It Helps NOT to Know Opponent's Rating

I think the rating system is terrific, but it's so accurate that often players fall in love with it, rather than worry about their playing strength. I seen numerous games where a lower rated player was winning easily and offered a draw "...because he was higher rated and he ..." 1) was afraid of losing or 2) wanted to gain a minimal number of rating points.

Much worse is the fact that numerous players have stopped playing competitively because they perceived their rating wasn't going to go up without exceptional action. My college roommate quit when he got to USCF 1800 even and never played again, and we could even discuss whether that affected Howard Stern's decision to retire "cold turkey" in Feb 2011. For those reasons I wrote an article about 10 years ago Encouraging Tournament Play (starts at the bottom of the linked page) that urged USCF to "hide" the rating system for the good of the large number of players who take actions based on rating, rather than just trying to have fun or to improve. There are several others who believe something similar, including  House of Staunton founder Frank Cammarata and, surprisingly, USCF Rating Committee Chairman, Dr. Mark Glickman.

The following fun story illustrates how one plays differently when the opponent's strength is known:

Back in the early 1970's, when I was at my playing peak (Ooh! It hurts me to write that!), I had a friend who would frequent bars and play chess with his friends. One day that friend said:

"Dan, when I play at the bars we have one guy who beats everyone easily. He's a nice guy but he is really on his high horse from winning all those games. Would you be willing to play him anonymously? It should be fun to see what happens."

So I agreed to play for fun - there was no hustle involved. This was not for money but to see how a good bar player - let's call him Player X - would do against a top tournament player (I won the Philadelphia Open Championship in 1971 and 1976 and the prestigious Philadelphia Invitational Closed Championship in 1973, around the time of this story).

Soon thereafter we met at my friend's apartment and eventually he got around to saying "You two guys both like to play chess - why don't you play a game?" So Player X and I agreed and started to play without a clock (whipping a clock out is usually a give-away of someone who plays seriously).

Player X came at me aggressively, as expected. He was playing rather well. I could not estimate his strength just from a few moves, but I supposed he was about 1500 at best (sometimes my guess for playing strength is wrong and, to be safe, I play everyone the same: Always play with confidence, aggression, and respect for your opponent's moves and ideas).

In that first game I defended solidly and Player X kept coming at me. But of course I wasn't going to fall for any basic tactical tricks and eventually I wore him down - he made a small mistake here or there and I won. So Player X good naturedly offered "Good game! Let's play again."

In the second game the play was similar. He played well and aggressively and I played solid. Eventually his small mistakes added up and his game fell apart and I won again.

"Nobody's ever beaten me two games in a row! Let's play again!" So we started a third game and it was another replay: he played aggressively, but it did no good as I was just too strong for him. After the third game Player X was suspicious: "Wait a minute! Something's up. What's going on here?"

At that point our mutual friend and host confessed "Dan is the Philadelphia Champion and an expert-level chess player. At my request he agreed to play you anonymously for fun to see how you would react!" (Note: In those days the ratings were lower and there was only one or two masters [2200-2399] in Philadelphia; all the other top players were rated expert [2000-2199]. A few years later the ratings would inflate toward the level they are today and the top area players, including myself, were able to make master.)

Upon hearing this Player X was relieved and surprised: "Aha! I knew it was something like that. In that case I would like to play you some more." So we played a 4th, 5th, and 6th game.

But for those games Player X changed his strategy - for the worse. He tried to play "solid" and that turned out to be non-aggressive. You can't play that way in chess and be successful. Even super-positional players such as Philadelphia's top 1970's player IM Bruce Rind, have a strong air of aggression in their positional play. As someone correctly advised me when I began tournament play "If you want to get a draw against a higher rated player, play for a win! If that doesn't work you might draw. But if you play for a draw from the start that almost never works." Good advice!

So now the games were no longer competitive. I won all three games easily. Player X's fear of my game and his "solid" play were the wrong way to go.

