Does your rating even matter?

by Arne Kaehler
5/16/2020 – Online chess has become very popular in the last couple of years and more and more people participate and try to win games and achieve a higher rating. Rating matters so much that it can turn into an obsession. Ratings appear to represent the value of the person. We take a closer look at how the ego can become the curse of the rating system and how we feel about it.

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Why are we playing chess?

Is it for the fun and joy of the game? Is it to train our brain, exercise the mind and sharpen our smartness? Do we enjoy the creativity, trying out wild sacrifices and interesting openings? Or do we like the competitive part?

Granted one of the points mentioned above applies to us, we wouldn't need to play a rated game, would we? None of the statements interfere with playing a casual game, if we think about it for a moment. Sure, a rating system is very useful to play against opponents who have a similar strength. This makes chess even more enjoyable. But what if we could have casual games with opponents of the same strength? Would we miss the rating system?

If we win a chess game, we gain rating points. This is very addictive for a couple of reasons:

  • Having a higher rating than others grants us value
  • Gaining points by winning a game is rewarding
  • The competition is more real

Some players are getting obsessed with rating points, so much so that they cheat to accomplish a false feeling of status and value. The obsession starts by not being able to deal with the own ego.

Ego is the Enemy

This is the title of a book by American marketer and author Ryan Holiday, which is about the treacherous nature of the ego. He describes very well how the ego often takes the lead in cases of aspiration, success and failing. Those three themes are a huge part of any serious chess player. If the ego takes over, it gets difficult to strive for long-term goals or mastering a craft.

Once the ego takes over, which is closely related to suppressing your emotions, your status and honour has to be retained at any cost. This can lead to emotional outbreaks and an unhealthy fighting spirit.

One sentence from an interview of Russell Brand and the Gracie brothers struck me. Ego and alcohol are the main reason fights exist. It couldn't be more accurate in my opinion. 

Egos and alcohol are probably the only two reasons to start fighting and not only physically

I remember one incidence of ego overload at a Chess Open in Hamburg, Germany. After four rounds the player who was leading in the B-Group of the tournament, which was for players with a rating under 1800, sat down next to a young chess talent. The young player was analysing the game he had just lost with his coach, a titled player.

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The coach of the talent just explained how best to respond to the Evans gambit, when the B-Group player interfered and tried to explain, that the young talent played perfectly well against this opening and shouldn't listen to the trainer! While the B-Group player got louder and louder, the coach kept his calm and suggested different variations. The B-Group player left the table angrily, smashed some chess pieces off the board and gave a thumbs up to the kid while he walked away.

Well, that escalated quickly

Winning four games in a row lifted the B-Group player's ego to a new dimension. He got upset, that someone would dare to challenge his opinion. The coach remained calm, because he knew well enough what he was talking about. Keeping the ego quiet at times shows confidence.

The chess rating necessity

All of us playing online chess have had an opponent whose feelings got hurt because they were losing. In my other article "Three reasons we keep playing even when totally lost!" I described one way of being a sore loser: just let the time run out on purpose.

This happened to me in a five-minute blitz game, after my opponent dropped a piece in just three moves. So now I had to wait for four minutes and 50 seconds to play the next game. I also had to stay online, just in case the opponent would sneakily make a move. It sounds so silly when I think about it now. Any better solution?

How about resigning?

No, the own ego won't let us do that. We cannot lose rating points because of a sore loser. At this moment we are to caught up in our emotions to make a rational decision. Would the situation be any different if it had been a casual game, without losing any rating points? Certainly! We would be fools to keep the time running for absolutely no reason.

The point I want to make is that if rating points do not matter why don't we resign in a situation as described? Why do we feel so emotional when winning or losing a lot of points? Why do we want to reach a certain rating so badly?

The next time we play online and have a similar situation, it would be good to think about the worst-case scenario, which could happen if we resign. The conclusion would probably be that it won't be the end of the world. A rating score is nothing more or less than a number after all.

This article is not meant to challenge the idea of the rating system, but to make you think about it from a different perspective.

How much does the rating matter to you? Only pick the sentence which you relate to the most.

Participate in this poll and see what other readers think.

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Arne Kaehler, a creative thinker who is passionate about board games in general was born in Hamburg and learned how to play chess at a very young age. Through teaching chess to youth teams and creating chess content on YouTube, Arne was able to extend this passion onto others and has even made an online chess course for anyone who wants to learn how to play this game. Currently, Arne blogs for the English news page of ChessBase and focuses on creating promotional and entertaining articles.

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