Learning Chess at 40
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My 4-year-old daughter and I were deep into a game of checkers one day about three years ago when her eye drifted to a nearby table. There, a black and white board bristled with far more interesting figures, like horses and castles. “What’s that?” she asked. “Chess,” I replied. “Can we play?” I nodded absently.
There was just one problem: I didn’t know how. I dimly remembered having learned the basic moves in elementary school, but it never stuck. This fact vaguely haunted me through my life; idle chessboards in hotel lobbies or puzzles in weekend newspaper supplements teased me like reproachful riddles.
And so I decided I would learn, if only so I could teach my daughter. The basic moves were easy enough to pick up—a few hours hunched over my smartphone at kids’ birthday parties or waiting in line at the grocery store. It soon became apparent, however, that I had no concept of the larger strategy. The chess literature was dauntingly huge, and achingly specific, with several-hundred-page tomes devoted to unpacking single openings. The endgame literature alone could drown a person.
So, time-starved and not wanting to curse my daughter with my ill-formed knowledge, I hired a coach to teach us both. We soon sat down to weekly sessions with Simon Rudowski, a Brooklyn-based Polish émigré whose Old World formality—and hint of sternness—lent what I thought was an appropriate gravity to the task.
It wasn’t long before it struck me that chess seemed to be a game for the young. When my daughter began doing scholastic tournaments, I would chat up other parents and ask whether they played—usually the reply was an apologetic shrug and a smile. I would explain that I too was learning to play, and the resulting tone was cheerily patronizing: Good luck with that! Reading about an international tournament, I was struck by a suggestion that a grandmaster had passed his peak. He was in his 30s. We are used to athletes being talked about in this way. But a mind game like chess?
Although it scarcely occurred to me at the time, my daughter and I were embarking on a sort of cognitive experiment. We were two novices, attempting to learn a new skill, essentially beginning from the same point but separated by some four decades of life. I had been the expert to that point in her life—in knowing what words meant, or how to ride a bike—but now we were on curiously equal footing. Or so I thought.
I began to regularly play online, do puzzles, and even leafed through books like Bent Larsen’s Best Games. I seemed to be doing better with the game, if only because I was more serious about it. When we played, she would sometimes flag in her concentration, and to keep her spirits up, I would commit disastrous blunders. In the context of the larger chess world, I was a patzer—a hopelessly bumbling novice—but around my house, at least, I felt like a benevolently sage elder statesmen.
And then my daughter began beating me.
The age question is hoary in chess. Indeed, one of the earliest discussions of the now-universal player ranking system called the “Elo rating” (named for its inventor Arpad Elo) was in a 1965 article in The Journal of Gerontology. Using his novel statistical analysis, Elo found that the peak age for master-level chess performance was around 36, with a slow steady decline after that.
That was then. Today, chess is only getting younger. Neil Charness, a professor of psychology at Florida State University, has long studied the question of chess and performance. “Bobby Fischer became a grandmaster at age 15,” he says. “Then Judit Polgar beat his record.” And then Sergey Karjakin beat Polgar, by doing it in 2002 at age 12. “The record of the youngest age to achieve grandmaster status,” Charness tells me, “keeps getting beat.” More recently, the 13-year-old Wei Yi became the youngest to rise above a 2600 rating. Magnus Carlsen, the world’s current top-ranked player, was the youngest player to reach number one, at age 19. In a process akin to the “Flynn effect,” or the global rise in IQ scores over much of the last century, chess ratings have risen over time. Charness notes that “younger players are getting skilled faster than they used to,” thanks, in part, to better tools and better feedback: Sophisticated computer engines, databases, the ability to play players of any level at any time of the day.
As we get older, there is one thing at which we get worse: Being a novice.
Chess—which has been dubbed the “fruit fly” of cognitive psychology—seems a tool that is purpose-built to show the deficits of an aging brain. The psychologist Timothy Salthouse has noted that cognitive tests on speed, reasoning, and memory show age-related declines that are “fairly large,” “linear,” and, most alarming to me, “clearly apparent before age 50.” And there are clear consequences on the chessboard. In one study, Charness had players of a variety of skills try and assess when a check was threatened in a match. The more skilled the player, the quicker they were able to do this, as if it were a perceptual judgment—essentially by pattern recognition stored up from previous matches. But no matter what the skill, the older a player was, the slower they were to spot the threat of a check.
