I've spoken to many people who played chess as children; some of them were very good players, playing at the 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 the 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?
In order to prevent my answer to be misunderstood/wrongly interpreted, let me state few thing now, at the beginning:
- I LOVE to play chess.
- 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 OP's 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.
ATHLETE'S POINT OF VIEW:
A child athlete could like sports because he can :
- Play with people of similar interest and of the approximately same age and he can be a part of something;
- He can improve his health or maintain its good shape, he can get popular which can give him many social benefits;
- 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).
CHESS PLAYER'S POINT OF VIEW:
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 their peers and feels great for being a part of the team, for belonging to a group.
Chess improves mental abilities (some mathematical disciplines and memory), but spending too much time on the board neglects a 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.
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 butt 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 opinion which is backed up with arguments.
Feel free to comment, I will gladly reply.
Dan Heisman writes about this in one of his books. He states that 90 % of children who start in 1st grade or kindergarten stop playing around 7th grade. I have seen this in my work as Executive Director of the Wisconsin Scholastic Chess Federation. Children at this age have had enough chess and want to explore other interests. As an educator I do not think this is a bad thing. Our objective in teaching chess at a young age is to help them to learn to think differently and approach problems in a more thoughtful way. If they play for 5 or 6 years, mission accomplished.
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).
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.
As a kid who played a lot of chess from 3rd to 7th grade and then stopped I feel obligated to point out that many children stop not because of loss of passion or online chess or video games, but because they don't have the TIME it requires. Around 7th grade is when many children especially the smart ones like those who play chess start stressing about high school applications. Most kids when they reach 7th grade are at a place where chess requires studying. But they need that time for schoolwork. Also at that age kids start to think about their futures, for most of them there is no future in chess, so they start to pursue other things. I stopped after winning the highest score under 1800 at a big open tournament the week before school started. I had been studying for weeks before the tournament so after the tournament chess became something that I felt needed to spend hours on and something that stressed me out. Especially the prospect that as I got better I would need to put in even MORE time. So I decided to pursue school. By that point many of my friends dropped out or stopped playing so there was very little social aspect making it way less enjoyable. And there was no sense of team I once had. So I stopped playing altogether. Sometimes I think of going back, but I'm a bit afraid of hurting my rating, to tell the truth, and it would take months of studying now to get where I was then. I'm happy with where I got, but I think around that then I felt it was time to move on to a different stage in life. I started doing debate and track, but chess will always be special to me.
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.
Many of the other comments are correct but one thing that hasn't been said but was a major factor for me: The opening book. Once I got to the point where I knew I couldn't much progress in terms of tournament performance without significant opening study (hours per week), I lost interest in competitive play. If Fisherchess/Chess960 or something similar took hold, I would be more likely to spend more time with chess, and more able to believe that chess has a non-niche future.
Other important factors: Computers have changed chess enormously. Separately, The internet has changed chess enormously too. This comment doesn't address these facts but they are relevant to this discussion.
Developing on someone's comment above, the fact that there exist now strong deep-strategy "video" games, means that young people who might have been drawn to chess are drawn to more "exciting" and "cooler" games.
I agree with the commenter above that the rarity of women in the chess community is a factor.
This is coming from someone who reached a rating of 1900 when they were 11. I started playing chess when I was 8, and it was definitely something I was passionate about. Within the first three months, I started playing on rated tournaments, and reached a rating of 1450. That's when the pressure started. Thinking that I had a gift for the game, my mom pushed me every day, told me to study openings and signed me up for tournaments every two weeks. By the time I turned 10,I hated chess. I was finding ways to quit, but my mom said that the only I’d be allowed to quit would be reaching a rating of 1900. Tens of tournaments later, I finally acquired the rating if 1900 and immediately quit chess. I was 11. I stopped playing chess for 3 years before starting my own chess club at school when I was 15. However, I’ve never played competitive chess since being 11.
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.
As someone who is also interested in and participates in other sports, and who is currently coaching youth baseball, let me first state that the issue of kids leaving is not unique to chess. Young athletes leave sports such as baseball, football, soccer, etc. It is said that 70% of kids leave youth sports by age 13.*
That said ... In my opinion, this is not something for which there is a single answer. Factors involved include interest, opportunity, outside activities and needs, pressure, and social factors. I'll illustrate some of this via my personal experiences.
Chess was something that was of interest to me from an early age and I learned it at the age of 9. This was during the Fischer craze. I often played classmates during recess when weather forced us to stay inside. However, over time that fad faded and playing at school stopped. I continued playing at home against my step siblings for a while, but advanced to the point where I defeated them easily and they would no longer play against me. At that time, we lived in a relatively remote area and I had no one else to play against, so I (mostly) stopped playing for a few years. Even after we moved to a more populated area, there weren't many people I knew who played. So, for several years I didn't have opportunity to play.
When I got into high school, there was a chess club. I played there and began playing in rated tournaments. Inside the group, we enjoyed socializing with one another. However, outside our group, we were seen as nerdy outcasts, which people that age usually don't want (or at least didn't when I was that age). So, I'm sure there are teenagers who may be interested, but who don't play (at least publicly) for fear of becoming socially ostracized.
Pressure and burn out are things I didn't have to deal with, but some kids do. I mention it here because it is often around high school that this leads players to quit. Kids who are pushed hard for several years to learn any skill often feel overly pressured and eventually burn out. I have seen it coaching baseball, where kids are pushed by their parents and/or coaches to work hard at the game to become experts. Parents may want the kids to win scholarships and/or turn pro; some coaches will be overly obsessed with winning. Such pressure often turns kids off and leads to burn out and dropping out of the activity.
The college I attended didn't have a chess club. Also, with studies and a part time job, I had little time for the game. Furthermore, I did not have much money for traveling to tournaments (the closest I knew of were a one hour drive) or paying entry fees. So I again stopped playing.
By the time I graduated college, chess was only a mild interest. I usually had a chess program on whatever computer I had and would play it occasionally. Otherwise, I didn't play much due to work, other hobbies, dating, and - at times - night school. I did read the occasional article about the game in mass media (such as Kasparov vs. Deep Blue), but that was about it for a few decades.
Historically, another factor might be the means of study available. When I was young, the only resources I had for improvement were rather dry books - coaching would have been done face-to-face then and we were nowhere near a coach (nor would my family have spent money on one). Now there are videos, online lessons, and books that are more interesting than those I remember starting and abandoning years back. Coaching can be done online. Hopefully more people will take an interest and stay involved in chess.