Skipping a Grade

by admin on July 14, 2013

It’s not my intention to turn this blog into a Conrad Holt Admiration Society, but after I wrote yesterday’s post I did a little bit of sleuthing that showed me just how unusual his chess career has been, compared to other U.S. juniors. Of course he’s already unusual simply by virtue of being #2 on the USCF Under-21 list. (Ray Robson is #1 by a mile). But it’s how Holt has gotten there that is striking.

I already mentioned how quickly he bounded over the 2100s, leaping from 2124 to 2250 in two tournaments. Well, as it turns out, it wasn’t the first time he did something like that. Earlier, he skipped Class C entirely: his rating went from 1325 to 1607 in one tournament and never fell below 1600 again. Perhaps even more remarkable, he came within a silly two rating points of skipping the 1900s. He went from 1875 to 1998, and in his next tournament he went over 2000 and never looked back.

This made me wonder how common it is for chess prodigies to “skip a grade” — in other words, skip over a 100-point rating interval. It turns out that it’s pretty unusual. And skipping a whole 200-point category is so unusual that Holt is the only one in the top 50 juniors who has done it.

I studied the rating history to date of the top 50 juniors in the U.S., and here are the ones who have “skipped a grade,” along with the grades they skipped and their current ranking on the under-21 list. [Technical note: I didn’t count it when somebody skipped a grade below the 1200’s, because it’s far too easy to skip the 1100’s, 1000’s, etc.]

#2. Conrad Holt (skipped 14, 15, and darn near 19).

#11. William Fisher (skipped 12)

#12. Samuel Sevian (skipped 13)

#18. Michael Lee (skipped 15)

#19. Luke Harmon-Vellotti (skipped 13)

#31. Christopher Gu (skipped 12)

#33. Sean Vibbert (skipped 16)

#35. Michael William Brown (skipped 14)

#42. Deepak Aaron (skipped 12)

#46. Kapil Chandran (skipped 15)

#48. Jarod Pamatmat (skipped 12)

#50. James Black (skipped 13)

By the way, James Black almost skipped the entire Class D, when he jumped from 1192 to 1441. Unfortunately, he had previously gone over 1200 and then slid back down to 1192, so technically he did not skip the 1200’s.

So 12 of the top 50 players skipped a grade. Another eight players bypassed a grade temporarily but slid back down into it. The highest grade that anybody skipped was the 1600s (by Sean Vibbert, who went 1556-1716 and never looked back).

One thing I learned from this is that today’s juniors — at least the ones in the top 50 — play a WHOLE LOT more rated chess games than I did in my teenage years. I’m not sure whether it’s because they have more opportunities, or more commitment, or both. Because they’re playing rated chess constantly (even more than a game a day sometimes — see, for instance, #24 Joshua Colas and #94 Sarah Chiang) their rating doesn’t get so far behind their ability, so they don’t have the big 100-point-plus lurches.

Clearly Conrad Holt has a unique talent, but also the fact that he comes from a small state (Kansas) with fewer tournaments might have something to do with his huge strides forward.

I didn’t have the patience to go through the same exercise for players #51-100 on the rating list. However, I did pick out a couple at random, and I noticed that #79 Nolan Hendrickson — who also comes from a Midwestern state, Wisconsin — did something even Holt couldn’t. He jumped three classes in a single bound, going from 1212 to 1643 in one tournament and skipping over the 1300’s, 1400’s, and 1500’s! He was helped by the fact that his 1212 was a provisional rating.

P.S. I was never a chess prodigy, but I did have one prodigy-like tournament in my chess career. At the 1976 Pennsylvania State Championship I tied for first in the under-2000 section when I was still just a 1600 player. My published rating went directly from 1669 to 1838, and I never spent a day in the 1700’s. It was interesting to see that none of the current top 50 juniors have duplicated that feat.

However, I want to emphasize that this does not prove anything except the fact that I didn’t play in very many tournaments as a junior. So I had a lot of “accrued improvement” that was finally released in one great tournament. Also, the rating system was somewhat different back then, and so it’s possible that giant rating jumps were easier to make. (It depends on the “K value” and also on the feedback points.)

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

JG July 14, 2013 at 9:34 pm

I came to chess pretty late. Didn’t start playing tournaments until I was in college. But I had a decent tournament one time that put me in the 200+ category (kind of, depends on round numbers).

I was already 18 so I was disqualified from being a top junior.


admin July 14, 2013 at 10:23 pm

Awesome! I was hoping that this post would bring out some examples like this. For anyone too lazy to follow the link, Joshua skipped the 1300’s.

I’m issuing a challenge to see if anybody else skipped the 1700’s or an even higher grade. I’m sure there must be some examples. The nice thing about this challenge is that it rewards people who, like Joshua and me, either started late or just didn’t play all that many tournaments in our formative years.


