What chess can teach us about aging and intelligence

The royal game reveals how learning differs between the young and old
Kim Love, flickr.com, CC BY-SA 2.0
Kim Love, flickr.com, CC BY-SA 2.0

When the 4-year-old daughter of American journalist Tom Vanderbilt asks him to play chess, he realizes that he never learned how. He hires a chess coach to teach them both, and what starts as an attempt to appease his child turns into a fascinating cognitive experiment that pits young against old.

Vanderbilt documents this process in a humorous and poignant essay titled “Learning Chess at 40,” which appeared recently in Nautilus. He refers to chess as “the ‘fruit fly’ of cognitive psychology,” and so it follows that the royal game could reveal truths about how aging affects our ability to learn.

Early on, his daughter begins beating him at game after game. He searches for answers, finding a study by Neil Charness, a professor of psychology at Florida State University who studies chess performance. When Charness had subjects across the age continuum learn how to use a word-processing application, he discovered that young novices picked up these new skills much faster than those who were older.

According to the rules of neuroscience, Vanderbilt’s daughter possesses much of the cognitive advantages. A brain so young is full of synapses that have yet to be pruned away and has yet to experience loss of volume or degradation.

But at the same time, Vanderbilt has the power of crystallized intelligence on his side, represented by the vast stores of knowledge and experience he has acquired over four decades of life. In the end, he uses a combination of attention and endurance to finally defeat his young opponent twice in a row.

All in all, Vanderbilt combines scientific research with a touching personal story to create a captivating read that approaches the neuroscience behind learning and aging on a relatable, human level.