The Young Wave and Whether the Old Can Cope

It is no secret that teenagers and younger chess players seem to be improving boundlessly these days. As I am writing, the number 1 ranked player in the world is the Norwegian chess prodigy Magnus Carlsen. Carlsen is only 19 years old and has a towering rating of 2826 as of the July 2010 rating list. This is the second highest rating ever; the highest having been established at 2851 by Garry Kasparov. Indeed, there are many modern instances where players of only 9 or 10 years of age are becoming FIDE Master strength or stronger. I too am a teenager, and I can vouch for the observation that younger players are dominating the chess scene. I would now like to give some further thoughts about young players in relation to older players, and some methods senior players can use to combat their younger counterparts.

According to my research, ‘average people’ tend to discover (or rediscover) chess between the ages of 45-54. This age bracket is clearly the most popular with the 25-34 bracket coming a far second. I presume players aged 45-54 play the game for fun and as a form of mental training. Whilst older players tend not to be able to advance to world championship level (unless they already established themselves at that level when they were younger and have kept in constant practice), I believe they are readily able to achieve FIDE Master and International Master strength if they put strong effort into their pursuit. Some are even able to achieve the International Grandmaster Title such as Larry Kaufman at the age of 61 (he won the title by coming first at the World Senior Chess Championship). If you subscribe to the Internet Chess Club, Kaufman recently did an interesting interview with IM John Watson. The oldest player I can think of who achieved the Grandmaster Title through the normal ‘norm process’ is Ben Finegold, who achieved his final norm at the age of 40. All in all, older players should not fear their younger compatriots.

One problem area for older players is in trendy opening lines. Junior players tend to be highly ‘booked up’ and it is near impossible for casual older players to overcome their opponent’s intense opening preparation. Without the pressures of the adult world, kids have virtually infinite time to memorise opening variations. If you are a casual player at 50 years of age, playing into the main line Sicilian Najdorf Poisoned Pawn as White or Black is asking for trouble. Instead, older players can still achieve good results by adopting reputable plan-based openings where theory does not advance rapidly. This is why you often see senior players playing the English Opening as White. Examples of plan-based openings for Black include the French Defence (with the exception of the Poisoned Pawn Variation), Caro-Kann Defence, Pirc/Modern Defence, Scandinavian Defence and the Queen’s Gambit Declined.

It is my experience that junior players tend to be vulnerable in the areas of endgames and positional understanding. This is probably because such aspects are boring to study for most young players. With this in mind, older players should educate themselves in these areas and seek out strategical battles, making the endgame their hunting ground.

My final point is more of a general one. One logical factor in chess that can be easy to forget is physical fitness. Exhaustion in young and old is a large factor in the tactical blunders that cause us to lose games. Keeping fit through physical exercise is invaluable, and will save you from losing needless matches from pure mental exhaustion.

As a conclusion, I would like to leave you with a quote. Some of you may have seen this quote before from an earlier article. “Perhaps this… has led to the belief that it is impossible for someone to improve their chess after a certain age. Frankly, I believe this view is total poppycock; players can improve their chess at any age as long as they adopt an effective approach.” – English Grandmaster Nigel Davies (aged 50)

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For chess opening training and repertoire maintenance, I highly recommend the software I use, Chess Openings Wizard. This software was approved by Grandmaster Peter Svidler (FIDE rating 2744 as of January 2010) many years ago.

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