What Chess and Moore’s Law teach us about the progress of technology


Computers beating humans at chess is old news. But that’s precisely why it’s worth reviewing. Solved problems sometimes hold the best lessons. And the numerical chess rating system makes it particularly useful in quantifying some common assertions about the progress of technology.

Chess player’s competitive level is ranked using the ELO rating system. Players gain rating points by beating a competitor. And lose points when beaten. The scale is constructed so that “for each 400 rating points of advantage over the opponent, the chance of winning is magnified ten times in comparison to the opponent’s chance of winning.” The competition outcome is modeled as a logistics curve. The way the math works, when a player rated 1100 competes against a player rated 1000 (rating gap of 100), they’ll win 64% of the time. When a player rated 1400 player competes against a player rated 1000 (rating gap 400), they’ll win 92% of the time. What matters here is: a) the chess rating scale is exponential, and b) a 400 point gap means 10x better.