Season 2 of the London Online Chess League is about to start, and I’m delighted to see that several new members have signed up to play for Hendon even since the end of season 1 a couple of weeks ago!
This is great news, but it does mean that even though we’re now running three teams (up from two in season 1), demand for LOCL places may continue to exceed supply.
That means we face a trade-off between choosing the strongest possible line-ups, and giving all our members access to competitive chess if they want it. I wanted to say something publicly about how I approach this problem.
It’s a little more complicated than this, because I also need to select reserves, in case anyone has to drop out of the team at the last minute. And if, for example, someone tells me they can only play in the first half of the season, I’ll try to bear that in mind (we have one member expecting a baby in April!). But the high-level goal remains: two teams as strong as possible, the third team based on rotation to give everyone a chance to play.
You can see from my season 1 report how this works in practice (I operated the same system there, but with two teams). Our lowest team had a much wider variety of players, but as a consequence, it finished much lower in the League.
Where things get a little tricker is, how do I know which players are strongest? The obvious answer is to use their ratings, from the English Chess Federation or from FIDE. After all, the whole point of ratings is to measure how strong players are!
The problem is that these ratings are based on over-the-board chess, and the vast majority of us haven’t played any since early 2020. Therefore, the ratings are now about a year out-of-date, and some newer players have never even had the opportunity to get one. The LOCL isn’t rated either, so results in the competition don’t actually affect any official ratings.
In my view, it’s not sustainable for a competition like the LOCL to be unrated. The LOCL rules rely upon official ratings for enforcing divisional grading limits and board orders, and we’re rapidly approaching the point where ratings are sufficiently stale to start causing perverse effects. I have written to the League Secretary (who is doing a fantastic job!) asking if the LOCL can be rated in future, and I will continue to advocate for that. But the earliest this will happen is if there is a season 3, after season 2 finishes in May.
I still believe that players' official ratings are the fairest single measure of strength we have, so they do play the main role in how I select the teams. And I have no choice but to use official ratings when following league rules such as the divisional grading limits and board orders.
However, I do also keep an eye on the actual results in the LOCL, and if I judge that someone is playing significantly above or below their rating, I do try to take that into account. I keep a special eye on players whose official rating is based on very few games, or is just an estimate; this is especially common with younger players, who have a tendency to improve very rapidly!
I never place too much weight on the results of just one game though. If a lower-rated player beats a higher-rated player, that’s great, but coincidences do happen. One of the core statistical insights behind the rating system is that you have to look at multiple games – the more the better – to get a true picture of someone’s strength.
My current view is that virtually all Hendon members active in the LOCL are playing within around 50 points of their official rating. That’s why ratings, stale as they are, still play such a major role in how I select the top teams.
Ideally, of course, we’d run exactly enough teams to give a place to everyone who wants to play. That’s not realistic, though, because demand for LOCL places is hard to predict:
Generally we would prefer to run slightly too few teams, but comfortably fill them across the season, rather than slightly too many, and risk defaulting lots of matches because we can’t find enough players every week.
Chess is clearly in fine shape in this country, and this is the best possible problem to face! If demand for places still continues to exceed supply over the course of season 2, we will certainly consider running yet more teams, if there is a season 3.
I hope this gives some insight into how I try to achieve a balance between keeping our teams competitive and giving all our members a chance to play competitive chess if they want to. I believe the system described here is the fairest possible, given the nature of the LOCL as a competitive team league.
You can find a list of all stories about the London Online Chess League here.