Seth Kadish: Visualizing chess

3/20/2014 – As a statistician and geo-scientist he felt a need to share his results with the general public. Sheets of equations are not the best way to go about this, so Seth Kadish developed a data visualization system to make his results more accessible to a lay audience. As a chess player he realized that the same methods could be applied to the game. This resulted in some really cool graphs.

Visualizing chess

By Dr. Seth Kadish

For my day job as a statistician and scientist, I run quantitative analyses on environmental data. I love the mathematical aspect of it, but part of the fun of doing math is sharing the results with others. Most people don't enjoy staring at a sheet of equations. So about a year ago, I started my data visualization blog. The graphics I make are intended to generate interest in a range of subject matter; the visuals are derived from tables and databases that would otherwise be ignored by the public. I have a PhD in geoscience, so I am particularly interested in making maps, like this one:

However, a lot of my hobbies end up as focal points as well – and that's why I've made several graphics on strategy board games, including chess. I played chess competitively until I finished high school, succeeding in state and national tournaments. I continued my involvement with the game by teaching lessons and coaching at a K-12 school during college and graduate school. I absolutely love the game and its variants, particularly bughouse. Though I don't play competitively anymore, I keep up with chess news, continue to solve puzzles, and, of course, look through chess databases for possible blog content.

Some time ago I posted an image that showed the chess square utilization of Bobby Fischer. I made the square utilization graphic because the board itself is a natural canvas for data visualization. The square usage covers 432 games in which Fischer played as White. Castling was counted as a movement by both pieces to their destination squares.

At the time, several people asked me how Fischer's move distribution compared to other GMs. So I finally decided to revisit the topic and do some additional exploration. Here are the results for square utilization for 12 masters, playing as white and black.

Every chess player has a distinct style, but among a few of the world’s best, there are patterns in common. The maps below show where notable players have moved their pieces most frequently during their careers. The players tend to use a chevron in the center of the board, two central squares supported from behind by the two squares outwardly diagonal from those. In a typical game, this positioning would take the form of a pawn in the center supported by a knight. The central squares that are a knight’s move distant are similarly shaded in the maps, showing that players often use these squares in conjunction. The advantage of the player with the white pieces is also clear from the maps, as the masters moved their pieces into the opponent’s half the board much less frequently when playing with black.

The group below includes Wilhelm Steinitz, the Austrian champion who established the modern style of play in the nineteenth century, as well as contemporary players, such as Magnus Carlsen, who at 23 is regarded by some as the best player in history. Some differences in style among these players are visible in the maps. Bobby Fischer’s rival Boris Spassky, for example, played defensively as Black. Most of this group seems to have preferred queen’s pawn openings to king’s pawn openings as White, with the exception of Steinitz who seemed to use both more or less equally.

In generating the above graphs I calculated some other interesting stats that I thought were worth a few bar charts. Who knew queenside castling was so unpopular?


I also decided to generate a graphic on global chess proficiency. These data reflect the long-standing stereotype that Russia produces many of the best chess players. On an individual basis, however, Russians are not the world’s best. They haven't had a World Champion since Vladimir Kramnik lost his title in 2007.

About the author

Seth Kadish is a statistician and scientist living in Portland, OR, USA. He attended Pomona College as an undergraduate, and earned his PhD at Brown University in planetary geoscience, where he studied the geologic record of climate change on Mars. Currently, Seth balances his time between his environmental work, writing his data visualization blog, and spending time with his wife, Dana, and dog, Fluffhead.

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