Things That Make You Go Hmmm…

by admin on August 5, 2015

As some of you may have noticed, when I write about games against kids in this blog I often quote their age-group ranking, as in “Yesterday I beat John Doe, the #48 14-year-old in the country.” Mike Splane noticed this and said, “Why don’t you tell them that I’m the #3 61-year-old?”

Busted! I have to confess that I have been guilty of age-ism. When I play a kid, I like to go to the USCF Top-100 lists and see where they rank. It never occurs to me to do the same thing when I pay an old fart like myself. However, the USCF is also guilty of age-ism, because there is no top-100 list for 61-year-olds. Instead, there is one top-100 list for everybody over 50. If you’re on that list, as Mike is (he was #98 in August), you can see where you stack up in your age cohort. If, like me, you’re not on that list, you can’t be sure.

I noticed that the competition is a little bit stiffer in my age group than in Mike’s. Here are the top three 61-year-olds (the only ones on the top-100 list for ages 50 and up):

  1. Danny Kopec — 2346
  2. Robert Joynt, Jr. — 2296
  3. Mike Splane — 2251

And here are the top eight 56-year-olds:

  1. Raymond Duque — 2559
  2. John Fedorowicz — 2484
  3. John Donaldson — 2408
  4. Mark Ginsburg — 2404
  5. Rashid Ziatdinov — 2391
  6. Emory Tate — 2343
  7. Mark Eidemiller — 2296
  8. Paul Vianna — 2248

Wow, I’ve got some serious work to do if I want to make #3 on this list. The #1 guy, Raymond Duque, is someone I had not heard of before. He does appear to be legit, but he plays very sporadically (only two tournaments in the last eight years). So there is some hope that he could drop off the list due to inactivity, and the rest of us can move up a spot. But to get up to the level of Fedorowicz, Donaldson, and Ginsburg — wow, that would be a dream.

But I do know of one guy who’s done it: Alexander Zelner. I played him twice when I lived in Ohio, back in 1993, with one win and one “shoulda-won” that was actually a draw. Back then he was “just an expert,” right around my rating in fact, so I was quite surprised to see that he now sports a rating of 2420, up there in the Donaldson/Ginsburg stratosphere. And he’s practically the same age that I am (54). How did he do it?

That question turns out to be a little bit more complicated than I expected. He has a very odd-looking rating graph. But it’s the actual results that are really… unusual. From March 2010 to March 2011, he had a 108-game winning streak. Yes, you read that right. He won one hundred eight consecutive games. He actually had a perfect record of 56-0 in the calendar year 2010 (Note: I’m omitting one 3-game tournament that appears to have been rated twice), and then won his first 52 games in 2011 as well.

So why am I not celebrating this as an unprecedented example of “late-in-life” (i.e., after age 40) improvement? Well, I have to attach a couple of asterisks to his record.

*) All 108 games were played in tournaments where the TD was… Alexander Zelner.

**) 43 of the games were played against his own family members. (In fact, the person who finally broke his winning streak was his wife, Catherine Zelner. I’ll bet that was an interesting day in the Zelner household!)

To me, both of these situations are a conflict of interest. There’s nothing in the rulebook that says that you can’t organize your own tournaments and play in them, and sometimes it’s unavoidable to play against people in your own family. But both of these things should be avoided as much as possible. The problem is that Zelner made a habit of them.

I think that a tournament director should only play in his own tournament as a “house player,” for example if there is an odd number of players and the odd man out wants to play a game. Preferably this should be done only for one or two rounds. But what if you are organizing a quad, and only three players show up? Is it OK for the tournament director to make a fourth, so that the tournament can go on? Quite a few of Zelner’s tournaments were quads, so this is not an idle question.

Games between family members are also fraught with conflicting incentives. If a parent plays their child, they have a strong, perhaps even subconscious motivation to go easy on them. As for the child, it may be psychologically difficult for them to beat a parent.

So again, I don’t think that Zelner did anything wrong, but I do think that the USCF should address these conflicts of interest. First, I think that games between family members should not be rated. I think that it would be easy to program the USCF computers to spot this: any two people with the same surname who have ever had the same mailing address should be considered family members. For family members who have different surnames, like Sunil Weeramantry and Hikaru Nakamura, you might have to rely on self-reporting.

Second, I would suggest that games played by the tournament director should not be rated. Perhaps this unfairly penalizes the TD’s opponents, though, so a variation of this rule would be to rate the TD’s opponent normally but just not change the TD’s rating.

If you google Zelner, you will find that a couple people accuse him of cheating. I don’t think that’s true, but I do think it was perhaps an unavoidable impression given by the fact that he was only playing in his own tournaments, against his own family and perhaps his friends. In principle, he was doing a good thing — running a chess store (the Orlando Chess and Game Center) and organizing regular tournaments to stimulate interest. But there are ways to do that without looking as if you are inflating your rating.

You might think I’m naive, but I do think there are a couple of reasons to consider Zelner’s rating to be legitimate. First, check out this article from 2012 that attributes Zelner’s improvement to lessons with GM Alexander Goldin. The article also explains that medical problems prevented him from traveling to many tournaments — a perfectly plausible excuse.

Also, even though he did not play in any independently organized events during his winning streak, he did play in a couple such tournaments later in 2011, and he did quite well. Notably, he played in the Ohio state championship and tied for first, and his rating increased from 2450 to 2457. Nothing fake or suspicious about that. So I’ll accept his rating as real. But as for that 108-game winning streak… sorry, I’m still going to give the record to Bobby Fischer. To me, those games should not be considered official rated games.

