The chess world is keenly anticipating the duel next November between 43-year-old World Champion Viswanathan Anand and Magnus Carlsen, the 22-year-old challenger from Norway.
But while the battle for the supreme chess title is always an engrossing affair, this particular encounter will hold an interest beyond what the enormous talent of the two combatants will produce over the chessboard. Let's call it The Age Factor.
That most humans suffer a deterioration in their faculties as they get older is a fact of life. In terms of the world's greatest mind game, the question then seems appropriate, at what age does a player, especially those in the grandmaster class, begin to lose his edge, the sharpness that has brought him to the peak of his career?
In other words, will the Age Factor play any part in the coming clash between Anand and Carlsen with a 21-year gap between them?
Not unexpectedly, this topic has occupied a considerable part of conversations among GMs. During the recent London Candidates Tournament, it became the subject of a discussion between GM Nigel Short and IM Lawrence Trent who wondered about the existence of a "peak" age in chess ability.
Short said he was intrigued by the debate, especially considering two points; first, that the world champion has been performing relatively poorly in the past two years and, secondly, the hype that surrounds Carlsen, the highest rated player in the world. Because of this, he wondered whether youth is a major asset in chess.
Considering that the young Norwegian star, "the overwhelming centre of modern chess attention," is 100 rating points higher than the Indian champion, rated seventh, "many believe that chess ability may resemble a bell curve when controlling for age," says Short, "and the young are better fit to sit at the board for six or seven hours at a time."
But will the battle at Chennai in November really serve to settle this recurring question? Anand, it seems, does not think so. Facing the expected criticism over his present form, Anand pointed out that his victory over Gelfand last year, bagging his fifth world title, showed he was still the king of chess. Though the game is not physically demanding, he noted that stamina and mental agility play a key role.
The champion's lifestyle, being able to relax, take long walks and "hit" the gym regularly also helps him to clear the way for the magnum opus of chess.
Indian GM RB Ramesh points out that it's the motivating factor that plays a vital role as you age in chess. "It's not so much about physical or mental fitness, but the actual task of egging yourself on to achieve glory," he says.
"When you are young in the chess circuit, you have various targets in mind–beat this particular player, achieve a certain ranking, etc. But as you keep conquering all the big tournaments, like Anand has, motivating yourself to do the same thing again and again is the key."
Without denying the Age Factor, DR is inclined to agree. The history of the sport, in fact, provides a number of impressive refutations of the "old man" syndrome; players, including champions, who have dominated the higher echelons of the game well into their middle age.
Perhaps the most remarkable among them is the Russian legend Victor Korchnoi who retired last year at the age of 81, ending a magnificent career that included three challenges for the world title against Anatoly Karpov, four Soviet championships and victories over most of the players who at some time were the best in the world. Korchnoi, in fact, is regarded as the strongest GM never to have won the world title.
But we really don't have to scan the international chess arena to cast doubt on the Age Factor, to find strong players who have defied the so-called "ravages of time."
Home-grown stalwarts such as Mario Merritt, Cecil Lee, Frank Sears, Andrew Bowles and John Raphael have maintained their prominent place in the T&T chess world over two decades and more, even against the challenge of a rising generation of young and talented players.
The fact is, they have not lost their zest for the game, and that quality, perhaps, is the essential antidote to the Age Factor.