David Smerdon introduces the Fighting Chess Index

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
6/15/2021 – Unlike other sports, chess allows for players to agree to a draw, be it explicitly or implicitly — for example, by entering a forced line that leads to a threefold repetition. Many workarounds have been proposed to prevent this from happening too often, but at the end of the day, it mostly has to do with how ‘fighting’ a player is. But how to measure the players’ combativeness? GM David Smerdon has developed a method to answer this question.

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Dealing with a pervasive issue 

For decades, the problem regarding ‘grandmaster draws’ has been a frequent talking point among chess fans and organizers. Unlike other sports, chess allows for players to agree to a draw, be it explicitly or implicitly — by entering a forced line that leads to a threefold repetition or quickly exchanging down into a completely equal endgame. Many workarounds have been proposed, but at the end of the day, chess fans have become aware of how fighting a player actually is — i.e. how willing he or she is to step away from the safe routes that tend to lead to a peaceful outcome.

While official FIDE tournaments, like the ones in the World Championship cycle, need to create well-defined regulations beforehand to maintain their credibility — in terms of qualifying methods and specific event rules — many of the strongest tournaments in the world are still being organized privately. Many factors are in play for the organizers to pick which players to invite, but usually they attempt to increase the value for the audience by inviting players who have proven they will not use the aforementioned ultra-cautious techniques.

But how to really characterize a ‘fighting player’? We all have a feeling for what that might mean, with some giving more weight to the players’ tendency to create havoc on the board early on, and others deeming more important how far a player is willing to go in a close-to-equal ending.

David SmerdonLuckily, someone took the job to make a serious proposal addressing this issue. It was none other than Australian GM David Smerdon, who last week published a quantitative method to measure top players’ combativeness using what he dubbed as the Fighting Chess Index.

Smerdon is not only a grandmaster but also an economist. He has played for the Australian team in the Chess Olympiad since 2004, and is now a lecturer at the University of Queensland, with areas of research in Applied Economics; Economic Development and Growth; Experimental, Behavioural, and Evolutionary Methods. He is also the author of the highly praised book The Complete Chess Swindler (New in Chess, 2020) — in December last year, Johannes Fischer reviewed the book.

Kramnik tops the list

So what is this index all about? Smerdon wrote an extensive article introducing the FCI and the basic methodology he used to create it. He also provided current rankings, FAQs, and a technical note with details for replication. Here we present a few excerpts:

The FCI is a score out of 100, where a higher score means the player is more ‘fighting’.

  • First, I cleaned the database as best I could to merge names for the same player, and remove simul, Chess960 and consultation games, etc.
  • Second, I calculated the percentage of draws, ‘short’ draws and short draws with White, as well as the average length of draws, for each player. 
  • Third, I ran a principal component analysis that, in simplistic terms, combines all of the metrics above, weights them in such a way as to avoid double counting, and extracts one number to represent the ‘hidden concept’ that these measures might explain — in this case, ‘fighting chess’.
  • Finally, I adjusted the scores such that players who more often play players around their own strength aren’t punished for scoring more draws than similar players who play games with bigger rating differences, such as in large open tournaments.

Smerdon then presented two lists, one for the top 50 players in the world (according to their average ratings in the 2015-2020 period) and one for the top 100 players in the world. You can see the full lists in the article mentioned above. Below we present the top 10 and bottom 10 from the top 50 list:

Rank  FCI  Name

  1. 80.1 Kramnik, V
  2. 79.3 Le, Q
  3. 78.9 Navara, D
  4. 78.4 Caruana, F
  5. 77.3 Artemiev, V
  6. 77.0 Eljanov, P
  7. 76.9 Naiditsch, A
  8. 76.8 Duda, J
  9. 76.5 Carlsen, M
  10. 76.0 Inarkiev, E


