way beyond the human mind – it can’t all be remembered,” he said.
He refers back to a lecture he attended where mathematicians estimated that the number of possibilities in a chess game is much larger than the number of atoms in the universe. “Computer chess players don’t even play chess properly because it can’t have every chess move memorised”, he said.
Instead he agrees with Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours of practice rule proposed in his book Outliers. Regular practice and repetition is more important as it helps pattern recognition. “When you’re younger and more enthusiastic, you’re more prepared to put in many hours analysing and studying the game,” he said.
What has kept Short in the top rankings is his perseverance and love for the game. “Motivation is a factor. And talent – it does count for something!” After his latest victory at the Begonia Open in Australia, he says he is probably the only chess player to have won a chess tournament in every continent apart from Antarctica.
Since Short is still winning tournaments he doesn’t see any reason to quit. “I’m unemployable in any other aspect,” he laughs and he can’t imagine quitting chess completely. When he’s not playing chess he’s a chess commentator and writer.
“Chess is an extremely beautiful game. I still get a thrill from it and I’ll keep playing as long as I enjoy it,” he says.
There are advantages to being an older chess player, Short says. “I can qualify for the World Senior Chess Championship now that I’m fifty.” But before then Short is setting his sights on the Thai Open where he will be defending his title after his victory last year.