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First off let me say that I know this question doesn't really belong here, but I'm not sure where else to post it.

I've spoken to many people who played chess as children; some of them were very good players, playing at national level. Around age 11 or 12 they stopped playing chess competitively and lost interest in the game altogether. I've asked them why & have received answers like "It wasn't fun anymore" or "I was forced to play older children whom I couldn't beat". While it makes sense to me that a child is likely to lose interest in a game they can't win at, reaching national level is something to be proud of. Even if you no longer play competitively, surely you'd still enjoy following chess and playing for fun? If we compare this to, say, soccer, I know many people who stopped playing competitively after primary school but still follow the sport. Why is chess different: why do so many young people divorce themselves from chess completely when they feel they've reached their potential and can't advance any further?

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On the flip side, why does anyone continue playing, training and competing in chess? It should be possible to capture the motivation and inspiration for this and thus identify what is missing for someone who stops with chess. – Rauan Sagit Jan 23 '14 at 15:13
up vote 6 down vote accepted

In order to prevent my answer to be misunderstood/wrongly interpreted, let me state few thing now, at the beginning:

  1. I LOVE to play chess.
  2. I am inactive, and doubt I will ever play on tournaments again, but I still follow the game.

Now, let us proceed towards answering the OPs question:

...I know many people who stopped playing competitively after primary school but still follow the sport. Why is chess different: why do so many young people divorce themselves from chess completely when they feel they've reached their potential and can't advance any further?

In order for someone to continue sports/mountain climbing/collecting stamps/whatever they need to have a reason for doing it-and it must be a very good and strong one!

So let us start examining this from the athlete's point of view for a start, and then we shall compare our conclusions with those for a chess player.


A child athlete could like sports because he can :

  1. Play with people of similar interest and of the approximate same age and he can be a part of something;
  2. He can improve his health or maintain its good shape, he could get popular which can give him many social benefits;
  3. He needs little work to do in order to improve compared to a chess player, and if he continues to pursue sports there is a chance for him to have great future ( fame, money and so on ).


  1. Young chess player is surrounded with his peers at the beginning but as soon as he progresses he meets usually older people to play against. Imagine a child on a decent tournament ( this scenario is really plausible since 12 year old can reach FIDE master/near FIDE master strength ) surrounded with older people-it makes him feel awkward, like he does not belong there. He can not socialize with them since they have no common conversational topics due to age difference-which will lead to loneliness, unlike the athlete who is usually surrounded with its peers and feels great for being a part of the team, for belonging to a group.

  2. Chess improves mental abilities ( some mathematical disciplines and memory ) , but spending too much time on the board neglects child's physical development. In that age physical development is far more important on the long run than to be a spelling champion. Furthermore, a successful athlete gets the social benefits like popularity in school and many others, while being a chess player is not being fully approved today-nobody likes to lose from a girl and guys are labeled as boring geeks. Sorry to say it, but in the long run being the athlete really has its benefits even if you do it for fun but playing chess in your free time does not.

  3. Regarding the improving method athlete again has it easier. Let us take basketball for an example: If a tall child and a short one start training and invest equal amount of work the taller one will still be a better player because of his innate height advantage. We see this in sports all the time-physical attributes play huge roll. In chess these two will be of equal strength if they invest equal amount of work. Why is this so important? In order to be the best in sports you need both physical attributes and skill yet in chess pure skill is the only thing that counts. Let us take Shaquille O'Neil as an example-his free throws are horrible, but he is still a top player because his physical attributes combined with other skills compensate. In chess, lack of skill can not be compensated-you must work hard to remove your shortcomings.

So what is the result for our 12 year old chess player? Work your but off to be good chess player for what-to be socially labeled by a bad stereotype? So you can get kyphosis/scoliosis for sitting on the board for too long? We all know that only few chess players ended up millionaires compared to countless athletes out there. So what is the future for a child if decides to really pursue chess? He will most probably reach grandmaster strength with hard work only to realize that there are many others like him and that he will have to work even harder just to have a chance to become top level GM. Strong memory and good mathematical abilities do not count much-we have computers/smart phones and other stuff to do that for us, yet physical fitness is still of paramount importance for us.

Also, you can find sports report on any news station/newspaper/Internet page, yet chess resources are very skimpy-again this requires hard work or maybe devotion is the true word and not many 12 year old children possess it.

To conclude: After playing chess for sometime child will reach the peak at strengthening its memorization skills and after that it decides to pursue other interests and to explore new things. Devoting oneself to one thing at this early age is something that is not seen very often-children at that age learn about the world around them and it is normal for them to want to try everything. To devote oneself to chess-and you really need to devote yourself based on the reasons posted above-requires strong characters.

I will end this quoting Mikhail Botvinnik:

"Chess is for strong people, of strong character."

How many children do you know that possess these admirable traits?

Hopefully this answer will shed some light on the matter.

Again, I do not mean anything insulting, I just state my oppinion which is backed up with arguments.

Fell free to comment, I will gladly reply.

Best regards.

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You make some very good points, esp. regarding the social stigma & your observation that chess requires devotion. What still puzzles me though, is that many children don't just stop playing chess, they divorce themselves from it completely. It's almost like they're trying to shut out a painful memory. Do you think many children are just not emotionally ready for chess? – Ralph Jan 23 '14 at 7:27
@Ralph: Yes I do. You see in chess they have greater chance to succeed than in sports since there is no team to ruin their work. Also, chess is elusive-you can not evaluate something and be 100% sure that evaluation is correct. They might have played a game where they thought they win for sure only to find out it was not so easy. The emotional disappointment they start to feel mixed with the realization of just how much work chess really requires makes them drop it since at that age such level of commitment is just not worth it. Unfortunately, I must agree with them... – AlwaysLearningNewStuff Jan 23 '14 at 10:37

The US Chess Federation's experience (IIRC) was that there is a big fall-off at high school graduation. They used to offer a 5-year discounted membership you could buy at age 18, that I think they hoped would be a good graduation gift. My rather cynical view is that the college chess club tended to have few, if any, women, making it an unattractive use of time. I wonder if there is a different pattern in the relatively few places that almost as many women play chess as men (e.g., Republic of Georgia, by rumor).

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The previous responses chime with me but I'd like to add one more: OTB chess gobbles up time. If you play chess competitively as a high school and college student, you run the serious risk of ending up a chess bum as an adult. Not say it necessarily does happen but that it's a real risk. My son got up to a rating of USCF 1900+ but hasn't played competitively now for, oh, ten years I'd guess. In the interim he has earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in math and is working on his doctoral dissertation at the moment.

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I think that it's a healthy response for young individuals to completely divorce themselves from an activity that requires so much dedication in order to be successful at. These people derive more of their happiness from winning and from the social acceptance that comes with winning than from the beauty of the game itself. At the more competitive levels of chess there's ultimately less winning and thus less satisfaction. It's perfectly healthy to divorce themselves completely from an activity that is leading them towards an existential depression. Unlike an addict, they are able to stop something that is no longer getting them high and so they seek more pragmatic pursuits.

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Online games are killing it. Plain and simple.

Every child needs motivation. If the child can see in chess that he/she can join and win many tournaments in about every few weeks or a month, gain more ratings and progressively improving -- then it's a good investment.

But if he feels like "this is not my sport... I lost a lot" then he/she might just turn to something else like online stuffs especially online games where everything is so colorful and exciting.

This sport is for patient people who can appreciate the beauty of the game beyond the depths of the 64 squares.

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