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Spirited Seniors - Successful Chess at Old Age


It is well known that playing chess in old age will keep your mind sharp, sometimes improving mental age up to 14 years, and it will keep Alzheimer's away (Alzheimer's disease is a common form of dementia). But how can one play successful chess at old age? This is what we'll be investigating today.

Looking at the FIDE rating list, many players drop considerably as they get older (for example, some GMs drop to 2300 ratings, which is supposedly weaker than IMs!). However, some players still keep their stamina and strength. What's their secret?

One of the best examples we can study is the active player GM Viktor Korchnoi (sometimes written as Kortschnoj), who is a citizen of Switzerland. This year he is 77 years old and still sports a 2584 rating (October 2008)! He was ranked in the top 100 FIDE world ranking list as late as January 2007, the oldest player ever to hold such a high position.

Viktor Korchnoi is best known for playing three somewhat controversial matches against Anatoly Karpov for the World Chess Championship. Korchnoi was a Candidate for the World Championship on ten occasions (1962, 1968, 1971, 1974, 1977, 1980, 1983, 1985, 1988 and 1991). Korchnoi gained his GM title all the way back in 1956. His peak FIDE rating was 2695 in January 1979 (!).

Korchnoi's playing style is "an aggressive counter-attack. He excelled in playing difficult defensive positions." - Wikipedia.org

So what is so special about Mr Korchnoi that prevents his rating from dropping into the abyss? My coach thinks it is because of his aggressive style of play. We can see this by taking a look at his great games from his books Victor Korchnoi: My Best Games 2: Games with Black, Victor Korchnoi: My Best Games 2: Games with Black and Victor Korchnoi: Chess is My Life.

Let's also take a look at his repertoire. He often plays sharp main line 1.d4 openings as White, occasionally throwing in 1.c4 as well. Against 1.e4, he has played the French Defence the most (more than 370 games). Although recently, he has played the double e-pawns 1...e5 very frequently. Also, a couple of Open Spanish games recently, according to my database (going up to mid-2008). Against 1.d4, he varies between Queen's Gambit Declined lines and Nimzo/Queen's Indian Defences. This repertoire allows one to play a relatively aggressive style. You can see more about his repertoire at ChessGames.com.

Why is this important? According to GM Alexander Yermolinsky, an ageing chess player "must keep rejuvenating himself by constantly sharpening up his repertoire". He gives examples of grandmasters who have had long chess careers, such as Jan Timman (rated 2580 FIDE at October 2008, aged 57), Korchnoi and Alexander Beliavsky (rated 2619 FIDE at October 2008, aged 55). He notes that their "opening are the cutting edge, and that's why they are still a force against the youngsters of today".

Jan Timman is a grandmaster from the Netherlands. He has won the Dutch Championship multiple times and has also been a Candidate for the World Championship a couple of times. He gained his grandmaster title back in 1974. His peak FIDE rating was 2680 in January 1990.

Timman's playing style is that of "a fighter, in the mould of Emanuel Lasker" - Raymond Keene (Wikipedia.org)

Timman is still fairly active, so we can analyse his opening repertoire. As White, he plays 1.d4 and 1.e4, typically going for the main lines. Against 1.e4, Timman's play is very varied, which is often an advantage because your opponent must prepare against more openings. He recently played the main line Caro-Kann (using suggestions from IM Jovanka Houska's book Play the Caro-Kann), the Berlin Defence (famously employed by Kramnik against Kasparov), the Open Spanish, the Classical Sicilian, the Sicilian Taimanov, the Scheveningen Sicilian, the French Winawer 6...Qa5 (a somewhat underrated variation), the Alekhine's Defence, the Petroff, the Pirc Defence, and the list goes on! We can easily see how "cutting edge" his repertoire is. Against 1.d4, he is more consistent, preferring the Nimzo-Indian, Queen's Indian and Bogo-Indian. Although he has also played the Modern Benoni and Queen's Gambit Accepted recently. Jan Timman is a very interesting player in the opening phase of the game and this can be one explanation why he is still an excellent player.

Timman recently played a very nice game against Vaganian (a 2600-player) in a variation of the French.

