Am I getting worse at chess?

A woman playing chess and holding up the king

The other day I was playing chess against a friend.

The week before, I had beaten him three times in a row. Naturally, I concluded that I would ride that momentum forever and never lose to him again.

When we played next, he beat me three times in a row. I considered quitting chess altogether…

Jokes aside, I must admit there was an emotional toll those three losses took on me. My thoughts were:

• Have I gotten worse?
• How has he gotten so much better?
• What did I do right last week that I didn’t do this week?

Then I heard about a psychological experiment that was conducted in the Air Force. They wanted to prove which method of feedback was more effective in impacting an officer’s performance—positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement.

Generals boasted as they pointed to clear evidence that punishing pilots for mistakes almost always led to improvements on their following flight. Likewise, praise tended to lead to worse results on their next go.

But there was a glaring issue with their testing.

When they were challenged to create a control group, they found that no matter what, soldiers who did super well one week tended to do worse the next week…and soldiers who did super shitty one week tended to do much better the next.

This highlights a popular statistical phenomenon: Regression to the Mean.

Basically in everything we do, there’s a natural variation—ups and downs, push and pull, give and take.

If we have an amazing week at work, things will likely even out the following week to bring us closer to our average. But it’ll feel like we’re regressing.

The same is true for any skill or activity—chess, business, exercise…

As of writing this, my ELO (number rating) in chess is 1420. Sometimes I play like a 1600 and sometimes I play like a 1200…but 1420 is about my average.

Nothing guarantees absolute consistency. In other words, sometimes we’re awesome, sometimes we suck, and both are fine. The more we do something, the more we move toward whatever our average is. When we’re on a low, it doesn’t mean we’re getting worse…and it probably means we’re about to experience a high.

The goal is to improve our mean so we can experience higher highs.