In 2021, I wrote an article aimed at helping people get involved in over-the-board (OTB) chess.
The article was well-received, but only covered how to play an OTB game. It did not talk about wider matters like ratings, tournaments and events. We get a lot of questions about those, so I decided to write this follow-up!
In this article, I try to cover the information which is most important for people new to playing rated chess events in England. If you’re in a hurry, here is a summary of the most important points:
This article is part of a series aimed at newcomers to the over-the-board chess scene in England (especially London).
A chess rating is a number which represents a player’s skill level. Those who have played chess on an online site like Lichess or Chess.com will be aware that these sites assign you a rating, which gets updated as you play: win a game, and your rating goes up; lose, and it goes down; draw, and it moves towards your opponent’s rating.
Over-the-board chess also has rating systems, which work in a similar way. When you play a rated game, the organiser of the event will submit the result to the organisation(s) responsible for the rating system(s) in use, who will then update your rating, and your opponent’s.
Virtually all over-the-board games in English events are rated by at least one of two organisations: the English Chess Federation (ECF) and FIDE (the International Chess Federation). As the names suggest, the ECF’s rating system only covers England, while FIDE’s is worldwide.
Just like the online sites, each organisation maintains not just one but several rating systems. For example, my ECF ratings at the time of writing are 1776 for standard, 1586 for rapid and 1633 for blitz. If I play a standard game, the result will only affect my standard rating, and similarly for rapid and blitz.
(Standard chess is where the allotted time per player, plus 60 times any increment, is 60 minutes or more. Rapid chess is where this time is less than 60 minutes and more than 10 minutes. Blitz chess is where it is 10 minutes or less.)
These days, the ECF also has separate rating systems for online chess, though these are not yet in nearly such widespread use; they were introduced during the COVID-19 lockdowns when over-the-board chess was suspended, and it remains to be seen whether they will really take off.
So when someone says something like “my rating is 1800”, it’s important to know (a) whether this is an ECF rating, a FIDE rating or something else, (b) is it a standard, rapid or blitz rating, and (c) is it for over-the-board or online?
If you want to know someone’s ECF or FIDE ratings, you can look them up on the following online databases:
Official ECF and FIDE ratings are currently updated monthly. However, there are also sites like 2700chess.com which publish unofficial “live” FIDE ratings, updated very quickly after games are played.
In this article, I use the term “rating system” to refer to the way a specific organisation gathers results of a specific set of chess games and applies specific mathematical rules to produce ratings from them.
Confusingly, the term “rating system” is often used to mean just the mathematical rules (which I call a “rating model”). For example, the term “Elo rating system” is used to refer to a method invented in the 1960s by a Hungarian-American physics professor called Arpad Elo.
Sometimes people even use the term “Elo rating” to refer to FIDE ratings. However, the Elo model is used by many different organisations, including the ECF and FIDE, and even for games other than chess.
The rating model used in a rating system affects the range of ratings produced. In the Elo model, a rating difference of 200 points translates to an expected score of 76% for the stronger player. Because of the way the ECF and FIDE bootstrapped their systems, this means ratings are typically four digits, with 1000 being approximately beginner level (in the FIDE system, if your rating drops below 1000 then you become unrated). The world’s best players are rated around 2800 FIDE.
However, there’s nothing “magic” about those four-digit numbers. Before September 2020, the ECF used non-Elo-based ratings with typically two or three digits; in July 2020 I had an ECF standard rating of 145, and in January 2021 it changed to 1788 following the change to the Elo system.
(The pre-September-2020 ECF ratings were called “grades” or “gradings”, and the ECF only switched to the term “rating” when they changed to the Elo model. This is why you can find pages like this on the ECF website talking about how to convert “between Grades and Ratings”.)
The simple answer to this is: just play games in rated events!
For both ECF and FIDE ratings, five games against rated opponents is normally enough to get your first rating. (For ECF ratings, even games against unrated opponents can sometimes count.)
So for example, by entering just one of our FIDE Blitz tournaments, you should get both an ECF and a FIDE blitz rating if you didn’t have one already.
For standard time limits, it’s harder to play five games in one day, so if you want an ECF standard rating, it takes a bit more time. But five Middlesex League games, or entering our Club Championship (which is normally six rounds), should be enough. Most weekend congresses are five rounds, so entering one of those should be enough too.
If you want a FIDE standard rating, you need to enter a FIDE-rated standard event. Unfortunately these are not as common in England today as many would like, for reasons discussed below.
The more you play, the more accurate your rating will get as a representation of your playing strength.
The best way to get started playing rated events in England is to join the ECF. When you do that, you will get a rating code or membership number which you can provide to the organiser when you enter an event.
The main benefit of ECF membership is that the ECF won’t charge event organisers to rate your games, which means you will typically be charged a lower entry fee. (Often the price difference will be the same as the price of ECF membership, so you will pay for your membership with just one event.)
If you don’t have an ECF membership, you will typically need to provide some extra details to the event organiser, such as your date of birth, so the ECF can tell you apart from other people who may have the same name. You’ll then be issued a rating code behind the scenes when your results are submitted. It’s simpler for everyone if you just become an ECF member up-front.
