When Michael Koufakis sat down to play Timmy Wang, another third grader, in the fifth round of the Elementary National Championship in Atlanta in early May, Timmy startled Michael by asking, “What’s your real rating?”
Michael was confused. They were in a section of the event reserved for unrated novices, those who had never played in tournaments run by the United States Chess Federation, the game’s governing body.
“I don’t know,” Michael said.
Timmy volunteered, “Mine’s one thousand four hundred” — the level of an adult club player.
Michael said he was shocked. “I tried to play real hard,” he said, “but I think he knew my opening.” Michael lost — his only loss of the tournament.
Parents whose children play in national championships are calling this an unfair practice: unranked novices in federation events facing players like Timmy, who have been rated by state organizations.
To the thousands of young players, their parents and the groups that govern chess, such players could be called ringers, the equivalent of the over-age pitcher in a Little League baseball game. But unlike baseball, where the tip-off to an older player is his size or athletic prowess, it is impossible to tell the best chess players simply by looking at them.
Ratings, a measure of performance and skill (the higher the rating, the better the player), are the only clue.
In the unrated section in Atlanta, Timmy, a student at Stevenson Elementary, a public school and scholastic chess powerhouse in Bellevue, Wash., was not the only one from his school who was rated by Washington. So were his three teammates.
Stevenson tied for first place with Public School 166 in Manhattan, Michael’s school, but Stevenson finished first on tie-breaks. Carlos Mercado, a parent at P.S. 166, said that some of the school’s children were very upset after losing to the children from Stevenson.
“They came away feeling that this tournament wasn’t really fair for them,” Mr. Mercado said. “It is not the kind of lesson that I would expect them to learn about life from a game that is supposed to be fair.”
Parents were also upset because Stevenson had children with very high state ratings playing in federation sections with rating caps. They won those sections, too.
Did the Stevenson players cheat? Not by the federation’s current standards.
The dual ratings have led to discussions in the federation about how to change the rating requirements for the championships. Among the proposals are to eliminate unrated sections and to require that children play a minimum number of federation-rated tournaments before the nationals so that uniform ratings can be established.
The problem has festered for years because the federation does not want to recognize systems like Washington State’s that compete with its own. People can get federation ratings only by joining it and playing in its tournaments, as Stevenson has done. But in the end, the problem that the federation faces is that it risks alienating children from other states, costing it memberships.
Scholastic chess is the lifeblood of the federation. Bill Hall, the federation’s executive director, said that more than half of its revenue was from memberships and that last year, for the first time, more than half of those fees came from younger members.
Up to now, the state ratings systems have allowed children in those states to play in local tournaments, gaining practical experience, and then compete in national championships with far-lower federation ratings.
Having a high rating is a source of bragging rights, but keeping ratings low has benefits.
Beatriz Marinello, a member of the Scholastic Council, the United States Chess Federation’s rule-making body for scholastic chess, compared the practice to one in which adult players lose ratings points before big tournaments to compete in easier sections with large cash prizes.
“It is a version of sandbagging,” Ms. Marinello said. “In this case, they underrepresent their ratings to win trophies.”
Stevenson has become particularly adept at winning the kindergarten-through-fifth-grade under 900 section, taking the title in 2008, 2009 and 2010, and always by wide margins. Its students are also successful in sections with no rating caps. This year, its team finished second in the kindergarten-through-fifth-grade uncapped championship section.
Two years ago, Michael Neitman, a co-chairman of the Scholastic Council, said he was aware of the problem but no one had complained about the dual ratings issue. “We are not about to open up cans of worms,” he said.
Problems arose, however, in early May at the elementary school championships in Atlanta.
Elliott Neff, Stevenson’s coach, said that his team was not trying to manipulate the system. He said that the Washington rating system was free and that many parents did not want to pay the federation’s annual membership fee of about $15 when they were unsure whether their children would continue to compete.
For many Stevenson children, Mr. Neff said, the tournament in Atlanta was their first national event, which is why they chose to play in the lower-rated sections if they qualified. “They are young kids,” he said. “They want to play in the best section they can and score well.”
The question of whether it would be fair for them to play in the lower sections “never came up,” he said.
Mr. Neff said he was puzzled about what had happened between Timmy and Michael.
“We coach our team not to ask about ratings and not to think or talk about ratings,” he said. “That obviously was not a good situation.”
New York Times.
Nice article; thanks ichart for posting it here. It seems some (overdue!) improvement(s) are in order as far as the rating system goes. Sportsmanship is important throughout life, and this scenario with Timmy & Michael clearly sends an unsportsmanlike message to youngsters (& to everyone else as well).
