Thoughts of a 'numerical sports historian'

Apr 5, 2014, 8:44 AM |

I cannot call myself a true historian. Real historical research usually involves much more than a few Google searches and translations. But in sports history, there's a particular niche I took much liking in. It's 'history in numbers' - or 'goals, points and seconds', as they put it in Russian.

I'm nowhere near master level at chess and probably won't be, but even the bland-looking statistics like 'points scored' or 'winning percentage' seem exciting to me. I cannot deeply comprehend how the great players of past and present scored their points, but still, even simple numerical results sometimes speak volumes. How is it possible to remain unimpressed, say, by Lasker scoring almost two thirds of points against leading grandmasters of his era? Or Capablanca and Kasparov (especially the latter) losing only eight percent, roughly one twelfth, of games against those grandmasters? Or, for that matter, by the romanticism of Dawid Janowski, who, by his own admission, hated draws and drew only one fifth of his highest-level games (even though he'd lost almost twice more games than he won)?

Perhaps the most important conclusion I've come to in my years of analyzing various soccer and chess stats is this: if there is some kind of widespread 'gut feeling' among the sports fans, there are some stats that can either confirm or (in rarer cases) disprove it.