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.

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



Topics: Arpad Elo
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