Uhmmm, they're all kids... you can't exclude other kids just because they've received a formal rating...
In the end, it's all about how good the kids are, and if they can win the game, then why does it matter what their rating is?
I'd feel cheated too if I made it all the way to the finals then lost to some guy bragging about his rating, especially if I didn't know what a rating was, but that doesn't make entering rated kids against the rules, and I don't see any reason it should.
“It is not the kind of lesson that I would expect them to learn about life from a game that is supposed to be fair.”
So he is trying to teach his kids that life is fair?
I have little to no knowledge of the formal tournament structure so forgive my ignorance here.
Was there a different youth division Timmy would have been playing in if his state rating had been recognized? If there is a ranked and unranked youth division, I can see why the parents would be upset(with the organization) because a kid was playing in a lower division then he should have. However, if we are talking parents upset because a kid won because he had more experience it doesn't seem like a big problem.
The problem is that nearly every state has a school league agency for all school activities. One of the rule almost all have is that no student may be required to join any outside group to participate in scholastic events.
So the kids CANNOT be rated by USCF, because all players in any event must be members. Even though cheap scholastic memberships are available, the states forbid requiring them. So some states make up their own rating system, based on the USCF one. What else can they do if they want ratings for the kids?
In USCF tournaments, "unrated" sections and prizes are for those unrated by USCF or another country, so state ratings don't count.
@Loved - totally agree with you about sportsmanship being the corner stone of every sportsman's character...
@Sweagen - the point is, a rated player should not participate in a tournament that is meant for amateurs. To me this is a breach of trust issue.
@Yakushi12345 - It is both a matter of process consistency and also personal integrity, on one hand I can blame the system for having so many different rating systems, on the other hand the player should also participate in the section that suits his/her historic rating...
@Estragon - Your reason is accurate, however that still does not make a wrong right, does it...
I think an important distinction should be made first, that scholastic chess isn't really chess -- it's chess taught for other benefits like memory, math scores, concentration, or whatever it is they've come up with. USCF rated chess is competitive chess and completely different. Individuals there compete in chess for the love of the game. While it's true there's nothing to prevent a scholastic player from being just as interested and motivated in chess itself, scholastic organizers are organizing for kids and for scholastics in general, not for chess, as an organizer for adult events would be. Why do you think that one 1600 rated kid or one 1800 rated kid will win 99.99% of their games (unless it's a national tourney).
I mean, I guess it's too bad to have these "ringers" (players who actually play chess) compete in the scholastic events -- but again it goes back to the organizers who aren't organizing chess events as much as they're organizing scholastic activities. If the kids keep their interest and later take up chess "for real" they can look back and understand what happened. If the organizers were interested in chess to begin with, this wouldn't happen -- but as their more concerned with an extracurricular that boosts sportsmanship, critical thinking, and looks good on paper for their school, chess specific things like ratings (and actual playing strength) quickly become unimportant.
Which is a long winded way of saying, I think it's just the nature of the (scholastic) game.
@Ivandh - The fact that life is not fair is a no brainer, however a having a faulty system is by no means acceptable...
As a scholastic player myself, I understand the mindset one has if they're paired with an unrated player; if they win, their rating won't go up much, and if they lose, you won't hear the end of it. Thus, the federation should be trying to lower the number of unrated players (so only genuinely new players are unrated). And kids intentionally sand-bagging is even worse.
However, there's the problem of how state rankings translate into USCF ratings. They're entirely different pools with entirely different standards. You can't base it off how players with certain state ratings perform in USCF events, because rating isn't indicative of actual playing strength.
While it may be a (minor) problem, there's no point in using an innacurate solution.
I agree with you that no solution is at times better than an inaccurate one, however it is definitely not a minor problem...
Chess future of so many unrated players cannot be an issue that can be overlooked...
kids needs love not reason...
This is simply one of the resons that USCF is failing. This definetly isn't new and has been going on long before I was born. I expect no changes.
In the school I went to, the USCF memberships were paid by the school. That way no one has an excuse. And why shouldn't it be paid by the school? How is it different from any other sport, where you have to pay for coaches, equipment, etc?
It's not "cool"...
That's just silly.
agree with u on that, ichart, an' they also needs to be left to their own devices - it a whole different story if they is bein' manipulated by adults though
my friend, is life worthy of being taken seriously...
I can't imagine my life being taken seriously, so you are on point there. But, 'love over reason', is probably why I feel this way.
You said it...
Love over reason and live beyond reason...