Professor Arpad E. Elo – a fond remembrance

8/25/2008 – If Arpad Elo were still alive he would be a hundred and five years old today – three years past the age of 102 that he was supposed to survive to, as foretold by a Budapest gypsy when he visited Hungary in 1970. In reality he died in Wisconsin, USA at the age of 89. A close associate and family friend, Elmer Dumlao Sangalang, looks back at the man who revolutionised chess.

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Professor Arpad E. Elo – a fond remembrance

By Elmer Dumlao Sangalang, Manila, The Philippines

Now that Professor Elo is gone, I often think that the prediction of the gypsy had pleased him so much because it expressed his subconscious desire to be remembered for at least that long. If such is the case then his wish has been fulfilled and even surpassed, for he will remain a part of our fond memories undimmed by the passage of time.

August 25, 2008 marks Professor Elo's birth. He was born in Egyházaskeszo, Hungary, as Árpád Imre Élö. His family emigrated to the United States of America when he was ten. Educated in public primary and secondary schools, he earned his BS and MS degrees, in Physics, from the University of Chicago. He spent the better part of half a century teaching various courses in physics and astronomy at university level in Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin.

Legacy

A visionary, Professor Elo was a founding father of the United States Chess Federation and he promoted chess activity in the early 1930s through a program that offered evening classes in chess to adults and children in park social centers of dozens of cities across the country. His most important contribution, however, was the development of the rating system that bears his name. It provided the stimulus that propelled chess activity to unprecedented heights, permeating the traditional chess centers of Europe and spilling over onto all the continents of the world. And to monitor and protect the statistical accuracy and integrity of his system, Professor Elo served as Secretary of the Qualification Committee of the World Chess Federation (FIDE) for many years. Former FIDE President Florencio Campomanes described Professor Elo's legacy best when he wrote that, "The chess world owes him no less than the enjoyment chessplayers derive from chasing and earning the Elo numbers."

Mortality

When Professor Elo passed away on November 5, 1992 at the age of 89, the chess world suffered an irreparable loss. It was, for me, emotionally devastating. We had been in correspondence regularly for over ten years, during which time I had always eagerly awaited his letters, which would contain his characteristic words of wisdom. I was not ready to accept that such an exhilarating experience could come to an abrupt end.

Death has its own way of reminding us how frail and vulnerable human life is. And how invaluable! Pleasant memories of the departed loved one return spontaneously, at random, without regard to the chronology of real events. We feel a certain urge to share them with others. Perhaps we are afraid that, otherwise, these memories will be lost on us. Or maybe it is the subconscious expression of how fortunate we had been to have had a personal encounter with him in his lifetime. It is with such a feeling that I share my memories of Professor Elo. He was a contemporary legend in the world of chess and I owe it to my and future generations to learn as much as possible about him.

Unique Friendship

In many ways my friendship with Professor Elo was unique. In 1973, when it started, I was 26 and he was 70 – much older than my father was then. More than a whole generation in time and of ideas separated us but our mutual interest in chess, mathematics, statistics and history – disciplines that transcend the vicissitudes of fashion – bridged the wide age gap. We were destined never to meet each other in person. But a personal encounter did not seem to be a necessary condition for a warm relationship to develop. When some tragic events befell his family in 1985, he revealed his feelings to me in a letter. "I feel very sentimental about the friendship and rapport that we have established over these few years. Here we are, half a world apart, never having met face-to-face, of different race and different cultural background, and we communicate as brothers or as father and son – it is truly touching. I treasure this friendship now especially when my life has reached such a low ebb."

Modesty

Humility is an unmistakable trait of a truly great man. Professor Elo remained unaffected by the celebrity status and international fame his remarkable achievement, the Elo Rating System, brought him. When in 1979, after reading his book, The Rating of Chessplayers, Past and Present, I wrote to compliment him on explaining the concepts of statistics exceptionally well, he responded humbly saying, "It is rarely that one receives such appreciation for one's work during his lifetime, so I am naturally gratified that you found my book a significant contribution to the literature of chess as well as of statistics."

