Do chess players live longer?

by Peter Münder
9/14/2019 – An ongoing topic of scientific inquire of interest to chess fans is whether and to what extent chess can delay or mitigate the effects of aging. An Australian study aimed to prove that chess champions have a higher life expectancy than the average population. Grandmasters from Eastern Europe should therefore have a life expectancy of up to 14 years. PETER MUENDER dealt critically with the study results.

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“Grandad doesn’t collapse!”

Viktor Korchnoi (1931-2016), twice world championship runner-up and grandmaster was still playing at an advanced age (with ELO 2560!)  in the Swiss National League as well as in top class tournaments and in his legendary simultaneous displays he often faced thirty opponents, including many younger crack players. After the extreme concentration of a five hour long simultaneous exhibition which the 75 year old ended with a high success rate (without eating or drinking during it), he once made the following comment on the question of age: “Young people think that grandad will fall over at some point, but grandad can play chess for five hours and push them up against the wall”. 

Viktor Korchnoi | Photo: Eteri Kublashvili

The fact that other chess masters have retained similar dynamism and mental fitness to Korchnoi is what a study published last year by the University of Melbourne in Australia seeks to prove. It establishes a causal connection between the mental activity of chess grandmasters and higher life expectancy: “Chess players live longer than the average person in the population” might be the conclusion — the chess board bonus might mean between eight and fourteen years extra life (in East Europe).

Comparison: grandmasters

The three Australian researchers Philip Clarke, An-Tran-Duy and David Smerdon (grandmaster and economist at the University of Queensland) were originally on a totally different track: after the deaths of two chess players at the Chess Olympiads in Norway in 2014 they wanted to elicit whether the stress over the board for elite players is perhaps too extreme and implies the risk of a fatal heart attack. But the only study then available, from the Journal of Genetic Science from 1969, had taken into account in its sample only 32 top players, which at the time led the author of the study, Herman Berry, to the conclusion that younger, ambitious players were less well adapted to the stressful search for success and recognition than politicians or scientists.

Comparison: mind sport vs. physical sport

The Australian CEPAR trio of researchers from the Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing Research at the University of Melbourne found the Berry study to be insufficient on account of the poor data base and thus decided  on a comparative study on "Mind or Muscle", in order to find out whether those involved in mental sports perhaps lived longer than high performance Olympic sportspeople. For their comparative analysis they evaluated the ELO world ranking list of 1208 grandmasters and data from 15 157 Olympic medal winners. The higher life expectancy of Oympic sportspeople had already been established in a statistical analysis in 2012 by the health economist Clarke; the comparison with chess players was suggested by GM Smerdon, who, after post doc studies in Amsterdam, had been appointed assistant professor at the University of Melbourne. Since in this case they were dealing simply with statistical comparisons rather than surveys and evaluated interviews with test subjects, this study should be considered rather as confirmation of a trend: Mental activities of chess masters can increase life expectancy just as much as extreme performance sports. But this is not a new finding.

Motionless high performance sports people

The fact that chess players “sit on their chairs without moving for hours at a time and are nevertheless involved in high level sport” had already been proved in 1981 by a study in sports medicine by Dr. Helmut Pfleger, 75, a doctor, grandmaster (ELO now 2477), chess columnist for DIE ZEIT and author living in Munich. Then he had wired chess players taking part in a tournament set up specifically for this study and measured all the important data, which showed how dynamic play over the board can only be mastered with continual extreme concentration and mental flexibility. For the book "Schach und Alter" (Springer Verlag 2011) edited by the Viennese professor Ernst Strouhal and consisting of 14 essays with the psychology of learning and cognitive aspects of age research, Pfleger composed an impressive portrait of Korchnoi in which he dealt with the subject of chess as effective prophylaxis against dementia. So Helmut Pfleger is absolutely not surprised by the new Australian study. “Because for a long time now it has been demonstrated in various studies how mental fitness is increased by playing chess and general cognitive abilities are improved — which in the long run has a positive effect on the length of life”.  The genial chess expert is, moreover, the best possible proof of this. He plays regularly in a private Munich football group and at the annual chess tournament for doctors he has for many years — and will do so again this year — organises his own impressive simultaneous exhibition.

But was the long-lived battler Korchnoi, who died at 85, a “paradigm for youthful old age”, really typical of the majority of successful chess masters? Bobby Fischer reached 64 years old, Capablanca 53, Alekhine also 53, the big smoker and drinker Mikhail Tal, 55, and the Austrian drawing master Carl Schlechter, who challenged Emanuel Lasker in 1910 for the world championship, died at 44 — though that, however, was in the most pitiful circumstances almost of famine. So how conclusive are the statistics without more accurate background information on the lifestyle of the chess players?

The Australian CEPAR study prognosticates a higher life expectancy for East European grandmasters (up to fourteen years) compared to the general population, but this is certainly based on their higher income and status, their healthier lifestyle and better health care. But concrete data on this is lacking or based purely on speculation about the large gap between the starving general population and the enormous privileges of the elite grandmasters.

The fog of speculation

Moreover, one is also working in a diffuse fog of speculation whenever one wants to get information about dead chess players from the Wikipedia obituary pages. These list as well as players chess composers, correspondence chess players and chess managers. A Spanish correspondence chess player died at 51, a chess composer at 87 and the German player Lorenz Drabke died in August 2018 at the age of only 33, though this was the result of a traffic accident. So, statistics rapidly become a sort of Rorschach test, into which preconceived ideas are projected.