It’s not just that age slows you—you need to begin young, too. Charness points to research by Nicolai Krogius, a Russian grandmaster and psychologist, that shows a positive correlation between the age at which one first learns the game and later success in tournaments. This idea now seems so ingrained that Carlsen is held as a fascinating outlier; “at 5 years old,” one account marvels, “an age by which any aspiring grandmaster should at least have made a start—Magnus Carlsen showed little interest in chess.” Starting later, Charness tells me, seems to be a handicap. Even when adjusted for total experience, those who start earlier are more likely to reach an international level. “It’s not just that you haven’t accumulated the required amount of deliberate practice, but rather,” he said, “there may be a plasticity thing here.”
As we get older, there is one thing at which we get worse: Being a novice. Charness, in one study, had subjects of various ages learn a novel word-processing application; some were experienced with similar programs, others were novices. The older the novice, the longer it took them to learn. “If you’re talking about two novices,” Charness said, when I asked him about my daughter, me, and chess, “your daughter would probably pick things up about twice as fast as you could.” My daughter is, in effect, learning chess like a first language, whereas I am learning it like a second language.
Her brain, like a chessboard at the beginning of a game, is still full of infinite possibility, bristling with countless synapses that have yet to be “pruned.” As the neuroscientist Peter Huttenlocher noted in Brain Research, a 7-year-old, like my daughter is today, has a brain that is almost fully formed, but has a “synaptic density” some 36 percent higher than the adult mean. She is, in a sense, still making sense of the world, and as she does, those synapses are closed—like emptying one’s hard drive of little-used applications in order to help optimize overall performance.
What was happening in my brain-as-chessboard, by contrast, seemed more like a cagey, defensive middle-game battle, in which I was trying to hold onto pieces in the face of a closing denouement.
Denise Park, the director of research at the University of Texas’ Center for Vital Longevity, described what was happening to me in unsettling terms. “As you get older, you actually see clear degradation of the brain, even in healthy people. Your frontal cortex gets smaller, your hippocampus—the seat of the memory—shrinks.” My brain volume is atrophying annually, my cortical thickness dropping some 0.5 percent a year.
Where my daughter’s brain was hungrily forming new neural connections, mine could probably have a used a few new ones. “You don’t want to be pruning synaptic connections, you want to be growing them,” Park told me. My daughter’s brain was trying to efficiently tame the chaos. “For older adults,” Park said, “there’s not nearly enough chaos.”
Back at the board, there seemed to be plenty of chaos. For one, my daughter tended to gaily hum as she contemplated her moves. Strictly Verboten in a tournament setting, but I did not want to let her think it was affecting me—and it certainly wasn’t as bad as the frenetic trash talking of Washington Square Park chess hustlers. It was the sense of effortlessness that got to me. Where I would carefully ponder the board, she would sweep in with lightning moves. Where I would carefully stick to the scripts I had been taught—“a knight on the rim is dim”—she seemed to be making things up. After what seemed a particularly disastrous move, I would try to play coach for a moment, and ask: Are you sure that’s what you want to do? She would shrug. I would feel a momentary shiver of pity and frustration; “it’s not sticking,” I would think. And then she would deliver some punishing pin on the Queen, or a deft back rank attack I had somehow overlooked. When I made a move, she would often crow: “I knew you were going to do that.”
I would sometimes wander into the room when coach Simon was there, watching him present her with some puzzle on the board. I would struggle toward some solution, feeling smug, only to find I had completely botched it. My daughter, meanwhile, swiftly moved the right piece into position. He would shoot me a look, beaming at her precociousness. I was proud, I was frustrated. There are surely fewer greater parental satisfactions than to see one’s progeny doing well at something. But there is altogether different feeling—a sobering slap of pathos, a vague sense of alarm that some genie had been let out of a bottle—when they exceed you on the same task. When a person who still cannot always successfully tie her own shoes, who has yet to do long division, can beat me at the royal game. She was Deep Blue,1 and I was the human race, being slowly outmoded.
I resisted the idea that I was just too old. I was stubbornly proud, competitive, but also curious. Was it just age, or was my daughter just an inherently better player?
I returned to the experts for reassurance. Park told me I was most likely at the peak of my cognitive power. For all my daughter’s seemingly spritely processing power, I had higher-order capacities I could draw upon. “If you’re younger, you can process information super-fast,” she told me, “but you may not know what to do with that information as you process it.” She cautioned she was “oversimplifying” things, but I was happy to take it.
