Science Watch

Break out the board games: Two new studies suggest that aging may be kinder to chess champions and competitive Scrabble® players.

The first study, appearing in the June issue of Psychology and Aging (Vol. 22, No. 2) by Florida State graduate student Roy Roring and Florida State psychologist Neil Charness, PhD, shows that top players' skills decline slower with age than those of less accomplished players.

But chess isn't the only game in town. Another more preliminary finding published in the June Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied (Vol. 13, No. 2) finds that Scrabble® experts may also age more gracefully on some cognitive tasks. That study, conducted by Claremont McKenna College psychologist Diane Halpern, PhD, and graduate student Jonathan Wai of Vanderbilt University, found that Scrabble® playing taps cognitive skills that chess playing does not, including the need to speedily access verbal, visuospatial and mathematic abilities.

Both studies add to the growing literature on experts that psychologists hope will help them better understand how the mind works-and ages.

"By studying experts we can sometimes understand the scope and constraints on human cognition," says University of California, Davis psychologist Dean Keith Simonton, PhD, himself an expert on personal success.

The chess study, for example, "applies state-of-the-art methods to a novel data source to answer an age-old question: Is aging more gentle or more cruel to the highly able?" he says.

Faster rise, slower decline

Charness has studied aging and chess for decades. In this new study, he gained access to a database of his dreams: information on the International Chess Federation ratings of 5,011 chess players over time, created by University of Newcastle, Australia, psychologist Robert W. Howard, PhD.

"I've been trying to create a database like this myself for years," says Charness. But a lack of manpower and money prevented it. When he reviewed an article on the database by Howard, Charness quickly asked to use it for his own work. Roring provided the statistical expertise to analyze the database to its best potential. He used a technique called multi-level model analysis, which allowed the team to examine players' longitudinal skill development and analyze the trends of the group.

"It's a fancy way to calculate growth curves at the level of the individual," explains Roring. "It's a great way to deal with longitudinal change. Since you have a calculation of how someone is growing across time, you can see how that varies across individuals and see how different variables affect growth."

They used the technique to examine at which age chess players peak and how fast they decline after that. The study showed that competitive chess players top out around age 43-up to 10 years later than calculated by the most recent comprehensive study of this kind, conducted in 1986 by Arpad Elo, PhD.

Charness's finding supports mounting evidence for the theory that skills that rely on speed, such as sprinting and tennis, may peak earlier than skills where speed is less important, such as golf and chess, says Charness. What's more, the best players showed the slowest rate of decline with age.

"Age is slightly kinder to the initially more able," concludes Charness.

Scrabble® scores points for research

Competitive Scrabble® players may escape some of the ravages of aging as well, concludes Halpern. In several studies, she and Wai compared the cognitive skills of competitive Scrabble® players-whose average age was 41-with those of a group of high-achieving college students with an average age of 19.

The Scrabble® players had better memory for shapes, words and letters as well as placement of words and letters on legitimate and transformed Scrabble® boards. They also reacted more quickly on a task that required them to visualize what a piece of paper would look like after it was folded in a certain way. These results suggest that decades of intensive Scrabble® playing may have positive effects on some cognitive abilities, say Halpern and Wai.

But the findings are preliminary. In fact, the main goal of the study was to establish Scrabble® as a viable research tool for studying cognitive skills. Like chess, competitive Scrabble® provides researchers with a convenient dataset, including standardized ratings and demographic information. But it also taps into several cognitive skills not captured by chess. In particular, unlike "living room" Scrabble®, the competitive game is one of speed, requiring players to quickly access words and calculate scores based on placement on the board's grid.

"Scrabble® is a game that requires math, verbal and spatial ability, so it's very interesting from a cognitive perspective," says Wai.

This study's results also support researchers' findings in other expert domains. In particular, the study found that getting to expert level requires thousands of hours of practice over many years: The more people practiced, the higher their ranking. This finding supports "a huge literature on expertise and practice, which makes us confident that competitive Scrabble® is a viable research tool," says Halpern.

Now, Roring has his own study of Scrabble® in the works.

"It's a really neat domain," says Roring. "It's like chess in some critical ways but different enough to add some new pieces to the puzzle of understanding experts."

Beth Azar is a science writer in Portland, Ore.