The three Australian researchers were obviously able to suppress this tunnel vision much too rarely in their statistical comparisons. The ample bonus on longevity at the board is of course pleasant — but we would much rather know more accurately whether the long-lived grandmaster profits from his brilliant opening technique, from his robust physical endurance or perhaps from a pleasant lifestyle.

Read the study from the University of Queensland

Checkmate: top chess players live longer

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article from Philip ClarkeUniversity of MelbourneAn Tran-DuyUniversity of Melbourne, and David SmerdonThe University of Queensland.

In 2014, a chess competitor collapsed during his final match of the Chess Olympiad in Norway. Within hours, another was found dead in his hotel room. Earlier, a chess grandmaster died of a heart attack while playing a tournament game in Finland in 2000. Within the same year, another player died after having a stroke during his tournament in Berlin.

These incidents led many to believe the stress of playing chess could be harmful and even fatal. So we decided to test the theory playing chess at an elite level elevates the risk of premature death.

What does the science say?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, few studies have been done on mind sports and risk of premature death. We found just one study on chess players conducted in 1969 that found professional chess players had shorter lifespans than amateur players who had careers outside of chess, but it involved just 32 players born before the 20th century.

In contrast, there is considerable evidence that outstanding athletes engaged in physical sports have a significantly lower rate of premature death compared to the general population.

We compared elite chess players with Olympic medallists to determine whether it’s your mind or muscle that best predicts how long you will live. Author David Smerdon is an academic and a chess grandmaster, so he also contributed data to this study.

Grandmasters and Olympians represent players at the very highest levels of their respective professions. Wikipedia publishes online a list of more than 1,700 grandmasters with dates of birth and death and the countries they represent.

The International Olympic Committee website contains information on nearly 130,000 athletes, from which we selected around 15,000 medallists who represented the same countries as the chess players .

We compared chess players’ life expectancy with the general population from the countries they represented to assess their relative longevity.

The results of our study debunk the myth chess grandmasters live short lives. In fact they live longer – up to 14 extra years compared to the general population (particularly in countries such as Russia, where life expectancy is relatively low). 

Top chess players appear to have similar patterns of longevity to Olympians. The figure from our paper shows survival rates relative to the general population increase with time for both groups and at similar rates.

How does chess increase longevity?

The fact a chess grandmaster enjoys the same advantages in longevity as an Olympian is surprising. As the popularity of mind sports continues to grow, an important question is whether proficiency in these types of sports causes an increased life expectancy, or whether other factors are behind this effect.

Read more: Think (quickly) outside the square – how is speed chess different?

As chess players are usually seated when they play, many would assume they lead sedentary lives, but a Polish study showed chess players actually exhibit a higher level of physical fitness than the general population.

There’s evidence suggesting playing board games can reduce the risk of dementia, a leading cause of death.

While higher levels of intelligence are known to have a positive effect on longevity, the evidence of the link between IQ and one’s ability at board games such as chess is inconclusive. Several studies have failed to find a superiority of expert players in a variety of intellectual dimensions, including selective attention, inhibition and executive cognitive function, logical and computational skills , visual memory, and complex planning.

Attaining the exalted grandmaster title may increase life expectancy through psychological, social or economic boosts. We found grandmasters in Eastern Europe had a higher survival relative to the general population than those in North America and Western Europe. So it’s plausible the income and social status from being an elite player are greater there.

Isaac Asimov once wrote that “in life, unlike chess, the game continues after checkmate”. Not only does the game of life continue after checkmate, but excelling in mind sports such as chess means one is likely to play the game for longer.The Conversation

Philip Clarke, Professor of Health Economics, University of Melbourne; An Tran-Duy, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Health Policy, University of Melbourne, and David Smerdon, Assistant Professor, School of Economics, The University of Queensland


Texts in Hamburg (with final ink), and also for the Süddeutsche Zeitung, the Berliner Zeitung, Spiegel, and various other magazines and newspapers. He studied English Literature and Culture and wrote his PhD (and later a biography) about the English playwright Harold Pinter. He worked for four years as a DAAD lecturer at the Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.
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Peter B Peter B 9/16/2019 01:11
@TMMM I thought exactly the same thing.
goeland goeland 9/15/2019 11:18
well, chess players live longer than hardcore motorbikers. So, what.
Justjeff Justjeff 9/15/2019 02:05
>>Grandmasters from Eastern Europe should therefore have a life expectancy of up to 14 years.

A life expectancy of only 14 years would be quite alarming. The author clearly meant "up to 14 years more than the general population."
besominov besominov 9/14/2019 07:30
For such questions one should always ask " what exactly is the mechanism" that would generate the result.

So for example with a pill like aspirin there is a chemical process that has certain effects on the body: the mechanism is known. Or for something like acupuncture you might be surprised to see what exactly they claim the mechanism is.

So what exactly would playing chess do to the body that makes it so that you have a longer life expectancy?

(Something vague like: 'playing chess is like a workout' won't do. Doing a real proper workout should then be even much better, and plenty of people do that. Or what about people who do physical work: they workout all day long every day of their life.)

In general if the mechanism is unknown be very skeptical of whatever they promise you.

Another problem with this is that 'life expectancy' is influenced by a gazillion different things, an incredibly complex mix that is different for everybody.
TMMM TMMM 9/14/2019 06:27
Probably indeed in general, people with a higher intellectual potential live longer as generally speaking they get better jobs, better housing, better quality of living, better health care etc. than people working in minimum-wage jobs. I'm sure studies have previously shown people with a higher education are generally healthier/fitter than people with no education, so it's no surprise chess players live longer as well.

The real question is: *within the subset of people having high intellectual potential*, do chess players live longer than average? Does chess benefit one's health more than other jobs and recreational activities?