There are multiple categories of ECF membership. You should check the ECF website for the latest details, but at the time of writing the vast majority of Hendon members have one of the following:
If you play rated games without having the relevant category of ECF membership, the event organiser will be charged a fee by the ECF. At most English chess clubs (including Hendon), the membership fees are not high enough to cover ECF game fees. This means entry into club events that would incur game fees is generally only going to be open to people who have the required level of ECF membership.
Here is how this applies to the major event types at Hendon today:
(All this could easily change in the future. For the latest information, please see our joining page, which is always more up-to-date than this. This is just an explanation of why we have these requirements at the time of writing.)
The one case where it may not make sense to become an ECF member is if you
normally live outside England and you are playing in a FIDE standard-play
tournament, perhaps as part of a holiday. If you have a FIDE registration for a
federation other than
ENG (see below), the game fees the ECF charges the
tournament organiser are much lower.
The majority of standard-play leagues and tournaments in England are ECF-rated and not FIDE-rated. A minority are both ECF- and FIDE-rated. In England, almost any serious event today will fall into one of these two categories.
When you enter an event, it should be made clear to you whether it is rated, and under what system(s). A tournament which is FIDE-rated will normally advertise the fact prominently, so you can generally assume an event will be ECF-rated only unless it clearly advertises otherwise.
The following question is rather obvious, but not at all easy to find an answer to: what is the point of ECF ratings?
The world’s elite players pay attention almost exclusively to FIDE ratings, as these determine invitations to the top events, who gets prestigious titles like Grandmaster and International Master, and so forth. Most countries, including very successful chess nations like India and China, do not have a national rating system, and just use FIDE ratings. So why do a small number of countries, like England and the USA, have national systems parallel to the FIDE one?
I am aware of two main reasons why there are so many standard events in England today which are ECF-rated but not FIDE-rated.
The first is the FIDE rating regulations on time limits. While a game is defined as standard chess if the time limit per player (plus 60 times any increment) is 60 minutes or more, FIDE requires longer time limits for rating games where either player is rated 1800 or over: at least 90 minutes per player. If either player is rated 2400 or over, the bar is even higher: 120 minutes.
Games which do not meet these requirements are not eligible for FIDE rating. This has some strange implications. For example, for a 1800+ player, a game played at 60 minutes each is in a kind of grey zone: it cannot be FIDE-rated in any form, as it is too slow for rapid rating but not slow enough for standard rating.
This is fine for events where the whole day is available for chess: for example, weekend tournaments can and do have two rounds per day at “90+30” (90 minutes each plus 30 seconds per move) which is enough for FIDE rating for any player. However, this regulation is a major headache for weekday evening events, which are a very significant part of the UK club scene.
For example, take the Middlesex League, which provides the vast majority of the standard chess played here at Hendon Chess Club. The League allows two time limits, 75+15 and 60+15. Of these, only 75+15 games can be FIDE-rated if either player is 1800+. (In the League’s three main divisions in 2022/23, 64% of games had at least one player with an 1800+ ECF rating.)
This means that if the League were FIDE-rated, the 60+15 time limit could not be used, unless the League created divisions limited to players rated under 1800. Even then, few clubs would run teams exclusively in those divisions, as they need to make provisions for their higher-rated players.
This would require clubs like ours to pay for more hours of venue time (increasing costs), and to either start matches earlier (excluding players who can’t finish their work or studies early enough to get there on time) or finish later (excluding players who can’t stay out that late on a work or school night). Hendon has historically used the 60+15 time limit and a 7:30pm start by strong popular demand from our membership.
Even the 75+15 time limit is not long enough for games involving players rated 2400 or above, and 120 minutes per player is really very difficult to accommodate on a weekday evening. So in all likelihood, the League would have to impose a rating cap at 2400 as well. (In 2022/23, the Middlesex League had two players rated over 2400 ECF, though both of them happened to be under 2400 FIDE. But other leagues, such as the London League, have more high-rated players so would have a bigger problem.)
The second reason FIDE-rated events are not more common is because they require more expensive levels of ECF membership (or higher entry fees).
The lack of FIDE-rated events certainly hurts English chess, as ambitious players who want to push for higher ratings and titles have to look abroad, which not everybody has the time and money to do. However, eliminating the ECF system entirely while the current FIDE rating regulations are in place would create a lot of difficulties for many organisers, especially clubs.
Unless FIDE changes their rules, the best we can do is probably to find ways of encouraging standard events to be FIDE-rated if they are taking place in a context where it is possible to accommodate the necessary time limits.
Thankfully, this problem only affects standard chess: when it comes to rapid and blitz, there are plenty of FIDE-rated events, including here at Hendon Chess Club. The raison d’être for ECF rapid and blitz ratings strikes me as less clear.
Even at standard time limits, FIDE-rated events do exist in England. We are privileged to have one of the most prolific organisers of FIDE-rated tournaments (of all time limits) in the country, if not the world, in Adam Raoof: check out chessengland.com for his calendar! The ECF Calendar is a page you should have bookmarked, as this should have more or less every serious tournament in England (whether FIDE-rated or not).
