Playing Games in Old Age


Old people pass their time in very different ways. My mornings are glad and confident and some work is still possible.  For long gaps between lunch and gin different solutions must be found. In dank Oxford winters Internet Chess is a fine resource.


old chessplayers

Even after many years  I am still delighted with the idea of playing live opponents  in Brazil, Canada, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia Iran … or in the Philippines – where they seem to be startlingly good.  As dawn and dusk terminators circle the planet people in China and India settle down for their evening games while those in the Middle-East play during their lunch breaks, North and South Americans are waking up and insomniac Australasians still struggle on. Luckily for me the world is full of weak but obsessional players. Sites1 rate  you to play people roughly of your own level so I am  in an undistinguished ruck from which I strive to get promoted. Players can message each-other during games but most are silent after a tentative “Hi” at the beginning and a polite (if often insincere) “gg” (good game) at the end.  Most of us long ago stopped exclaiming on differences in our time zones or weather but some still start brisk conversations, perhaps to distract you from your game rather than from curiosity. Most sites encourage us to provide simple personal details, such as our ages, on public bulletin space.   I recorded my actual age and am often mistaken for a jokey schoolboy feigning senility and offered ponderous patronage by kindly mature players : (“You don’t use your Queen enough” “Opening symmetry is not necessarily good”; “a Bishop Pair always wins”). Usually I am correctly weighed up by fellow geriatrics whether courteously (“Too much time to waste – just like me”) or not (“Get out of the house more, Old Man”). Anonymity has odd effects on interactions. Very rarely even apparently quiet and staid players abruptly begin heckling and abuse for no reason. There are fine moments when you nevertheless beat these trolls but this does not happen often enough. Best to use the site’s blocking facility so you do not play them again. Unexpected kindness is far more frequent – I have often been offered a draw, at some cost to my opponent’s rating,  when I am obviously losing.

You can guess some things about players from the game-names (tags) they give themselves. These are often cryptic (DX1212/A) or actual surnames and initials or nicknames. Sometimes slightly odd like “Brilliant Sunbird” or “ Scintillating Wave”; or jokey/boastful/self-deprecating  (“Grandmaster of the Universe” ); or jokey/threatening “Exterminator”, “Agonyforyou”, “Predator”, “Uloseagane; or embarrassing (”Jesus Loves You”, “God is my Saviour”; “Sword of Islam”, “My Faith – My Life”); Very rarely monikers are sociopathic ( “All Whites Filth”; “Christian Sewer Rats”; “Disgusting Towelheads”) but these are  expurgated by site managers and, of course, if you are prudent you will refuse to play against people who choose them. Though nearly all players are friendly and patient, everyone is enraged by opponents who, if their position goes bad, simply stop moving and let the clock run out. When this happens you can earn a pointless win by stolidly waiting them out or abort and accept a loss. The reactions people post on these opponents’ publicly accessible home pages range from aloof reproof (“Tedious Person”;  “Childish”; “Learn Etiquette” ) to homicidally violent ranting (“DIE stinking piece of bug s**t!” ; “Koward Douchbag!”).


furious chessplayer

Most players do not record their ages but my impressions of those who do suggest that about 30% are schoolchildren of 17 or under; 60% are between 18 and 55 and about 10% between 60 and 90. The few women who play can be formidable. The oldest players clearly find internet chess obsessional fun.  (Last week a 79 year old German, who often beats me, gleefully messaged “Youth Triumphs again!”).

Not all psychologists recognise how rewarding it can be to persistently do something quite difficult quite badly for the rare successes that the Greatest Rat Psychologist of All, B.F. Skinner, called “intermittent reinforcement”. Skinner seems to have been  a rather joyless person – apart from a passion for ballroom dancing – because, in his retirement he warned: “Old age is like fatigue, except that its effects cannot be corrected by relaxing or taking a vacation. Particularly troublesome is old age plus fatigue, and half of that can be avoided.  Possibly you like complicated puzzles, or chess, or other intellectual games. Give them up. ..”2 . Feelings about Chess have always been mixed. Seven hundred years ago the author of Speculum Regiale3 warned “…….beware of, and shun like the devil …. drinking, chess, harlots, quarrelling, and throwing dice for stakes”.


dancing mice


I strongly disagree with Skinner, not only because playing chess badly  often gives me much  pleasure but because playing chess in old age gives special insights into two key problems of cognitive ageing that his simplistic theory could not address:   Does maintaining high competence at one particular, difficult mental skill preserve performance on others? How far can we preserve skills that we have brought to a high level by practising them while we were young by continuing to work at them in in old age? Chess has been a goldmine of answers.

