Ratings: Love ’em, hate ’em, ruled by ’em?

by admin on March 4, 2008

Okay, to get a little discussion going, today we’re going to talk about one of everybody’s favorite topics: ratings. What do you think about them? Are they a blight on the game of chess? A useful yardstick for gauging your own improvement?

My own attitude towards ratings has changed over the years. When I first started, I loved them and I was totally invested in my rating. Of course, in the beginning my rating went up and up and up, which was great for the ego. Then when I hit my first plateau, and even lost some rating points for the first time, it was crushing to me — as if someone had told me that my IQ had gone down.

Now I am a little bit more blasé about them, but I haven’t gotten to the point where I don’t care. I am always conscious of whether I’ve gained or lost rating points in a tournament. It bothers me that my rating now is well below what it was at my peak. On the other hand, I’ve come to accept that there are other valid measures of accomplishment in chess. Tournaments won… great games played… blogs written (!)… These are all important, too. The saying “once a master, always a master” is also a consolation for the fact that my rating has dipped below the magic 2200 figure. I still have a certificate (somewhere, buried in a trunk or something) that says I am a National Master.

However, I still definitely have a long-term goal of getting my rating back over 2200 (or higher). There are practical reasons: with a rating over 2200 you can actually play in some tournaments you couldn’t otherwise, or your entry fee for the Open section or Master section may be less. Tournament directors like to make money off of people like me, people with expert ratings who want to play against the masters.

By the way, the number 2226 is also sort of a magic number for me. My very first published rating was 1226, and so 2226 is symbolic — a 1000 point improvement. I have gotten over 2226 in the past, but only for very brief periods. Who would think those last 26 points would be so much harder than the first 974?

Now about ratings more generally… In some ways they are a curse. I think that they affect most players’ psychology much more than they should. When you play someone rated above you, it’s very hard to avoid the mindset that you’re probably going to lose somehow, and that even a draw is a good result. As a result, ratings become a self-fulfilling prophecy. There was one year in Reno when the higher-rated players scored an absolute clean sweep in round 1 — 26 games, 26 victories. And this was in the open section, where even the weaker players are experts or masters, and should have been able to pick up a few draws. The only explanation for such a clean sweep was psychology: most of those experts were beaten before the games even started (including me!).

A more insidious effect of ratings is that they create a social stratification in chess. Masters only want to hang out with masters. Experts won’t talk with A-players or B-players. And so it goes, on down the line. Of course, not all players are that way. One of my favorite things about Hikaru Nakamura is that he’ll go to the skittles room and play games against “ordinary people.” Good for him!

But I don’t want to trash ratings completely. Remember Winston Churchill’s saying about democracy? “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” The same thing is true about ratings. They’re the worst measure of ability, except for everything else that’s ever been tried!

Look at what other sports use. Golf players, and to some extent tennis players, are ranked by their money won. That favors the players who play more often, or in bigger tournaments. College football and basketball teams are ranked by polls — a notoriously subjective method. Martial arts have brown belt, first-degree black belt, second-degree black belt, and so on. I don’t know how these are determined, but I have to think that somebody’s subjective judgement is involved. By comparison, chess ratings are objective, they’re simple, they’re not based on somebody’s perception of which tournaments are more “important,” and every player from beginner to grandmaster has a spot on the same scale. It’s a very democratic system. Just like the democracy that Churchill complained about!

To conclude, let me say that whether you love ratings or hate them, it is best for your development as a chess player to completely put them out of your mind once the game begins. In any given game, it’s just you and your opponent and the chess pieces. The numbers beside your names on the wall chart should not have anything to do with what’s happening on the chess board. Your opponent’s queen does not get extra moves because his rating is higher than yours — unless you allow it to! As soon as you start thinking that he must have some deep plan that you don’t see because he’s better than you, then you are effectively giving his pieces more moves than yours, and then you are going to lose.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

dribbling March 4, 2008 at 5:35 pm

I believe that ratings can be deceptive in that they do not take into account players’ different playing strengths at different stages of the game. As a crude example a player rated 1800 can play the opening like a 2000, the middlegame like a 1800 and the endgame like a 1600.

The other day Larry Christiansen posted a video where the players were quite unevenly matched, with a 300 or 400 ELO difference between them. His comment was that when this situation arises the higher rated player wants the lower rated player to play “meekly” so that he can immediately obtain a small advantage and take it from there. The higher rated player is afraid of the “mouse that roared” scenario, a lower rated player willing to complicate matters and even sacrifice material for attacking chances. Larry C. said that such “raving maniacs” are the last thing a higher rated player wants to meet. 🙂


Robert March 5, 2008 at 2:29 pm

I wrote something about the social aspects awhile ago on my blog…and poked some fun at people with higher ratings and nothing else going for them in life who look down on 1300 rated people who make the big $$$ and arrive at the club in their BMW.

Overall I like the rating system, and love to play against the higher-rated–I’m one of those “raving maniacs.” I’m rated 1667 right now, and amusingly enough when I play people around 1400 and below I’m the one who’s tempted to just play for small advantages.

“Bigger fleas have little fleas
Upon their backs to bite ’em,
And little fleas have lesser fleas
And so ad infinitum.”


Tom Chivers March 6, 2008 at 1:59 am

They are useful for working out where to improve. Eg, if you underperform by 200 points against the French Defence, compared to the rest of the openings you know what opening you need to study.


dribbling March 6, 2008 at 4:24 am

The mother of all let’s roll, do or die, I’m not afraid of you lower rated players, has to be Miller, who did his raving maniac act in a simul in Chicago in 1988 against none other than Tal.

A two knights defense too, so Dana probably knows it backwards. 🙂


MeAgainstWorld March 6, 2008 at 5:17 pm

Very good post. Chess is much about psychology also for sure, as we have seen lately also for instance game Carlsen – Topalov. When we started playing chess, we didn´t do it because ratings did we? But on the way those can go into your head too much..In the end we play against ourselves, always, even the best player in the world.


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