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Anand vs Carlsen: the age effect in the World Chess Championship

Who will prevail: 43-year-old Anand or 22-year-old Carlsen? EPA/STR

Anand vs Carlsen: the age effect in the World Chess Championship

Who will prevail: 43-year-old Anand or 22-year-old Carlsen? EPA/STR

In a previous article in The Conversation, I presented the Norwegian chess prodigy Magnus Carlsen. He obtained the [grandmaster]( title at the age of 13, climbed to top position in the world ranking at the age of 19, and achieved the highest rating in the history of chess this year (2,872 Elo points – a method for calculating the relative skill levels of players) … just after turning 22.

The only title he has not achieved in his meteoric chess career is that of World Champion. But this may soon change, for he is currently the challenger in the 12-game World Championship match against the Indian grandmaster Viswanathan “Vishy” Anand, which is underway in Anand’s home town, Chennai, India.

Who will prevail: the youthful prodigy or the experienced grandmaster, more than 20 years his elder?

If we take into account the latest results and the current chess ranking, Carlsen (number 1 in the world ranking) has an advantage over Anand (currently ranked number 8 in the world).

But in world championship matches, ranking is one among many factors. Some commentators such as Carl Jacobs and British grandmaster Nigel Short indicated that age may play an important role.

This match is not only a battle between the finest chess players on the planet, but also a battle of generations. Vishy is 43 years old, and Magnus is only 22. If Carlsen wins the match he will join the great Russian grandmaster Garry Kasparov in achieving the World Champion title at the age of 22.

The psychology of ageing

Carlsen during a game at the the world chess championship in Tripoli, Libya, in 2004. EPA/Sabri Elmhedwi

Psychologist Timothy Salthouse and colleagues have shown that the performance in cognitive tests (typically referred as “fluid intelligence”) reaches its peak at the early 20s and then slowly decreases with age.

Given that chess is the quintessential cognitive game, you may think that these data suggests that Carlsen has a huge advantage.

Not so fast! Research has also shown that the accumulation of knowledge (also referred as “crystallised intelligence”) does not stop until the age of 60.

Given that chess is a combination of cognitive ability and the accumulation of thousands of pieces of chess knowledge, Anand has the advantage of having had more time to accumulate knowledge.

Now, these laboratory tests may not reflect the capacity to use the intellect in real life. For example, Salthouse showed that the average age of Fortune 500 company CEOs is around 50 years.

Company board to chess board

But what about chess players: at what age do they peak? University of New South Wales researcher Robert Howard showed that chess players peak, on average, at around the age of 35.

However, Anand obtained his highest chess rating (2,817 Elo points) only two years ago, at the age of 41. His chess rating has now dropped to 2,774 but, given the fluctuations in chess rating, it is difficult to say whether the decline has started or not.

In other respects, Anand’s age and experience may be an advantage.

He was successful in all his four world championship matches: against the Latvian Alexei Shirov in Tehran in 2000, the Russian Vladimir Kramnik in Bonn in 2008, the Bulgarian Veselin Topalov in Sofia in 2010, and the Israeli Boris Gelfand, in Moscow in 2012. Watch last year’s deciding tiebreaker below:

On the other hand, Carlsen is playing his first world championship match. The first game of the match was last Saturday, and the TV showed signs of tension in Carlsen’s face. Anand, playing with black pieces, was relaxed, and very easily neutralised Carlsen’s advantage of playing with white pieces: a draw was agreed after only 16 moves.

It seemed the tension was huge for the young prodigy – the match is watched by many millions in Indian and Norwegian TV, not to mention being live-streamed on the internet.

There were 8,000 spectators in the opening ceremony and the number of journalists in Chennai has never been seen in the history of chess championships. Despite the pressure, Carlsen’s recovery was fantastic.

In the second game, played last Sunday, Carlsen surprised Anand by playing a defense he does not usually play (the Caro-Kann defense). This led Anand to avoid the sharpest options, and a draw was agreed after only one hour and ten minutes of play.

Fans have been a bit disappointed with the length of the first two games, but still find it fascinating because they know the result of these games was the outcome of a complex psychological battle.