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Friday, February 17, 2012

What's in a Rating?

I know a lot of folks worry about their ratings, but in many cases the thinking is backward on the subject. They want a great rating, but they just keep playing the same old chess, and do very little studying. Ratings don’t just climb on their own; we must improve.

So, what *is* a rating, exactly? It’s just a number which represents the overall average of your playing results in a given time control or variant. It does not necessarily reflect your true strength, but rather a ballpark figure based on *results*, not skill. The reason for that is inconsistency. Even GMs have off days, but when they do they might play ‘only’ at the 2300 level, whereas if us plebeians have an off day and lose 300 points, we really suck. Badly.

Example: My bullet chess.

I play bullet sometimes on WCL, even though I shouldn’t; it’s horrible for your long game. The point is that sometimes my rating is in the 1800s, and sometimes it’s in the 1500s, and that can swing the full 300 points in a single hour. So, what’s my bullet strength? I cannot say it’s 1800 truly, because that’s the upper end of the spectrum. I’m definitely not a 1500 bullet player, either, although some days I play like one. Averaging the two out gives me 1650, and that’s probably about right (using the Glicko system). 1650 is a safe bet. It’s nothing to write home about, but it’s better than the 1300 I was a few years back.

So, when a beginner asks how to improve his rating, he’s really asking how to improve his game, because that’s the only way to truly improve our numbers. A few opening zaps and traps are good to know, but they aren’t chess; they are memorized traps and zaps. My advice on improving your rating is to think critically about each move, starting with move *one*. Don’t hack out the first ten moves in a second-and-a-half because you “know the line”. That is a critical error. Keep your eyes open for mistakes, because doing so could turn a 34-move draw into a 15-move checkmate for you.

If you aren’t pleased with the number by your name on your favorite playing site, here’s what you do: log off, break out a chess book, and really go through it slowly and carefully. Your goal should be to learn a few new ideas, and have them sink in. You wouldn’t go into battle without a weapon, would you? The same principle applies to our chess: If we are unarmed when we start a game, the chances of our rating increasing aren’t so hot.

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