One of the most famous examples of longevity in top chess is reaching the final of the 1984 Candidates against Garry Kasparov. Smyslov turned 63 during the game, while Kasparov made his 21st three-to-one odds on the last day of the confrontation!
Nowadays, if you’re not a grandmaster at 14, you can forget that.
– Viswanathan Anand
If you enjoy watching top chess events like the Champions Chess Tour or other high profile tournaments live, you have probably noticed that the commentators often mention how old the competitors are. They draw parallels between the ages of the players and the FIDE ratings and draw some conclusions about the prospects of the participants. Professional chess is a tough race: you need to stand out from the crowd as early as possible to make it into the regular elite who attend all of the world’s most prestigious events.
Access to modern technology, especially the top engines that are getting closer and closer to perfect chess, enables kids to advance faster than ever. The record as the youngest grandmaster is currently held by ex-challenger Sergey Karjakin, who received the highest chess title at the age of 12 years and 7 months. When the feat was accomplished in 2003, it seemed like it would last forever. Now we can’t be so sure. In May 2021, 12-year-old American chess prodigy IM Abhimanyu Mishra received his second GM norm. He’s already crossed 2500 and now just needs one more GM norm to break Karjakin’s record – he could even do it in days since he started his newest tournament with a 2/2.
However, the older generation is not giving up yet. Of course, it is no longer possible today to become world chess champion at the age of 58, as was the case with Wilhelm Steinitz. Nevertheless, the chess crown was at stake in the 2012 World Chess Championship match between Viswanathan Anand (42) and Boris Gelfand (43). In addition, 44-year-old Anand won the Candidates Tournament in 2014. Such motivational stories prove that certain unique people over the age of 40 can perform brilliantly. Still, if we look at the stream Top 10 of the FIDE list in classical chess, all the players there are either in their 20s or 30s. The youngest is Anish Giri (26), the oldest Levon Aronian (38).
At what age should you reach your climax in chess? The answer to this question depends on personal characteristics such as physical and mental health, motivation, tournament experience, and numerous other factors. Many chess experts believe that most top chess players peak between the ages of 35 and 40. This number is given, for example, by GM and Doctor of Science in Psychology, Nikolai Krogius.
As always, a lot depends on the definitions. If we mean relative strength, for example to become world chess champions, then some have already achieved this feat by the age of 20. Some of the names that come to mind are Garry Kasparov (22), Magnus Carlsen (22), Mikhail Tal (24), Anatoly Karpov (24), Vladimir Kramnik (25). In terms of absolute playing strength, however, everyone improved their game even after winning the World Chess Championship. In particular, Mikhail Tal, the youngest ex-WCC in the history of the game, always said he would have destroyed “Misha Tal-1960” if he had played the young version of himself at a later date. In other words, he kept getting better and better as a chess player, but the competition advanced even faster.
In case you are interested, here are the ages in which some of the classic world chess champions reached their peak ratings (let’s leave rating inflation out of the discussion, as this topic tends to cause holy wars):
- Mikhail Botvinnik, 2690 (unofficial, April 1968, age 56)
- Wassily Smyslov, 2630 (unofficial, April 1968, age 47)
- Mikhail Tal, 2705 (January 1980, age 43)
- Tigran Petrosian, 2660 (unofficial, June 1967, age 37)
- Boris Spassky, 2690 (July 1971, age 34)
- Bobby Fischer, 2785 (July 1972, age 29)
- Anatoly Karpov, 2780 (July 1994, age 43)
- Garry Kasparov, 2851 (July 1999, age 36)
- Vladimir Kramnik, 2817 (October 2016, age 41)
- Viswanathan Anand, 2817 (March 2011, age 41)
- Magnus Carlsen, 2882 (May 2014, August 2019, age 28)
FIDE world chess champions:
- Alexander Khalifman, 2702 (October 2001, age 35)
- Ruslan Ponomariov, 2764 (July 2011, age 27)
- Rustam Kasimdzhanov, 2715 (May 2015, age 35)
- Veselin Topalov, 2816 (July 2015, age 40)
As you can see, with a few exceptions, some of which are explained below, pretty much all world chess champions reached their highs between 34 and 43.
Please note that Mikhail Botvinnik, Vassily Smyslov, and Tigran Petrosian were likely past their prime by the time the Elo system was introduced. We also don’t know what heights Bobby Fischer could have reached if he hadn’t stopped playing chess at a young age. And Magnus Carlsen is an active player who has every chance of improving his personal best in the future. The easiest way to track your progress (or decline! 😅) is to have it with the reigning world chess champion in the Play the Magnus appwhere you can play against its AI clone at any age.
It is common for professional players to retire early due to burnout, loss of motivation, financial problems, lack of progress, and other similar reasons. Age plays a subordinate role for amateur and semi-professionals, as most of them have not yet exhausted their potential for improvement. So, if you’re a little older than 35 and haven’t played chess professionally since you were a kid, your age shouldn’t worry you too much about chess. For example, compared to professionals, amateurs gain experience much more slowly because they don’t play as many games per year. As a result, it is not uncommon for some people to take chess seriously and improve their personal best even in their late 40s and 50s.
Last but not least, at any age you can let go of the Elo trap and have fun playing chess! It’s such a great game, after all, so good luck and have fun!
Are you interested in learning more about the world chess champions mentioned in the article? Download Magnus trainer, where you will find interactive lessons about all the world chess champions and their challengers, so you can see if you can play as well as them or even improve their game!