Chess Ratings

Edward Winter


Page 195 of Arpad E. Elo’s The Rating of Chessplayers, Past and Present (London, 1978) lists Edward S. Tinsley 1869-1937 and gives him a best five-year average rating of 2400. We cannot believe this and feel there must be a mix-up by Elo over the father and son.


The same book (page 91) also mentions a 14-game Capablanca-Kostić match (1915). No such match was ever played, and it would seem that Elo was misled by the false information in Dr P. Feenstra Kuiper’s Hundert Jahre Schachzweikämpfe (pages 76 and 84). If Elo’s historical data are largely based on Feenstra Kuiper many of his oft-quoted retrogradings will be way out.


We should still welcome clarification of the points regarding retrograding made in C.N. 1302. Three other questions. Can anyone explain exactly how Fischer’s extremely high Elo rating was calculated? To what extent can six-monthly ratings be justly compared to best five-year periods? Has anyone attempted to calculate the ratings of the great players of the past on a six-monthly basis?




... Elo’s retrospective rankings look less and less convincing the more one studies them. For example, George Walker is attributed 2360, the same as George Botterill in January 1988 (who has thus had the benefit of insight into a century and a half of chess development since Walker’s time).


From Kenneth Whyld (Caistor, England):

‘The final paragraph of C.N. 1638 shows a misunderstanding of ELO. The ratings do not reflect how a player from a past age would fare against a present-day player. In his day George Walker might well have been of the same standing as Botterill is today. If Morphy were alive today and played exactly as he did in 1858 then he would be well down the list. Of course, with his great ability he would quickly absorb most of contemporary theory and begin to climb. His historical rating shows his place in his time.

Elo’s figures measure competitive ability, not the quality of play. To misquote Grantland Rice, “It matters not how well you play the game, but whether you win or lose”. It is easier to visualize if we consider how Elo might have been applied to athletic events, where there are absolute measures of performance. An Olympic gold medallist might be, say, 2600, whether winning the medal now, or 50 years ago. But the performance 50 years ago would probably not even be a qualifying result for today’s event. It does not follow that athletes of half a century ago would not be able to sustain their hypothetical “Elo” if they were miraculously to reappear without having aged at all, but they would have to make better times, etc. to do it.

In chess we can only know the standing of players within the pool of which they are a part. It is idle speculation to make comparisons between discrete periods. Just as thousands of marathon runners beat the time which won the first Olympic medal, so thousands of chessplayers could, with the knowledge and skill they have, repeat Morphy’s performance if they were transported back in time. But if these same players had been contemporaries of Morphy then they would likely have been outclassed by him, just like everybody else.

There must be about 50 games by Walker available, quite enough to form a reasonable Elo. You are certainly right to question the completeness and accuracy of Elo’s sources. Before Gaige’s· unfinished project such records were patchy, to say the least, and when he has completed his record of crosstables we can expect a great improvement in retrograding. Matches are quite inadequately covered in Feenstra Kuiper’s book. Graders do not need all results so as to be reasonably accurate, as long as the missing data are in line with the rest. If the omitted result is untypical the effect could be important. Had Kostić “beaten” Capa in the fictitious match its inclusion could have been serious.’


Professor A. Elo comments on C.N. 1697 and also answers a question from us as to whether Kasparov, if he surpassed 2785, would have proven himself ‘the strongest player of all time’. Although it has been established that different periods cannot be directly compared, is Fischer’s career sufficiently recent to allow comparisons with Kasparov?



From Svend E. Henriksen (Nyborg, Denmark), who is researching retrograding and developing a system which allows odds games to be included in calculations:

‘With regard to C.N. s 1638 and 1697, I should 1ike to make the following comment: K. Whyld says that retrogradings are reasonably accurate “as long as the missing data are in line with the rest”. A careful inspection of the games of G. Walker given in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Chess Games and Walker’s own Chess Studies (the two sources available to me) shows clearly that his matches against such players as Slous, Perigal and Popert must almost certainly be not only incomplete (as recorded by these two sources) but also more or less strongly weighted in favour of G. Walker. I hasten to add that this weighting was surely not intentional on Walker’s part – we know him to have been a gentleman – but must have had its unintentional origin in the fact that he (or some other editor) in his search for suitable examples of games to present to readers of his books, magazines and columns subconsciously left out those games in which he himself had made a less strong and hence perhaps less instructive showing. Thus, in using the old games material, the analyst must, for each match played, be on his guard for, among other things, a possible bias-producing incompleteness.

I do not agree with Ken Whyld’ s statement: “In chess we can only know the standing of players within the pool of which they are a part. It is idle speculation to make comparisons between discrete periods.”

On the contrary, it is possible for a careful and unbiased analyst to make absolute comparisons of the chessplaying ability of players across the ages, albeit of a lesser accuracy than those obtainable from material in the modern period of frequent chess events, careful and complete recording and orderly arrangement of the events.

The calculation of relative Elo ratings of a group of players within a pool of an extent of half a year (or, for older times, one, two, three or four years) is made by the method given by Arpad E. Elo and outlined in his book, supplemented (in the case of older material) by the suggestions that I have been developing. (I have also, in a letter to Professor Elo, given a calculation short-cut which reduces the number of iterations in the iterative calculation of a pool.) All this is straightforward, and the only thing required before the calculator reaches the final values is an adjustment of the whole group of players from the time interval (the pool) up or down by a definite amount (number of Elo points).

