Sunday, November 6, 2011

Four above 2800!

As Dylan McClain observes in a column in today's NY Times, the current FIDE chess rankings list now includes four players with ratings of 2800 or higher:
  • Magnus Carlsen, ranking 2826
  • Viswanathan Anand, ranking 2811
  • Levon Aronian, ranking 2802
  • Vladimir Kramnik, ranking 2800

This is great news, and really emphasizes not just the excellence that is currently manifest in the top levels of chess, but also its growing spread, as the top list includes players from several countries not previously known for chess prowess (Carlsen is from Norway, Anand from India, and Wang Hao from China is in the top twenty as well).

But McClain goes on to claim:

But ratings inflation — caused in part by looser rules guiding them — makes it difficult to compare different eras.

The ratings system was actually never intended for such comparisons. It was created in 1960 by Arpad Elo, a physics professor, as a snapshot of each player’s ability and a tool for predicting games’ outcomes. The system has been tweaked over the years, but it has held up well.

McClain provides no evidence for this claim, which is a shame, as from what little I know, the evidence in fact shows entirely the opposite. As I described in a short blog post last summer, a fairly detailed study by students at the University of Buffalo recently concluded that

there has been little or no ‘inflation’ in ratings over time—if anything there has been deflation. This runs counter to conventional wisdom, but is predicted by population models on which rating systems have been based

Regardless of whether or not the ratings are being inflated, there is no doubt in my mind that today's chess players are playing some wonderful chess. As we look toward next year's World Chess Championship, there is lots of reason to be excited about the world of chess!

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