Chess and scientific research

by André Schulz
11/5/2020 – A team of scientists from Germany, the Netherlands and the USA studied the development of cognitive abilities in humans and evaluated them using chess games. The result: cognitive skills only increase up to a certain age and today's chess players play better than those of previous generations. | Picture: Pixabay

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A team of scientists from Germany, the Netherlands and the USA researched the development of intelligence by evaluating the results of a total of 24,000 chess games played between 1890 and 2014 with a total of 1.6 million moves.

The scientists wanted to find out whether and how the cognitive abilities developed over the course of the lives of the players in question and how the skills of players from previous generations compare with the skills of today's players.

With the help of computers the scientists evaluated nd compared the quality of the moves and looked for patterns and developments.

The scientists reached the following conclusions:

1. Human cognitive abilities are age-dependent. At first, they continue to increase, but from a certain age, around 35 years, they stagnate.

2. Today, people perform better – in chess – than people of the same age in earlier generations. The level of play has risen continuously over the course of the study period of almost 125 years.

The results were recently published in the "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America" (PNAS).

However, Professor Sunde, one of the scientists who conducted the study,  indicated a weakness of the study, which is that a lot of top players stop playing tournament chess around the age of 50.

Another arguable weakness of the study is the fact that the ability to play good chess is a very special talent. Good chess skills are not necessarily transferable to cognitive performance in other areas. Moreover, at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century chess theory was hardly developed. And the computer has dramatically increased the knowledge of chess and improved the level of play in the last 30 years.


André Schulz started working for ChessBase in 1991 and is an editor of ChessBase News.


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