by Sam Sloan

I happened to be a delegate at the USCF meeting in St. Louis in 1960 when Professor Elo's proposed modifications to the established rating system were first introduced. I was the only person who voted against Professor Elo's proposed changes to the rating system. The reason I voted against was that, under the changes proposed by Professor Elo, the rating system would move slower. As I was still a kid (I was 15 at the time) I believed that my rating would go up quickly and therefore I wanted the older, faster moving system to remain.

The first National Chess Rating list was published in the December 1950 issue of Chess Review magazine, page 354. The first list covered 2306 players and 582 tournaments covering a 30 year period ending on July 31, 1950. The system was devised by Kenneth Harkness. The first rating statistician was William Byland of Texas. He did all of his calculations by hand. The starting point of the rating system was that every player who had an even score in the US Open started with a rating of 2000. The ratings were then calculated backwards and forwards until there was a rating for every player.

The basics of the rating system was that if you achieved an even score in a tournament, your performance rating was the rating of your average opponent. If you got a plus score, your performance rating was the average rating of your opponents plus 10 points for each percentage point of your score above 50%. Thus, if you scored 75%, your performance rating would be 250 points more than the average rating of your opponents. If you scored 100%, your performance rating would be 500 points more than the average rating of your opponents. If you achieved a minus score, the opposite would be true.

Note that this is almost exactly the same as the present system we have today. The only difference is that nowadays, if you score 100% your performance rating is 400 points above the average of your opponents (not 500 points). Similarly, if you score 75%, your performance rating is 200 points above the average of your opponents (not 250 points). In this respect, Elo's modifications to the rating system did not change the system much.

The big change which Elo introduced was that a player's rating went up or down game by game. Under the old system, if you played only one tournament of at least five games within a six month rating period, your performance rating in that one tournament was averaged with the old rating to create your new rating. For example, if you had a rating of 1800 and played only one tournament and had a performance rating of 2000 in that tournament, then your new rating would be 1900. If, however, during that rating period, you had two performances of 2000, then your new rating would be 1933.

The weaknesses of this system are readily apparent. Only round robin or Swiss system tournaments of at least 5 games counted. If a player played four games and then dropped out, presumably his rating would not be affected.

Under the Elo system, each game, rather than each tournament, was rated, except that all the games in a single tournament were rated as a group. If you played an opponent with the same rating as you and won, you gained 16 points and he lost 16 points. If your opponent was 200 points higher than you, and you won, you gained 24 points and he lost 24 points. If you lost, you lost 8 points and he gained 8 points. If you drew, you gained 8 points and he lost 8 points. Note that the sum of what you stood to gain and what you stood to lose always equaled 32. This is now known as the "K" factor. Also note that if you played in a tournament of exactly 12 1/2 games, then your new rating would be exactly the average of your existing rating and your performance rating in the 12.5 game tournament. (Please work this out, if you cannot see this right away.) That is the system which we have today, with only minor modifications, such as a lower "K" factor for higher rated players.

Here are the highest rated players on the first USCF rating list. This list was as of July 31, 1950:

Reuben Fine 2817

Samuel Reshevsky 2770

Alexander Kevitz 2610

Arthur W. Dake 2598

A. C. Simonson 2596

Fred Reinfeld 2593

Arnold S. Denker 2575

Isaac Kashdan 2574

I. A. Horowitz 2558

Abraham Kupchik 2538

David S. Polland 2521

George N. Treysman 2521

Larry Evans 2484

Herbert Seidman 2451

Max Pavey 2442

George Shainswit 2442

Albert S. Pincus 2422

Arthur S. Bisguier 2394

George Kramer 2394

Herman Steiner 2394

Donald Byrne 2392

Weaver W. Adams 2383

H. Hahlbohm 2376

A. E. Santasiere 2368

Robert Byrne 2352

Hermann V. Hesse 2352

Six months later, the second USCF rating list came out. This was published in the April, 1951 issue of Chess Review, page 103. There were few changes from the first list, because there were not many tournaments in those days. Anybody who had not played since January 1, 1948 was not on the new list. Here is the new list of top players:

Reuben Fine 2817

Samuel Reshevsky 2734

Arthur W. Dake 2598

I. A. Horowitz 2558

Isaac Kashdan 2494

Larry Evans 2484

Herbert Seidman 2451

Max Pavey 2442

George Shainswit 2442

Arnold S. Denker 2431

Albert S. Pincus 2422

Arthur S. Bisguier 2394

George Kramer 2394

Donald Byrne 2392

Weaver W. Adams 2383

Herman Steiner 2355

Robert Byrne 2352

Hermann V. Hesse 2352

.......

A. E. Santasiere 2333

Note that something important is happening here. The rating of every player either stayed the same or went down. Not a single player gained rating points. Kevitz, Simonson, Reinfeld, Kupchik, Polland, Treysman and Hahlbohm dropped off of the list due to inactivity. Fine, Dake, Horowitz, Kashdan, Evans, Seidman, Pavey, Shainswit, Pincus, Bisguier, Kramer, Donald Byrne, Adams, Robert Byrne and Hesse stayed the same. Denker lost 144 rating points!!! Steiner lost 39 points. Reshevsky lost 36 points. Santasiere lost 35 points.