Am I being too easy on Zelner? Too hard? What do you think about my rule changes? Let me know in the comments!

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Paul B. August 5, 2015 at 1:24 pm

Being that I’m 74, the question of age is of interest. I’d be interested in the all-time best in each age group; Viktor Korchnoi comes to mind. From Wikipedia:

On the January 2007 FIDE rating list… Korchnoi was ranked number 85 in the world at age 75, by far the oldest player ever to be ranked in the FIDE top 100. The second-oldest player on the January 2007 list was Alexander Beliavsky, age 53, who is 22 years younger than Korchnoi. As of 2011, Korchnoi was still active in the chess world with a notable win (in Gibraltar) with black against the 18-year-old Fabiano Caruana, who was rated above 2700 and 61 years Korchnoi’s junior.[37]


Bill Merrell August 5, 2015 at 5:49 pm

In small chess clubs, often the tournament director is the only director in the club. So if the TD couldn’t play in tournaments he directed he wouldn’t play at all. Nobody would want to direct, so there would be no tournaments and … Hopefully you see where this is going.
Even then, directing and playing often requires being more severe on yourself than on others, and being willing to have your attention disrupted on a regular basis. It’s hard enough to play a tournament chess game, it becomes much more difficult when you’ve got to answer a question or two during your game. With a tournament of more than eight players it becomes almost impossible,
And it requires the other players to have a lot of trust. With pairing programs used a lot now pairings aren’t usually complained about – but there’s always something.
But, small club tournaments are usually ones where everyone knows and understands, if not respects, the other players. Take that away and you’ll lose some of the base members in the USCF.
And, yes, I’ve heard of a few instances of abuse – but your proposal would eliminate the only opportunity that many players have for tournament chess.


Joshua Gutman August 6, 2015 at 8:02 am

Yea, I imagine some players move to areas without a thriving chess scene and organize tournaments so that they can get a chance to play. Now if you’re only playing against players that are 600+ points lower rated then maybe there’s a problem. It’s probably better if the USCF didn’t have a minimum point gain for winning a game to prevent abuses of players so far away from their rating.


MaryKaye August 6, 2015 at 7:00 am

I’m with Bill. I grew up in the tiny chess community of Anchorage, Alaska, and for years the same person ran (and played in) every monthly tournament. If he hadn’t, there would have been no tournaments. (He was rated in the middle of the pack, so no controversy.) It would definitely not have worked to ask him to give up rated chess to avoid the appearance of impropriety.

His younger brother also played (that kid was my nemesis–always rated below me, usually beat me). While the community had a standing policy of avoiding within-family pairings if possible, sometimes it wasn’t possible. I don’t think declining to rate their games would have been reasonable.

What would you have done if, as nearly happened, the Womens’ World Championship final round was Anna Muzychuk vs. Marisa Muzychuk? Not rate this very important match? I don’t think so. Yes, it’s psychologically weird and awkward and this could affect the outcome. Yes, collusion is possible. But that’s true of many other pairings as well (my games with my nemesis, after his 5th or 6th win, were psychologically fraught, and we once agreed to a draw where one of us was absolutely won).

I think the harm done by the occasional rating of invalid games is less than the harm done by refusing to rate a large number of valid ones.


Matt August 6, 2015 at 9:38 am

I agree with Bill and MaryKaye about TD’s playing in their own tournaments. Along with another gentleman, I run the Arcadia Chess Club but I wouldn’t do it if I couldn’t play. I only really got into it because, at the time, there were two other TD’s and they wanted a third. As I had built the club website, I suppose I was a logical choice. However, there’s no way I would continue directing if I wasn’t allowed to play.

The practice of the TD playing in the tournament happens at most clubs I know of, at least in Southern California, and I imagine it happens all across the country. Sometimes the TD is only a house player but most of the time they play the entire tournament. As long as the TD isn’t manipulating the pairings or anything like that, I think it’s perfectly reasonable.


admin August 6, 2015 at 11:13 am

Looks like there is a pretty strong consensus in favor of TD’s playing in their own events. Just for the record, I didn’t say they shouldn’t be allowed to play, only that they shouldn’t be rated in those games. However, it looks as if the consensus is that they should be rated. And I can understand that. If you know in advance that you won’t be rated for a game, you might play differently and (at least for some people) y0u might not enjoy it as much.

Joshua brought up the point of the opposition being rated much lower, and of course that was Zelner’s secret for most of his winning streak. In 108 games he moved up about 120 rating points, or an average of just slightly more than 1 per game. That tells me he was playing a lot of games with minimum risk and minimum rating increase. (He did have a few games against A players and even a low expert and won every one of them, too. That part is quite impressive to me. I certainly haven’t figured out a way to beat A players every game.)


Michael Goeller August 8, 2015 at 9:01 pm

Zelner’s rating rise might have an explanation, but it does remind me of the case of Claude Bloodgood (, of The Tactical Grob fame, whose rating got inflated to #2 in the U.S. at one point either because he could only play fellow prisoners or because he manipulated the system.


Harvey September 12, 2015 at 1:32 pm

FYI. Alex Zelner has serious heart problema and needs doctor OK to play in tournaments. Two weeks ago he was rushed to the hospital and he died. 15 seconds later he recovered, but reported that he saw no bright lights nor any family members or anything at all.


Stephen October 14, 2017 at 5:16 pm

I played him in Miamisburg Ohio in 1997. Beat me good with the white pieces.


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