Arpad Emre Elo – 100th anniversary

by ChessBase
8/30/2003 – Many people think that the letters ELO are some kind of acronym, like FIDE or NASA. But they come from Arpad Emre Elo, born on August 25, 1903. Prof. Elo was a strong chess player (two draws against Rueben Fine!) and a physicist. He achieved fame by devising a new rating system that has gained universal acceptance. Here's a commemorative portrait.

ChessBase 17 - Mega package - Edition 2024 ChessBase 17 - Mega package - Edition 2024

It is the program of choice for anyone who loves the game and wants to know more about it. Start your personal success story with ChessBase and enjoy the game even more.


Arpad Emre Elö was born 100 years ago (on August 25, 1903) in Hungary. His family were farmers who moved to Cleveland, USA, in 1913. After finishing school he studied physics at the University of Chicago and went on to teach the subject until his retirement in 1969, after which he taught it on a part-time basis. The orthography of his name changed from Elö to Elo.

Young Arpad learnt chess at the age of ten, and the game became one of his many lifetime hobbies (including wine-making, horticulture, astronomy and music). He achieved a very respectable playing strength, winning the Wisconsin state championship eight times. His chess record includes over forty tournament wins, with two drawn games against Rueben Fine. He was elected president of the American Chess Federation in 1935 and was one of the founders of the USCF in 1939.

In 1959 the USCF asked Arpad Elo to improve the chess rating system used in the US chess community. This was not very accurate and contained some serious problems. For instance it was possible for players to gain points in spite of losing every game in a tournament, and to lose points after winning them all. There were other rating systems, like the Ingo system that was popular in Europe (on it's 1-200 rating scale strong players had lower numbers).

Elo proposed a new system with a statistically sound basis based on the bell curve. Elo's formula assumed that the performance of a player is normally distributed. He used rating numbers that were similar to those players were using at the time, so that people would not have to get used to completely different numbers. According to this system an average player was rated 1500, a strong club player 2000 and a grandmaster 2500.

Professor Elo's rating system was adopted by the USCF in 1960 and by FIDE in 1970. The system was designed to be simple enough to calculate with pencil and paper, but when the first pocket calculators appeared, Elo started to compile the official FIDE ratings on an Hewlett-Packard calculator.

The World Chess Hall of Fame writes: "Professor Elo's creativity, integrity and statistical skill earned him respect not just nationally but internationally. In his capacity as chairman of the FIDE Qualifications committee, for at least fifteen years, he was responsible for seeing that players who deserved international titles received them, and those whose demonstrated strength did not prove they merited an international title did not receive them."

Elo was always careful to keep the value of his invention in perspective, and in a 1962 Chess Life article, he came up with a memorable analogy to describe the difficulty of accurately measuring playing strength: "Often people who are not familiar with the nature and limitations of statistical methods tend to expect too much of the rating system. Ratings provide merely a comparison of performances, no more and no less. The measurement of the performance of an individual is always made relative to the performance of his competitors and both the performance of the player and of his opponents are subject to much the same random fluctuations. The measurement of the rating of an individual might well be compared with the measurement of the position of a cork bobbing up and down on the surface of agitated water with a yard stick tied to a rope and which is swaying in the wind."

Rating of Chessplayers Past and Present

In 1978 Elo published a book entitled "The Rating of Chessplayers, Past and Present" which contained the historical ratings of 476 chess players. In this list Capablanca is the strongest player of all time, rated at 2725, Paul Morphy ranks sixth at 2690. The ratings are five-year peak averages. Fischer and Karpov were at the top of the list, although they were 2780 and 2775 on the January 1st 1978 FIDE ratings list, since these numbers did not represent a five-year average for the players.

  Last name First Country  Born  Rating
1 Capablanca Jose Cuba 1888 2725
2 Botvinnik Mikhail Soviet Union 1911 2720
3 Lasker Emanuel Germany/England 1868 2720
4 Tal Mikhail Latvia/USSR 1936 2700
5 Alekhine Alexander Russia/France 1892 2690
6 Morphy Paul United States 1837 2690
7 Smyslov Vasily Soviet Union 1921 2690
8 Petrosian Tigran Soviet Union 1929 2680
9 Reshevsky Samuel Poland/USA 1911 2680
10  Spassky Boris Soviet Union 1937 2680
11 Bronstein David Soviet Union 1924 2670
12 Keres Paul Estonia/USSR 1916 2670
13 Korchnoi Viktor Switzerland 1931 2665
14 Fine Reuben United States 1914 2660
15 Geller Efim Soviet Union 1925 2655
16 Boleslavsky Isaac Soviet Union 1919 2650
17 Euwe Max Holland 1901 2650
18 Steinitz Wilhelm Bohemia 1836 2650
19 Rubinstein Akiba Poland/Belgium 1882 2640
20 Najdorf Miguel Poland/Argentina 1910 2635
21 Pillsbury Harry United States 1872 2630
22 Portisch Lajos Hungary 1937 2630
23 Timman January Holland 1951 2630
24 Flohr Salomon Poland/USSR 1908 2620
25 Gligoric Svetozar Yugoslavia 1923 2620
26 Kholmov Ratmir Soviet Union 1925 2620
27 Kotov Alexander  Soviet Union 1913 2620
28 Larsen Bent Denmark 1935 2620
29 Maroczy Geza Hungary 1870 2620
30 Stein Leonid Soviet Union 1934 2620
31 Averbakh Yuri Soviet Union 1922 2615
32 Nimzowitsch  Aaron Russia/Denmark 1886 2615
33 Andersson Ulf Sweden 1951 2610
34 Bogoljubov Efim Russia/Germany 1899 2610
35 Furman Semen Soviet Union 1920 2610
36 Ljubojevic Ljubomir Yugoslavia 1950 2610
37 Szabo Laszlo Hungary 1917 2610
38 Tarrasch Siegbert Germany 1862 2610
39 Mecking Henrique Brazil 1952 2608
40 Polugaevsky Lev Soviet Union 1934 2605
41 Anderssen Adolph Germany 1818 2600
42 Chigorin Mikhail Russia 1850 2600
43 Schlechter Carl Austria 1874 2600
44 Taimanov Mark Soviet Union 1926 2600
45 Vidmar Milan Austria/Yugoslavia  1885 2600
46 von der Lasa Tassilo Germany 1818 2600
47 Zukertort Johannes Poland/England 1842 2600


Reports about chess: tournaments, championships, portraits, interviews, World Championships, product launches and more.


Rules for reader comments


Not registered yet? Register