Longevity of outstanding sporting achievers: Mind versus muscle
Longevity of outstanding sporting achievers: Mind versus muscle
An Tran-Duy 0 1
David C. Smerdon 1
Philip M. Clarke 0 1
0 Centre for Health Policy, School of Population and Global Health, University of Melbourne , Melbourne , Australia , 2 School of Economics, University of Queensland , Brisbane , Australia
1 Editor: Chin-Kuo Chang, Institute of Psychiatry , UNITED KINGDOM
While there is strong evidence showing the survival advantage of elite athletes, much less is known about those engaged in mind sports such as chess. This study aimed to examine the overall as well as regional survival of International Chess Grandmasters (GMs) with a reference to the general population, and compare relative survival (RS) of GMs with that of Olympic medallists (OMs).
Data Availability Statement: Third party data was
gathered from publicly available data sources. Data
on chess Grandmasters are available from: https://
and https://ratings.fide.com/toplist.phtml and
chess_players#Grandmasters. Data on Olympic
medalists are available from: https://www.olympic.
org/athletes. Data on life tables are available from:
http://www.mortality.org. Users must register
before using the database.
Information on 1,208 GMs and 15,157 OMs, respectively, from 28 countries were extracted
from the publicly available data sources. The Kaplan-Meier method was used to estimate
the survival rates of the GMs. A Cox proportional hazards model was used to adjust the
survival for region, year at risk, age at risk and sex, and to estimate the life expectancy of the
GMs. The RS rate was computed by matching each GM or OM by year at risk, age at risk
and sex to the life table of the country the individual represented.
The survival rates of GMs at 30 and 60 years since GM title achievement were 87% and
15%, respectively. The life expectancy of GMs at the age of 30 years (which is near the
average age when they attained a GM title) was 53.6 ([95% CI]: 47.7±58.5) years, which is
significantly greater than the overall weighted mean life expectancy of 45.9 years for the
general population. Compared to Eastern Europe, GMs in North America (HR [95% CI]:
0.51 [0.29±0.88]) and Western Europe (HR [95% CI]: 0.53 [0.34±0.83]) had a longer
lifespan. The RS analysis showed that both GMs and OMs had a significant survival advantage
over the general population, and there was no statistically significant difference in the RS of
GMs (RS [95% CI]: 1.14 [1.08±1.20]) compared to OMs: (RS [95% CI]: 1.09 [1.07±1.11]) at
Elite chess players live longer than the general population and have a similar survival
advantage to elite competitors in physical sports.
Funding: This work was supported by the Centre of
Excellence in Population Ageing Research,
Australian Research Council (CE170100005
awarded to Prof. Philip M Clarke). The funder had
no role in study design, data collection and
analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the
The writer Isaac Asimov once wrote that: ªIn life, unlike chess, the game continues after
]. In recent decades much research has been conducted into the longevity of a wide
variety of sporting achievers. Almost all of the studies have been focused on a wide range of
physical sports. A recent meta-analysis [
] and several recent reviews [
] have consistently
found that elite athletes engaged in physical sports (including soccer, baseball, cycling and
various Olympic events) have a significant lower rate of mortality compared with the general
population. The most comprehensive review, which involved nearly half a million individuals
from 57 studies, indicates that the survival advantage for elite athletes was generally between 4
to 8 years longer .
Much less is known about those engaged in mind sports [
] such as chess where the mental
exercise component dominates. A search for articles reporting longevity of players of mind
sports in the Medline bibliographic database (see S1 Table for search strategy) identified only
one early study involving 32 chess players born before 20th century [
]. This study [
that professional chess players had shorter lifespans than those players who had careers outside
of chess and argued that this might be due to the mental strain of international chess
competition. The study cited examples of three world champions who died prematurely from stroke
]. More recently there are media reports of two competitors who died during a Chess
Olympiad in Norway [
]. When it comes to longevity, the news is not all bad for chess players, as
a former professional player Zoltan Sarosy also held the title as Canada's oldest living male
. However, such news stories bear little relationship to the average survival, as by definition
news often involves unusual events such as premature mortality.
