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Vol. LX, No. 24
November 28, 2008
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Early Practice Builds Chess Expertise Across the Life-Span

If you are well into middle age, you might want to cross off “work at becoming a chess champion” from your list of goals for retirement. That is, unless you have been studying and competing in tournaments since you were a child. And even then, your winning ways will start to decline at around age 43. Even world chess champion Garry Kasparov knew to call it quits at age 42.

Dr. Neil Charness of Florida State University
Dr. Neil Charness of Florida State University

Dr. Neil Charness is a professor of psychology and an associate of the Pepper Institute on Aging and Public Policy at Florida State University. He has spent much of his academic career studying the factors that enable people to develop and maintain expert performance across the life-span, particularly master chess players. His research—which he described at an Oct. 24 lecture sponsored by the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research—shows that competitive chess players typically peak by age 43, but that top players’ skills decline with age at slower rates than those of less accomplished players. And while older players have stored more knowledge than their younger counterparts, their ability to activate that knowledge slows with age.

Charness uses a multi-faceted framework for understanding how expertise in chess develops, then declines over the life-span. His research has benefitted from the highly structured rating and ranking system used in international chess tournaments. These datasets have allowed him to analyze the skill trajectories of high-level performers; they have been augmented by practice data from questionnaire studies of European and North American players, experimental studies of early perceptual processes and studies using computer programs to simulate connections between neurons to examine age-knowledge trade-offs relevant to chess and other expert skills.

The good news is that the age of peak playing has increased since similar studies were conducted in 1986 by Arpad Elo, suggesting that as a population we are aging better. And at age 65, master players are still as good as they were at 21. Age is slightly kinder to the initially more able, said Charness. As for how to achieve that initial leg up, his work has found that the number of hours young players spend in serious solitary study and practice is the greatest predictor of future high rankings. Private instruction and hours of tournament play also contribute to better performance early on. Similar results have been found in studies of elite musicians.

Charness’s research interests involve age and human factors and age and expert performance. His research was funded by grants from the National Institute on Aging and the Florida department of transportation.

Part of OBSSR’s Behavioral and Social Sciences Research Lecture Series, Charness’s lecture and past lectures are videocast and available at http://videocast.nih.gov/PastEvents.asp?c=82. The next lecture on Thursday, Dec. 11 from 3 to 4 p.m. in the Neuroscience Center, Rm. C, will feature Dr. Linda C. Mayes discussing reward systems and risk-taking in adolescents and the implications for developing substance abuse.  NIHRecord Icon

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