The third USCF rating list was published in Chess Review for November, 1951, page 327. This list was as of July 31, 1951. Here are the top players:

Samuel Reshevsky 2747

Reuben Fine 2711

I. A. Horowitz 2565

Larry Evans 2554

Arthur W. Dake 2539

Arnold S. Denker 2504

Robert Byrne 2465

George Shainswit 2444

Isaac Kashdan 2441

Max Pavey 2441

Arthur S. Bisguier 2421

Albert S. Pincus 2421

George Kramer 2396

Donald Byrne 2391

Weaver W. Adams 2390

Edward Lasker 2378

D. H. Mugridge 2359

Edward Schwartz 2358

Albert N. Sandrin 2356

.........

Herman Steiner 2340

........

Hermann V. Hesse 2322

.......

A. E. Santasiere 2304

Now, we see some big changes. The biggest change is the drop of Fine of 106 points!!! Dake loses 59 points. Denker recovers 73 points. Evans, Bisguier and Robert Byrne, all still just kids, move up fast. Evans, who wins the 1951 US Championship, gains 70 points. Robert Byrne gains 113 points. Bisguier gains 27 points. Established player Hesse loses 30 points and Santasiere loses 29 points.

The fourth USCF rating list was published in the April 1952 Chess Review, page 103. It is as of December 31, 1951. Here are the top players:

Samuel Reshevsky 2734

Reuben Fine 2676

Larry Evans 2660

I. A. Horowitz 2545

Arthur W. Dake 2510

Arnold S. Denker 2504

Max Pavey 2502

Robert Byrne 2462

Isaac Kashdan 2455

Alexander Kevitz 2450

Herbert Seidman 2447

George Shainswit 2444

Arthur S. Bisguier 2428

Herman Steiner 2427

George Kramer 2413

Albert N. Sandrin 2363

Donald Byrne 2359

D. H. Mugridge 2359

Sidney Bernstein 2358

Edward Schwartz 2358

Milton Hanauer 2352

A. C. Simonson 2352

.......

Edward Lasker 2342

A. E. Santasiere 2342

Albert S. Pincus 2341

........

Hermann V. Hesse 2322

.......

Weaver W. Adams 2305

Now, we see more big changes and swings. Fine drops another 35 points. Larry Evans, aged 19, gains 106 points!!! Dake drops 29 points. Pavey gains 61 points. Kevitz, Seidman and Simonson return to the list after periods of inactivity.

Throughout this period, a player rated over 2700 was called a grandmaster, as player rated over 2500 was a senior master, a player over 2300 was a master and a player over 2100 was an expert.

As can be seen from the above figures, the general trend of the rating system was down. Established players such as Fine and Dake lost rating points to rapidly improving teenagers such as Evans, Bisguier and Robert Byrne. This process continued and, by 1956, all of the top players had lost points. As a result, the standards were dropped, so that over 2600 was grandmaster, over 2400 was senior master and over 2200 was master. It was also understood by 1956 that points had to be injected into the rating system to compensate for the points being taken out of the system by these rapidly improving young players.

The first actual Elo rating list was published in Chess Review for September 1969, page 260. This was an international list, not a USCF list. Here are the top players:

Fischer 2720

Spassky 2690

Korchnoi 2680

Botvinnik 2660

Petrosian 2650

Larsen 2630

Smyslov 2620

Portisch 2620

Geller 2620

Polugaevsky 2610

Stein 2610

Keres 2610

Tal 2610

Note that Fischer, the highest rated player in the world, was rated 97 points lower than Fine had been on the July, 1950 USCF rating list, 19 years earlier! Also, it seems startling to see players like Keres and Tal with low ratings like 2610 and World Champion Spassky with only 2690. However, the ratings have inflated considerably since that time.

Here are links:

- I am leaving for Istanbul, Turkey today, 19 October 2000
- The Rating of Chess Players, Past and Present, by Arpad Elo
- Elo's Book: The Rating of Chess Players
- Elo's List of Historical Chess Players
- World Chess Champion Bobby Fischer Interviewed over the Radio
- Maurice Ashley makes The New York Times
- Hikaru Nakamura makes master at 10 years, 2 months
- World Chess Rating Lists
- Reforming the Chess Rating System
- FIDE directory of Grandmasters
- List of all Chess Grandmasters
- United States Chess Federation home page
- Chess in China - Awakening of a Dragon by Ignatius Leong, International Arbiter & Organizer
- Chess Grandmaster Balinas Dies
- Chess player claims he lost state championship because his opponent's breasts got in the way
- Famous Fixed Games of Chess - Keres vs. Botvinnik - World Championship 1948
- Hikaru Nakamura makes master at 10 years, 2 months
- World Tennis Ratings

- My Home Page