NM Todd Bardwick
will attempt to lay out the USCF over-the-board rating system and set
out realistic expectations as a player (hopefully!) moves up the rating
scale. (Of course, this is
based on my subjective opinion as a player and teacher and the players
that I polled from various rating levels.)
rating is a numerical representation of a player’s approximate
playing strength…mathematically based on the last twenty or so rated
games played, weighted more heavily toward the most recent results. [For adult players with established ratings, an average
rating over a reasonable period of time (or years) can be a quite
accurate measure of true playing strength.]
titles associated with USCF ratings, ranging from low to high are:
Class E (under 1200), Class D (1200-1399), Class C (1400-1599),
Class B (1600-1799), Class A (1800-1999), Expert (2000-2199), and Master
(over 2200). There are
higher levels of Master (SM, IM, and GM), but since less than 1% of all
tournament players fall into this range, I will not focus on them here.
tournament player’s USCF Quick Chess rating (G/29 or faster) will
usually fall in the same range as his standard over-the-board rating.
A good speed chess player will typically have a higher quick
rating than his standard rating, and visa-versa for slower players.
Standard over-the-board rating scale
mean rating for adults is somewhere in the 1500’s.
For discussion purposes, let’s say it is 1550.
The rating distribution of tournament players tends to fall into
a normal bell curve distribution about the 1550 mean.
Approximately 70% of rated tournament adult players fall between
5% of rated players reach the Expert (2000) level, and 1% achieve the
Master (2200) level. The
rating scale is linear in nature.
and mathematically, a player 200 points higher rated than his opponent
is expected to win 3 out of 4 games.
In other words, a 1200 rated player has the same odds of beating
a 1400 as a 1800 rated player has beating a 2000.
Overlaying the linear rating scale with the bell curve
distribution of players, it is easy to see that the lower rated player
has a much easier time improving his rating than a higher rated player.
(This should be obvious since it is much easier for a 1000 rated
player to reach 1700 than a 2100 to improve to 2800 …a world champion
understand how a player progresses through the ranks and develop
realistic expectations, the linear rating scale must be overlapped over
the normal rating distribution bell curve.
rating increases are a separate topic than a child’s (discussed
later). Every adult who has
been playing chess for years will eventually reach his average rating
plateau strength. This
could be 1200, 1600, 2000, or anywhere else, depending on many factors
(brain speed, calculating ability, study time and efficiency, ability to
solve mathematical and logical problems, board game sense,
concentration, competitiveness, intelligence, etc.)
There are very high rated players who have spent many hundreds of
less hours of study time than their much lower rated counterparts.
I have met many low rated players who have read tons of books and
can seemingly recite every game ever played, but somehow have trouble
applying chess concepts to their own game.
In this case there are normally several commonalities – too
much opening study (sometimes spending time learning traps and garbage
openings, which is mainly memorization… chess is not a finite problem
that can be memorized), study of game collections of famous player where
the concepts are too complex, or too stubborn/unteachable/unreceptive to
new ideas or constructive criticism.
As with any subject, the more you know about chess, the more you
will realize you don’t know. With proper study, anyone can improve their chess game.
players falsely expect a linear move up the rating scale through the
alphabet levels to expert, master, and beyond.
This rarely happens. Normally
players move up the rating scale in a stair step fashion.
A plateau (small or large), then a vertical jump to the next
adults quickly reach the 1000 level.
This is the first main plateau level that a player achieves where
he generally sees very basic threats and doesn’t blunder away pieces
on a frequent basis.
next major plateau where many players stop at is the Class B range
(1600-1799). The numerical
rating jump here is quite large and perhaps intimidating, but the
increase in chess knowledge is relatively small. The Class B player just has a better understanding (and more
experience) and puts the basic concepts of the game together in a more
efficient manner than the 1000 rated player.
Remember with this rating jump, we are progressing through the
meaty range of bell curve rating distribution.
With proper coaching and/or a little natural talent, this rating
jump from 1000 to Class B is easily attainable in 1-2 years.
Class B becomes a major sticking point for many players. In Class B, the player has a basic knowledge of all aspects of the game, has for the most part eliminated gross, random blunders, and has an understanding of the concepts of tactical and positional chess. Natural talent can take most players to Class B, but not much further.