He did not hide his embarrassment when I requested him to send me the score of his favorite chess games that he, himself, played. He obliged, modestly remarking that they were interesting but would not qualify as masterpieces.

Few are aware that Professor Elo met Bobby Fischer twice across the chessboard. Their first encounter was on July 4, 1957 in the New Western Open, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Of this game, which he almost drew, he recalled that what he felt most was a constant and relentless pressure – exactly what all who played Fischer experienced. They met again, and for the last time, in the 1970s when Fischer beat him in a simultaneous exhibition. Professor Elo drew two games with Reuben Fine in 1935 Milwaukee and 1940 Dallas, when the latter was at the peak of his chess career, yet Professor Elo did not thump his chest over this achievement. Instead, he self-deprecatingly commented:

"The 1935 Elo-Fine game was a sloppy exhibition with no credit to either player and best forgotten" and the other draw "could be classed as a grandmaster draw agreed when the game had no bearing on the standings."

Urbanity

Professor Elo was a man of culture. Folk and classical music were his constant interest. He kept an extensive library of classical music recordings in his suburban home in Brookfield, Wisconsin. I once treated him to a sampling of Filipino folk music by sending him a couple of tape cassettes filled with kundimans and native classical tunes. It took a long while, and after several letters, before I received his commentary on them. I learned that this was because his tape recorder/player was the vintage reel-to-reel type, and that he had to borrow one that could play modern-day recordings.

He had an equal degree of fondness for literature that does not make it surprising to find his technical work infused here and there with apt literary quotations. His exceptional expository ability undoubtedly had the stamp of the literati.

Brilliance

He was witty. Every so often Professor Elo's letter would contain unusual witticisms. When I was editing the second edition of his book, The Rating of Chessplayers, Past and Present (1986), I sincerely believed and therefore carelessly remarked that I would make it 100% free from computational and typographical errors. He was quick to make me realize my empty boast when he subtly censured me in a manner only a physicist would do. He told me:

"The search for errors in any manuscript follows the law of exponential decay. If on the first reading one finds a certain percentage of errors, (say 80%), then on the second reading one will find only the same 80% of the remaining errors. So there would always be a residual number of errors after any number of readings. This law of exponential decay really enters our lives in all sorts of curious ways. Take, for example, the dishes one uses in everyday living. If a newly wed couple received a wedding gift of a set of dishes the breakage rate of those dishes will be, percentage-wise, constant throughout the lifetime of the dishes. At first the breakage will be high in numbers, but by the time of the golden anniversary of the couple there will still be at least one piece left around of the original set and which seems to lead a charmed existence by defying every effort to break it."

True enough, after his book was printed, I found out I had overlooked nine typo errors!

Apolitical

Politics, in general, was one topic we both gladly avoided but, inevitably, chess politics entered our correspondence. At one time I complained to Professor Elo about the poor marketing support I was getting for his book from some English-speaking chess federations. He did not hide his disappointment:

"I have always been rather naïve politically in the mistaken belief that meritorious work or service will receive the proper recognition and acceptance. And I always thought that my work would speak for itself and become apolitical. But this was not to be, either in the USCF in the 1960s or in FIDE in the 1970s. It seems to be part of human nature to turn every advance, whether in science or religion, into a political issue."

On another occasion, when the controversial match between Karpov and Kasparov in 1984-85 was a hot item, I unwittingly provoked him into commenting about Mr. Florencio Campomanes' leadership of FIDE. I was pleasantly surprised that Professor Elo liked him. He was aware that there was a movement in FIDE to unseat Mr. Campomanes as president at the next congress. Professor Elo regretted this, as it was his opinion that Mr. Campomanes had been the most effective FIDE president during Professor Elo’s association with the organization:

"I don't think it is dictatorial policies which have produced the alienation from the Europeans, but rather the shift of power within FIDE from the Europeans to the chess developing countries. After all, the late Folke Rogard was the strongest dictator FIDE ever had and who acted as an absolute monarch. But then he was a European ruling Europeans. Now the Europeans still see themselves as the chess powers (in playing strength) but see the power within FIDE politics controlled by non-Europeans."

