What's in a rating?

What's in a rating?

Feb 11, 2011, 7:19 PM |

What's in a rating?

by Shuttlechess92


Anyone new to competitive chess, be it tournament play or online chess, will inevitably be faced with a weird number located very likely right above or below their username containing about 4 innocent looking digits.

I hope this blog will uncover what truly is behind the meaning of The Rating.


I am not going to mention the fact that ratings are a direct measure to playing strength or that ratings separate players into classes or that ratings are the backbone statistic of the chess player. Also, there is no deep analysis here. There are, however, simple but certain truths behind ratings that the reader might find interesting (and instructive!).


The rating as an average measure of skill

Ratings are a measure of the average game performance of a chess player. What is the key word in that sentence? If you thought it was chess, good enthusiasm, but in fact it is average. Ratings are a skill average - and simply that! A player's skill is based on his understanding of positions. The bold faced s in positions is not a visual illusion - ultimately what determines the result in any game position is who understands it better. Further, a player will not exhibit the same performance in all positions - he has strong and weak points. 

     For example, a 1230 player does not play with 1230 strength in all positions. He might, likely, play with +50 strength in positions he is familiar with - positions well within the realms of his opening preparations or positions suiting his particular playing style. On the other hand, he might play with -50 (sometimes more!) strength in positions he has little experience in: this is the so called "out of book" cloud.


rating as a measurement of practical strength

Going off the previous point, one could expect a player who always plays in his strengths will have a higher or inflated rating than his "true" strength. But, sadly, our opponents normally try to beat us (!) meaning that we are not always playing in our zone. Thus, there is another very important distinction that separates different rating classes.



          Class (and not the c++ data structure!): each rating group is split into a class  of 200 points which generalizes their skill level. A player rated 1850 falls into the "A" Class (1800-1999). Anyways, back to the main topic.


A greater understanding of all positions, especially the weak points, will lead to an increase in rating. Sounds obvious, doesn't it? But anyone who has lost a bewildering game to a pint sized genius brain child will satirically point out that weak points are "weak" for the reason of being hard to improve on. Thus, it might be best to not anger this major group of players and tell just how to improve one's overall understanding of chess.

  1. tactical training: important is constructing winning positions but even more important is executing the win at the precise moment it is available. A player missing tactical opportunities will be losing "won" games, and thus experience a significant loss in rating points.

    how to improve: tactical puzzle books (personal favorite: Forcing Chess Moves by Charles Hertan) and lots of experience!

  2. strategic planning: This has a significant difference from tactics in that instead of concrete calculations, planning focuses on general ideas: creating a weakness, attacking the weakness, winning the weakness (just one example made famous by none other than the Shakespeare of chess literature, Aron Nimzowitsch). The ability to evaluate any position and create a strategy will pay dividends.

    how to improve: get out a board (3D or 2D) and try your best to determine the way to proceed. Book recommendations: My system by Aron Nimzowitsch(him again!) and Reassess your chess by Jeremy Silman

  3. positional play: This one, however, is actually similar to strategic planning. I'll let this focus on positions where one player might think there is "nothing to do" while another player will see that it is a construction in progress. Instead of making moves that damage your position in an equal position (that becomes no longer equal after the moves...), positional understanding enables a player to maintain the balance or, ideally, improve his position.

    how to improve: study grandmaster games. Remember, there are roughly 25-30 moves in a typical chess game, not just the 5 moves that win - or lose - the game. Pick one player that for whatever reason perks your interest - open up a database of that player, get some popcorn, then enjoy!

In order to consistently move up the rating ladder, a player must constantly be improving in all of these three categories - lacking in any of the categories means a lower understanding of a great number of positions.


Ratings are, indeed, more than a number. They answer the question: So what do YOU see in this position?

2800? Nice one Magnus.