After reaching Class B, the rating points get much tougher. As a player reaches 1800, he is statistically better than 80% or so of all rated adult chess players. In order to hold a Class A rating, now the player is expected to score 25% vs. Experts (95th percentile)...and Experts make very few mistakes compared to Class B and C players.
the 2000 level of Expert is a huge accomplishment (finally a rating that
starts with a 2 instead of a 1!). Talent
and study are generally required to reach and keep a 2000 rating.
The Expert level is the third major rating plateau…and very few
climb past it. Most players
have several master skins by the time they reach 2000, but in order to
hold an expert rating, the player must now score 1 out of 4 against
masters…no easy task! The
rating points are tough here because we are approaching the very narrow
part of the rating bell curve. To move from the 95th percentile of
Expert to the 99th percentile of master is a huge step. To hold a
master rating, the player must score at least 75% against experts and
break even with masters. It is well documented that the toughest 100 rating points to
attain are between 2100 and 2200.
progress through the rating ranges in a similar fashion to adults (after
all it is the same scale), except for a couple differences.
For younger children (up to third grade), the first plateau of
1000 is quite pronounced and can take a while to reach.
This is because young children are in the process of learning the
concept of patience and tend to get excited easily, move too fast, and
Assuming that a child is above average in ability and talent and has achieved the 1000 plateau, he will almost automatically gain 100 rating points/year do to maturity and increased mental discipline, even if he doesn’t study at all and only plays an occasional game, up to the Class B plateau. Talented children who are coached properly for just an hour a week (or study correctly on there own) and play in one tournament every month or two will jump on average 200-300 rating points/year from 1000 to Class B (1600-1800). This is why today there are half a dozen or so pre-teen children in Colorado who seem to have come from nowhere to Class B.
Expectations and consistency
is important to temper your expectations, especially as you reach the
main plateau levels of 1000, Class B, and Expert.
the case of the adult player who has reached a plateau and has been in
the same rating range for years. The rating will tend to fluctuate +/- 100 points depending on
whether the player is on a hot or a cold streak (for players rated below
1400, the fluctuation range will be greater).
The player’s rating always tends to gravitate back to the mean.
In any given game, a player with a stable rating tends to play
+/- 200 rating points of his true strength depending on many
intangibles: mental sharpness on the day in question, life situations,
health, high or low tide, full or half moon, etc. This is why most Class A players have a Master skin to hang
on the wall: 1900 + 200 =
2100, and 2300 – 200 = 2100.
players do not know that stability is built into the rating scale at the
higher levels. For example,
once a player goes over 2100, the total number of rating points gained
(or lost) in a given game are multiplied by 75%. For players rated over 2300 the multiplier is 0.5.
During the 1998 US Championships I asked GM Joel Benjamin (2662)
a theoretical question…Did he think that his winning percentage
against me (2230) would be higher than my winning percentage against an
1800 (assuming same rating differential)?
Joel started to say it would probably be the same, but then
thought a little longer and said that he liked his chances against me
better because the higher rated player’s rating tends to be more
close are you to Master?
will pose an interesting, non-scientific, question.
To get a feel for this question, I polled half a dozen masters
and a couple experts who have spent significant time over 2200.
Their answers were amazingly consistent.
1: “What average
rating level would a player have to be at from a knowledge and skill
level (ability to link chess concepts together) to reach the halfway
point to 2200?”
answering this, several masters pointed out that at the higher levels
raw talent and a high ability to link complex concepts together is an
absolute must (or the player won’t ever make master) and it is assumed
that the player in question possesses this ability, for their answer to
this, the answers ranged consistently from 1800 – 1850.
2: “Assuming that
1800 is the halfway point to master, what rating would be 75% of the way
the answers were quite consistent…2050-2100, with a slight bias toward
the upper end of 2100.
makes sense statistically. The mid-point between 1800 and 2200 is 2000.
But remember we are overlaying this linear scale over the normal
distribution. This finding
may shock many high 2000 experts who think they are really close to 2200
(which they are by adding 100 points to their strength for good
days…but the bad days also have to be averaged in!). But to hold a 2200 rating you must beat masters 50% of
the time for the math to work out!
