Better than Kasparov?

With each sport, there comes to be associated a number generally understood to define perfection among its practitioners. For chess, Garry Kasparov's all-time high rating of 2,851 was the Bradman figure since the Elo-based system was introduced 12 years ago. Until this week.

Norwegian prodigy Magnus Carlsen, after his winning run at the London Classic, went past Kasparov's mark and when FIDE's ranking list for January will be released, the 22-year old would be sitting on a whopping 2,861 rating points.

Whether Carlsen is better than Kasparov, much less the greatest of all time, cannot decisively be resolved purely on the basis of the record.

The nature of the Elo rating, which rewards wins against higher ranked players more handsomely, and the role played by chess engines from the mid-90s in producing a stronger set of players, have contributed to a general inflation of ratings over the last decade. The average rating of the top 100 has only gone up year on year in this period.

This, combined with the dilution of rating parameters (more rated players now than earlier and easier norms for becoming a rated player), the argument goes, makes it easier to scale rating highs now than ever before. In other words, the strength of the field during Kasparov's time was lower, and hence he did not presumably have enough tough opponents to boost his rating against.

This argument, at a certain level, is counter-intuitive. Surely, dominating a stronger field is tougher than thrashing a weaker one. Carlsen has beaten world champions several times over and has won most major tournaments (London Classic, Bilbao Masters, Tal Memorial, Wijk aan Zee, Biel, Nanjing) on the chess circuit multiple times. And he is still only 22. And that is perhaps the more significant aspect of his achievement. Kasparov was 37 when he hit his rating peak, retiring five years later. Carlsen has his best ahead of him.

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