Timman (2565)-Vaganian (2617), King's Tournament (Bazna ROM) 2008

1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 dxe4 4. Nxe4 Bd7 5. Nf3 Bc6 6. Bd3 Nd7 7. Qe2 Ngf6 8.
Nxf6+!? Nxf6 9. Bb5! Qd5 10. Bxc6+ Qxc6 11. O-O Bd6 12. Bg5 O-O 13. Bxf6 gxf6 14.
c4 Rfe8 15. Rac1 Bf8 16. Rfd1 Rad8 17. Rc3 Bg7 18. Re3 Qd6 19. d5 c6 20. Rdd3
cxd5 21. cxd5 e5 22. Nh4 Qd7 23. g4 Qb5 24. d6 Bf8 25. Nf5 Re6 26. Rd1 Qe8 27.
Red3 Qb5 28. R3d2 Qb6 29. Rd5 Rdxd6 30. Nxd6 Bxd6 31. Qe4 Kg7 32. R1d2 Bc5 33.
Rc2 Bd4 34. Rd7 Qa5 35. Rxf7+ 1-0

Alexander Beliavsky is a grandmaster from Ukraine. He won the World Junior Chess Championship in 1973 and the USSR Chess Championship in 1974 and 1990. In the World Chess Championship cycle, Beliavsky qualified for the Candidates Tournament in 1983, losing to eventual winner Garry Kasparov in the quarterfinals. Beliavsky is a noted endgame study composer, having published about 50 studies. He gained his grandmaster title back in 1975. His peak FIDE rating was 2710 in July 1997.

According to Wikipedia, Beliavsky "is noted for his uncompromising style of play and for his classical opening repertoire" - Wikipedia

Note that 'uncompromising' means 'not willing to make concessions; resolute'. This seems to contradict the theory that one needs to be aggressive.

Beliavsky is very consistent in his White repertoire, playing 1.d4 continually and aiming for the main lines. There are no 'obscure' lines in this repertoire. Against 1.e4, Beliavsky goes with the 'classical openings' (traditional and long-established openings). He plays 1...e5 and goes down the main line of the Ruy Lopez, often playing the Marshall Attack or the sharp Zaitsev line. He also uses the French Defence and Sicilian on occasion. Against 1.d4, Beliavsky plays the Queen's Indian and Semi-Slav/Meran setups.

Saving the best for last, Anatoly "Boa Constrictor" Yevgenyevich Karpov (rated 2651 FIDE at October 2008, aged 57) is a Russian grandmaster and the 12th World Champion. He was undisputed World Champion from 1975 to 1985. He is the world's most successful tournament player with at least 161 first-place finishes (more, if he has been secretly winning tournaments on ICC). Karpov's own opinion of his playing style speaks for itself:

"Let us say the game may be continued in two ways: one of them is a beautiful tactical blow that gives rise to variations that don't yield to precise calculation; the other is clear positional pressure that leads to an endgame with microscopic chances of victory.... I would choose the latter without thinking twice. If the opponent offers keen play I don't object; but in such cases I get less satisfaction, even if I win, than from a game conducted according to all the rules of strategy with its ruthless logic." - Anatoly Karpov

I must admit, I have studied Karpov's opening repertoire over and over to see if I can find the secret to chess. Although he is mainly playing rapid and blitz tournaments, especially in 2008, I still think it's worth taking a look at his repertoire. As White, Karpov, similarly to Beliavsky, consistently plays 1.d4, not afraid to play into the main lines. Karpov was once quoted saying, "I like 1.e4 very much but my results with 1.d4 are better". Against 1.e4, Karpov plays into the main line Ruy Lopez, often playing the sharp Zaitsev line. He also regularly plays the Caro-Kann, although strangely he prefers the 4...Bf5 line rather than the 4...Nd7 "Karpov" variation. He plays the main line recommendation in Play the Caro-Kann by IM Jovanka Houska, although apparently before the book was published.

It's difficult to draw an absolute conclusion from what we have seen. We see two distinctly different styles from the best senior players in the world - aggressive and positional (or 'uncompromising'). But one thing is certain - it is important to have a "cutting edge" repertoire which enters into many of the main lines of different chess openings, as recommended by Yermolinsky.

Recently, Larry Kaufman (previously an IM) accomplished an amazing feat, becoming a GM at the age of 61. He did this by winning the World Senior Championship and automatically earning the grandmaster title. This shows that there is hope for any player, no matter what age, to achieve chess' greatest honour. Scoring 9/11 in a tournament with recognisable names such as GMs Suba, Celabo, Uhlmann, Jansa, Rotstein, Chernikov, Gutman, Westerinen and Tseitlin, Kaufman showed that he can play at a magnificent grandmaster level.


For additional information you should see the short blog article The Young Wave and Whether the Old Can Cope. Thanks for reading this article!

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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.


Posted by Webmaster on Saturday, October 9, 2010.


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