In the present study, we focused on survival of International Chess Grandmasters (GMs)
which represent players, of whom most are professional, at the highest level. The Grandmaster
title is based on rankings awarded to chess players by the World Chess Organization (FIDE)
over many rounds of tournaments [
]. In its modern form the Grandmaster title was first
awarded to 27 players in 1950 and there are now more than 1,500 players holding the
Grandmaster title [
]. One advantage of studying elite chess players over competitors in other mind
sports is that a system of rankings is maintained on an ongoing basis by FIDE [
], which is a
way to track individuals over long periods, even after they retire from competition at the elite
Specific objectives of our study were to (1) examine the absolute overall as well as regional
survival rates of GMs; (2) compare the life expectancy of GMs to the matched general
population; and (3) compare the relative survival rates of GMs and Olympic medallists (OMs) who
like many other physical sport competitors have been shown to have a survival advantage over
the general population [
Materials and methods
Chess Grandmasters. Based on information from FIDE, Wikipedia publishes online
information on GMs which, up to 1 Jan 2017, contains information on 1,711 players who
achieved a Grandmaster title between 1950 and 2016 [
]. Variables in this dataset included
dates of birth and death, year of Grandmaster title and affiliation country of the GMs [
was not provided but based on another dataset of female GMs [
], we could identify the sex
of all GMs.
Olympic medallists. Since the 1980s, the international consortium of historians and
statisticians (OlyMADMen) has collected data on all Olympians. Earlier data were collected by
one of the member of OlyMADMen and another co-worker in a research about Olympic
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]. Together, these data formed the OlyMADMen database, which contains
information on 128,489 athletes who participated in Olympic Games between 1896 and 2016.
Variables in this database included dates of birth, death and event, sex and countries represented,
among others that are not relevant regarding our objectives. This information can now be
accessed through the database on the International Olympic Committee website [
information on the data collection for the OlyMADMen database can be found in a recent
We considered a chess player with a Grandmaster title or an athlete that was awarded an
Olympic medal as an outstanding achiever. To avoid immortal time bias [
], the date of this
first achievement was defined as date at risk, i.e. the starting point of follow-up. In order to
compare the relative survival of OMs with GMs, we restricted OMs to those that had been
awarded medals in Games between 1950 and 2016. For OMs that achieved more than one
medal, we retained only the record of the first medal.
From the Wikipedia and OlyMADMen databases, we extracted data on individuals from 30
countries of which available life tables covered the study period for at least 50 years. These life
tables were obtained from the Human Mortality Database, an open online data source (see S2
Table for year coverage) [
]. Because only 7 GMs were from Oceanic region (6 from Australia
and 1 from New Zealand), we excluded players from this region. As a result, the study cohorts
of GMs and OMs contains data on 1,208 and 15,157 individuals, respectively, from 28
countries in three regions including North America (2 countries), Western Europe (16 countries)
and Eastern Europe (10 countries). We found no match between any possible pair of GM and
OM in terms of surname, given name, month of birth and year of birth, which indicated that
there was no overlap between the two study cohorts. We also communicated with several
chess historians to confirm this finding. The fact that no GM was also an OM is not surprising
given the huge resources and dedication required to achieve membership of either of these
For each individual, the follow-up time was calculated as the duration between the date he or
she became either a GM or an OM and date of death or last date of data collection (i.e. 1 Jan
2017), whichever came first. As longevity might be influenced by geographic areas and years at
risk, we created dummy variables indicating regions (North America, Western Europe or
Eastern Europe) and periods of achieving the Grandmaster title (1950±1970, 1970±1990 or 1990±
2017). Then, we used the Kaplan-Meier estimator to examine the overall survival of GMs as
well as survival of GMs in each region and each period, and the Cox proportional hazards
(PHs) model to adjust the survival for region, year at risk, age at risk and sex. For the latter, the
PHs assumption was tested using the scaled Schoenfeld residuals [
]. The fitted Cox PHs
model was used to construct adjusted survival curves for male GMs with a fixed year at risk of
2010 and five-year age groups in different regions. We calculated the adjusted life expectancy
of these GMs as the areas under the survival curves using a truncated estimator [
