Prompted by Hauke's question about papers on the influence of aging on chess. Those answers demonstrated that decline sets in sometime in the 40's and starts getting steeper in the 50's. There appeared to be no research on what it is about getting older that makes players weaker chess players. What is it about getting older that does that and so what can we do to slow down the process?
As a 66 year-old this has particular relevance for me. First, some anecdotal evidence of what I have observed in other players.
First, the case of a player I first met in the late 90's when he was in his 50's and rated about 2200. By the early to mid teens when I was arbiting tournaments he was playing in he was down to about 2050 or lower. I noticed that tactically he was still very sharp but his energy was down. One game in particular stood out. He reached a critical position where a pawn break had to be calculated, after his opponent's move changed the dynamics, as a way to achieve an advantage. The position was complicated and would take some time to calculate out but he had plenty of time on the clock. I settled down to try and calculate myself what would happen while waiting for him to do the same. To my surprise after about 20 seconds he flashed out a nothing, waiting, move. H eventually reached a pawn up queen and pawns endgame, overpressed and lost to a lower rated but much younger opponent, one with the patience and stamina to do the hard work.
Second case, the oldest player in my club, an 86 year-old who I have known for more than 50 years since we both played for the same team in another club. At his peak he was about 2100 strength and now he is down to about 1800. He has type 2 diabetes and crippling arthritis in his knees. As well as many friendly quick games I have played several serious standard time control games against him. I know the best time to play him is in the last round of a weekend tournament. Sure, I will be tired but he much more so and I am pretty much guaranteed at least a draw and should really win.
Talking to him, he takes pain killers for his arthritis and they dull his mind at the same time as they dull the pain but the pain also dulls his mind. His solution is to take the painkillers long enough before the game for the brain fog to wear off before the painkilling effects do.
In both cases what is going on is clear. The brain is an integral part of the body. When the body starts to deteriorate so does the mind. What affects the body also affects the brain. Mens sana in corpore sano (a healthy mind in a healthy body), as the old Latin saying goes.
Now for some related research. I found this YouTube video by an Australian doctor, Paul Mason, whose main interests lie in sports physiology and nutrition. After the main talk, given to a Low Carbohydrate conference, he discusses with a South African professor of sports medicine. This discussion is also very interesting. Although the main topic is dementia and nutrition, as he says, decline in brain function starts long before dementia starts to manifest.
Here is a summary of the main points of the video.
- Dementia is believed to be the result of beta amyloid plaques in the brain
- Healthy beta amyloids are crucial to the proper function of the brain
- Plaquing of the beta amyloids is caused by glycation and oxidation
- Gycation is the process of damage due to excess levels of glucose and particularly fructose in the blood
- Oxidation is primarily the effect of polyunsaturated fats, particularly seed oils.
- Despite being about 5% of the body weight the brain burns 20% of the body's energy and will prefer ketones to glucose. When it burns glucose it depends on insulin.
- The body will only manufacture ketones from fats when glucose levels are low.
- Insulin resistance, the process whereby insulin receptors in the body stop responding to normal levels of insulin, when it occurs in the brain starves the brain of energy from glucose. In the absence of ketones that means the brain is just starved of energy
- Insulin resistance develops over time as a result of prolonged high levels of glucose in the body. These high levels are the result of a high carbohydrate diet.
- Insulin resistance leads to hyperglycaemia, type 2 diabetes and eventually type 3 diabetes aka dementia.
The conclusion from the talk is that a ketogenic diet, one which is low in carbohydrate and low in seed oils, will both help prevent dementia and alleviate the symptoms if it has already set in. Good amounts of healthy sleep are also important along with moderate exercise for good brain health.
Bottom line: you need a healthy brain to play your best chess.
I think the main thing is that tactical and calculation abilities get weaker. To slow down the process, I suppose practicing tactics (and calculation exercises from books) should help, in order to counterbalance the natural decline in these areas.
The good news though is that as players get older, their greater experience can help with their intuition. It doesn't fully make up for the decline in other areas, but it helps somewhat.
"Tactics" (answer by InertialIgnorance) is the answer most people give. (It would be very interesting project to let a single proband make a standardized tactics test with different age. Another, maybe easier, test might be to check the difference between tournament and blitz Elo, since blitz is much more tactics-prone.)
This (people are different, duh) is not necessarily the only possible answer. Personally, I spot a growing risk aversion (positions where I offered a draw, where Young Hauke would fought red in tooth and claw - and scored more than 50% in average). Naturally, this costs Elo points either! (For fun, I googled how you can train risk taking, but on a fleeting look I only found "swearing". Well, kiss my bishop pair :-)
From my own experience it is the loss of speed and precision of calculation. I have to work at tactics I used to just see. I have stopped playing over-the-board tournaments. I now only play "postal" chess where I have more time for safety checks. I am better than I have ever been at strategic positional play and endings.
As Inertial Ignorance mentioned practicing tactics helps. I do more tactic puzzles now than I ever have.
It is urgent that we understand that if bad health increases, brain skill decreases. This happens at any age. However, it is not the same if we start to take care of our health when we are senior adults than if we start to take care of our health since our childhood. What we can do? Health education will motivate us because if we understand the effect of bad habits, it will be easier to replace bad habits with good habits. Sleep well, reduce stress, do exercise, good nutrition, eliminate smoking, alcohol, and drugs. We need to do aerobic exercise, but also anaerobic exercise. Some research suggest that anaerobic is fundamental. I would say that we need to do both. Besides this, there is research that we need to put our brain outside of our comfort zone. Challenge your brain! Do not play blitz. Only classical chess. Most of chess players have convinced themselves, for convinience, that blitz and classical chess are the same, but they are not. About chess games, I play a daily chessgame, 5+30, on lichess.org. Do not focus on the results. Just play one game per day and analyze it. Try hard to discover and learn from your mistakes. If you have enough financial resources, hire a nutritionist and a chess trainer. You can get online chess lessons for $10 per hour. It is a myth that we cannot improve. If you have time, learn a new language, learn to play a musical instrument, study the great philosophers, and the great mathematicians. It is extremely important to study the last research about the brain and health in general. Subscribe to American Mind, a magazine specialized in brain health. In chess, more important than reading is to solve exercises without time limit. I had the opportunity to listen a lecture from one of the best chess trainers of the world, Ramachandran Ramesh, he emphasized that puzzle exercises are important if you get 100% or you are close. So, quality is more important than quantity. Puzzle rush, it is a very bad idea because, according to Ramachandran Ramesh, you "learn to be mediocre." We need to fight to achieve excellence. Puzzles are extremely difficult and helpful. There are excellent books. Do middlegames and endgames puzzles. I like Maxim Blokh, Mark Dvoretsky, and Steve Giddins books. But, there are fantastic books written by John Nunn, Jonathan Speelman, Jacob Aagaard, Boris Gelfand, Boris Gulko, etc. It is important to do 50% endgames, 50% middlegames. If you have time do as many as possible every day. However, if you do not have good health, your chess ability will decline no matter what you do. Physical and mental health must be your priority! Best of luck!