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Rating Inflation

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If you’ve followed the world of elite, world-class chess players, you’ve likely come across the term rating inflation. Exactly what is rating inflation, and how does it happen? Let’s take a closer look.

What is Rating Inflation?

Rating inflation is the term used to describe the increase in the ratings of the highest-rated players in the world over the past few decades. In this case, we’re talking specifically about FIDE ratings; however, ratings inflation is certainly possible in other federations or in online ratings systems as well, and the term is generally used in the same manner in these situations as well.

Evidence of Rating Inflation

Some of the effects of rating inflation are quite obvious. For instance, one can look at the number of 2700-rated players, and note that there has been a major increase in the membership of this once exclusive club.

Back in July 1971, FIDE released their first ever official ratings list. At the time, Bobby Fischer was the number one player in the world, with a rating of 2760. He was the only member of the 2700 club; Boris Spassky, ranked second, came in at 2690. For some time, this pattern continued, with many years finishing with just one (or no) players above the 2700 mark.

As a snapshot of how things have changed, the July 1994 FIDE rating list contained six 2700 players, including Garry Kasparov, who led the list at 2815. The other names on the list were also considered World Championship contenders, including Anatoly Karpov, Alexei Shirov, Valdimir Kramnik, Viswanathan Anand and Valery Salov.

Finally, let’s look at the December 2012 ratings list. The level of inflation in the ratings system is clear: there are now 47 players who sit at or above the 2700 rating. Not only is every player who could seriously be considered elite have a rating of over 2700, but so do many others who are not considered threats to the World Championship title, including some that many serious chess fans may be unfamiliar with.

Another way to look at rating inflation is to look at the average ratings of a group of top players. For instance, Rod Edwards examined the FIDE ratings of the players ranked 11th through 50th on every FIDE rating list. He discovered that since around 1986, that average had been increasing dramatically; from 1986 to 2006, the average rating of that group had increased by a staggering 118 points.

Causes of Rating Inflation

One of the most debated points around the topic of rating inflation is the exact cause of this phenomenon. While it’s clear that ratings have increased dramatically at the top of world chess, it’s unclear what the cause is, and it seems likely that there may have been several contributing factors.

A popular theory is that that increase in ratings simply reflect the increasing strength of chess players over the years. While (despite what some may say about players from other generations) it seems logical that better chess is being played today because of a larger pool of serious young players and increased access to tools that allow for greater training efficiency, that does not mean that the FIDE ratings reflect this. In fact, they were never meant to; Elo ratings in general were intended to compare contemporary players with each other, not to make comparisons across eras. It’s possible that improved play (or more players reaching a high standard) has had some effect on ratings, but it is probably not the main cause of the inflation.

Another theory that appears to have more mathematical grounding has to do with the lowering of the FIDE ratings floor. The ratings floor is the level a player must reach in order to appear on the FIDE rating list, and has been lowered several times over the course of the last few decades. Many players who do just well enough to hit this floor will have merely had a good tournament or two, and may actually be weaker than their rating suggests. Those players will then tend to lose points to high-rated players, adding more rating points into the system. As the rating floor has dropped, more and more players have been able to squeak their way onto the FIDE ratings list – meaning there have been more points to slowly work their way up to the top players.

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