  1. 60.7 Vitiugov, N
  2. 59.5 Almasi, Z
  3. 59.0 Kryvoruchko, Y
  4. 58.8 Vallejo Pons, F
  5. 58.7 Svidler, P
  6. 58.2 Jakovenko, D
  7. 57.9 Anand, V
  8. 57.9 Tomashevsky, E
  9. 57.6 Kasimdzhanov, R
  10. 51.2 Radjabov, T

Do check out Smerdon’s comments to the results published on his website. Naturally, the metrics and weights used in the system can be tweaked here and there. Regarding this subject, the author explained:

I also reran the index under various different assumptions to see if the rankings significantly changed; on the contrary, the FCI is remarkably robust. Players who have very similar scores might swap their rankings depending on the assumptions, but someone ranked 1st will always come out as significantly more fighting than someone ranked 20th no matter which version we use.  

Will there come a time when organizers will explicitly use this metric to justify why they invited a lower-rated player to a top event? We are sure chess fans around the world would gladly welcome such an initiative.

For some players, the FCI came out just a bit too late.


Carlos Colodro is a Hispanic Philologist from Bolivia. He works as a freelance translator and writer since 2012. A lot of his work is done in chess-related texts, as the game is one of his biggest interests, along with literature and music.
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Frits Fritschy Frits Fritschy 6/17/2021 12:54
About your other argument: you can reckon that in games between top players, both players are familiar with the latest developments in opening theory. They may not know the novelty at move 24, but they have seen all the moves up to 23 before. A fighting index is mainly of interest for top players, as they are the ones that attract publicity.
Frits Fritschy Frits Fritschy 6/17/2021 11:12
It would indeed be a hell of a job to calculate games from the past in this way, but it should be doable for future games. Just a bit of smart programming (Chessbase?) where a database spits out the novelty move number when a new game is inserted. Just view the fighting index as another kind of elo rating. You can start with Smerdon's figures, which will get updated daily and get more reliable when longer in use.
BKnight2003 BKnight2003 6/16/2021 10:54
@Frits Fritschy, I dont't think it could be possible to measure "play from novelty", as theory changes continuously. Besides, how do you know a player is playing by the book or discovering those moves OTB?
BKnight2003 BKnight2003 6/16/2021 10:44
Radjabov 50th (far away from 49th): surprise!
Frits Fritschy Frits Fritschy 6/16/2021 12:23
A slight improvement might be to count from the first novelty, instead of from the first move, to calculate the length of draws. Adding three own moves to 25 moves of theory isn't exactly fighting chess. Then, maybe, to each of these counts the average length of theory per game (say, 12 moves) should be added to diminish the relative impact.
stierlitz stierlitz 6/16/2021 10:28
2700+ chess players are more drawish than lower rated players. Saying that one of them is 1% more fighting than another one and so it should be used as a criteria for tournament invitation is ridiculous.

If one wants to enjoy chess by seeing more fight and more human-like moves then watch games played by lower rated players. Ideally of someone's own level. For example if my rating is 1900 then i would understand the games of similar rated players better than the ones played by top-rated players. I don't understand top-player's moves without a computer (if i did then i myself would be one of them), so i can't tell if someone's moves are more fighting or not. Why care then. Just watch lower rated players' games.
Magic_Knight Magic_Knight 6/16/2021 05:38
@MC1483 based on this index, if Kramnik had drawn a game it was more likely to have been a game played down to the draw rather than a draw agreed by mutuality.
Leavenfish Leavenfish 6/16/2021 04:30
"Indian GM Amin Bassem" - this from the Fat Fritz article we cannot comment on so I'll do it here. He's from EGYPT!
mc1483 mc1483 6/16/2021 01:36
And to think that Kramnik, many years ago, was one of the "drawishest" players in the world!
daftarche daftarche 6/16/2021 01:13
He also played a lot of boring draws in recent online rapid tournaments.
daftarche daftarche 6/16/2021 01:11
And yet Radjabov gets invitation again to play in superbet romania and make 9 dull draws and gets paid tens of thousands of dollars.