Professional chess players have improved their game over the past century – particularly more recently with the advent of digital technology and online chess engines, according to a study published in the journal PNAS.
By disentangling age and cohort effects with a game that hasn’t changed and following up the same players over time, the research also confirmed the phenomenon that cognitive performance peaks during the mid-30s and starts to wane slightly after 45 years.
This is a first, according to co-author Uwe Sunde from Germany’s Ludwig Maximilian University. As well as showing a “hump-shaped productivity profile over the life cycle”, it suggests that players have improved over time with experience and accumulated knowledge.
This draws from growing evidence that developing expertise in chess and other cognitively challenging tasks comes from training and practice – not just higher innate intelligence. The researchers confirmed this by exploring how performance changed according to level of experience.
“However, when comparing birth cohorts, younger cohorts exhibit an overall higher performance and reach the plateau faster,” says Sunde. This was particularly apparent in players under 20 and rose most steeply during the 1990s when chess engines started proliferating on home computers.
Being able to perform cognitively challenging tasks and adapt rapidly to changing work environments is increasingly important, Sunde says, and the findings suggest the rapid growth of technology is helping to facilitate this.
He and colleagues analysed more than 1.6 million chess moves in more than 24,000 games by world champions recorded between 1890 and 2014. They measured performance by comparing each player’s move to the optimal move suggested by a computer-based chess engine.
Optimal moves increased from 44% to 52% between the 1870s and 1990s and then escalated by another 8% in just one decade, reaching 60% by 2010.
Natalie Parletta is a freelance science writer based in Adelaide and an adjunct senior research fellow with the University of South Australia.
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