Three Ratings

(This article originally appeared in the Master Skill Newsletter for January 10, 2023.)

I knew there’d be a lot.

In early December I took my first full month of vacation in over a decade. It did the trick. I’m writing this refreshed, energized, and ready to go.

While today is my first day of properly working for 2024, I decided to get through emails ahead of time.

And, oh boy, there were quite a few. (Thank you to everyone who wrote me!)

One message in particular jumped out at me, and it’s stuck with me since I first read it. It holds something universal about the Chess improver’s experience, and something I think we can change.

The message came from Don’t Move community member, Josiah, and he kindly agreed to share it with you all.

He wrote (paraphased slightly):

“I recently broke the 1500 point mark for the first time ever. I got scared. 1500 was all that I ever wanted and I didnt want to lose it. My brain isn’t exactly fresh all the time.

Anyways, over our Thanksgiving holiday break I decided to test my luck and play again. I lost 100 points. Eventually, and gradually, I pulled it up 40 points, beat a 1700, then lost 15 points (losing to a 1380).

Maybe it’s a decline before a spike? I don’t know and it’s pretty discouraging. I honestly don’t know what to do. 1431 just isn’t the same, you know, and I know that I haven’t been able to do what I used to be able to do.

Thank you for your time, I really find all your stuff fascinating and helpful.”

Does that feel familiar to you? It certainly did to me. We’ve all been there.

Ratings are both brutal and intoxicating. They’re a key part of what hooks people to the game of Chess. An objective measure of progress. But they’re also a large source of pain, frustration, and discouragement.

The main piece of advice you hear regarding ratings is simply not to care about them. Just ignore them. Stop worrying about your rating.

But how in the world are we meant to do that?

Ratings are embedded deeply in the game of Chess. It’s very difficult to simply not care about them at all. They’re everywhere, touching every part of the game.

“Don’t care about rating” is not the most practical advice.

So here’s a new frame that might help you in 2024 instead. Thank you, Josiah, for helping me put these thoughts into words.

In Chess, we don’t have just one rating. We have three.

Stick with me on this.

The first rating is our Ceiling Rating.

This is the rating we can reach when we play at our best and get a bit lucky as well.

We spot all the tactics, avoid all the blunders. Our opponents play the opening variations we’re comfortable with. Maybe we get the odd lucky disconnection or flag victory.

When our Ceiling Rating crosses a new milestone, it’s exhilarating!

When we reach a new Ceiling, like 1500, it’s easy to tell ourselves that we’re now a 1500-rated player. We identify with that new milestone. We tell ourselves we should play at that level all the time.

Then it’s painful when we drop again. Which we will. Because there are still two other ratings to go.

The second rating is our Floor Rating. This is the inverse of the Ceiling.

This is the rating we fall to when we’re not playing at our best and we get a bit unlucky as well.

Maybe we’re tired, or we’re tilted, or we’re just not focusing well. Maybe we’re a little out of practice.

Our opponents keep playing that pesky Sicilian line we hate, or are lightning fast and we keep losing on time.

We lose a bunch of rating all at once. And it hurts, a lot.

But, statistically, it’s just as likely that we’ll have a run that takes us to our Floor as one that takes us to our Ceiling.

The third rating is our True Rating.

It’s somewhere between our Floor and our Ceiling. It reflects where we truly are as Chess players.

But we’ll never know for sure exactly where our True Rating is. The best we’ll ever get is a ballpark, a vague sense of it. “Around 1600”. Something like that.

Our rating will go up and down, towards our Ceiling or our Floor, but it will always come back to around our True Rating.

In statistics, this is called “regression to the mean“.

After any unusually strong or weak result, it’s likely our next result will be closer to average. It’s a statistical truth that applies to every part of life and nature. Chess is no exception.

And this is liberating! Because it fundamentally changes how we relate to that little number next to our name.

Instead of:

“I just hit 1500! I’m finally a 1500-rated player!”

We can say:

“Wow, I reached a new Ceiling of 1500! That’s worth celebrating! I will drop back to my True Rating again, but now I know I am capable of this milestone. I’ll keep working until 1500 is my True Rating.”

Instead of:

“I lost so many points recently! What am I doing wrong? This sucks!”

We can say:

“I’ve hit my Floor Rating. That’s ok, it’s inevitable every now and then. I haven’t been playing my best and I’ve been a bit unlucky too. When I’m back to normal, I’ll bounce back to my True Rating.”

The trick to removing rating anxiety is not to magically stop caring about rating but to reframe what rating means. And to throw in a little basic statistics.

As you improve in 2024, I encourage you to celebrate each of your rating milestones three times.

The first time you break a new milestone, celebrate reaching a new Ceiling Rating.

When you notice you’re spending most of your time at or around that milestone level, celebrate a new True Rating.

And when you notice you have stopped dropping below that milestone entirely, celebrate a new Floor Rating.

When you start thinking about rating like this, much of the pain goes away, and you get to experience the joy of new milestones three times as often!

There’s no downside.

You have three ratings – not just one.

All the best for 2024. You’ll be hearing a lot more from me soon.

Here’s to the journey,

Aiden

Aiden

Aiden

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