Simon July 15, 2013 at 4:14 am

I jumped over the 1800’s entirely, going from 1794 to 1901: Unfortunately, I later fell a bit to 1898 before moving on.


Brian Wall July 15, 2013 at 7:25 am

I also skipped the 1800’s entirely.

I won the Colorado Junior Championship 6-0 at age 17, 1972 and with bonus points went up 200 points in one tournament. 1797 to 1997. It then took me 5 years to become an expert but at least I did not slip back down to 1800 ever.

Brian Wall


admin July 15, 2013 at 10:20 am

Simon — Sorry, you join Conrad Holt in the distinguished category of people who missed by two measly points. Except you came even closer. It’s like long-jumping 19 feet but then having the tip of your finger brush the sand at 18.98 feet, so that’s all you get credit for.

Brian — Sounds like you are a bona fide “grade skipper.” Congratulations!

Now is there anybody out there who skipped the 1900’s? How about the 2000’s? I think that skipping the 2000’s would be extremely hard.


Hal Bogner July 15, 2013 at 11:13 am

Great stuff, Dana!

I think that I skipped the 1400 grade, but I’d need to research it from my old scorebooks or rating supplements from the 1970s.

Here’s a guy who probably skipped the 2100s, but again, you’d have to do some checking:


admin July 15, 2013 at 12:37 pm

Awesome, Hal. I would have to think he skipped the 2100’s too, with a result like that. But… The USCF computer doesn’t lie. His rating is listed at 2197 (even though he hasn’t played a single rated event since the computerized records start in 1991). So it looks as if he was sucked back into the 2100’s, never to emerge again…


Hal Bogner July 15, 2013 at 7:27 pm

Well, I have seen a long inactive friend lose scores of ratings points in a single event he didn’t play in, due to the ease with which an incorrect USCF ID can be entered, so that’s not definitive, though it may be rare. 🙂


Hal Bogner July 15, 2013 at 11:16 am

Oh, one additional thought: USCF has altered the volatility of ratings now and then over the years. I think they just made a major change for players in the expert and master classed just recently, increasing volatility after years of damping it a lot. So, there may be another factor at work here, too.


JG July 15, 2013 at 11:37 am

I just remembered a friend of mine “skipped” his 1900s, but it was a little bit of a cheat because he got a rating floor as a result of winning money and was not allowed to drop down below:

David “Zeb” Rocklin
1847->2000 and then he had a rating floor of 2000 so he never dropped below.


admin July 15, 2013 at 12:55 pm

Wow, this is a really unusual case. Looking at the tournament after his breakthrough, there’s no question he would have dropped back below 2000 — heck, he lost to a 1300 player!

This reminds me of a friend of mine, Ilan Benjamin, who had a similar story:

He tied for first in the under-2000 section of the Chicago Open, another big-money Bill Goichberg tournament. Even though his rating only went from 1895 to 1957 according to the computer, he was still given a rating floor of 2000 so that he could never win an under-2000 prize again. I think that’s really crazy, to be floored at a rating you haven’t even earned yet!


Praveen July 15, 2013 at 7:49 pm

Hah, I suppose starting when you’re 30 doesn’t count (well, I have been reading books way before I started playing+online chess in grad school). I started at 1800 in 2010 and have stagnated at low expert :).


Sara July 16, 2013 at 7:03 pm

From the recent World Open,, first place in the u2000 has evidently been trying for several years now and finally won putting him over 2100, jumping the 2000s which as far as I can tell he never hit before.


admin July 17, 2013 at 10:40 am

Nice catch! In fact, I think that going over old World Opens would be an excellent way to spot these grade-jumpers — probably better than my method of looking at high-rated juniors.

For the guy you pointed out, Bronson Gentry, the big question is whether he can stay in the 2100’s. Interestingly, this is the third time in his career he has gained 100 points or more in a tournament. The first two times he dropped back afterward, or would have if the rating floor hadn’t prevented it. He jumped 1680-1800 at the 2004 Chicago Open and was subsequently floored at 1800 for the next three or four tournaments.

The guy who finished second in the U2000 section, Vladimir Skavysh, also has a pretty interesting rating history. He’s played only 83 rated games and he was essentially inactive for the last 11 years, playing only one tournament in that time. But obviously he was still learning about chess, as his 265-point rating jump at the World Open attests.

Moral: Goichberg tournaments bring out players with unusual histories


Michael Aigner July 26, 2013 at 2:41 pm

Steven Zierk didn’t skip an entire class in one tournament, but he did shoot up quickly in 2007. In the span of 5 tournaments over 2 months, he went from 1549 to 1921. He won the A section at People’s that year with an official USCF rating of 1549.

Some of us knew that Steven wasn’t really a C player when 2007 began, but he needed someone to light the flame in his belly. He was rated over 2100 by the end of 2007, 2300 by the end of 2008 and International Master at the end of 2010.


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