The Rankings of Chess

The rankings of chess, formally known as the Chess Rating System, is a complex and fascinating set of systems- created with the intention of honoring certain top players. There is a public misconception that the ratings are universal, although in reality, there are actually different rankings belonging to different chess clubs, federations and countries. This is somewhat confusing for chess novices, but interesting nonetheless, as it contributes to the rich and diverse history of the game.

So what, exactly, does having federation or national based systems mean? It means that the English Chess Federation has a different rating system to the USA ICCF, meaning that their players could hold completely different titles, and be ranked on completely different merits. This can create some confusion, although below we outline in detail the different systems, as well as any similarities between them- so you won't be confused for long.

The rankings of chess: in a nutshell

In a nutshell, there are 3 main chess rating systems (and several other notable ones) that are of interest to major chess players. These 3 rating systems have evolved throughout the years, and historical systems have also become irrelevant in the process. However, as of 2016, the top 3 rating systems are as follows:

Ingo Rating

This is a relatively old rating system, devised in the late 1940s, by a German man named Anton Hoesslinger. This system was used widely throughout Germany, and basically follows the principle that the player with the lowest rating is the stronger player. The formula is as follows:

R (player's new rating) = O (average opponent's rating) - ( W (players winning ration in a percentage) - 50 ).

Harkness Rating

The Harkness Rating was named after its creator, Kenneth Harkness. Kenneth Harkness was a chess organizer, and a player that devised a system that was primarily used by the US Chess Federation in the 1950s and 60s.

The system is relative simple, and dictates than when a player participates in any tournament, their rating will be computed after the game. If they score over 50%, then their rating is 50 plus 10 points per percentage above 50. If they score below, the same principle applies, but 10 points are subtracted. If they score 50%, then this is their final score.

ELO System

The Elo rating system was named after Hungarian physicist Arpad Elo, and is perhaps the most famous rating system, as it's used by the English Chess Federation; the USCF (United States Chess Federation) and most importantly FIDE which is also referred to as the World Chess Organization.

Because this system is used by so many groups, it's widely viewed as the most prestigious rating systems. Most international chess players will work towards achieving the highest ranking possible, as this is considered an impressive achievement on a worldwide scale.

The system itself is very complicated, and involves a number of different formulas. The physics behind the system can be found extensively online, but the basic idea is that a player's rating is directly affected by their performance in each game. Each score is then associated with a FIDE title, which is a whole other system.

FIDE Titles: The masters of chess

Those unfamiliar with the complex systems mentioned above are not alone, as these rankings are somewhat niche, and are used primarily by players who are competing in a very professional setting.

However, most amateur chess players are well acquainted with various titles given to great players, that involve the word 'Master' or 'Grandmaster'. These titles are given by FIDE, the World Chess Federation, and the highest possible title a player can receive is the coveted 'Grandmaster' position. The Grandmaster position is one of honor, and will be outlined in detail below.

Each of the titles are performance based. All of the systems rate players exclusively on their performance, which means that speed; technique or any other factors are not taken into consideration. Ultimately, your ranking is dependent on you winning as many games as possible. This is somewhat criticized by those who view chess as more than just a game, and as somewhat of art form. However, most players agree that this is a fair system that ranks on general ability. What's more, ranking on performance is also easier for computers to process, which reduces the risk of human error- which further adds to the fairness of the system.

Interestingly, FIDE does not rank by gender, and women can receive the same titles as men. This is somewhat of an anomaly in sports and activities, as most will create different categories for competitors based on gender. This is an element of chess that is widely praised by female competitors worldwide, and that is considered appealing to prospective female players, who may be encouraged by the prospect of competing on the same level as their male opponents.

However, somewhat confusingly, women can also receive titles that are exclusively designed for their gender- alongside the 'Open Titles' given to men. This means that a woman could hold the title of Grandmaster, while also holding the title of Women's Grandmaster, if they so choose to. This is a recent addition, and one designed to give women a lower bar of achievement compared to men. It has been met with some controversy, particularly as chess is not a physical sport, and therefore men have no conventional advantage over women.

The Open Titles are ranked as follows:

Grandmaster (GM) - This is the highest title awarded by FIDE, and one of the two most prestigious titles in the world. Most Grandmaster will keep their title throughout their career, and players are never stripped of it, as this is somewhat of an honorary title.

International Master (IM) - International Master is a step below GM, and FIDE refers to this as a title for 'strong' players. Much like Grandmaster, this is title held by players for life.

Fide Master - Players with an Elo rating of over 2300 are entitled to receive this award.

Candidate Master - This is the 'lowest' ranking in terms of FIDE titles, but still an impressive accomplishment nonetheless.

All of the above titles are also given to women, using titles such as Woman Grandmaster and Woman Candidate Master. These titles have a qualifying score that's roughly 200 points below the Open Titles. However, many acclaimed female players have opted not to claim these titles, on the basis that they would like to be considered as equals to male players. The Women's titles are therefore optional, and are somewhat less prestigious, considering that many female Grandmasters have chosen not to incorporate these titles into their career.

Too many masters: title inflation

Chess is a well respected activity, that demonstrates logic and intellect, and showcases a wide range of psychological capabitlies. This prestigious activity has grown in popularity, particularly as online programs have become available, and players are able to practice from the comfort of their homes instead of joining clubs or having to interact with actual opponents.

As the number of players have increased, so has the amount of Grandmasters. Throughout the years, a growing number of professional chess players have gained momentum, and their impressively high scores have resulted in FIDE awarding master titles to an increasingly large pool of players. This, however, led to a problem referred to as 'Title inflation'.

According to various sources, 2008 was a record year for Grandmasters. FIDE had awarded 1,192 titles. This led to widespread speculation that the title had lost value, because so many people held it. Some people suggested that Super Grandmasters or Elite Grandmasters should be implemented, as a step above the GM, although this was never formally introduced by FIDE. However, some players are unofficially referred to as Super Grandmasters by those who hold Grandmaster titles themselves- purely as a way to distinguish abilities.

The serious business of ratings

Despite inflation, Grandmasters are still regarded as qualified professionals, and their titles are not taken lightly. FIDE titles are serious business, and players who hold these titles are sponsored by huge companies. They are also respected on an international scale, and in many countries, such as Armenia, they are viewed as celebrities by those who surround them.

It takes time, and many years, for a player to work their way up to a GM title- although they may receive titles from other federations or systems in the process.

However, it should be noted that there are always exceptions, and certain chess prodigies were known to receive the GM title in their early teens or twenties. For example, 12 year old Ukrainian player Sergey Karjakin received the Grandmaster title in 2002. This was a rare and shocking example of how chess is often a reflection of logic, reason and intellect- and that some of these talents can be learned very quickly if the player has the capacity to do so. Therefore, the FIDE titles are often attributed to very young players, who subsequently deserve and certainly receive the same respect as their elder counterparts.

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