Saturday, April 8, 2017

Perfect Where You Are

Years ago, I was helping a young player I had met on the internet with his chess. We had informal lessons, and we would go over master games together. This relationship continued for about three months, and we met weekly.

I started to make an odd observation - my young friend never played any rated games. However, every week, he would ask me some version of the question, "What strength do you think I am?"

My answer was the same: "Play some rated games and find out."

He kept complaining about not "being ready." Despite my encouragement, he never made the leap. We stopped meeting together, due to some mutual changes in our schedule. A couple months later, he wrote to me. I no longer have the original message, but here was the paraphrased message:
Thank you for our time together. I really appreciate it. I have started taking lessons with a grandmaster, who has been very helpful. Although I do not feel I am ready to play rated games, he assures me that I am a 'Class B' player. That would make me as strong as you! I hope you are doing well, etc. etc.
Well, I was happy for my friend (whom I will refer to as Joe for the rest of the article) and I wished him well, but I looked him up on the chess server and again noticed that he had not played any rated games!

What is the point of me telling you this story? Well, there are a few lessons here which I will share.

Worrying about Ratings

Ratings are important...and not important. Ratings are a measure of performance. However, in and of themselves, they only tell us so much. There are general conclusions we might be able to conclude. For example, the training needs of someone rated USCF 2000 are a lot different than someone rated USCF 1000. However, in between there is a lot of variance with regard to the needs of players.

When Joe asked me what I thought his rating was, I think he was looking for validation. The problem is that unless you actually play rated games, you cannot judge a person's ratings, because of performance factors.

For example, he might have master level knowledge of openings, middlegame, and endgame, but if he gets really nervous or impulsive during actual competition, his performance might be a lot lower than his knowledge level.

Ratings are descriptive in nature. They are a result of good results that are a manifestation of your knowledge and skills in the opening, middlegame, and endgame as well as performance areas such as attention, endurance, composure, and clock management. Ultimately, your rating should follow your overall strength.

However, your rating is not prescriptive in nature. Your rating does not tell me about what your needs are to improve. Two players may have the exact same ratings, but may have very different strengths and weaknesses. Here are just a few areas where the players may have differing levels even with the same rating:

  • Opening repertoire development
  • Calculation skill
  • Clock management
  • Composure - staying calm under pressure
  • Playing frequency
  • Endgame skill
  • Planning
The point is that worrying about your rating doesn't have much of a practical purpose. However, it may have a psychological purpose to players - as I believe was the case with Joe.

Being Honest with Yourself

I recently had an unpleasant experience at a recent tournament. I had won in the first three rounds of the tournament and was tied for first place going into the final two rounds. However, I lost the last two games and finished 11th out of 56. This is not a bad result, but I was very disappointed in myself. Why? Because I was the highest rated player in my section and the first seed in the tournament and I expected to win.

After a day or so, I was able to distance myself emotionally from the result and about to look at my games and my performance. I found the following areas that need additional improvement - at least relative to my other skills:
  • Opening repertoire - there were some clear holes in my understanding in several of my openings systems.
  • Avoiding pawn structure weaknesses around my king - although this seems basic, I overvalued the dynamic nature of pawn structure weaknesses. Interestingly, this is something my coach had pointed out.
  • Endurance/Energy management - After 10 hours of chess on day one of the tournament, I was "spent" on day two, and the quality of my chess moves went down dramatically.
There were a few areas of strength as well! 
  • Endgame play - in two games where we reached clear endgames, I outplayed my opponents to win.
  • Composure/Fighting back in bad positions - In all three of my victories, I had even or worse positions coming out of the opening. However, I stayed tough and active in defense.
Here is the point. I couldn't have discovered these things about my game if I didn't play in the tournament. The "payment" for these insights was the emotional roller coaster of victory and defeat. Your chess strength can't exist in a vacuum. There is no such thing as a "closet Grandmaster."

Perfect Where You Are

"At what point in a flower's life, from seed to full bloom, has it reached perfection?"
~Thomas Sterner, The Practicing Mind

So what is the solution? I think it's the nonjudgmental acceptance of where you are. Realize that you have strengths and weaknesses in your chess. Fortunately, for the most part you can improve your weaknesses! 

The mistake that Joe made and one I have made (and probably will make) is the desire for validation from other people. He didn't get it from me, so he found a grandmaster who was able to give it to him. 

Instead, embrace the totality of your chess skill. The more you can accept where you are and realize that it truly is the only place you can be, the more you can actually move towards improvement.

Why? We need to be honest about our needs before we will seek out the knowledge and improve it. I remember taking a chess lesson about 15 years ago and my instructor telling me that the books I was studying were too advanced for me. I was offended, and my refusal to seek out appropriate material probably hindered my development. Fortunately, I have gotten over that weakness but many people do not.

Remember that you are perfect where you are. The only validation you need is that which you give yourself. Accept your strengths and your areas that need improvement. Don't worry about your ratings, and don't fear playing rated games against strong players. 

Do these things and continue your study and training of our beautiful game, and you'll find yourself on the path to better chess.

Your Turn

Do you ever worry about your ratings? 

Have you ever had a "blind spot" that hindered you from taking the steps you needed to improve?

Share your thoughts in the comments.



  1. Bryan

    Thanks for another nice and thought provoking article! Well done my friend.

