Some thoughts on aging

4/25/2006 – Today Grandmaster John Nunn turns 51. Not a reason to panic, but our circumspect friend and advisor uses the occasion to reflect on aging and life expectancy in today's world. And we use it to start a collection of oldest grandmasters and active chess players. You can contribute.

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Life expectancy in the developed world

Some thoughts on aging by John Nunn (51)

How long one can expect to live is a question of importance to, well, almost everybody. However, few people look at the statistics to see how life expectancy has been changing. Intuitively, one might expect that there is a certain maximum ‘reasonable’ age for human beings. Of course, some people will always go way beyond the norm and live to 90, 100, or even longer, but here we are talking about averages. One might expect improvements in living standards and healthcare to cause life expectancy to increase for a time, but then level off as life expectancy approaches the maximum value.

The reality is quite different. I will refer to UK statistics, but similar trends can be observed throughout Western Europe. In the mid-20th century, when I was born, UK life expectancy increased by about 1.5 years per decade. It is perhaps not surprising that life expectancy increased rapidly in this period. The country was recovering from the effects of the Second World War, antibiotics and other medical advances were prolonging lives, and improvements in housing were offering a generally better quality of life.

But look at what has happened in recent decades: in 1981, the life expectancy (at birth) was 70.8 years for men and 76.8 years for women. In 2001, it was 75.7 years for men and 80.5 years for women; an increase of 2.45 years per decade for men and 1.85 years per decade for women. The average for the whole population was more than two years per decade – higher than it was 50 years ago. Thus, far from the rise in life expectancy tailing off, it has actually accelerated.

Why is this? There is of course much discussion on this point, but in my view it can be summarised by saying that life has got much better in the past 50 years. Just to take one example, consider air pollution. When I was young, coal was the main fuel used for heating, and this caused a great deal of indoor air pollution. Smoking was far more common than today (chess clubs, I recall, being particularly bad). Outdoor air pollution was also much worse. I missed the 1952 London smog which killed 4,000 people, but I remember vividly the last serious London smog in December 1962. The sun appeared only as a pale heatless disc during the day; going outdoors would make you cough and choke and it wasn’t much better inside the house. The weather was freezing cold and supplies of fuel ran out. My whole family huddled in the kitchen with the cooker turned full on, as this was the only available source of heat. I played chess listlessly.

The improvement since then has been remarkable; measured by the concentration of many of the most important pollutants, London air is now cleaner than it has ever been since the 16th century. There are of course many other factors involved than air pollution, but in almost all areas the story is the same; things have got much better. We should of course not be complacent and it will doubtless require continuing efforts to maintain this progress. But in general it is hard to complain about the improvements of the last 50 years.

Life expectancy world map [Source: Wikipedia]

The highest life expectancy for human beings is in Japan (81), the lowest in Zambia (37). The oldest confirmed age for an individual human being is 122 years. The Encyclopædia Britannica gives the following historical averages:

Neanderthal, Neolithic
Classical Greece, Rome  
Medieval England
End of 19th Century
Early 20th Century
Circa 1940
Western world 1961

Factors that contributed to the rise of life expectancy (at birth) are:

  • the introduction of sewers, which reduced the spread of disease
  • nutrition, public health care, medicine
  • the dramatic reduction of infant mortality

Factors that contributed to a decrease of life expectancy:

  • animal domestication (higher infection rates, poor vegetable diet)
  • periodic pandemic diseases (plague, influenza, AIDS)
  • global warfare
  • increased prevalence of obesity (contested, see links below)

Oldest chess players

Enrico Paoli, 13.01.1908 – 15.12.2005, was the strongest active nonagenarian in the world. He learnt chess when he was nine and started playing tournaments at 26. He won his last Italian championship title at the age of 60, and once beat Kotov with the black pieces. Paoli was playing master level chess at 96 – in 2003 he played the international tournaments in Saint-Vincent, Bratto and Milano.

Enrico Paoli at a recent tournament (2005)

Arkadi Gilman (born 13.03.1913). Originally from Russia, Gilman lives in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, and competes regularly in local tournaments. At 93 he is rated 2223 on the FIDE list.