Based on this poll, a 2075 rated player is, on average,
three-fourths of the way to master.
Remember, anyone who achieves an average rating of 2100 has a
chance to surpass 2200 and get a master certificate from USCF…IF they
put together a string of 3-4 good tournaments in a row
ratings vs. the rest of the country
interesting that you will hear from time to time is…”Are Colorado
players better players for their ratings than players in other parts of
the country?” I cannot
answer this one for sure, but guess is probably not.
We are kind of on an island in the middle of the country and one
theory is that we beat ourselves up…keeping the overall rating pool
lower. I played actively in
San Diego for a year after college and honestly couldn’t tell any
playing strength difference between masters and experts here and there.
On the other side of the coin, many players who have moved here
from Los Angeles claim that LA ratings are clearly inflated. I found that the overall consensus of players who have played
in both Colorado and elsewhere seems to be that ratings are consistent
between Colorado and the rest of the nation.
vs. 30 years ago
interesting question that pops up is…”Were masters of 30 years ago
stronger than their counterparts today?”
Pre-1960, before the Elo rating system was implemented, this may
have been true. USCF has
changed the rating formula several times over the years, usually after a
significant portion of the membership bands together and starts whining
about how their ratings are so low.
When the USCF feels ratings have deflated, they add in a bonus
point system to inflate them (the last time that happened was about 2
years ago). USCF has also
created rating floors in recent years to prop up ratings.
Today’s players would no doubt be stronger than their older
counterpart in opening theory as a function of computers and our natural
advantage in history. More
old timers that not that I polled, feel there has been a general
inflation in ratings over the years.
I don’t have a solid opinion on this – both sides have
compelling arguments. If
there has been some inflation, it probably isn’t statistically
time off…how much would playing strength drop?
much does a player’s strength drop after a few years sabbatical from
the game? I would guess no
more than 100 points for players over 1600, and those 100 points
aren’t gone for long, but it may take a few tournaments to get the
rust out. Opening book
knowledge and accuracy in tactical calculating are probably most
affected by taking time off.
aging is an unavoidable situation that also contributes to lower
ratings. This would vary
greatly from player to player and may start to take effect as a player
reaches his 40’s (Remember two years ago during the Kasparov-Kramnik
match where speculators where commenting on how Kasparov was
over-the-hill, at the ripe old age of 37?)
Positional judgment and calculation ability may start tapering
off in the 40’s as a player loses stamina (many GM’s start declining
in their 40’s). The age
rating decline usually drops off even faster after 60.
The good news here is that chess is a great mind stimulant for
one’s competitive spirit (a personality trait) as one ages, may also
contribute to lower ratings. Older players may tend to be mellower, laid back, and more
accepting in the ways of the world than younger players.
vs. Tactical styles of play
and tactical chess styles are sometimes viewed as opposites and good
chess requires competence in both areas.
(If you think of chess as a war, positional chess is the overall
war plan and tactical chess would be the individual battles.)
tactical players are stronger speed chess players and also tend to do
better in time pressure because with little time remaining, you must
first look for tactics. Tactical
players tend to be quicker and more accurate at calculating variations,
whereas positional players tend to have a better understanding of the
game in general. (Note:
a type of hybrid-tactical player is the tricky player who looks
for tricks and traps first. The tricky player is very dangerous in quick time controls,
but much weaker in slower time controls where his opponent has time to
figure things out.)
tactical player’s rating range tends to be greater than the positional
player because, by his nature, the tactical player is looking for the
pretty win, not the sure win. (Comparing
playing styles of players with the same relative rating strength,
tactical players tend to have more wins and losses, while positional
players have more draws.)
tend to have a strong correlation to chess style.
The strong tactical player tends to be the eccentric genius type
of person. This type of
genius is tough to teach or emulate.
The positional player tends to be more conservative in life and
tends to be more practical and stable.
In the few experiences that I have had giving simuls in prisons,
I observed that prisoner’s styles tend to be overly aggressive and
tactical in nature, an extreme personality trait that may have
contributed to this person’s landing in prison in the first place!
yourself out over ratings
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