On the first point Gary Kasparov, the longest lasting and perhaps greatest of all Chess world champions, believed that at any age brilliance at chess is not necessarily related to any other form of mental competence  : “Excelling at chess has long been considered a symbol of more general intelligence. That is an incorrect assumption in my view, as pleasant as it might be.” Lodewijk Prins, a Dutch chess champion and a knowledgeable and observant international chess arbiter and referee, remarked “The only thing that chess players have in common is Chess”. I can find no evidence in the  psychological literature that persistent practice at Chess, or Bridge or Crossword Puzzles in old age benefits ability on other mental tasks. In fact I think that one of the most interesting unexplored features of our brains is that learning is intensely specific to any particular skill you practice. Attributions of high general intelligence to chess-players, bridge-players or crossword addicts do not mean that these pastimes make us more clever but only that people who intensively practice mind games, especially in old age, are also likely to have been generally more intellectually active and competent throughout their lives. There is good evidence that continually practising Chess, or Bridge, or Crosswords or Sums keeps you very good at ……Chess, or Bridge or Crosswords or Sums.

We need many thousands of hours to become excellent at Chess – Neil Charness, the doyen of chess researchers, and other colleagues, estimate that expertise needs not less than 5000, and up to 10,000 hours of practice a year but also that excellent players can keep the maximum levels of performance they achieve in youth well into their seventh decades.

Retention of highly practised mental skills in old age strikingly contrasts with early peaks and declines in physical activities, such as competitive athletics where the glory times are very early and short.

World record times for athletics are accurate and comprehensive and are uniquely informative because they document the magic moments when supremely talented individuals who have trained for years, drive themselves to their uttermost limits and achieve a lifetime best that they can never repeat. A generous retired statistician, David Hewitt4  has compared world records for the mile achieved in successive age-decade groups in 1975 and 2002. In both years these were achieved by people aged 32-33. But between age 35 and 65 record times for men fell by 0.8% a year (Men) and 1.4% (Women); between 35 and age 65, by 1.8 %(M) and 2.4% (W) and  between 75 to 85 by 3.6%  (M) and 3.4% (W). Interestingly, although records for all age-decades improved between 1975 and 2001 the rates of age-decline across generations did not alter until age 70. That is, rates of decline remained the same, though starting from higher levels. Also, recent generations now seem to keep going longer because 75 year olds were much faster in 2001 than in 1975 and 80 and 90 year olds are now represented.


elderly sikh  runners


Schulz and Curnow 5 calculate that over the last century records for Olympic track, field and swimming events and also for baseball, golf and tennis illustrate that the ages at which outstanding individuals reach their lifetime peaks has remained constant i.e. about 28 for long distance runners 24 for tennis and 31 for golf. For all these sports records have greatly improved over the last 100 years. They ask, but do not answer the question whether current generations remain at peak form longer than their predecessors. Fair6 reviews similar data contrasting early peak and decline for athletics with tournament records often achieved by chess-players in their 60’s. Does this mean that we may keep our brains and mental skills intact though our bodies begin to decline well before we reach 40?

The simplest measures of mental competence, such as speed of pressing the correct one of two keys to answer a flash on one of two signal lamps, do not support the idea that our brains change less rapidly than the rest of our bodies. Since 1960 my reaction times have slowed by 36 milliseconds, encouragingly less than David Madden’s better researched estimate that between 20 and 70 we lose about a millisecond a year and after that, rather more. This is not an alarming inconvenience but there are also convincing data showing that our scores on simple intelligence tests tend to peak in our mid-twenties and, after that, continuously decline. In contrast, at complicated tasks where there is a huge amount to learn before competence can be achieved, such as managing a business, writing novels or doing cutting edge mathematics and science, we build up to peaks much later in life and, after this, keep the plateaus we have won for two or more decades. By remorselessly practicing the skills we most value, or most enjoy can we mitigate the effects of the progressive changes in our brains that slow our reaction times and  our ability to  solve novel problems?

Studies of chess-playing give useful information. A vast body of chess theory has hugely expanded over the last century. Ways to begin a game – opening strategies- are intensively analysed for more than the first 15 moves by both players. One of the greatest pleasures of learning chess is to encounter the whimsical nicknames for some of these openings:  “The Fried Liver Attack”, “The Sicilian Dragon”; the “Hedgehog”, the Hippopotamus” the “King’s Indian” or the “Orang-utan” (said to have been invented, or at least named by Grandmaster Tartakower while visiting a Zoo during an intermission of a chess-tournament) are a few of scores of delights. New analyses of hundreds of opening positions, common middle-game positions and endgames appear monthly.  It is not too much of a stretch to think of this huge body of information as a collection of program-sub-routines to deal with the thousands of different situations that often occur during games. Weak players like myself do not try to keep up and only learn and use such fragments as we can. Champions cannot afford to do this, and must spend thousands of hours a year reviewing old and new discoveries.

