Whenever I am the Grand Master in Residence at the Saint Louis Chess Club, non-chess players often ask, “When did you start playing chess?” I gladly answer, 10 years old. Many talented players start very young and even become grand masters in their teens, but I recently noticed that there is actually a shift happening with chess professionals. According to recent results at the World Cup in Tbilisi and the strong tournament on the Isle of Man, experience seems to weigh more heavily than age.
It is no wonder that the Saint Louis Chess Club started hosting quarterly events for upcoming talents, as players need experience against strong opponents to reach the highest ranks. This kind of experience seems to be the dividing line between prodigies and established grand masters. If history was an indicator, the 20-something wunderkinds were expected to do very well in the most important event in the world championship cycle, the World Cup. Surprisingly, it was the experienced grand masters between ages 30 and 40 that proved stronger in the end.
The World Cup attracted the best of the best: Juniors, ex-prodigies, top-100 players and other tournament favorites, including reigning World Champion Magnus Carlsen. When the dust settled however, it was the newly married 34-year-old Levon Aronian of Armenia who earned top honors. He won a tough final match against 24-year-old Ding Liren, a rising sensation from China. Aronian was among the favorites to win the event, as No. 2 in the world. Liren’s result was a great surprise to most, although he showed great results in previous super tournaments. Both Aronian and Ding qualified for the Candidates Tournament by winning against Maxime Vachier Lagrave and Wesley So in the semi-finals, respectively.
Ding’s result is also historic; he is the first male player in Chinese history to qualify to the Candidates tournament, which will be held in Berlin in 2018.
This marks a shift at the top. Currently the top-20 players have an average age of 30 - which mirrors the average age of the eight quarter finalists that participated in the World Cup!
The youngest player was Richard Rapport, 21, and the oldest player was Vassily Ivanchuk, 48. Coincidentally, both of them have an engaging, and colorful style.
In fact, the eventual winner of the World Cup was an experienced player himself. Levon Aronian played in many knock-out events like these before, and had great results. Aronian first won the month-long World Cup in 2005, in Khanty Mansiysk, Russia. He even clashed swords with the young Magnus Carlsen in 2007 in a tense match in which both players winning their games with the white pieces, but in the end Aronian prevailed by winning the tiebreaker. Was this the prelude for the World Championship match in 2018? We shall see!
Surprisingly, he wasn’t the player considered to be the World Cup expert; it was Peter Svidler, 41, from Russia. Svidler first won the the World Cup in 2011, and was a World Cup finalist in 2015. Both Aronian and Svidler made it to the quarterfinals, along with super-talent, Ivanchuk. These results show that it is experience in top events that matter, not the age of the player.
At age 14, Denes Boros got third at the Hungarian Junior Championship, became U16 Olympic Champion in Denizli. He scored his first grand master norm with 10 out of 11 points. He was a grand master journalist at Carlsen-Karjakin match. He provided expert grand master commentary for the New York Times.