There are, I learned, two forms of intelligence: “fluid” and “crystallized.” As first theorized by the psychologist Raymond Cattel, fluid intelligence is, basically, being able to think on one’s feet, to solve new problems. Crystallized intelligence is what a person already knows—wisdom, memories, metacognition. Even if I was only learning chess for the first time, I had a lifetime of play behind me. Fluid intelligence is generally seen to favor the young, with the crystallized variety rewarded by age (though there are many exceptions). Old mathematicians doing their best work are as rare as young Supreme Court Justices. Chess, especially played at the top levels, can encompass both fluid and crystallized intelligence—one needs the firepower to quickly think through a novel position, but it also helps to draw upon a deep reservoir of past games (grandmasters like Carlsen can often identify a historical game with a glimpse at a single position).
The house took on the atmosphere of a war-room.
Of course, my daughter, like most children her age, has not memorized a huge library of games; nor does she consciously think in terms of higher-level strategy. “I think I’ll go with the Rubenstein Variation to the French Defense” is not a thought she will have. She seems to play with some brute instinct, pure fluid intelligence. As Daniel King, a London-based retired professional chess player who now analyzes and commentates chess matches, tells me, “children just kind of go for it—that kind of confidence can be very disconcerting for the opponent.” Lacking larger representational “schema,” the psychologist Dianne Horgan has noted, children players rely more on simple heuristics and “satisficing,” choosing the first good-looking move.
Indeed, my daughter often makes a rapid-fire move, after which I invariably ask: “Do you want to take a little more time?” She rarely does. Experts, curiously, make similarly rapid intuitive judgments. Magnus Carlsen, for example, has described how he often makes a move quickly in his head, then spends a great amount of time verifying it is the correct one.
When I asked Rudowski, my daughter’s coach, about the differences he sees in trying to teach beginner children and beginner adults, he said: “Adults need to explain to themselves why they play what they play. Kids don’t do that. It’s like with languages. Beginner adults learn the rules of grammar and pronunciation, and use those to put sentences together. Little kids learn languages by talking.”
Here was my opening. I would counter her fluidity with my storehouses of crystallized intelligence. I was probably never going to be as speedily instinctual as she was. But I could, I thought, go deeper. I could get strategic. I began to watch Daniel King’s analysis of top-level matches on YouTube. She would sometimes wander in and try to follow along, but I noticed she would quickly get bored or lost (and, admittedly, I sometimes did as well) as he explained how some obscure variation had “put more tension in the position” or “contributed to an imbalance on the queen-side.” And I could simply put in more effort. My daughter was no more a young chess prodigy than I was a middle-aged one; if there was any inherited genius here, after all, it was partially inherited from me. Sheer effort would tilt the scales.
The house took on the atmosphere of a war-room. I gravely analyzed opening lines and tried to keep on my toes with intense online blitz matches. She played in tournaments on chesskid.com but seemed as interested in being awarded little iconic trophies (like “Chess Marathon,” for playing a game with more than 100 moves) as in actually beating other kids. When I asked her one day who she thought was a better player, she answered in a cheekily engineered way that both hinted she had picked up on the research I had been doing, and that she wanted to get under my skin: “I am. Because I’m younger and my brain is faster, and still growing.”
Then, just a few weeks ago, months into her winning streak, I beat my daughter at chess twice in a row. Even if I had to work twice as hard to do it.
I learned that, as good as my daughter is at launching aggressive attacks, at almost clinically probing my weaknesses, she has a blind spot: What I am doing. She played, in those games, as if I were just some lower-level chess engine making haplessly random moves. Indeed, when I made my moves, her eyes would often drift elsewhere—as if what I was doing was almost inconsequential to the larger game. She failed to spot that my seemingly minor, unthreatening moves were all part of a larger strategic purpose. Against her onrushing fluidity, I was laying in a minefield of crystallized traps.
Both matches also went to the endgame, where I was able to draw upon my greater capacity for attention and pure endurance. And lastly, I noticed that even when it became clear (to me) she was going to lose, she wanted to press on. I had noted a similar tendency with her in playing poker: She always wanted to keep betting, to the bloody end, with the most marginal of hands, even as other players were showing strong cards. She was lacking that larger, strategically metacognitive sense, that Bayesian ability to use probability to change one’s beliefs.
It was, in the end, a Pyrrhic victory. Not only has she since beaten me many times, but there was the look in her eyes as I checkmated her a second time. For whatever the games had taught me about brains young and old, about the different ways we learn and deploy our cognitive resources, they also taught me that the only thing harder than losing to your daughter in chess is winning against her.
Tom Vanderbilt writes on design, technology, science, and culture, among other subjects.
Learning Chess at 40
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