Although it scarcely occurred to me at the time, my daughter and I were embarking on a sort of cognitive experiment. We were two novices, attempting to learn a new skill, essentially beginning from the same point but separated by some four decades of life. I had been the expert to that point in her life—in knowing what words meant, or how to ride a bike—but now we were on curiously equal footing. Or so I thought.I began to regularly play online, do puzzles, and even leafed through books like Bent Larsen’s Best Games. I seemed to be doing better with the game, if only because I was more serious about it. When we played, she would sometimes flag in her concentration, and to keep her spirits up, I would commit disastrous blunders. In the context of the larger chess world, I was a patzer—a hopelessly bumbling novice—but around my house, at least, I felt like a benevolently sage elder statesmen.And then my daughter began beating me.
Young brains are different from old brains, unformed, with more synapses.
Chess—which has been dubbed the “fruit fly” of cognitive psychology—seems a tool that is purpose-built to show the deficits of an aging brain. The psychologist Timothy Salthouse has noted that cognitive tests on speed, reasoning, and memory show age-related declines that are “fairly large,” “linear,” and, most alarming to me, “clearly apparent before age 50.” And there are clear consequences on the chessboard. In one study, Charness had players of a variety of skills try and assess when a check was threatened in a match. The more skilled the player, the quicker they were able to do this, as if it were a perceptual judgment—essentially by pattern recognition stored up from previous matches. But no matter what the skill, the older a player was, the slower they were to spot the threat of a check.
Back at the board, there seemed to be plenty of chaos. For one, my daughter tended to gaily hum as she contemplated her moves. Strictly Verboten in a tournament setting, but I did not want to let her think it was affecting me—and it certainly wasn’t as bad as the frenetic trash talking of Washington Square Park chess hustlers. It was the sense of effortlessness that got to me. Where I would carefully ponder the board, she would sweep in with lightning moves. Where I would carefully stick to the scripts I had been taught—“a knight on the rim is dim”—she seemed to be making things up. After what seemed a particularly disastrous move, I would try to play coach for a moment, and ask: Are you sure that’s what you want to do? She would shrug. I would feel a momentary shiver of pity and frustration; “it’s not sticking,” I would think. And then she would deliver some punishing pin on the Queen, or a deft back rank attack I had somehow overlooked. When I made a move, she would often crow: “I knew you were going to do that.”