You Will Be Assimilated

by admin on February 4, 2015

Sorry I’ve been away for a couple days… I went to an undisclosed top-secret location, where they’ve just had 19 inches of snow, and began the process of turning into a Borg. See?

wired upResistance is futile.

Anyway, when I got home I read in my Facebook feed that Mike Zaloznyy just got his Life Master certificate, and I congratulate him on that. He also posted a picture of it, and I’m glad to see that there is no longer any asterisk on it.

Long-time readers of this blog might remember my post called Maris’d, which had a photo of my brand-new-at-the-time Life Master certificate, which had a huge qualifier: “Under the USCF norm system.” To me, that’s the equivalent of an asterisk. Mike’s does not have any such qualifier: it just says Life Master.

It occurred to me recently, though, that I have a pretty unique distinction. With a rating of 2199, I am one of the few Life Masters rated under 2200. Of course, the Original Life Master title (achieved by playing 300 games with a rating of 2200+) carries with it a rating floor of 2200, and quite a few Life Masters are at their rating floors. Only the bearers of the highly coveted Life-Master-With-An-Asterisk title can see their ratings drop below 2200.

So, in fact, there are 386 Life Masters who are listed as “Currently Active” on the USCF website. Out of those 386 Life Masters, 368 of them have ratings of 2200 or above. I’m number 369.

Incidentally, I was flabbergasted to see that I actually know the guy who is at the bottom of the list (and by quite a large margin). There is only one active Life Master in the country rated under 2100. His name is Michael Buaiz, and his rating is all the way down at 2001.

Well, there’s a story here. Back in the late 1980s, when I lived in North Carolina, Michael was an upcoming raw talent. I first played him in 1986, when I think he was a B player. Within two years he had shot up to 2200 and gotten his National Master title.

But there was one thing about Michael that, I believe, limited his growth as a chess player. He was a rapid and intuitive player, and I think he liked blitz more than regular time control chess. Certainly his member page at the USCF bears this out — a large proportion of the tournaments he played in were quick chess. Like a lot of quick players, he could be very dangerous and it could be psychologically difficult to go up against him, but he would make mistakes if you were patient enough.

According to his member page, he got his rating as high as 2298, and in the process accumulated his five Life Master norms (which, of course, did not even exist back then — all of this has been worked out years later by the USCF computers). Then his rating crashed.

Even so, Michael is very unlucky to be on the bottom of this list. His last regular-speed tournament was in 2006. He did very badly and dropped all the way to 2001, just one point above his rating floor. He hasn’t played since then. Except that last year, for some reason, he played in one more blitz tournament, which didn’t even affect his regular rating, but it did take him off inactive status and put him on the list of currently active players. And that’s how he came to be the bottom-rated currently active Life Master. If only his rating had peaked at 2300 instead of 2298 back in his heyday, his rating floor would be 2100 and he would never be worse than tied for the bottom.

By the way, if I should be lucky enough to gain two rating points in my next tournament, and go from 2199 to 2201, I would pass 27 people. That’s how many Life Masters are currently “floored” at 2200. They include some very well known names. Probably the most famous is Grandmaster Arthur Bisguier. “How is this possible?” you ask. “He’s a Grandmaster, not a Life Master.” Well, in the USCF norm-based life title system, the only title higher than Life Master is Life Senior Master, which of course requires five Senior Master norms. If you look at Bisguier’s whole career, of course he has gotten them. But if you only look at the years since 1991, which is what the USCF computer covers, I guess he has not accumulated enough. Kind of sad.

Other well-known Life Masters who are stuck at 2200 include prolific author Eric Schiller, multiple-time Washington state champion Viktors Pupols, frequent California chess organizer Richard Koepcke, Georgia hotshot Brian McCarthy, and Maryland master Denis Strenzwilk. I have played all of these guys, and the only one I beat was McCarthy. They’ve all been around a long time and had many great triumphs. So there is definitely no disgrace in being a “floored master.” Still, I am really looking forward to assimilating… er, moving past them on the list.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Michael Aigner February 4, 2015 at 4:20 pm

The number that shocked me the most was 27, as in the number of active life masters sitting at 2200. Only 27 in the entire country!?

