The rating game

FEBRUARY 26 — With Chinese New Year almost over, it is time to take a break from the festivities and get back to our regular lives.

For the local chess community—largely children but with some diehard hobbyists too—this  includes the MSSM (National Schools Chess Championships) which is just starting and with MCF (Malaysian Chess Federation) insisting on running its National Championships followed by the National Age Group Championships during the short March school break, it is going to a busy time for the kids.

Did I say kids? Well yes, because the vast majority in local chess are children and even the National Chess Championship (as it has been for years now) is organised for them!

Are the people who run MCF on a day-to-day basis getting their priorities wrong or at least skewered? Not really if you remember they do chess for a living using the credentials of a national body and that parents pay their bills.

I have already touched upon the use of the national rating system—instead of the universal FIDE (World Chess Federation) international rating system—to determine who qualifies to represent Malaysia and the vested interests prevailing as it is owned not by MCF but by a less than expert individual doing this without oversight and who naturally collects so-called rating fees from organisers. 

What I find amazing is that the national rating system is also mixed as it does not differentiate between the three forms of chess which is blitz, rapid and standard and yet it purports to determine for selection who is most qualified (the stronger players at a point in time) for the standard form of the game.

Someone recently pointed out to me also that in some cases, MCF allows a FIDE rating to be a secondary or even alternative measure but it is benchmarked as much as 150 rating points more than the local rating system which is simply unbelievable.

A quick comparison of the few or even past national rating systems used elsewhere (they have largely closed down or are closing down in favour of FIDE’s system) shows that all have made efforts to keep both their and FIDE’s rating systems in sync but this is not the case in Malaysia.

The administrator-owner does not have the skills (let alone the credibility and standing) to make the needed adjustments which can cater for both rating inflation and deflation within a pool of players within any rating system.

Keeping players in the list started with using their FIDE ratings, taking results from different time controls, and being selective of which international results to include has clearly make a bad situation even worst.

But when it gives you an income, it is in one’s interest to list as many players as possible and to take whatever you can get from whichever local organiser.

FIDE too has always faced challenges with its rating system; when first devised by Arpad Elo it was a statistical method to predict a score between two players and adopted by first the USCF (United States Chess Federation) before it was accepted by FIDE in 1970.

Very important is Elo’s central assumption that the chess performance of each player in each game is a normally distributed random variable. Although a player might perform significantly better or worst from one game to the next, Elo assumed the mean value of the performances of any given player changes only slowly over time.

Elo thought of a player’s true skill as the mean of that player’s random variable.

There is always talk about ratings inflation and when there are numbers, one cannot but help use to compare the champions through the ages.

None of that makes sense if taken seriously but is good fun and helps justify one’s preference. For example the neverending debate if Fischer could have beaten Kasparov and if Carlsen with the highest ever recorded rating is the best?

I think that the first thing that everyone needs to appreciate (or at least remember) is that a player’s performance is relative and so is only measured against that of his peers. The second thing that should also be understood well is that players do peak and decline and so during a meeting between generations, it is possible their real strengths are obscured by age which is the biggest factor.

Those who are more qualified than others regarding the FIDE rating system do not seem to be in serious disagreement.

Most agree than the real 2300-2400 players of the past are mostly underrated by around 80-120 points and that the Grandmaster requirements today should probably be 2600 and not 2500 and that the real inflation is at the very top level.

In fact it has become so ridiculous at the high 2700 and 2800 level that one great former World Champion has recently been giving his opinion that the top players today are not in the same league as when he played at his best. I personally think he has a point even if I do think players would have developed differently at different times and the chess played today is very different too.

On the lowering of the rating ceiling to make the FIDE rating system a universal system, FIDE has now implemented a high K (multiplication) factor for players under 18 years of age until they reach or pass 2300 and already one young Malaysian player has taken full advantage of this change. There is no reason why our young talents if they claim to be anywhere as underrated as they are have no excuse now not to prove their supposed level.

Locals, like their amateur counterparts globally, are obsessed with ratings and while I think that kind of thinking is self defeating, then it should be about FIDE and not local ratings.

We have a large number of players around 2000, the best amongst them at 2100+, proof that the system works but the problem is if they play each other most of the time then nothing much will change. 

Our best young (senior?) player Yeoh Li Tian does not play international junior events but does play everything else and he is a 2300+. His only real rival is Aron Teh who other than having to qualify to play for his country plays only in big opens and other international competitions.

If these young players can prove their quality then the many who like to believe their kids are in the same league or not so far away might want to rethink their emotions as their logic does not stand up.

I would also like to end here by pointing out that all our senior players who have proven themselves time and again in both local and international competitions over the years have ratings in the 2300 region too but the fact is we all know who are the better players.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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