Person of day   -  25 AUGUST 2020

ARPAD ELO

ARPAD ELO

The future creator of the ratings system that underpins modern chess was born in Hungary, in a town called Egyházaskesző, near Papa. In 1913, he emigrated with his parents to the US, where he would live his whole life. 

He was not a professional chess player: after school, he enrolled in University of Chicago, where he graduated in 1935, after which he became a professor of physics and astronomy of Marquette Catholic University. Elo was a professional scientist and a decent chess player,a national master. He was the eight-time champion of Wisconsin, he drew against Reuben Fine twice and he even played in the US championship against a 14-year-old Robert Fischer. From 1935 onwards, he worked in different positions at the American Chess Federation before joining FIDE.  

Arpad Elo attained worldwide fame with his system of calculating individual ratings. In 1959, he was asked by President Jerry Spann to join the commission on reviewing and improving the system of individual coefficients that was used by the federation to calculate the relative strength of each player. This system was beset by a few fundamental shortcomings: for example, it enabled a chess player who lost every single match in a tournament to improve his rating, and vice versa. Arpad Elo’s ideas were used to design a new system that offered greater statistical accuracy because it was based on the expected result that depended on the relative strength of the players. 

The Elo system was adopted by the US Chess Federation in 1960 and by FIDE in 1970. The system was sufficiently straightforward to make calculations without machines. At first, Arpad Elo calculated the ratings of all chess players since he was heading FIDE’s qualifications commission for 15 years. Professor Elo’s system is used by FIDE to this day, with minor modifications.  

Meanwhile, Elo urged others not to attach universal applicability to his system. “Very often, people that aren’t familiar with the natural limitations of statistics expect too much from ratings. Ratings only compare achievements, nothing more and nothing less…determining a chess player’s rating is similar to determining a float’s position on the waves or a line attached to a fishing rod that is moved around by the wind” he wrote in 1962 in an article for Chess Life. 

In 1988, Professor Arpad Elo was included in the American Chess Federation’s Hall of Fame. He died on 5th November 1992.