In my column The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy I talk about how I beat a master the first time I played one (in Jan 1968 after I had been playing seriously about 18 months). I didn't necessarily expect to win but I did not expect to lose, either. I just tried my best on every move. After I won I asked the top player at our club, later NM Rich Pariseau, how I beat the master and he wrinkled his face and said "That's because you played better!".

Sometimes I ask players how many points they should score against someone rated 100 or 200 points higher if they played a 100 game match (assuming neither player improved during the match). The correct answers are 36% and 24% respectively, but they often "under-guess", thinking the lower rated player has even less chance. If you play without knowing your opponent's rating you won't fear the stronger players and you won't be overconfident against the weaker ones. In both cases this will tend to help you (and your opponents as well - so it evens out, assuming they use the same strategy).

It's worth repeating: Always play with confidence, aggression, and respect for your opponent's moves and ideas. If you do that, and don't go by their rating, your results should improve and you might even have more fun...Good luck! 


  • 4 years ago


    Well, I found this firsthand last night in a game. I didn't know my opponent's online rating. It was over 700 points higher than me. Much to my surprise, I kept up and put up a fight. I was nervous as I always am but it wasn't because "his rating is higher and I'm going to lose". I tried my best. Unfortunately, I miss things as a beginner and my tactics aren't strong (in working on that though!) and at the end, I began to lose steam and I think I got fatigued after focusing for so long and made a fatal blunder (why oh why are they always fatal!!). Point is, I KNOW if I had known his online rating, I would have been intimidated. When I found out afterwards, I knew I could be proud of what I did despite my loss.

  • 4 years ago


    This is an interesting topic.  I tend to play everyone the same.  I usually play 10 minute chess , although I am much better at the longer game.  I find that in 10 minute chess, my biggest problem is not running out of time when players lower than me play unorthodox openings.  I didn't play for many years before starting to play online, and I am improving in clock management and tactics.

    I used to be a regular table tennis tournament player at about a 1550 level. I definitely let ratings affect my play in tournaments, and would go into a defensive style sometimes when playing a lower player.  I don't care much about my chess rating, and this probably helps my game.

  • 4 years ago


    Spot on! I have a similar problem. looking at my opposition rating and allowing it affect how i play, even though i'm supposed to know better than that n just focus on improving my game. I'm rated averagely 1400 and recently outplayed a bloke with rating above 1600. I only knew his ratring after i was so far ahead and i know that if i knew what his rating was, i would have done some things differently and compromise the very strength i have which i'm supposed to be working on. thanks a bunch for this article.

  • 4 years ago


    I just realized I'm having a slight problem with knowing ratings that I haven't passed yet that's not mentioned in the article and I'm not sure weather it is rare or not. When I play higher rated players I feel like I have nothing to lose, so I can play with confidence. When I play lower rated players I feel superior and therefor can play with confidence. My problem is when I play players about the same strength. My mind has hard to accept that my opponent is equally good as me and I want to place him in my mind as either stronger or weaker. When I can't do that it is harder to respect my opponents plans and ideas and I feel pressure that I must not lose to prove I am not overrated. Drawing might not feel good as well since I want to believe I am underrated.

  • 4 years ago


    "Don't judge a book by its cover", this idiom applies to this blog. Thoroughly enjoyed reading blog Smile

  • 4 years ago


    I agree.  That's basically what I said.  Simply put always play your best game against every oppoent.  Unfortunately, I won't take my own advice.  I like to experiment.

  • 4 years ago


    Its worth repeating once again....

    Always play with confidence, aggression, and respect for your opponent's moves and ideas. If you do that, and don't go by their rating, your results should improve and you might even have more fun...Good luck! 

  • 4 years ago


    I find that seeing an opponent with a higher rating can be motivating. It makes me want to go all-out and crush them. I only play 1 min,0 sec, and this was an unrated game, but my most memorable win was over a WGM rated somewhere over 2000. I could sense her rage through the computer screen.

  • 4 years ago


    I once played in a double round robin, was paired against an expert (although I didn't know it at the time.) I had black, but I equalized in the opening, snatched pawns in the middlegame, and was up two pawns in a rook endgame. However, we got into time trouble, and there was a double flag, resulting in a draw.

