Are chess players getting better?: A complete analysis

Chess players are becoming better since the competitors are becoming younger, theoretical knowledge is being updated, the preparations are at their peak due to engines, and the monetary value is growing allowing players to pursue chess.

Top 5 Chess Playing Countries
Top 5 Chess Playing Countries

Watching historical games from famous players of the past has led some people to think that we are regressing. That people of today are not as good as they were decades ago, but is that really true?

Is the preposition of chess players being worse in modern times hold up to criticism? I will share my thoughts with you.

I have been exposed to chess history so much that I instinctively know this (players are better today), but I want to go beyond that bias. I did my own research and will present the findings here just so we can spark some reasonable discussion. With all of that in mind, let’s begin.

Which aspects of chess have improved or not improved over the years?

Several aspects of chess have improved throughout the years that allow players to be better in theoretical openings and modern tactical plays, though there is a decline in endgame mastery due to lack of adjournments. 

The first thing that improves the most is knowledge in the opening, where some lines that have been accepted in the past are now getting debunked. The king’s gambit for example is a reasonable choice even in grandmaster games back then but is considered weak nowadays.

Theoretical openings are becoming more modernized with new players updating old ideas and incorporating them into the general knowledge. Contemporary players have access to this updated knowledge making them more in tune with playing good moves in the opening.

If you put one player from the past in front of a current grandmaster, the current grandmaster is likely to play better in the opening. Players of today have access to large databases, chess engines, and new ideas that allow them to excel even at a tiny point in the opening.

The one who does not have access to this new set of opening repertoire will of course be significantly worse if the opening is played out. In fact, the openings nowadays have become so extensive that what some would consider a middlegame decades ago is still within the opening now.

Players are just more prepared in this era of memorization due to the chess engine’s advancement in speaking out precise moves.

Contemporary chess players are better tactically

You might think that old players are more fierce when it comes to tactics due to the barbarian-like approach they take in their games (Tal for example) but this is not true. Current competitors are more compatible with modern tactical plays (not just randomly sacrificing pieces) than with other players in history. 

Chess games that are played today call for precision, tactics that are surface-level would not survive modern defense. Top tactical plays of today are more elaborate and even precise, the player just doesn’t win by confusing the opponent, but by actually playing the best moves.

If you put Mikhail Tal in front of modern grandmasters I assure you that most of his ideas can get debunked (unless he himself improved with modern knowledge). Confusing your opponent until they make a mistake is just a bad strategy in today’s precise environment, the tactical ideas have to be good in order to work.

Chess players today are worse in endgames

It is important to note though that players of today are becoming worse in endgames (due to the lack of adjournments that force these people to analyze endings). Back then when a game is adjourned, a group of grandmasters squeezes the position rigorously in order to get a win (usually in the endgame).

That does not apply in modern games, there is no such thing as an adjournment (since players can consult an engine) and the matches have to be played out. This causes a discrepancy in in-game expertise since the studying part is starting to become obsolete (you don’t have to study an endgame today since it will be played on the spot).

The shift in focus is starting to appear more in the openings and the middlegames, where memorization dominates the board. And I doubt a lot of players can memorize games up to the endgame since it is the very last part of the match, we are slightly getting worse in this phase.

How to numerically quantify whether players are becoming better?

The ratings of chess champions have increased since 1970 from Robert Fischer (2720), Anatoly Karpov (2725), Garry Kasparov (2851), and Magnus Carlsen (2872) indicating that players are becoming stronger over time.

The average rating of the top 10 chess players has increased since 1970 (2654.5), 1980 (2647.5), 1990 (2669.5), 2000 (2743.7), 2010 (2773.6), and 2020 (2789.6) continuing the upward development in terms of strength.

A good indicator of strength is the Elo rating since a larger number indicates more games that have been won than lost. This is how we can really identify the disparity of strength between generations, how large is the gap between their Elo ratings.

Here are the world number one since 1970 and their respective rating at the time (measured in decades):

Year #1 Chess playerElo rating
1970Robert Fischer2720
1980Anatoly Karpov2725
1990Garry Kasparov2800
2000Garry Kasparov2851
2010Magnus Carlsen2810
2020Magnus Carlsen2872

As you can see, the top of the chess rankings is following an upward trajectory with the next number one having a higher rating than the previous. This tells us that at least the peak player in our particular decade have survived stronger/larger competition than the previous.

But what about the top 10 players in the world? After all, just because the best player in the decade is better doesn’t mean the rest are. It could be that it is just a singularity that has no pattern at all, which misdirects my point of the players getting better.

This is why I took the ratings of the top 10 players in the world (since 1970) and created an average (by adding them together and dividing by 10) for us to get an overview of whether there is an improvement. This would allow us to accurately identify how much of a gap exist between the competition in each generation:

Here are the average chess rating of the top 10 players since 1970:

YearAverage rating of the top 10 players
19702654.5
19802647.5
19902669.5
20002743.7
20102773.6
20202789.6

Here is a video demonstrating the difference (rating wise) among the top 10 players in a visual presentation:

Chess ratings naturally get higher over time

Some would argue that the rating system is not an accurate representation of strength since there are more players today than decades ago. Which means that there are more opportunities for the overall pool of rating to be distributed on the higher end.

What this argument lacks is that with the increase of players, naturally comes the rise in the difficulty of attainment, more people are bringing more talent. Chess ratings naturally get inflated over time resulting in the increase of competition, players are facing opponents with higher ratings than those from decades ago.

As we get to the top, the available pool of players (for their rating) becomes obsolete since elite players only play against elite opponents. This means that even if there are a lot of available players to get one’s rating, the one at the top cannot necessarily get it from those at the bottom.