I checked my personal database of over 1400 games. Over 16 years (1997 to 2013), I played 44 games against 20 different opponents rated exactly 2200. While I cannot say for certain how many are floored at 2200 because they earned the Original Life Master title, I believe most do. Only one opponent actually dropped under 2200 after I beat him.

If I played up to 19 floored life Masters, then 27 in the entire nation seems low at first blush. Caveats: 1. I played people over 16 years. 2. Many are now inactive. 3. Even a floored master may occasionally find themselves a few points above 2200 after a strong tournament.


admin February 4, 2015 at 4:52 pm

I was a little bit surprised by this too. The number doubles if you search on “All Rated Players” rather than “Currently Active.” Among all rated players, there are 53 Life Masters rated 2200, and one Life Senior Master rated 2200 (Ed Formanek, another guy I know well and have played in better days). That makes 54 floored masters, plus as you said there are probably lots of people who have been floored in the past but are currently above 2200 (if only temporarily). Any of the people I mentioned, such as Schiller or Koepcke, could easily rejoin that group.


Mary Kuhner February 4, 2015 at 8:54 pm

I managed to sweet-talk Viktors Pupols into analyzing a game with me during the last local tournament. He is an awesome analyst–he found new possibilities for both sides, moves none of the other folks looking at the game had even considered, mostly because they were blatantly insane. (He also found the tactical trick that let me win the game, which had taken me half an hour to work out, in approximately five seconds.) This weekend he’s making another shot at the WA state championship, which he won in 1961, 1974, 1978, and 1989.


Phille February 6, 2015 at 6:39 am

Weird to have a rating floor for some players (or even all players?). That kind of messes up the whole system, doesn’t it?

A few years back I beat an IM rated a bit under 2200 (Vice-Youth-Worldchampion in 195x), would have been nice to get the rating points for a 2400 scalp …


Mary Kuhner February 6, 2015 at 8:32 pm

I was lucky. I had a 2170 rating when I quit playing competitively, and when I started again thought I would have to live with that (it would have been embarrassing–I’m not currently that strong). But ratings from before 1991 are gone, so I ended up with a provisional 2130/5 based on my FIDE rating, which rapidly dropped to a more-accurate 1800.

Explaining to the little kids why I’d been briefly listed at 2100 was hard on my morale! (And puzzling for a while: I hadn’t been aware that I had a FIDE rating in the first place.)

I believe ratings floors were instituted during the era of big cash prizes for class tournaments, when “sandbagging” your rating was a lucrative business. Same reason the Northwest had its own Elo ratings for so long: you could practice in NW-rated tournaments while saving up your USCF rating for a big-money class tournament. It was common to see people whose NWCF rating was a couple of classes above their USCF. The result was that class tournaments became quite hostile to actual players of that class: you had to assume that all prizes would be taken by sandbaggers.

I’m not sure rating floors are the best cure, but I haven’t come up with a better one. My opinion as a young player was that the whole problem was caused by large class prizes and that they were simply bad for chess.


Mike Splane February 7, 2015 at 11:02 pm

Unfortunately the list of Life Masters on the USCF website is incomplete/inaccurate. I’m not on the list even though I’ve been active in several tournaments in the past twelve months, have a current rating of 2241 and have been a life master since 2005.

Perhaps the list is limited to those who have achieved the title using the 5-norms system, or perhaps it doesn’t include players like me who played some of their 300 games with a 2200+ rating prior to 1991.

Coincidentally, I have played exactly 300 rated games with a 2200+ rating from 2005 to 2015, so now I’ve earned the life master title twice.


admin February 8, 2015 at 8:58 am

Hi Mike,

I think you’ve solved the mystery. The USCF database only lists the norms-based titles, and only since 1991. That’s why Bisguier only shows up as a Life Master, not a grandmaster or even a Life Senior Master. Your member page shows you as a Life Candidate Master. You have two master norms, but you need three more to make Life Master (according to the norms system). Of course, at the same time your member page correctly shows you as an Original Life Master.

So this is why there are so few (53) floored Life Masters. In fact there are probably quite a few more floored Original Life Masters who don’t show up as Life Masters because they don’t have the five master norms.

Little-known fact: I kind of earned the National Master title twice. I got my certificate in 1988, then changed my name from Dana Nance to Dana Mackenzie when I got married in 1989. My rating went back over 2200 in 1992, and the USCF sent me a National Master certificate with my new name! (Good thing too, because I’ve lost the original one.)


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