Rating Is The Enemy

Some time ago, I remember a young and promising GM crying on social media, in all seriousness, how the public cannot possibly understand the agonising pain of losing 20 rating points and dropping below 2600.

I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry from such deification of the rating numbers. And yet, they control us.

Everybody is an addict to those numbers, to a bigger or lesser extent. Even Carlsen, who recently said he would like to remain number one with a solid advantage over the rest.

We are all trapped inside our own small circles, from the beginners who want to cross 1100 to the elite who want to cross 2800. Let’s mention again Carlsen, who not so long ago set himself the aim to cross 2900.

This slavery doesn’t bring anything good. I remember I played my best when I didn’t care about rating. And yet, nowadays, it’s all about the rating.

Perhaps the worst thing about the rating is that we are judged by it. People see those numbers and immediately they think they know you’re a patzer or a strong player. They “know” whether you deserve respect or not. Which is definitely not how it should be. 

When checking the results of the players I encountered frequently in the past, I noticed that without exception, they all lose or have already lost, a lot of rating. There are several reasons for this.

The first one is the broken rating system. FIDE, in their worldly wisdom, decreased the rating gain to zero (!) when playing players who have more than 400 rating points. So, an IM of 2400 can score 9/9 against players rated 1900 and he will keep her rating. But God forbid should he make a draw – then she immediately loses around 5 points!

The second problem is that due to various factors, there are a lot of underrated players, especially the young ones. So again, God forbid you have the bad luck of playing them in a tournament – once you may win, but they will definitely get you in the next games and you can start posting agonising cries on social media like the GM mentioned at the beginning.

The most certain way not to lose rating is not to play. The once feared GM Korneev, who outrated me between 150-200 points for most of the time since the mid-90s, now is within 20 points of my rating. You play, you lose.

There is one group of players, though, who manage to play and not lose rating. It’s the elite, who play among themselves. They draw most of the time, win some, lose some, but when playing players with similar rating and you are around 50% most of the time, you don’t lose rating. 

The elite is definitely stronger than the rest, but the case of the online tournaments where they often play lower rated opposition shows what a lot of us have known – they cannot, consistently, maintain their rating when playing lower-rated players on a regular basis. There are countless examples of players like Carlsen, Nakamura, Caruana, Kramnik etc. losing or drawing players rated 2100 or lower. If those games were actually rated, they would have been writing agonising tweets mourning their ratings a long time ago. Or they would have stopped playing these events.

I can also give you an example from over-the-board play. While still a top 3 player, Kramnik played the Qatar Masters open in 2014. He played as expected, leading the event and only a loss in the last round to Yu Yangyi cost him first place. His next open was the same Qatar Masters the following year, when he played equally well, sharing third place.

But already in 2017, when playing in the Isle of Man open, Kramnik (rated 2803 at the time) struggled, failing to beat Lawrence Trent (2427) and losing to James Tarjan (2412). The following year was similar, as he drew with Sundararajan (2445) and Kashlinskaya (2447).

This is a known phenomenon – when a stronger player plays a weaker player on a regular basis, the strength of the stronger player decreases while the strength of the weaker player increases. This is why the elite prefer to play among themselves – it keeps their rating and their status in the chess world intact.

These problems with the rating kills the enthusiasm of many players. They want to play, but they cannot win (rating). And this leads to a lot of older players stopping active play, leaving only the young ones to massacre each other.

I outlined several issues with the rating, which I have observed, but I don’t know the solution to these issues. FIDE recently announced that they are coming up with something, and pretty soon at that. I am not too optimistic, though.

Perhaps, there is no general solution, only an individual one. Each one of us should find the most appropriate way for him/herself not to be affected by the “magical” numbers so that (s)he can give their best on the chessboard. Eventually, that should be all that matters.

Alex Colovic
A professional player, coach and blogger. Grandmaster since 2013.
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