Are chess players getting younger?
Magnus Carlsen just clinched his fifth World Chess Championship, beating Ian Nepomniatchi convincingly 7.5-3.5. That makes him only the third player to win five undisputed Chess World Championship titles, and the youngest at only 31. Carlsen is used to breaking records though. He was a youth prodigy, who became a grandmaster at age 13. In 2010, aged 19, he became the youngest player ever to be ranked number one in the world.
While Carlsen was preparing for the World Chess Championship match, another chess prodigy was building his case to be Carlsen’s next challenger. Alireza Firouzja, an 18 year old French-Iranian player, recently won the Grand Swiss tournament, a tournament for top players. He is now the second highest ranked player in the world behind Carlsen. He has even broken Carlsen’s record to be the youngest player to reach a rating of 2800 (only 14 players have had ratings that high ever.) The emergence of Carlsen and now Firouzja at such young ages, raises the question: are top chess players are getting younger?
We can track the age of top players in the last forty years. Over this period FIDE, the governing body of Chess, published regular data on the top ranked data players. The chart above shows that the median age of the top 1000 chess players has remained stable since 1970. However, the average age of the of the top 100 players has fallen considerably. Between 1970 and 2010, the average age of the top 100 players fell from 36 to 27, before recovering back to 33 in 2021. The decline is not linear, but it does seem that players right at the top of the game have become younger. Other research has also found that chess players are now reaching their peak at a younger age.
One explanation for top players becoming younger is the increasing importance of computers within the game. In 1986, players started using ChessBase, a computer database of previous games. This helped them prepare better for future games. In 1997, Deep Blue, a supercomputer, beat Garry Kasparov, the best player in the world at the time. Now any household computer could beat the top players. These advances have changed how players prepare for games. They can now look up opening sequences both on all historic games and on computers and memorise the lines that give them the best chances. This means memory has become more important.
If memory is more important, this could advantage younger players. There is scientific consensus that memory worsens with age, although there is some disagreement about how young the decline begins. Some studies point to memory decline starting in the 20s or early 30s, although other studies point towards a much later decline. If memory does decline in 20s or early 30s, the increased importance of memory will advantage younger players.
Another potential explanation is the recent risen of Asian chess players. 40 year ago there were barely any Asian chess players in the top 100 in the world. Since 1970, Chess has taken off in both India and China and this has led to the number of Asian players in the top 100 growing considerably (a separate blog on this is coming). In 1970, none of the top 100 players were from China or India, whereas in 2021 15 were. These players tend to be younger than other top players, due to the recent development of competitive Chess in these countries. However, this is unlikely to explain the trend as Chinese and Indian players still make up a relatively small percentage of top players.
We can track the ages of a smaller number of top players over a longer period of time. There is not as good data on top chess players pre-1970. The chart above tracks the ages of the winners and runner ups of Chess World Championships since its inception in 1886. This is a more volatile measure as it only includes two players and can be affected by individually exceptional players. It still lets us track top chess players’ ages over a longer period of time. It provides some evidence that top level chess players have become younger over the long term. The average for chess world championship winners and runners up pre-1950 was 42, post 1950 it is 34.
The longer term decline in top chess player’s age likely reflects the increased professionalisation of chess. While some players were making an income from chess as early as the 17th century, many early players pursued chess alongside other careers. Emanuel Lasker was a top Mathematician as well as Chess World Champion in the late 19th century. Mikhail Botvinnik studied for a doctorate in electrical engineering while competing for the Chess World Championship. Reuben Fine declined the opportunity to play in a World Championship to pursue a psychology PhD in 1948. Now, it is common for the top players to pursue chess seriously from a young age. Carlsen for instance took a year out of primary school to compete in international chess tournaments.
Top chess players have got younger over the medium and long term. Two potentially important factors are the increasing professionalisation of top level chess and the increased role of computer preparation in the game. However, the rise of young players has been both slow and stop-start. The average age for the top chess players remains about 31, so we’re unlikely to see a pre-teen dominating the chess world any time soon.