Ratings: Knowledge vs. Performance

When I played in tournaments, at the start of a game, my opponent would ask my rating. I knew he was forming an opinion about my playing strength based on my rating. But performance and strength are two different things. If rating determined the outcome of the game then no player rated higher than his opponent would ever lose.

At the chess club I hear comments by wood pushers that told me they sized up a player's strength by their rating. This is a faulty way to approach such an assessment. A chess players performance can be reduced by several factors. A divorce, job change or a move are considered the highest three sources of stress. I am a chronic pain patient and I know my performance ability is dramatically affected by pain.

An example is former World Champion Mikhail Tal (RUS). He was a brilliant player and he could beat anyone in the world on one of his good days. But he suffered kidney problems for years that eventually culminated in his death. Obviously this illness caused his tournament performance to suffer. When Tal's FIDE rating dropped below the top 10 in the world, did that mean he was not a dangerous player anymore? 

On days when he felt good, his chess genius was capable of destroying any opponent. A few years before his death, he won the World Blitz Championship! In that tournament Gary Kasparov was eliminated.

Next time you are paired in a tournament, your opponent may not be at his best. Play each round and ignore your opponents ratings.

Especially if your opponent is a stranger and you don't know your history. Remember ratings are a reflection of past performance. I once played an A class opponent who usually defeated his opponents before the endgame. My game with him did go into the end game and the position ended up with his having a rook pawn and of course we each had our kings. I knew that if I could get my King in front of his pawn the game was a draw. To my surprise he let that happen and then spent a very long time thinking on a position that was a book draw. The longer he thought, the larger the crowd grew around our table. The crowd was confused as to why the game continued. Finally, my opponent offered a draw and indicated he had not studied basic endgame positions.

This is another example of performance strength diminishing based on no other factors except a lack of knowledge of endgames. So the rating assessment based on prior performance is not so simple as a rating from past performance. I understand Apraid Elo's statistical formula anf all things being equal it is accurate. But it does not include certain other factors. That is why it is a performance rating. 


  • 21 months ago


    Hello Michael.

    I had to read over all this post because it is three years old.

    I looked at your profile and I see you are a writer. I try to be a writer and have posted some pieces here on Chess.com. Here is mine.


    I learned to play chess in the summer of 1952 i think. So I have been playing before you were born. I never have been better than a "B" level rated. I teach after school programs. I carry a chess set and clock in my car, you never know when a game might just start. I also carry four bowling balls.

    Since I teach chess, bowling, and taught soccer. I have tested the theory on how people assume that the rating makes you a better teacher. Some ask me "What is your bowling average?" I have answered, "245" then they accepted all I had to say. Once I said, "139" since I had just changed hand because of Arthritis on my right.

    The response was, "I'm already 160 how can you teach me anything?" I ended up teaching that person Four several months. So people do judge your level of anything by a rating. I taught chess and bowling at the same time. They had to make a move before they could roll the next time.

    You are right when you are a piece up and you swap down the end game becomes easier to win.

    Thanks for responding to my post.

  • 21 months ago



    The elo statistical equation is assessing past performance only as many other factors are unknown. Tiger Woods does lose to lower ranked golfers yet his talent is unmatched in the world. His performance history was radically altered by his personal life issues. Masters do not give rook odds anymore because chess knowledge is available to every level player on how to defeat your opponent when they are a rook down. In the old days very few people had access to chess knowledge. Today that is not the case.

  • 4 years ago


    ChessDryad, I would agree, style adds another element in the equation.

  • 4 years ago


    I haven't played tournament chess for over twenty years, but I still remember how it was.  When I played I higher-rated players and they attacked, I would go into hyperdrive and defend like crazy.  Many times I would get a draw, occasionly a win.  When I played a lower-rated player, I generally won, occasionally getting a draw or even a horrible loss.  I was good in middlegame counter-attacks, OK at openings, not so good in direct attacks or endgames.  So, when I was attacked by GMs, I did well; but when I attacked A players, I sometimes lost - especially if they were good defenders.  Also, when I played a higher-rated player who didn't attacked me, I would generally lose...even if I was winning at some point.  What I'm trying to say is chess style matters more than rating.  Strengths and weaknesses of one player are paired with different strengths and weaknesses of another player.  I had a good friend who knew my style very well.  I was playing 1st board with another master and I was up a pawn, with a winning position.  Of course I had to trade down to an endgame to win.  When asked by another spectator who would win the game, my friend answered that it would be a draw.  He knew my opponent was very strong in the endgame and I wasn't.  It ended up a draw.

  • 4 years ago


    I once played an opponent who was two hundred points above me yet never played the endgame and did not know our game was a book draw. This tournament was in a small town in Oklahoma and so his rating reflected his performance against the local opponents. I played another opponent who initiated a wing attack without first locking the center. I opened the center was easily defended his wing attack. This was a lack of strategical knowledge on his part who was rated over 100 points above me. So I could add to my initial post that not only are ratings a measure of performance but that rating is relative to the strength of the local opponents your opponent earned his rating (performance) from.

  • 4 years ago


    So just because my opponent I'm playing in a match shows that her rating is 1464 playing Black, and mine shows 1300, I should disregard that she is a better player.

    Of course her rating is a reflection of her past games. The opinion is already made by chess.com and is shown to me. Do I now just hope she is not at her best and I'm at my best?

    Now she looks at my rating and assumes that I am rated 164 lower that her and uses that to determine how the outcome of the game will be.

    Hmm . . . I did feel at the beginning that I should be more cautious on how I played this game. I noticed that she didn't make any blunders and that her moves were generally safe ones.

    If she had been rated 164 lower than me, I would started my White game differently and more relaxed. In all probability I would made moves to test her and maybe attack right away.

    Most everyone I know use the ratings as a gauge on how  strong your opponent is. I think this applies in other sports that have average ratings, like bowling and golf. In those sports they use a handicap system to make the opponents closer to even when they compete.

    In the olden days, master and superior chess players would give a Rooks odds as a handicap.

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