    I was very suprised when I found out he was an expert (I think he is a 2120) but I haven't been able to beat him since, although I played much better then normal in our last incounter.

    Also, on the live server, I challenged a master to a quick game. He accepted, and I couldn't stop my self from thinking "I'm going to lose." I blundered, he took advantage, but I got him to flag. I then realized "I can beat this guy!"

    In a rematch, I completely out-played him, and won easily. I then proceeded to win the third game, and by the fourth game, he had cracked. He started saccing material, blundering pieces, and I quickly won.

    I went from "I'm going to lose," to "I'm done beating you up, PATZER!"

  • 4 years ago


    I am not going to argue with you on whether or not it's bad to see a person's rating. What I will say however is that I completely disagree with the belief that the USCF should intentionally make it impossible for tournament players to see their opponent's rating, because I happen to believe there are many benefits to seeing an opponent's rating, and I think I have a right to this option.

    For the people that don't want to see the rating, I think it's their responsibility to just not look at the spot where they are shown. Generally in a USCF tournament the pairings don't include ratings; only the standings sheet does, so players who don't want to see the rating can simply look at the pairing sheet and not the standings.

    It should be up to each individual player whether he sees his opponent's rating or not.

  • 4 years ago


    I absolutely agree. Actually my tendency that has backfired a few times now has been to go for superficial attacks against lower-rated oppopents (expecting them to inexplicably crumble away) rather than being overawed by those with much higher ratings.

    All in all ratings are a bit of a mixed blessing imo. Necesary to organise tournaments etc. but also it can also be a bit annoying to have this number in the back of one's head when playing...

  • 4 years ago


    I agree with this. When I play blitz and bullet on, I try not to look at the rating and the points I will win or lose, and instead think about the fact that I am GOING to win the game, no matter what. As soon as you think, oh, I'm going to lose, you just don't play as sharp, and as a consequence, you do lose.

  • 4 years ago

    NM redchessman

    I am not really sure what exactly playing for a draw is.  The way I play chess there is like little to no tactics and the positions just become drawish.  As a result I have more draws than losses in uscf games.  If i ever win its because of like endgame technique or they are dropping material for no reason or something like that.  How would you diagnose this?  

  • 4 years ago


    When I was rated 1500 I beat several 2000+ players otb in a tournament by simply playing logical moves. I didn't reach many positions where deep calculations were necessary, but they just made some dobius moves or blundered and lost. When I finally reached a position I needed to calculate with several captures my opponent resigned before I realized I could win a piece. I think most players underestimated me and got a slightly worse position after the opening while I didn't fear them and was a bit underrated.

  • 4 years ago


    Well in some tournaments if people play for a draw, they usually lose. I was in a tournament where I had 5.0 out of 5, and was playing my last game. I didn't wanna play for a draw, I just played my style and eventually my opponent fell for a traop.

  • 4 years ago


    Once I had an opponent rated about 250 points above me and he played this opening just to be nice.

    Sadly, I was banned from the site before the game could finish, so I did not have a chance to see how it would finish.

  • 4 years ago


    I enjoyed this! Very interesting!  A lot of times, when I play a lower rated player, I always try "new" things and it sometimes gets me into real trouble.  But then I take it as a wake-up call so when the next game comes around, I don't get over confident. I relate it to when I ran track in school. No matter what the opponents strength in the race, always run your swiftest. 

  • 4 years ago


    I think this is more about respecting and not fearing your opponent. Both underestimating and overestimating your opponent is bad. The reason someone overestimate or underestimate their opponent is often based on ratings.

    If your rated much lower you overestimate your opponent and underestimate yourself. You will play cowardly (passive) and may use more time than necessary. If you are much higher rated you underestimate your opponent and overestimate yourself. You will play recklessly and use less time than necessary. You have to mature yourself to prevent this and often it is unavoidable to know your opponents rating. Both cases have happened to me, but it happens less often now, so I think I have learned my lesson. The best advice is to play the same way independent of your opponents rating (which was an advice from the article Wink)

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