Peter Zhdanov
20 May 2021

At What Age Do Chess Players Peak? Part 2

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Nona Gaprindashvili, five-time Women’s World Chess Champion, was the first woman to earn the FIDE Grandmaster title. At age 80, she is a remarkable example of longevity in chess, playing competitively as of this day. Nona was crowned the Women’s World Senior Chess Champion in 1995, 2009, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2018, and 2019. She was mentioned briefly in the recent award-winning Netflix mini-series “The Queen’s Gambit,” where she was erroneously presented as someone who never competed against men. In fact, one of Nona’s biggest tournament successes was tying for first in Lone Pine International in 1977 in the USA, where she placed ahead of many strong male Grandmasters.

Last week we touched upon the subject of longevity in chess, discussing at what age chess players usually reach their peak. However, as you may have noted, the narrative was somewhat one-sided since we only used the World Chess Champions as examples.

This time let’s take a look at women’s chess and see at what age the Women’s World Chess Champions peaked. Before we go on, please make an intelligent guess of how the numbers are going to compare. Do you think women reach their peak in chess earlier, at about the same age or later than men?

Here is the breakdown, listing all the Women’s World Chess Champions who had a FIDE rating, and Judit Polgar, the strongest female player ever by far:

Nona Gaprindashvili, 2495, July 1987, 46 years
Maia Chiburdanidze, 2560, January 1988, 27 years
Xie Jun, 2574, January 2008, 37 years
Susan Polgar, 2577, January 2005, 35 years
Zhu Chen, 2548, January 2008, 31 years
Antoaneta Stefanova, 2560, January 2003, 23 years
Xu Yuhua, 2517, April 2006, 29 years
Alexandra Kosteniuk, 2561, January 2018, 33 years
Hou Yifan, 2686, March 2015, 21 years
Anna Ushenina, 2502, July 2007, 21 years
Mariya Muzychuk, 2563, March 2016, 23 years
Tan Zhongyi, 2530, August 2018, 27 years
Ju Wenjun, 2604, March 2017, 26 years
Judit Polgar, 2735, July 2005, 29 years

As you may remember from our previous blog post, most World Chess Champions reached their rating peaks somewhere between 34 and 43. With women, the situation is different; they seem to be relatively early bloomers, usually peaking somewhere between 21 and 37. Of course, this is a very rough assessment for several reasons.

First of all, the sample sizes for each group are relatively small and limited to elite players.

Secondly, quite a few female players on the list are still young and active. Therefore, there is a chance that some of them will come into full bloom later than the list suggests. Still, for some of them, this will be quite a challenge since they are far away from their rating peaks.

Also, it is far from clear why such a discrepancy between male and female chess players occurs. One of the common arguments that pop up regularly in interviews with top female players is that, at some point, family life, particularly kids, becomes a high priority for them, resulting in a decline in chess performance.

For example, here is what Judit Polgar told the Italian chess magazine Torre & Cavallo in 2011:

It is not easy with a child. I thought I would be back soon after my first child was born. It was strange to be off the list for a year, during which time my sister took my place. When the second child came, I felt that if I would continue playing, it would be impossible to reach the level I want – either as a mother or as a chess player. So I decided to take a break from chess. I am coming back now. The results are not the best. In the last year and a half, I realized I can play again but not at the highest level. After my kids, going to a tournament feels like having a vacation, having a full night sleep.

Moreover, in addition to family reasons, there are many other factors that can potentially hinder the chess career of any person, such as illnesses, focusing on education or migrating to a different profession, burnout, loss of motivation to play on, etc.

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Kateryna Lagno earned her first Grandmaster norm when she was only 13 and went on to obtain the title at age 17.

In case you are wondering if it is even possible to strike the right balance between family life and chess, 31-year-old Kateryna Lagno, 2546, is currently rated #5 on the women’s list while being a mother of four! In 2010 she won the World Women’s Blitz Chess Championship shortly after giving birth to a son, while in 2018, she reached the Finals of the Women’s World Chess Championship just a month after giving birth to a daughter. That being said, she won the Women’s Rapid Chess Championship (2014) and three Women’s Blitz Chess Championships (2010, 2018, 2019). Curiously enough, her spouse is Alexander Grischuk, who is also a three-time World Blitz Chess Champion. So, as you may guess, they both have a very hectic schedule and have to travel a lot around the world, making it even more challenging for them to bring up kids.

To summarize, the range when female players reach their rating peak varies vastly when it comes to the world’s top players. It can be anything from 21 years (Hou Yifan, Anna Ushenina) to 46 (Nona Gaprindashvili). As long as you enjoy playing chess, you may as well hope for the best and try to make the most of your current form regardless of your age!

Are you curious to get a feel how powerful Judit Polgar, the strongest female chess player ever, was at her prime? Or maybe you want to have a more balanced match, challenging her at a time when she was much, much younger? Download Play Magnus to duel the Judit character and have Polgar herself tell you about her life and spectacular chess career.

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