Understanding Chess Ratings

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When talking about chess, you might hear statements such as, "I'm a 1600 player," or, "We're playing in the under 2000 section." These numbers are called chess ratings, and they help determine player rankings in the chess community.

Ratings Defined

Ratings are numbers used to represent the playing strength of chess players. Ratings allow players to compare themselves to their peers. Most rating systems are based on the work of Arpad Elo, a physics professor and chess master, who invented the system now named for him.

The workings of chess rating systems can be quite complex, but the basics are simple: Ratings are based on the results of games between players -- usually, games played in chess tournaments. If a player wins games, his rating will increase; if he loses, his rating will fall.

The rating of a player's opponents also affects how that player's rating will change. Defeating a much lower-rated opponent will cause a gain of few, if any, rating points while defeating a much higher-rated foe will earn a large number of rating points. Losses work the same way, though in the opposite direction; losing to a much stronger player won't affect a player's rating much, but losing to a weaker opponent will cost quite a few points. Draws also affect ratings in a similar manner -- drawing a higher-rated player increases a player's rating while drawing a lower-rated player decreases it -- though not as dramatically.

Determining Ratings

Ratings vary depending on who is issuing them. In terms of United States Chess Federation ratings, a beginner who has just learned the rules of chess would likely earn the minimum rating of 100. The average scholastic tournament player has a rating of around 600. A "strong" non-tournament player, or a beginning tournament player who has gained some basic experience, might have a rating  800 to 1000.

The average adult tournament player in the USCF is rated around 1400. Very strong adult tournament competitors -- the top 10 percent -- have ratings greater than 1900.

Prestigious titles are available to the strongest players.These titles are usually awarded partially or entirely based on ratings. Experts are players with ratings over 2000. Masters are players with ratings over 2200. Earning the International Master or Grandmaster title requires more than just a high rating, but these players are typically rated over 2400 and 2500, respectively. The best players in the world are rated over 2700; the highest rating ever achieved was 2851, by former World Champion Garry Kasparov.

Earning Ratings

A player can earn a rating in a variety of ways. Online chess sites often offer their own ratings, which are useful for finding appropriate opponents while playing online. Some chess clubs also keep their own informal ratings.

When most people speak of chess ratings, however, they are generally speaking of ratings assigned by a national chess federation or by FIDE, the international chess federation.

A player earns these ratings by playing in sanctioned tournaments. After each tournament, the results are sent to the federation rating the event, where they are processed and used to update the ratings of the competitors.