Every national federation in the FIDE system has a three-letter federation code,
which for England is
ENG. This shows up in a couple of places.
Firstly, almost all FIDE-rated tournaments are associated with a national federation. Organisers send results (and any rating fees) to that national federation, which passes them on to FIDE. You can browse tournaments by federation on chess-results.com.
Also, if you have a FIDE rating, then you will also have a FIDE registration (with a FIN, or FIDE ID Number) associated with a national federation. If you look someone up on ratings.fide.com, you will see what their FIN and federation are.
It’s important to realise that if you’re not already registered with FIDE, the first time you play a FIDE-rated tournament, a FIDE registration will be created for you, and that registration will be associated with the federation under which the tournament is happening. (For some reason the rules are slightly different for blitz and rapid versus standard: in the case of standard tournaments, you may be refused entry altogether.)
This means if your first FIDE-rated tournament is in England, you will end up
ENG FIDE registration, unless you have explicitly taken steps in
advance to get FIDE registration with another nationality.
Many players may not care about this, but it does have some non-trivial implications, such as your ability to represent your country at chess in the future, and possibly also the entry fees you get charged for FIDE-rated events elsewhere. And changing the nationality of your registration in the future can be difficult and expensive.
So if you don’t want a FIDE registration under the English flag, you should contact your home federation to obtain a FIN before entering any FIDE-rated tournament in England.
Similarly, if you do want an English FIDE registration and you are thinking of entering an event outside England as your first FIDE-rated event, you should become a member of the ECF and contact them to obtain a FIN before you enter.
You can be a member of the ECF while having a FIDE registration against any country or none. ECF membership and FIDE registration are separate; I don’t believe there are any rules against being a member of multiple national federations at once. You will probably want to get ECF membership if you want to play a significant number of rated events in England, even if you are FIDE-registered elsewhere.
I will close by discussing what I think ratings are really for.
It’s important to realise that a rating system is a relative measure. Its only input is the results of games played among a certain pool of players; the ratings it produces have no meaning in themselves, only in comparison to other ratings in the same system.
There is no fixed standard of play or skill-set that defines, say, an ECF standard rating of 1500: this is just a number that can be plugged into a formula to calculate the score that player should expect to achieve, over the long run, against a player of another rating.
The situation is further complicated by several factors:
All this means that ratings are a highly imperfect measure of playing strength, and there’s no guarantee that any particular rating level “stays fixed” over time in terms of the actual chess-playing skill it measures: in fact, it’s virtually guaranteed that it won’t.
(This is a great conversation starter if you’re talking to an experienced chess player: ask them if their rating is going down/up because they’re getting weaker/stronger, or because there is “rating deflation/inflation”? Are there more people rated over 2700 than a few decades ago because players have got stronger, or because there has been inflation? Like all the best pub debate topics, the question is very difficult to answer objectively, but it is trivial to produce endless relevant-sounding anecdotes!)
The ECF tries to address the issue of playing frequency by assigning a category to each rating, which is a letter after the rating indicating how many games it is based on. At the time of writing, the categories used are A, K and P, with A being the best, assigned to ratings based on at least 30 games in the last 12 months. (Prior to May 2022, the ECF used a different category system.) As far as I know, FIDE has no such system, though you can tell how many rated games a player has played over time by looking at their record in the rating database.
Things get even more complicated when you try to compare ratings from different systems, for example ECF versus FIDE, standard versus blitz, or ECF versus Lichess. The major online sites do not even use the Elo model. Even rating systems using the same model can still drift apart, because they don’t cover the same players or games.
(In theory, divergence can occur even within a single system, like the ECF, if there are groups of players who play each other a lot, but rarely play people from other groups. This can happen, for example, if most games are played between people from the same geographic area in local tournaments and leagues, but people rarely travel to play against people from other areas.)
Of course, for the ECF and FIDE systems, there are plenty of tournaments in England where players from different areas compete, and there are plenty of people with ratings in both systems. This keeps the systems at least somewhat meaningful, and allows you to come up with some rough rules of thumb for converting between them.
But still, it can’t be assumed that ECF and FIDE ratings are entirely interchangeable. My ECF and FIDE standard ratings are over 100 points different. Do I play worse in FIDE-rated tournaments? Do the rating systems not line up? Or have I just not played enough FIDE-rated games? I have my suspicions, but it’s very hard to prove them with ratings alone.
In conclusion, your rating is a highly imperfect summary of your strength, which is meaningful only in the context of other ratings in the same system. Therefore, try not to take your rating too seriously, especially as a measure of whether you’re getting better or worse in absolute terms.
The main use of ratings, in my view, is as a tool to try to make sure you get a good game against someone of similar strength. For example, as a captain picking a league team, ratings allow me to pitch my player requests to players of roughly the right level, and arrange them in board order so that our strongest player plays the opponent’s strongest player, and so on down. Another example is tournaments with rating-limited sections (e.g. “under 2000”) which give players a fair chance of winning a prize.
I hope you found this article useful, and wish you all the best in your games!