Why we've gotten better at chess and skateboarding
There was a recent post on the Freakonomics blog that mentions a study from the University of Buffalo that attempts to examine the relative strengths of top ranking chess masters over the years to attempt to answer the question "are chess ratings over inflated, or are we really getting better."
The results of the study showed that chess ratings have not inflated, and we are in fact getting better at chess.
I am in two minds about the fact, at first glance this seems like a real "well-duh" moment in science, but after a little thought it actually comes across as an extremely interesting study.
It seems obvious that we as a society are advaning. Regardless of your perceptions of the "youth of today" or the "invasion of foreigners" (it always seems that conservatives think that young or alien people are just going to destroy society), it makes perfect sense that we are generally getting better at stuff.
The best example of this the progression of skills in skateboarding. While chess has been around for hundreds of years, skateboarding started in the 1940's, but only got big in the 70's. This means people have been around long enough to see vast improvements in the sport. For the longest time most skateboarding tricks were flatland based - that is they were either tricks one did while rolling, carving in pools, or handstands. It wasn't until the early 80's that the ollie (or jump) became a phenomenon. Without the ollie, almost no modern skateboarding tricks are possible.
It took 40 years for skateboarders to learn how to jump! Now days, it only takes asolid afternoon of practice. This means that anyone who starts skating today can benefit from the knowledge 20 years of study of the ollie.
The same should hold true for almost any discipline - especially chess. Unlike skateboarders, chess players are very meticulous about recording and researching their hobby. In fact Chess.com has records on games earlier than 1940, and chess books will often have games from the 1800's. So while it may take a lot of practice to advance in chess, usually much more than an afternoon, there still exists an exhaustive wealth of knowledge for newcomers to tap into if they wish to progress and provides the proverbial shoulders for them to stand upon to improve the field.
The reason that this study is fascinating, is that the above really is anecdote. Sure, we can see that we've improved at skateboarding or chess. This study takes the vast amount of data available for study in chess and demonstrates that this shared phenomenon or improvement is a reality. We as a society are advancing (at least at chess and skateboarding), and although there is no definite proof of causation, this provides support to our anecdotes.
Photo by Niall Kennedy on Flickr.