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Is Garry Kasparov Too Old To Dominate Chess Again?

Garry Kasparov, a former world chess champion and probably the best player ever to play the game, has come out of retirement and returned to competitive chess. He has suited up for this week’s Saint Louis Rapid & Blitz, a 10-player round-robin tournament that consists of relatively speedy games and features some scarily strong competition. Four of the 10 competitors are in the world’s top 10.

The chess world was abuzz with news of the return; Kasparov hasn’t played competitively since 2005. But the open question was how well he could perform against the young guns across the table. Kasparov is 54 years old, after all. To get some insight into how chess skill might decline with age, I downloaded the most recent FIDE rating list, from the beginning of August. This lists ranks all the players registered with the game’s international governing body according to their Elo rating.1 The end result was a data set with more than 280,000 players and their respective ratings. These are all the players currently rated by FIDE, although some of them, such as Kasparov, are flagged as “inactive,” meaning that they haven’t played a rated game in a year or more. (To estimate a given player’s age, we subtracted his or her birth year from 2017.)

The result is shaped like a large floating apostrophe of mortality. After a steep increase in players’ early years (youth is wasted on the young), the estimated trend in ratings peaks just after age 38, before beginning a long, slow, irreversible and depressing decline (kinda like real life).

But when the ratings are plotted this way, Kasparov’s outlier status becomes clear — his most recent rating, established before he retired in 2005, is 2812. If he were active in classical chess tournaments, that’d put him second in the world, behind the current world champion, Magnus Carlsen, who is 26.

Another former world champion, Vladimir Kramnik, who defeated Kasparov for the title in 2000, noted in a 2015 interview that he was in his mid-20s at the time. “In fact, chess is a game for the young,” he said.

As I write, Kasparov is near the bottom of the pack in St. Louis, with five draws and a loss through his first six games. Ian Nepomniachtchi, a 27-year-old Russian grandmaster, is in first place.

After the first day of play, Kasparov retweeted the following:

Footnotes

  1. These lists are currently published monthly; they were published quarterly in earlier years.

Oliver Roeder is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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