    You are referring to Joe and I think I can give some explanations why he avoided playing games to be sure about his REAL rating.

    1. There is a group of people who stay away from REAL fight and they are simply afraid of the final result.

    Let's say Joe thinks he is A or B-class player because GM X evaluated his strenght at such level. He has to play a few tournaments to make sure of this statements and the problems begin...

    a) he lost (and drew) a few games against players with the C and D classes
    b) he could not realize the winning advantage against some C and B players even if it was "pretty easy"
    c) he missed a lot of opportunities to checkmate his C and D opponents and a few ones against these B or even A-class players

    And the final conclusions: Joe rather wants to stay away from competition because he is afraid of showing his weaknesses to himself (and others if they can see the games due to the public access to these).

    What do you think of such scenario?

    BTW. I will make a few more comments soon. This topic is very interesting to me! :)

    1. Your comment is very interesting as always, my friend. Just as a clarification, I have no problem with people who do not want to play tournament chess. I love it of course, but it is not for everyone.

      I think your scenarios are very telling though. These problems in terms of losing in winning positions or missing checkmate opportunities are part of one's "strength."

      A player's strength is not just his knowledge. Again, if one only wants to work on improving his knowledge (although this will also help him improve overall), this is of course fine.

      I see chess as a tool to illuminate the strengths and weaknesses of a person in general. Of course, it is not a perfect tool, and perhaps I am overestimating the value of chess, but how one performs under pressure in chess tells a lot of a person - in particular when one's performance doesn't match one's "knowledge."

      Another point behind the article is that it is perhaps not very helpful to estimate one's strength - one must fight over the board and thus one will find their strength/rating.

  2. Another variation of this are those who try to estimate one rating based on another. For example, using their or ICC rating to estimate a FIDE rating. Again, there are issues as the player pools and playing conditions are much different. Playing casually at your computer, one may be more relaxed than when playing in tournament conditions.

  3. Your article is very well thought! I have big problems to find out "a hole" inside it. Anyway I will try to comment some parts and maybe I can make some interesting points.

    1) Do you ever worry about your ratings?
    Yes, I do. I worry about my rating when it goes down TOO MUCH. It means I experience some problems and probably I should have find some solutions to solve these.

    No, I stopped worrying about my rating. I had been doing that for the period of 18 years. Since last year I simply decided to QUIT being glued (obssesed) with the rating and started enjoying chess and the process I am involved in! Nowadays I am trying hard to do my best and be happy with the flow - playing chess, relaxing and having fun - all in one!

    2) Have you ever had a "blind spot" that hindered you from taking the steps you needed to improve?
    Yes, definitely! I have been trying hard NOT to play against (much) higher ratings because "I will lose my precious rating"! Beside that I was trying to PRESERVE my best (highest) rating because "I can feel proud, others will be jealous about that and I will be praised because of high rating". It was extremally stupid idea and simply naive approach (attitude).

  4. What's more about ratings? I love manipulating these and test where is the weakest points of these.

    Recently I finished playing 100 games match against my friend. We played long time control games (45+45) at FICS (chess server).

    The final result was: +91 -1 =8. The overall winning ration was 95% in my favour. My opponent was rated 1630-1770 and I - at the range of 1920-2110. We were playing the match for a period of 2 (or maybe even 3) years.

    What I noticed is the possibility to boost your rating to the "very high level" (2100) without the necesssity of playing against strong players. I have played against players with the average rating in the pool of 1840 and this way I reached 2080-2100 level. The only thing is to play very well against these players as every loses count.

    What I want to show (prove) is being rated 2000 does NOT mean you are the same strength (level) as player rated 2000. One can play against players 1800 and reach 2000 and the other can play against players 2100-2200 and reach exactly the same rating.

    One of the best way to estimate any player's rating is to give him at least 10 different opponents and ask him to play at least 100 games (10 games against each opponent) with the same (or very similar) time control. This way we can see how well our player can manage the games.

    I think I can write much more, but I need your help. If you could ask me some questions or topics to discuss (in the scope of this article) I could share my thoughts and experience with you with pleasure.

    BTW. Chess is a fascinating subject and I really like disussing it with the people who shares the same level of love (or dedication/obsession?!) as me ;) :).

    1. Your match against your friend illustrates why we shouldn't worry about ratings IF our goal is to improve at chess. As you say, we need diversification in our opposition as well as many games.

      This is why for measurement purposes, I do not really consider internet ratings - although they may be meaningful on an individual level - e.g. you can use it to track your progress if you play different opponents, etc.

      If any rating "means" anything to me, I consider the national federation (in my case US Chess Federation) or FIDE ratings, because all of these games come from tournaments, and FOR THE MOST PART you have no determination of who your opponent is.

      That being said, mastery of chess or improvement can come in many forms, and one's rating is only a manifestation. If you get better at chess, you will improve your rating. However, one can artificially boost one's rating without improving their chess - e.g. play a slightly weaker opponent over and over again.

    2. A lot of times, the concerns of ratings is one of ego. This happens to me as well and it is something I try to resist. For example, on my Youtube channel, one of my subscribers mentioned their Chess Tempo ratings, and of course I had to include mine in my response. I didn't really have to, but I think my EGO wanted him to know my rating.

      Part of this is lack of confidence perhaps. As I mentioned before, chess (and I think other activities as well) expose one's character - unfortunately the flaws as well as the strengths.