Still on Karpov-Kasparov, with each protagonist claiming superiority over the other, Professor Elo had this to say:

"Just reading about the various opinions concerning the conduct of the recent championship matches convinces me that the only thing to which two chessplayers could agree is that a third one is over-rated."

Man of Science

Professor Elo was a scientist, always in pursuit of the ultimate truth. He devised a near-perfect rating system that greatly stimulated chess growth, resulting in rapid and expanded tournament activities worldwide. The success of the system should have brought glowing satisfaction to its inventor. But such was not the case for Professor Elo. At times he thought that what he had created with the rating system was some kind of Frankensteinian monster when he saw the young players so preoccupied with their ratings. They reminded him of racetrack habitués who go to the races and spend their time poring over the tout sheets at the betting windows – and never see a race.

He was bothered by the inordinate importance being ascribed to the sporting aspect of chess. He regretted that his system contributed greatly to the prevailing opinion that regards chess as first and foremost a sport. Most grandmasters consider it their profession, hence victory in the game, and the consequent improvement of their rating, overrules any desire to create and innovate.

Perhaps Professor Elo was being too harsh on himself. It cannot be denied that the excellent quality of contemporary chess games and the very high level of technical skill with which the game of chess is currently being played are attributable in no small measure to the strong competitive spirit engendered by the knowledgeable employment of his rating system.

Family man

Professor Elo was a genuinely devoted husband. When he learned in 1982 that the 1983 FIDE Congress was going to be held in Manila, the Philippines, we were both excited about the prospect of meeting each other in person. This was not meant to be. His wife, Henrietta, fell ill and he had to remain by her side.

He succeeded in attending the FIDE Congress in Thessaloniki the following year, but because of his wife's condition he could give up only six days for the congress, two of which were spent traveling. Early in May 1985 Henrietta Elo experienced some "black-outs" and was hospitalized. While in the hospital, under intensive care, she suffered a cardiac arrest. She was pulled through by heroic means but when she left the hospital a month later she was a total wreck, physically and mentally, since she also suffered some brain damage. She was taken to a nursing home where she would have to stay under skilled care for the rest of her life. Her physical condition somewhat improved but her mental health continued to decline. She still had periods of lucidity but would lapse into confusion of fact and fancy.

There was no real hope that Mrs. Elo would ever be able to leave the nursing home, and the only thing she could look forward to was Professor Elo's daily visits. Notwithstanding his advanced age and his own deteriorating physical condition, Professor Elo fulfilled this emotionally-draining obligation religiously until death mercifully claimed Henrietta in 1989.

Strong player

For one who did not take his chessplaying seriously, Professor Elo achieved incredible results at the chessboard. He was the Wisconsin state champion eight times between the ages of 32 and 58! Using his own rating system to estimate his playing strength, he calculated his best five-year average rating at 2230 – enough to have earned for him the national master title.

Some of Professor Elo's games that appeared in prominent chess publications in the United States were circulated elsewhere through foreign subscriptions. But in all likelihood, a great majority of those familiar with his rating system have not seen any of this famous man's games. I am fortunate to have in my possession a few of them which Professor Elo himself chose for being most interesting. It is with pleasure that I share them with his legion of admirers. They may pale in quality and brilliance alongside a Spassky or Fischer game, but nonetheless they reflect the personal enterprise and enthusiasm of an authentic chess lover.

True character

A person's true character is revealed not only through his deeds but also through his thoughts and his words. By sharing what little I have been privileged to know about the life of Professor Elo, no matter how insignificant or shallow, I am taking a big step towards perpetuating his memory. Future generations of chessplayers and non-playing chess fans, I hope, will not merely understand the theory, application, and significance of the Elo Rating System, but will also appreciate and revere the amiable human qualities of the gentle genius behind it.

Previous article by Elmer Dumlao Sangalang


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