Chess Ratings: A Necessary Evil?

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Rating (noun): a classification according to order, rank or value ... an estimated value of a person's position (From Chambers 21st Century Dictionary).

Why do we have chess ratings?  Shouldn't arguments over who is the best player be settled by direct competition across the board, not by a statistical calculation of probabilities (and I say that as a mathematics graduate).

I would not want to take anything away from Magnus Carlsen, but does the fact that his current live rating of 2791.6 is fractionally higher than Vishy Anand's of 2790.6 actually mean anything?

Arpad EloThe official "Elo" rating system, named after it's inventor, the Hungarian professor Arpad Elo (pictured), is a relatively recent phenomenon, only being officially adopted by FIDE in 1970.  The chess world managed perfectly well without ratings before then, so why have them at all?

Of course, I'm partly playing devil's advocate here.  Ratings are obviously useful to provide a benchmark to compare players' relative strengths, especially if they have never played one another before.  But in a one-on-one adversarial contest like chess, surely ratings are wholly inadequate to describe the multitude of factors that come into play when two individuals with a variety of strengths and weaknesses face each other in combat?

It is my contention that chess ratings are being overused, misused and even sometimes abused, when they represent nothing more than a mathematical statement about players' past results.  They assuredly do not prove that one player is better than another - only the estimated probability of the outcome of a game between them.

To contrast chess with another one-on-one contest, no-one cares if a boxer is ranked more highly than his adversary.  It all comes down to what happens on the night.  When standing toe-to-toe in the ring, 'rankings' count for nothing.  So why are chess ratings given so much significance in comparison?  In 1974, George Foreman would undoubtedly have been 'ranked' the best boxer in the world, but when Muhammed Ali floored Foreman in the eighth round of the Rumble In The Jungle, no-one questioned Ali's right to be known as the world champion.

Perhaps the answer is that being the 'world champion' and 'ranked the best in the world' are not always the same thing depending on the sport or game in question.  Does it matter if the 'world champion' is not ranked number 1 in the world?  If ratings matter so much in chess, why do we even have a World Chess Championship at all?  Why not just declare the highest ranked player to be the world champion and save FIDE the expense of organising a world championship cycle?

This should never happen and with good reason.  When Anand and Kramnik face each other in Bonn in October, they will be continuing a long chess tradition stretching back over a century with few interruptions, whereby a new champion must overthrow the old champion in a direct contest to prove his worth.  Good luck to both players, and may the best (and not necessarily highest rated) man win!