Arkadi Gilman and his wife

Andor Lilienthal (born 5.5.1911). This incredible Hungarian GM, who turns 95 on May 5th this year, has played against ten world champions, chalking up wins against Marshall, Tartakower, Lasker, Capablanca, Alekhine, Botvinnik and Smyslov. Here's his win against Capablanca, Hastings 1935: 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.a3 Bxc3+ 5.bxc3 b6 6.f3 d5 7.Bg5 h6 8.Bh4 Ba6 9.e4 Bxc4 10.Bxc4 dxc4 11.Qa4+ Qd7 12.Qxc4 Qc6 13.Qd3 Nbd7 14.Ne2 Rd8 15.O-O a5 16.Qc2 Qc4 17.f4 Rc8 18.f5 e5 19.dxe5 Qxe4 20.exf6 Qxc2 21.fxg7 Rg8 22.Nd4 Qe4 23.Rae1 Nc5 24.Rxe4+ Nxe4 25.Re1 Rxg7 26.Rxe4+ Kd7 1-0.

94-year-old Hungarian GM Andor Lilienthal

Philip Gelman: In May 2004 the BCF celebrated its centenary with an exhibition game between Jonathan Pein, aged 5, and Philip Gelman, at 102 believed to be the only active player in the country older than the federation. Gelman, playing black, won: 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bc4 Bc5 4 Ng5 Qxg5 5 d3 Qxg2 6 Rf1 Nd4 7 Bg5 Nf3+ 8 Qxf3 Qxf3 9 Nd2 Qg2 10 Bb5 Qxg5 11 Nf3 Qg2 12 Nxe5 Bxf2+ 13 Rxf2 Qg1+ 14 Rf1 Qe3+ 15 Kd1 c6 16 Re1 Qc5 17 Bc4 Qxe5 18 Rf1 Nh6 19 Bxf7+ Nxf7 20 Rc1 d6 21 Re1 Bg4+ 22 Kd2 Qxh2+ 23 Re2 Qxe2+ 24 Kc3 Ne5 25 d4 Qc4+ 26 Kd2 Qxd4+ 27 Ke1 Nf3+ 28 Kf1 Qd2 29 Rb1 Bh3#.

Jonathan Pein, 5, vs Philip Gelman, 102 (photo 2004)

Wilhelm Steinitz was the oldest world chess champion. He won the title from Zuckertort in 1886 at the age of 50 and held it until he was defeated by Lasker in 1894 at the age of 58 years and 10 days.

Oscar Shapiro was the oldest player to become a master. He did it at the age of 74.

2003 list of the strongest active chess players over 90 in the world
1 Gilman, Arkadiy M. RUS 2237 13.03.1913
2 Rivera, Jose CHI 2170 07.09.1907
3 Abzhirko, Nikolay RUS 2112 04.02.1912
4 Foglar, Stanislav CZE 2011 11.04.1913
5 Bojdol, Joanna POL 2001 11.05.1911

2003 list of the strongest nonagenarians in the FIDE list (sorted by age)
No. Name Nat. Elo Born
1 Gardner, Joe B. USA 2257 13.01.1900
2 Gresser, Gisela Kahn (WIM) USA 2090 08.02.1906
3 Saltzberg, Mitchell USA 2215 30.06.1907
4 Rivera, Jose CHI 2170 07.09.1907
5 Palme, Rudolf AUT 2220 06.03.1910
6 Benko, Francisco ARG 2147 24.06.1910
7 Dake, Arthur William (GM) USA 2330 08.04.1910
8 Lilienthal, Andor (GM) HUN 2385 05.05.1911
9 Bojdol, Joanna POL 2001 11.05.1911
10 Abzhirko, Nikolay RUS 2112 04.02.1912
11 Trias Fernandes, Ramon ESP 2091 24.06.1912
12 Baslavsky, Ilia RUS 2110 10.10.1912
13 Secula, Victor GER 2102 04.11.1912
14 Gilman, Arkadiy M. RUS 2237 13.03.1913
15 Foglar, Stanislav CZE 2011 11.04.1913
16 Jonas, Oldrich CZE 2004 24.08.1913
17 Ader, Walter CHI 2270 07.11.1913

Please send us information and, if possible, pictures of record-breaking oldest chess players. We are also interested in updating the above lists. Use this feedback form to contact us.


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