were compared with that in the life tables matched by year, age and region. We chose 2010 as
the year at risk for this computation because this is the most recent year in which the life tables
were available for all countries. We used the bootstrap method to compute the 95% confidence
intervals of the GMs' life expectancy, where data were sampled (with replacement) for 10,000
times and to each bootstrapped data set a Cox PH model was fitted and used for computing
the life expectancy as described above. The weighted mean life expectancy of the general
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population for each region was calculated using the population of each member country as a
To compare the survival rates between GMs, OMs and the general population, we
computed the ªrelative survival rateº, which was the ratio of the observed survival rate to the
expected survival rate, at different time points over the follow-up period. The observed survival
rates were estimated using the Kaplan-Meier estimator, and the expected survival rates by
matching each GM or OM by year at risk, age at risk and sex to the life table of the country the
individual represented, based on which a survival curve was constructed using the method
described by Hakulinen [
]. For example, if a Canadian woman achieved the Grandmaster
title in 2000 at the age of 25, the follow-up time of this person and the national mortality rates
from age 25 onward in the life table of the Canadian female population in 2000 would be
used to compute the expected survival. We used the function survexp in the R package
] for this purpose, which estimates, for each individual, the total hazard
experienced up to its observed death or last follow-up time, and combines the individual expected
survival curves to produce an overall survival curve [
]. We used the conditional survival
technique to adjust the expected survival rate so that it is unaffected by unidentified loss to
]. The 95% confidence intervals of the relative survival rates were calculated based
on Fieller's theorem [
Table 1 provides information on characteristics of GMs and OMs in 28 countries and three
regions. Most of the GMs (59%) were from Eastern Europe, and only 9% were from North
America. In contrast, Western Europe accounted for the largest proportion of OMs (47%),
which was followed by Eastern Europe (30%). Mean ages at Grandmaster title were similar
among regions (range: 27.2±29.0). Interestingly, these values were relatively close to the mean
ages at first Olympic medal (range: 25.4±26.2). Up to 97±99% of the GMs were male, while
these percentages in OMs were much lower, ranging from 57% to 69% depending on regions.
By 1 Jan 2017, the numbers of deaths (% within region) in North America, Western Europe
and Eastern Europe were 16 (14.3%), 28 (7.3%) and 79 (11.1%) among GMs, respectively, and
400 (8.2%), 1049 (10.1%) and 1256 (19.0%) among OMs, respectively. Mean follow-up times
(SDs) of GMs in North America, Western Europe and Eastern Europe were 22.3 (14.8), 18.3
(12.2) and 16.6 (11.6), respectively. Mean follow-up times (SDs) of OMs were longer than of
GMs, which were 23.9 (17.6), 25.4 (17.1) and 16.6 (11.6) in North America, Western Europe
and Eastern Europe, respectively. On average, a chess player achieved the Grandmaster title
(mean year: 1997.3) about a decade later than an OM obtaining the first medal (mean year:
Fig 1A shows the Kaplan-Meier (K-M) plots of overall and regional survival of GMs, and
Fig 1B shows the K-M survival curves of GMs in different periods of achieving the
Grandmaster title. The overall survival rates of GMs at 10, 30 and 60 years since achievement of the GM
title were 97%, 87% and 15%, respectively. The GMs in Western Europe and North America
appeared to have a survival advantage over those in Eastern Europe. Survival rates of the GMs
in the period 1990±2016 [mean age (SD): 26.7 (9.1)] were greater than that of the GMs in the
period 1970±1990 [mean age (SD): 31.6 (13.9)], whose survival rates were greater than that of
the GMs in the period 1950±1970 [mean age (SD): 32.7 (7.7)].
In fitting the Cox PH model, the beta coefficient for sex was not significant. Exclusion of
sex changed the beta coefficients of other variables by less than 2% and did not change their
statistical significance. Therefore, we included only region, year at risk and age at risk in the
final model. The PHs assumption was satisfied by the scaled Schoenfeld residuals test. The
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results from the Cox PHs regression indicated that compared to Eastern Europe, GMs in
North America (adjusted hazard ratio [95% CI]: 0.51 [0.29±0.88]) and Western Europe
(adjusted hazard ratio [95% CI]: 0.53 [0.34±0.83]) had a longer lifespan, which confirmed the
interpretation of the Kaplan-Meier plot (Fig 1A). Survival of GMs in North America was not
significantly different from that in Western Europe (adjusted hazard ratio [95% CI]: 0.95
[0.51±1.77]). Detailed outputs from the Cox regression are provided in S3 Table.
