09 October 2011

Ratings Fear and Loathing

One of the most distracting things we face over the chessboard (real or virtual) is our opponent's rating.  It's difficult to avoid at least some sort of initial reaction to it, whether fear (if higher) or loathing (if lower), and both are very unhelpful to our game.  In contrast, if an opponent is near our own rating, then the absence of this reaction is something of a blessing - but not always, as we'll see below.

I like to think that I've learned over the years not to have irrational emotional reactions to ratings differences, but it's still an ever-present pitfall that needs to be avoided.  The prodigious emphasis given by most people to ratings means they can often be more important than the game itself, a mindset which is especially dangerous when actually playing.  What can happen to us then?

The Wages of Fear
  • I pass up winning chances - the higher-rated opponent must have some sort of trap planned or my evaluation must be incorrect.
  • I play passively - I will be punished if I attempt a sacrifice or otherwise unbalance the position
  • When I lose a material or positional advantage through an oversight, I think the game cannot be saved
  • I lose time and energy repeatedly recalculating lines, not having faith they will hold up
  • I change my preferred openings and playing style because they aren't good enough for this opponent
The Kingdom of Loathing
  • Over-focus on my own plans, ignoring possible strategic or tactical threats from my opponent
  • Mind goes wandering, since this game is obviously won
  • I select sharper lines in order to more quickly crush my opponent, without fully calculating them
  • I become a condescending jerk to another human being just because of the lower number after their name
Fear is generally more crippling to us than loathing, because of the nature of the beast: lower-rated opponents are more likely (although not guaranteed) to be weaker in playing strength, so we can get away with more inaccuracies against them.  Also by now most of us know the dangers of loathing, especially when youth opponents are involved, since ratings are less accurate with rapidly improving players.  Furthermore, the validity of ratings depends on the pool of opponents that are regularly faced, with limited opposition tending to yield a skewed distribution.  People like me who play an average of one OTB tournament every 2-3 years (due to geographical challenges in my case) are also wild cards, since their ability to perform may have shifted significantly in that period.

This is not to say that ratings don't make a difference.  Perhaps the most useful and healthy way to look at them is as a factor for your overall game strategy, also taking into account tournament standing, if that applies.  For example, significantly higher-rated players will often try to avoid opening lines which their opponents know, which would give the lower-rated player a good middlegame position "for free".  Here, the calculated trade-off is that even when a non-optimal move is played, the lower-rated player is less likely to have the knowledge and technique to be able to fully exploit it.  Conversely, I believe lower-rated players should look to play their well-honed openings, regardless of how sharp they are, because they are going to be on much firmer ground mentally in the middlegame and will have all that "free" assistance in the opening phase.

Something closely allied to ratings fear and loathing is an obsession with rating points.  Making this part of our thinking process can throw us off our game even with opponents who are rated similarly, as one's mental focus is then placed on the result of the game and its ratings impact, rather than on board in front of us.  Being a statistician is fine, but it's best to save it for after a tournament, as otherwise it becomes an intrusive distraction with every game.  People who don't play in tournaments (i.e. play a lot of one-off online games) may be especially susceptible to this, since the ratings gain/loss in each game is in fact the primary objective outcome of the games.  A gambler's mentality can then develop, with long streaks of losses occurring because the player craves a win above all and wants to stop the rating slide.

During my tournament career, I've tried various psychological coping strategies regarding ratings.  Of course the best remedy for ratings fear is to have at least some measured success against significantly higher-rated opposition, as occurred in Annotated Game #10 and Annotated Game #11.  This gets you over the "I will inevitably lose" attitude, which thanks to the sliding scale of chess will always be a problem, at least for those under Grandmaster level.  Treating losses to higher-rated opponents such as in Annotated Game #2 as a learning mechanism is also useful, although they should still be fought as hard as possible.  Since I'm so often the lower-rated one in a tournament, I feel more of a sense of comradeship when facing a lower-rated opponent myself, although it's still useful to remind myself to not be lazy with my thinking and treat the game like any other.

