Tag Archives: The Stairways to Heaven

If at first you don’t succeed, skydiving isn’t for you.

There’s an interesting academic paper that analyzes the entry and exit decisions in individual games, specifically with regards to chess. (H/t to Dima for pointing this out to me).

The Working Paper, titled “The Stairways to Heaven: A Model of Career Choice in Sports and Games, with an Application to Chess”, is available for download at:  http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1135903

The paper starts off with a quote from GM Alexander Moiseenko: “‘The economy is a key factor in the Ukrainian chess boom. Playing chess is a prestigious occupation and you can earn money with it. Additionally, you travel around the world. So, a professional chess player has respect, unlike in Europe or the USA. By our standards, chess is a good career.’ (Grandmaster Alexander Moiseenko in a ChessCafe.com interview).”

This rings true with what I have experienced. If I remember correctly, GM Lev Psakhis told me a story of his from waiting to check in at an airport in the US. The ticket agent asked him what he did for a living and he replied, “I’m a chess player.” He got a smile in return and “That’s nice, but what do you do for a living?”

The paper models entry and exit based on three general factors: relative income attractiveness and two measures of training costs. The relative income is gauged by taking the ratio of the average professional chessplayer’s yearly income to the average annual income in the country of study.

Although I find the average chessplayer’s income assumed here ($90,000 per year, in constant 2005 dollars) to be a bit overly optimistic, the compiled metrics still paint a clear picture of the usual distribution of top players in the world. The following table is taken directly from the paper (Table 3): R/Y is the relative income ratio (R = $90,000 for chessplayers, Y = avg annual income); WEB is the number of internet users per 1000 people (higher the WEB metric, the lower the training cost); TR is the number of FIDE-recognized tournaments (higher the TR, the lower the training cost).

Table 3

The following passage from the paper describes some of the results: “Maximum likelihood estimates provide the following answer: players from Russia and its neighbors included in our data set are not particularly more talented, at least compared to European and American players, but face substantially lower training costs, mainly because of their lower opportunity value of time. The underlying differences in the alternative value of time can also explain the different patterns of selection occurring in our data: since players from richer countries have more and better alternative opportunities to chess – and higher training costs relative to earnings – the observed proportion of talented players in our censored data set is likely to be higher in these countries than among low income countries and the countries of the ex-Warsaw Pact.”

Looking at the list of previous Samford winners (Joel Benjamin, Maxim Dlugy, Patrick Wolff, Alex Fishbein, Ilya Gurevich, Alex Sherzer, Ben Finegold, Gata Kamsky, Josh Waitzkin, Tal Shaked, Boris Kreiman, Dean Ippolito, Gregory Shahade, Michael Mulyar, Eugene Perelshteyn, Varuzhan Akobian, Dmitry Schneider, Rusudan Goletiani, Hikaru Nakamura, David Pruess, and Josh Friedel), there are definitely many strong players and former US Champions, but not so many people who kept playing professionally (and those who remained in chess often did so as teachers).