Table 2 presents overall and regional life expectancy of a male GM who obtained the
Grandmaster title in 2010 at an age in the range of 25±100 years, and life expectancy of the
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Fig 1. Kaplan-Meier plots of survival of GMs in (A) all countries and different regions, and (B) periods of achieving the Grandmaster title.
general male population matched by age and region. The overall life expectancy of GMs at the
age of 30 years (which is near the average age when they attained a GM title) was 53.6 ([95%
CI]: 47.7±58.5) years, which is significantly greater than the overall weighted mean life
expectancy of 45.9 years for the general population. In all three regions, mean life expectancy of the
GMs was longer than that of the matched general population, with gaps between them ranging
from 1 to 14 years depending on age.
Fig 2 shows the survival of GMs and OMs from 28 countries relative to the general
population from the same countries. Both GMs and OMs had a significant survival advantage over
the general population. There was no statistically significant difference in the relative survival
of GMs vs OMs. At 10, 20 and 30 years, the relative survival rates [95% CI] of GMs were 1.03
[1.01±1.04], 1.06 [1.03±1.09] and 1.14 [1.08±1.20], respectively, and of OMs were 1.02 [1.01±
1.03], 1.04 [1.03±1.05] and 1.09 [1.07±1.11], respectively. Stratified regional analyses (S1 Fig)
did not indicate significant differences from the overall analyses.
While the sports science literature has often featured the link between longevity and elite
competitors in physical sports [
], we found a similar association in a mind sport. The elite mental
athletes in our study, GMs, had a substantially higher life expectancy than the general
population in each of the three regions studied. Across the combined sample from 28 countries, the
survival advantage over the general population significantly increased over time. To the best of
our knowledge, the present study is the first that compared the longevity of chess players with
that of the general population and athletes using advanced statistical methods.
Our results are contradictory to the early study identified in our review of the previous
], which may be attributed to the differences in sample size and analytical techniques.
We used a sample of 1,208 players, while the earlier study included only 32 players. The
positive effects of chess sport on longevity are particularly interesting in an era in which the
socalled `mind sports' (chess, Go, Shogi), poker and eSports (competitive video games) have
become highly professionalized. Given that competitive chess is a stressful activity that creates
measurable physiological tension [
], and following the anecdotal evidence of its negative
health effects reported in the introduction, it is worth identifying the sources of longevity
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benefits that outweigh these potential harms. Additionally, one question that our study cannot
answer is whether proficiency in cognitive sports causes an increased life expectancy, or
whether one or more confounding factors are driving the effect. While our study was not
designed to answer this, there are some potential mechanisms that may play a role in
explaining the association between playing chess and longevity.
While intelligence may be a potential confounding factor given its positive effect on
], evidence of the link between IQ and chess ability is inconclusive. Several studies
have failed to find a superiority of expert chess players in a variety of intellectual dimensions,
including selective attention, inhibition and executive cognitive function , logical and
computational skills [
], visual memory [
], and complex planning [
]. Although other
studies have found a positive relationship between intelligence and chess skill [
also showed that this effect disappeared or even reversed at higher levels of chess expertise
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Fig 2. Survival of chess Grandmasters and Olympic medallists from 28 countries relative to the general population from the same countries. The
lines represent the ratios of the observed survival rates to the expected survival rates. The shaded areas represent the 95% confidence regions. First
achievement means the achievement of the Grandmaster title for chess players or of the first medal for Olympic athletes.
. Therefore, the impact of the absence of adjustment for IQ on our study outcomes would
A more likely channel is that to attain the Grandmaster title an individual may be
encouraged to make necessary health improvements (e.g. reduced smoking and alcohol consumption,
improved nutrition, more regular cardiovascular exercise, etc.) to improve one's cognitive
performance. Although there has been some concern that chess training promotes a sedentary
lifestyle that may reduce participation of the chess players in physical activities, this is not
supported by existing evidence. The importance of physical exercise and healthy diet for
professional chess is well known amongst GMs, and world championship contenders normally
employ a full-time nutritionist and/or physical trainer in preparation for and during world
championship matches [
]. While the frequency of health and fitness activities conducted by
chess players is apparently less than that by athletes excelling in Olympic sports, there is
evidence suggesting that chess players do exhibit a higher level of physical fitness than the general
]. The longevity of Olympians has been attributed to factors such as long-term
vigorous exercise training [
] and thus it is notable that chess players who do not attain this
level of physical training have a similar survival advantage over the general population.