As for computers, to have a superbly effective program is one thing but having the capacity to run it is another. The doyen of researchers into chess-play, Neil Charness has illustrated this distinction in many ways. He showed that the more skilled chess-players are, the more extensively and deeply they search through potential lines of play. Also older players thought of, and worked through fewer, though not necessarily less effective possible continuations than the young7. Charness also found that players in their early 20s can recall briefly seen chess-positions much more accurately than can players in their late 40’s and 50’s and that the age-difference increases if there is a lag between seeing and recalling positions. This is true both for weak and much stronger players.8 With Jastrzembski and Vasyukova 9  Charness also found that on a simplified quarter-chess-board older players even older experts, were slower to recognise opportunities for check-mates than younger players. Trevor Robbins and Alan Baddeley, and a large group of collaborators10, used distracting tasks to show how much appropriate decisions in chess depend on the ability simultaneously to hold in memory alternative, branching possibilities of a chess theme or program of play in working memory. All of these examples emphasise the difference between having spent many years successfully  learning strategies, and rapidly and accurately recognising when they are appropriate  and, at last, successfully carrying them through. Roring and Charness11 indirectly addressed this   by analysing the documented history of 5011 chess players who were able enough to be documented in databases of tournament statistics over their playing lifetimes. They found that individuals’ peak performance ages are shown to be older when careers are tracked longitudinally for the same individuals rather than compared between different individuals who were in different age-groups at a particular point in time. Also that, surprisingly, continued play in tournaments benefits people when they are young more than when they are old and, again surprisingly, that ages of peak performance and rates of subsequent age-related decline are quite similar for extraordinarily good and less distinguished players.

This does not mean that any young person with high general intelligence can learn to become a superb chess player if only she works long and hard enough. Gobet and Campetelli12 studied Argentinian players ranging from weak amateurs to grandmasters and found that, to reach master level, the slower players needed up to 8 times as much practice as did faster players. Those who had started chess younger retained a lifelong advantage. There is such a thing as natural ability, remarkably specific to chess, as is shown by the contrast between the brilliant early and superb later chess career of Bobby Fisher, and his sad incompetence in many other aspects of his life.

So I am not at all inclined to take  B.F. Skinner’s advice and  give up things like work and chess that continue to bring me very great pleasure even as I become conscious that I am no longer as good at them as I once was. I do not think that taking up dancing would be a good substitute, even though a kind  one-time Oxford colleague, the eminent social psychologist Michael Argyle, repeatedly claimed, in his University lectures and in the public media that Scottish Country Dancing is incomparably the greatest and most life-enhancing of all possible human pleasures. I am happy that Michael merrily panted and capered throughout his cheerful and distinguished life, but

scottish country dancing

my own outlook remains as different as it was while we worked in the same Institution. I am very content to get my jollies spending  grey afternoons struggling against the devilish cunning and granite determination of outrageously clever Phillipinos, Argentinians, Russians, Canadians, Americans, Londoners, Germans, Dutch, French, Serbs and Scots until the pawky, brief sun dips below a lower window sill signalling time to call a truce for drinks and to cook my supper.


  1. Internet chess sites are nearly all free (at least to start with, and until you want to purchase useful privileges). I am particularly fond of which is very friendly and well run, offers lively articles with interactive games and (for a small subscription) excellent chess tuition facilities and also runs graded tournaments of 5 min to 10 min and 30+ min. games. It has also just launched very fine new app for ipads and other tablets. Another favourite is www.instantchess which offers a wide choice of opponents especially for brief (15 min) games. You also start for free but may wish to subscribe. One of the oldest and best, allegedly used by very distinguished players, is the Internet Chess Club,
  2. Skinner, B.F. (1983). American Psychologist.
  3. Larson, L.M. (tr.).The King’s Mirror (Speculum regale-Konungs skuggsjá). Scandinavian Monographs 3. New York, 1917. PDF and translation available from Internet Archive.
  4. David Hewitt, personal communication. Details available on request
  5. Schulz, R., & Curnow, C. (1988). Peak performance and age among superathletes: track and field, swimming, baseball, tennis, and golf.Journal of Gerontology43(5), P113-P120.
  6. Fair, R. C. (2007). Estimated age effects in athletic events and chess. Experimental Aging Research,33(1), 37-57.
  7. Charness, N. (1981). Visual short-term memory and aging in chess players.Journal of Gerontology,36(5), 615-619.
  8. Charness, N. (1981). Search in chess: Age and skill differences.Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance7(2), 467.
  9. Jastrzembski, Tiffany S.; Charness, N.; Vasyukova, C. (2006) Expertise and Age effects on knowledge activation in chess.Psychology and Aging, Vol 21(2), Jun 2006, 401-405
  10. Robbins, T. W., Anderson, E. J., Barker, D. R., Bradley, A. C., Fearnyhough, C., Henson, R., … & Baddeley, A. D. (1996). Working memory in chess.Memory & Cognition24(1), 83-93.
  11. Roring, R.W. & Chareness, N. (2007). A multilevel model analysis of expertise in chess across the lifespan. Psychology and Aging, 22, 291-299.
  12. Gobet, F. & Campitelli, G. (2007). The role of domain-specific practice, handedness and starting age in chess Developmental Psychology, Vol 43(1), Jan 2007, 159-172


About Gray Rabbitt

Grumpy gerontologist
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