For a while I deliberately stopped writing down my opponent's rating before the game, only looking it up afterwards.  That partially worked, but at the same time it struck me as somewhat paradoxical, since the avoidance meant that I was still worried about the impact of the rating on my thinking.  From a practical standpoint, it also took some effort to not accidentally see the rating on the posted crosstable.  Nowadays I simply try to focus on the game of chess and on my own performance, rather than worry about the opponent's rating.  This approach for me seems to work the best: accepting the fact of the rating, but not giving it any more significance than it's worth.


  1. Really excellent post; I have come to agree that not thinking about the opponent's rating while choosing a move is the best policy. S. Webb's book Chess for Tigers had some interesting ideas about how to approach higher- or lower-rated players (attack and complicate if you're the lower, "simple chess" and wait for the mistake if you're the higher) but it never appealed much to me.

    I have thought sometimes about how much the ratings changed the whole chess scene. Pre-ratings, if you went to a tournament where you weren't familiar with the opponent, say a U.S Open, if your opponent wasn't a known master you might get a clue from someone how strong he was, or you might not and just "play chess". Ratings have had a profound affect on the game--as you note, ratings are almost an obsession for some. I am not above it all myself. A few years ago I got back into rated chess for awhile and was pretty upset when the hard-earned gains of a year of work went up in smoke in a few weeks of tough losses.

    So I ain't gonna criticize anyone for wanting to advance their rating. But overall, you hit the nail--downplay it and relax during the game, tote it up later!

  2. The idea of developing effective in-game strategic approaches based on significant strength differences is definitely something that deserves some more research. I recently acquired the "Chess for Tigers" book but am forcing myself to finish at least one of the other books that are in process before reading it in detail.

    I tend to think that the "play solid" approach against significantly lower-rated opposition (200+ points) has more validity to it. The odds are much greater then that your opponent will simply go wrong in an exploitable way for you, whether it's dropping material or significantly misplaying things positionally in the middlegame or endgame. On the other hand, if that's not your natural style, you may simply be crossing yourself up.

    Against significantly higher-rated players, the obvious point against pursuing the strategy of complicating the game is that you are moving it more onto their turf, i.e. increasing the importance to the game result of being able to consistently calculate multiple complicated lines. I think as a conscious strategy this is most effective when the opponent already has an advantage on the board, since simple choices will easily allow them to keep the advantage, while complex ones give them more chances to miss something. If they don't already have an advantage, it may simply make it easier for them to get one.

  3. Great post Chess Admin! Very interesting isn't it how the ratings can have an impact on the phsycology of a game. It's almost impossible to ignore it altogether so I agree that the best thing to do is accept it and try not to let it affect your natural playing style.

    Confidence is a big factor too I find. When I'm on a good run I feel I can beat players rated quite a bit higher than me but when I'm in a slump I feel I can lose to anyone!

    Finally, having agreed that it is best to "play the board and not the opponent" it must be said that sometimes it can be useful to take your opponent's strength into account on a tactical level depending on the game situation. For example, on occasion, when I've got into a tight spot against a player rated lower than me I have made the decision to opt for a tricky looking continuation over a solid looking one because I feel it might give me a better chance of getting back in the game.

    Very interesting subject matter. I've just posted an old game of mine on my "travailpursuit" blogspot which features exactly this kind of phsycological subject...

  4. This was a great post for sure!

    I also (as do many/most) suffer from this issue. And to be quite honest, I think that it's something that only improves with time.

    Ultimately, when I sit down at the board I want to know what my opponents strength is. But I don't want to let that then get in the way of playing my normal game.

    As more time has passed since my return to chess 2.5 years ago I have gotten better at this. But it takes time.

    The other rating related issue that I experience is that I forget that as my rating goes up my expectations should as well. For example, when I made my comeback in January 2011 I was rated just over 1500 (although I was probably 1200 in strength since I hadn't played in 19 years) so when I would play someone rated 1600 I felt like I was in for a serious uphill struggle.

    Now I am rated 1763. And it took me some time to realize that now when I play a 1600 they are the ones in for the uphill struggle. I was giving my opponents far too much credit before the game for a long time because I was still thinking of myself as a 1500 rather than a 1750, etc.


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