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Additionally, there may be potential direct health benefits of chess expertise. There is
evidence suggesting that playing chess can reduce the risk of dementia [
], as well as physically
alter the structure of the brain [40±42]. It is also possible that attaining the exalted Grandmaster
title may in itself increase life expectancy through psychological payoffs, which follows a body
of literature on the connection between longevity and ªoutstanding achievementº [
when it comes to predicting longevity both fitness of mind and muscle appear to be important.
Another causal argument on the effect of developing chess expertise on survival relates to
socioeconomic mechanisms. Becoming a chess grandmaster may provide an economic and
social boost, which has been strongly linked to increased life expectancy [
]. The relative
income and social status benefits of GMs are plausibly highest for individuals in Eastern
Europe, which would explain the particularly substantial relative survival advantage we found
in this region. In the Soviet Union, for example, becoming a professional chess player was
supported by the State and playing chess at a master level promoted as an esteemed profession
. Today, degrees in higher education with chess specializations are available in Russia,
largely through State-funded scholarships.
Our study has some limitations. The data were obtained from online databases which
involve ascertaining deaths largely through passive follow-up (e.g. media reports). A recent
study on mortality of French Olympians has used national registry data to ascertain the death
dates of the participants which may provide a means of reducing the loss to follow-up [
Given that our study involves 28 countries, it would be hard to replicate this approach in this
study. We did examine the number of missing death dates for OMs born prior to 1917, i.e.
those who are centenarians if they are alive. We found only four of the 115 OMs with missing
deaths and for only one of these four OMs we found information indicating that he had died,
i.e. information on death that was not recorded in the OlyMADMen database. This finding
suggests that the fraction of OMs who were lost to follow-up is most likely small and this
should be accounted for using the conditional relative survival methods which have been used
in a previous analysis of OMs [
]. Another limitation is that the data sources used for the
analyses do not contain variables such as causes of death, education level, socioeconomic
status, levels of physical exercises and health behaviours that may help to explain survival
advantage of the GMs. Moreover, in observational studies it cannot be excluded that there are
unknown factors that confound the results. We focused on GMs as elite chess players, i.e.
those who attained a FIDE rating of 2500 or higher. Although this cut-off point is meaningful
for the recognition of the Grandmaster title, it does not necessarily signify a threshold of
performance which differentiates the life expectancy. To have a more in-depth picture of the link
between chess performance and longevity would require the analysis of a larger sample of
chess players with different levels of achievement. Future directions of research could also
focus on exploring the different mechanisms that may link chess expertise and longevity,
particularly the direct physical effects on brain structure and the role of socioeconomic status.
Not only does the game of life continue after the checkmate, but excelling in mind sports like
chess means one is likely to play the game for longer.
S1 Fig. Survival of chess Grandmasters and Olympic medallists relative to the general
population in different regions.
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S1 Table. Search strategy for studies reporting longevity of players of mind sports.
S2 Table. Life table coverage.
S3 Table. Output from Cox proportional hazard regression on survival time of chess
We thank Bill Mallon for his compilation and provision of the OlyMADMen database, and
Simon Walter for his provision of the R code which was adapted for the relative survival
analysis in the present study. This research was financially supported by the Australian Research
Council Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing Research (project number CE170100005).
Our study was approved by the Human Research Ethics Committee of Melbourne School of
Population and Global Health (MSPGH), the University of Melbourne (Ethics ID: 1851109.1).
Conceptualization: An Tran-Duy, Philip M. Clarke.
Data curation: An Tran-Duy, David C. Smerdon, Philip M. Clarke.
Formal analysis: An Tran-Duy, Philip M. Clarke.
Investigation: An Tran-Duy, David C. Smerdon, Philip M. Clarke.
Methodology: An Tran-Duy, Philip M. Clarke.
Project administration: An Tran-Duy.
Resources: David C. Smerdon.
Software: An Tran-Duy.
Validation: An Tran-Duy, David C. Smerdon, Philip M. Clarke.
Visualization: An Tran-Duy, David C. Smerdon, Philip M. Clarke.
Writing ± original draft: An Tran-Duy, David C. Smerdon, Philip M. Clarke.
Writing ± review & editing: An Tran-Duy, David C. Smerdon, Philip M. Clarke.
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