18 September 2017

A Quarrel About Ratings

In the previous post, Ratings Correlated to Performance, I looked at the 1951 U.S. Chess Championship, the first U.S. championship played after the introduction of U.S chess ratings. In this post I'll introduce a small quarrel about the use of ratings to determine participants in that event. The 5 December 1951 issue of Chess Life (CL) included the following letter.

Dear Mr. Major,

I aspire some day to play in the U.S. Championship Finals. I have never had the honor. The only way I know how is to do well enough in tournament competition, so as to attain a rating that will merit an invitation to the preliminaries. This year I thought I did, but I discovered it was not enough. Three of the participants in the U.S. Championship Preliminaries were rated below me in the Rating List of December 31, 1950. I have no way of telling how many others who were rated below me were extended invitations which they declined, or for that matter how many rated above me were likewise skipped.

I wrote a letter of inquiry to Mr. Hans Kmoch in his capacity as Tournament Director. Specifically I asked him the basis for the invitations. His reply appeared to me as a masterpiece of double talk. For example, on the one hand he said that he would have invited me if be had known I was eager to play, and on the other hand that he tried to contact me but failed to do so. Consider this contradiction further in the light of these facts: The USCF had canvassed me more than once regarding my availability and I had always replied in the affirmative. Mr. Phillipps had no trouble at all in reaching me in his drive for tournament contributions.

On my fundamental question regarding the basis for the invitations. Mr Kmoch had this to say: that the Rating System so far has not been accepted as binding for the order of invitations, that the original selections were made by a committee, and that there were subsequent withdrawals and last minute substitutions. No explanation of the basis for either the original selections or the later substitutions.

I present these facts not primarily as a personal grievance, since obviously it is too late to undo past events. However. I am interested in correcting a bad situation.

How long shall we tolerate a double standard in American chess -- a rating system for window dressing and a little black address book for extending invitations to the National Championship Tournaments?

I lay no claim to the infallibility of the U.S. Rating System, or for that matter to any other quantitative method for evaluating qualitative performance. On the contrary, I have some serious quarrels with it. Nevertheless I admit I know of no large equitable method for evaluating relative performance of a large number of players.

Can Mr. Kmoch or anybody else suggest a better way to evaluate relative skill? The fact remains that another system was used in issuing invitations to the last National Championship.

Perhaps Mr. Kmoch can explain it in detail to the satisfaction of Chess Life readers. If it is superior, it can be incorporated into or substituted for future ratings. The other possibility is that factors other than skill were considered in issuing invitations. If so, may I ask what they were?

Jack Soudakoff
New York City, N.Y.

The 5 January 1952 issue of CL included the following article by Hans Kmoch. Although it mentions ratings only once, it serves a second purpose in documenting the difficulties of organizing the 1951 championship.

The U. S. Championship Tournament; by Hans Kmoch
USCF Vice-President and Secretary of Tournament Committee

Two years ago the Tournament Committee, under the co-chairmanship of Messrs George E. Roosevelt and Maurice Wertheim, worked out a tentative schedule for the 1950 Championship, to be held as an invitational tournament, and the championships thereafter, to be open for especially qualified participants. On December 1, 1949, Mr. Wertheim sent a summarizing report of the Tournament Committee's suggestions to President Giers. On April 4, 1950, President Giers wrote the Tournament Committee that its suggestions had been accepted by the Board of Directors.

Unfortunately, a number of unforeseen events caused delay in the 1950 Championship. There was first of all the paralyzing blow delivered to the Tournament Committee by the death of Mr. Wertheim; there was the participation of a U.S. team in the so-called Chess Olympics at Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia, in August and September 1950; then there was the change in the Presidency of the USCF which had been impending for some months before it became a fact. I may add, if it matters, that I myself as the secretary of the Tournament Committee, had been absent from this country for seven months (June-December, 1950).

Our new President, Mr. Phillips, did great efforts to reactivate the Tournament Committee and get the postponed 1950 Championship held in 1951.

On March 1951 the Tournament Committee met and came to the conclusion the postponed Championship should he held in August 1951 with 14-16 participants. On April 19, 1951 the Tournament Committee decided on a list of 16 participants by name. On May 5, 1951, the Tournament Committee changed the schedule for the 1951 Championship in such a way that 24 players could participate instead of 16 while the number of rounds would increase only from 15 to l6.

On June 11, 1951, invitations were sent out to the selected players. As for the additional names, the Tournament Committee had accepted the National Rating List as a guide, emphasizing, however, it had no obligation to follow that List.

The 1951 Championship tournament was held in New York from July 28 to August 19. 1951

During June 11 to July 28 many changes in the list of the participants became necessary, because some of the invitees were unavailable, some made claims which USCF had no chance to fulfill, some needed time to decide, and some didn't answer at all.

As time went on. the difficulUes to get substitutes were mounting. To many players, the idea of acting as a substitute had a humiliating touch. Others could not accept at short notice, while still others did but later withdrew at zero notice. During the last week before the tournament, I had to work frantically so as to present a complete list of 24 players at the draw on July 28. On that day, just before the draw was to start, Herman Hesse from Pennsylvania and George Eastman from Michigan announced their withdrawals by wire. And there was still no answer from U.S. Champion Steiner.

However, I had foreseen possible trouble of this kind and was fortunate enough to find a number of distinguished players who would not mind acting, so to say, as substitutes for substitutes, willing to step in at any moment. The names of the gentlemen who by their comprehensive attitude substantually contributed to the tournament are: Edgar McCormick, Jack Collins, Dr. Ariel Mengarini, Dr. Joseph Platz, and Ed. Schwartz. McCormick had even to wait until the first round had started, for I felt that Steiner's place must be kept open until the very last minute.

The emergency job of looking for substitutes was largely done by Mr. Phillips and myself. We acted in accordance with the decisions the Tournament Committee had previously taken. Our bid to get some of the best-placed players from Fort Worth netted only Jim Cross; Eliot Hearst from New York and Lee Magee from Nebraska were unavailable.

As for our critics, we had New Yorkers who would wonder what non-New Yorkers were doing in this tournament, as well as non-New Yorkers who simply couldn't imagine why so many New Yorkers should participate. We had these who wouldn't mind a few thousand dollars if these dollars were to be produced by the USCF, those who considered themselves second to nobody in importance, those who would blame the Tournament Committee for a player's failure, and those who generally seemed to believe that ill-will was the only guide the Tournament Committee ever had.

By and large, however, the Tournament Committee's good-will was recognized. It ought to he at least as far as its members, Mrs. Wertheim, Mr. Alexander Bisno, and Mr. George E. Roosevelt, are concerned. Sapienti sat ['A word to the wise is sufficient']. The thankless job of raising the funds was accepted and in spite of tremendous difficulties satisfactorily done by Mr. Phillips.

The tournament itself was a smooth affair. There were no incidents of any importance.

Nowadays, the use of ratings to determine invitations is done routinely. When would U.S. ratings be accepted to determine invitations for the U.S. championship?

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