We have two means available, both of which could or should be used, for making this group-moving adjustment. 1) a careful application of Elo’s “average performance as a function of age of player” will help placing the group at a proper level, and 2) my “error-index” method, which is based on a comparison with, or with an eye to, the contemporary development of opening theory and also contains checks against bias in judgement.’


Wanted: early attempts to rank leading masters. One was made by Edward Lasker on page xii of his book Chess and Checkers, the Way to Mastership (New York, 1918). He proposed: 1st Em. Lasker; 2nd Capablanca; 3rd Rubinstein; 4th Schlechter; 5th Marshall; 6th Teichmann; 7th Alekhine.


The view of W.H. Cozens, given on page 161 of the April 1976 BCM:

‘The obsession with grading is fast becoming the curse of chess; from the top (where the multiplication of grandmasters already calls for the creation of a new supermaster class – the dozen or so with legitimate pretensions to a world title match) right down to club level where it is simply laughable.’


We have received the following from Louis Blair (Carlinville, IL, USA):

‘John D. Beasley made some striking remarks about Elo and ratings (referred to by Beasley as “grades”) in his book The Mathematics of Games (Oxford, 1990):

“... certain practical matters must be decided by the grading administrator, and these may have a perceptible effect on the figures. ... Grades are therefore not quite the objective measures that their more uncritical admirers like to maintain.” (Page 54)

“Students of all games like to imagine how players of different periods would have compared with each other, and long-term grading has been hailed as providing an answer. This is wishful thinking. … it is natural to speculate how [Morphy and Fischer] would have fared against each other; but such speculations are not answered by calculating grades through chains of intermediaries spanning over a hundred years.” (Page 61)

“Elo’s work as described in his book The Rating of Chessplayers, Past and Present (Batsford, 1978) is open to serious criticism. His statistical testing is unsatisfactory to the point of being meaningless; ... his ‘deflation control’, which claims to stabilize the implied reference level, is a delusion.” (Page 61)

“Elo deserves the credit for being a pioneer and for doing a great deal of work, much of it before automatic computers were available to perform the arithmetic, but his work contains too many errors to be acceptable as a continuing standard.” (Page 163)’


An extract from William Hartston’s chess column in Now!, 1-7 August 1980, page 82.

‘I met the eponymous professor [Arpad E. Elo] during the chess olympics at Nice in 1974. He was besieged with requests by players wanting the rules bent to accommodate their own requests for international titles. When the last of the supplicants had gone, Professor Elo said to me: “I think I have created a monster.” I think so too.’


A question from Stuart Rachels (Tuscaloosa, AL, USA): what are the best sources of information about Elo ratings, including such matters as whether a given master ever reached the top ten?

We have many, but not all, of the booklets International Rating List brought out twice yearly by FIDE. To mention just the edition of exactly 20 years ago, the 203-page tome was sponsored by IBM and published by the FIDE General Secretariat in Athens:


fide ratings

Have bibliographical details for the full run ever been prepared?

Also sought are the best (most accurate and comprehensive) online resources. The OlimpBase website has a ‘History of Elo ratings 1971-2001’ which allows searches for individual players, as does FIDE’s Ratings page.


In the ‘Rating Systems’ entry on pages 271-272 of Harry Golombek’s The Encyclopedia of Chess (London, 1977) William Hartston wrote:


Although the Ingo system is mentioned in many chess reference books, and especially German ones, it is nowadays all but forgotten.

From page 255 of CHESS, Easter 1966:


Below is the feature mentioned by CHESS, on pages 94-96 of Schach-Taschen-Jahrbuch 1966 edited by Herbert Engelhardt (Berlin-Frohnau, 1966):




The Ingo system was also referred to briefly in a series of articles entitled ‘The International Chess Federation Rating System’ by Arpad E. Elo in CHESS, July 1973 (pages 293-296), August 1973 (pages 328-330) and October 1973 (pages 19-21). See too pages 16 and 143-144 of Elo’s book The Rating of Chessplayers, Past and Present (London, 1978).

In a list of bibliographical references on pages 295-296 of the July 1973 CHESS Elo gave ‘Hesslinger [sic]; Ingo System; Bayrischen [sic] Schachnachrichten April 1948’. On pages 143-144 of his book Elo wrote: ‘The Ingo System, designed by Anton Hoesslinger of Ingolstadt, Germany, was described in Bayerische Schacht [sic], 1948, and by Herbert Englehardt [sic] (Englehardt [sic] 1951).’

The absence of Hößlinger’s name from the various German-language features is to be noted. The Ingo system was introduced in a series of articles in the Bayerische Schachnachrichten: April 1948, page 14; May 1948, page 19; June 1948, page 21 and page 22; July 1948, page 26.

We also present the article ‘Das Ingo-System’, in the Schach-Taschen-Jahrbuch 1951 edited by Herbert Engelhardt (Berlin-Frohnau, 1951), on pages 105, 106, 107, 108 and 109. It was followed by these rankings on pages 109-111:




Acknowledgement for the articles in the Bayerische Schachnachrichten and the Schach-Taschen-Jahrbuch 1951: the Cleveland Public Library.

Mention may also be made of ‘Problems of Rating and BCF/INGO Grading’ by Professor H. Schreiner on pages 110-111 of the BCM, March 1991.

Finally, the obituary of Anton Hößlinger on the inside front cover of Schach-Echo, 20 January 1960:



Note (20 December 2020): This article was previously entitled ‘Chess Ratings and Titles’. The removal of the last two words reflects the fact that a small number of items previously included here have been transferred to Chess Grandmasters.

Latest update: 18 May 2022.

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Copyright: Edward Winter. All rights reserved.