The computer gives higher numbers to modern players

Powerful chess engines of today can analyze positions that have been played throughout history, and give numbers as well as the blunders and mistakes that have been committed. Using the power of computer analysis, it is proven time and time again that modern games are more likely to be precise than older ones.

This is reflected by grandmaster battles that mostly end in theoretical draws where no side has made enough advantage to convert a win. In chess, if both sides play correctly then the game should end in a draw, which is what we see most of the time in contemporary matches.

Are chess engines the reason players are becoming better?

Chess engines allow consultation of very precise moves hard to be seen but any human player, this allows intense preparation that makes contemporary chess players better than those decades ago.

With the advent of chess engines, players have more access to precise moves/ideas compared to players from decades ago. Back then there was a debate on the quality of the so-called improvements in the positions since there really is no authority for giving the best moves.

Whatever the strong player says or even the world champion can be debunked (means it is not absolute), which is not the case nowadays. Today every competitor has access to monstrous chess computers that can destroy any human being alive.

This power allows deeper thoughts in finding superb maneuvers that are invisible to the human eye, meaning analysis is more insightful in modern times creating stronger players.

The advent of chess preparations

With the use of chess computers, competitors are abusing the god-like precision that it brings to the table. Preparations have become the focus of contemporary chess, players are now capable of finishing games entirely from memory.

If you pit an elite player of today against an elite competitor decades ago, the one from today is more likely to make precise decisions due to engine knowledge. It’s almost as if matching a modern engine against a pre-engine grandmaster without all the modern improvements, the engine is going to win.

Which changes in the chess training tools allow competitors to be better?

The growing database of chess games allow modern grandmasters to learn things without experiencing it. There are thousands of books and analysis of games which makes players of today stronger than years ago.

As time goes by, the database (where games are recorded) will naturally host much more instructive games that can be absorbed by the players. The database is becoming wider in the scope of the recorded games, which allows players to easily take notes of multiple chess games.

This allows contemporary competitors to easily browse a theoretical opening or endgame (that they forget how to convert) and learn from them. Individuals can also search for their opponents online and gain a gist of their playstyle for preparation.

The importance of chess preparations

With the advent of chess computers, modern players are equipped with surgically precise ideas one cannot outcompete alone. The amount of training necessary today to reach the echelon has become more intense, talent in itself will not make someone reach the top of the chess rankings.

One needs to start at a very young age with a lot of chess study, as well as being surrounded by incredible people working out the engine moves. This makes competitors of today required to go beyond their talent and become stronger unlike those from years ago.

Is the popularity of chess the reason players are becoming stronger?

Chess is becoming more popular with the advent of social platforms and influencers that promote the game. This attention gives monetary and knowledge value that allows players to excel better compared to 15 years ago.

As the game becomes more popular more people are willing to invest their time and energy to improve the existing knowledge. Chess has gained more traction than it did before, this allows deeper consultations/analysis on each game providing valuable insights.

A lot of business opportunities also emerge providing more useful tools, databases, and coaching that increases the general player’s skillsets. There are more eyes to evaluate existing theories and potentially debunk them, paving the way to modern approaches.

A lot more people are able to contribute to the general knowledge, therefore players at every chess level are able to benefit from it. Back then only one or two countries dominated the chess population, therefore only a limited number of people were able to mine the information. Now the added repertoire is so big that the advantages of contemporary competitors are just too great against players of the past.

The Power of money in chess

The money in chess is becoming larger over the years, this allows serious competitors to focus on the game than with other people long ago. Back then, there are many external pressures that impede the progress of the competitors not allowing them to unlock their full potential.

Now with the increase of monetary value, the modern players are more financially supported, giving them focus to invest in the game. They no longer have to worry about other pressures of life that they are more likely to put in the work needed to excel amongst their colleagues.

This also gives them access to better chess tools, computers, books, etc. that can sharpen their game better. People of the past who struggle to meet their financial end have a harder time maximizing their potential, this makes people of today better since the financial climate is in their favor.

Is the modern demographic of chess the reason players are getting better?

The top 100 chess players in the world have at least 80% of someone below 30, the competition is getting younger and starting early, therefore, being able to excel. Chess is also much accessible in modern times not having only one or two powerhouses that solely host all the talents.

Modern competitors are becoming younger than they were decades ago, at least 80% of the top 100 today are below the age of 30. It has been proven that younger participants are more likely to excel in the field they’ve chosen due to their underdeveloped knowledge.

As kids, the things that they focus on are more likely to be memorable or leave an imprint on their memory, which adults find hard to do. Adults are more prone to calcified knowledge, lacking the imagination to solve things outside the box, unlike the kids.

This is why young people have a higher ceiling in terms of potential (since they lack calcified knowledge) and this makes young chess players better. The fact that the chess population is getting younger is a reflection of the potential skill burst that we can see in the future.

Chess is becoming more global

Back then only a handful of nations were willing to support chess players therefore they had a limited talent on their side. Someone who has the potential to be a world champion (talent-wise) will not be able to realize their potential if they are born in the wrong country.

Professional chess is becoming more accessible with the opening of monetary avenues, this allows more talented individuals to actually compete at this level. Now that the stage is open, better players are starting to take over unlike the limiting culture of the past, which is why I think chess players of today are getting stronger if not already.

Do you now know why players are becoming better?

Statistically and logically, there seemed to be a huge opportunity for modern players to be far stronger than the older figures. Rating-wise, players of today are garnering more of the number with a bigger competition than what others faced before.

But I think it raises an important statement here, that the players of any activity undergo an evolution with the passing of time. If it is popular enough to have competition at least, it is a sign of a healthy environment that will continue to thrive in the future.

Then we should be happy as someone who loves chess, it means that this game will stay even with the existence of other games. I sure hope that happens, sleep well and play chess.

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