Georgina Chin

Chess as a “Senior”

“Competitive chess is for the young,” a chess master once told me. Looking at the top players in the world, one might suspect this to be true. Carlsen, Liren, Nepomniachtchi, So, Caruana are all in their 30s and of course have been playing chess for many years. I began playing competitive chess at an “advanced age” (over 45) and wondered if this statement might have some validity to it. I decided to speak to several “senior” players and get their takes on this theory. 

Most older players relayed to me that they felt there were two areas where younger players had an advantage. They included memory and processing speed. From a personal standpoint, I might agree that memory does seem to diminish as we get older; however, it is not necessarily a given. With enough repetition and practice, older players can improve their ability to remember openings, strategies, etc. In terms of processing speed i.e. the ability to make and spot a strong move more quickly, this could be dependent on the amount of time a player has to practice and study and how long they have been playing. (For the most part my experience with younger players has been that they tend to move very quickly, but often their move is not the optimal one.) 

As we age, it is a known fact that our brains shrink and learning new skills may take more time; however, it is also a known fact that older adults can still learn new information and should do so in order to keep their brains healthy. This concept is called neuroplasticity or the forming of new neural pathways.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a well-known neurosurgeon, medical writer and journalist says in his book Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age that reasoning and problem solving are “key to building cognitive reserve” (brain resiliency). He goes on to say that the greater one’s “cognitive reserve”, the more likely we are to “stave off the degenerative brain changes” associated with many of the common brain diseases including dementia.

Even though we may not have any illusions about becoming chess masters, playing competitive chess can be a wonderfully challenging brain building activity. At the very least it is definitely a cognitively stimulating activity that I am sure Dr. Gupta would approve of. I would encourage anyone, including seniors, to give it a try. After all, who knows for sure what the long-term benefits may be!

Meet the Chess Center Team: Georgina Chin, Teacher

Bam! Bam bam!

As a teenager, the sound of palms slapping analog clocks would reverberate throughout our house for hours at a time. In the living room, a row of chess trophies sat on a shelf, witnessing my two younger brothers battling over a well-worn chessboard for hours at a time. Yet, despite the number of hours devoted to chess in my household, I was relatively removed from this activity — chess was something that girls didn’t really do.

Many years later, my interaction with chess was reignited by a challenge I faced as a teacher at McNair Elementary school in Herndon, Virginia: coming up with creative challenging ways to engage my students. At the time, McNair was a Title I school with many students receiving free and reduced lunches, so I was especially interested in a low-cost mentally engaging activity that might not otherwise have been available to them. Although I had not played for many years, I knew chess was definitely the avenue to pursue.

Luckily, thanks to my brothers’ ongoing interest in chess (both were holding outside jobs as chess coaches), I was able to consult them on how I might get started. With the support of my principal and the PTA I purchased some chess sets, a few books, and a teaching board. McNair’s first chess club was on its way! Much to my surprise and delight, initial interest greatly exceeded my expectations.

Fast forward ten years and the chess club remained hugely popular. With the club being consistently offered throughout the years, many McNair students had become skilled players, and several of them could now play beyond my abilities. Meanwhile, McNair had also changed and was now an Advanced Academics school.

Perhaps inspired by memories of the chess trophies sitting on the living room shelf, I thought it might be time to push the chess club in a more competitive direction. The parents supported this idea, and in 2011 we ventured off to the Virginia Scholastic Chess Championships where we placed ninth and fourteenth in the K-3 and K-5 divisions. The kids, their parents, and the rest of the school were thrilled!

At the urging of some of the parents as well as the PTA, I began organizing monthly USCF (US Chess Federation) rated tournaments at McNair. The only catch for me was that, to become a local Tournament Director, I had to start competing myself — a true eye-opener! My first tournament convinced me that I still had much to learn about the game.

Last year I retired from Fairfax County. During my 20 years at McNair I had the pleasure of working with hundreds of students and organizing more than 80 tournaments. I am happy and proud of all my students accomplished as well as how many of them were introduced to an experience they might never have encountered. My hope is that all of my students will continue to play and enjoy all that chess has to offer. As for myself, I am still learning and competing!