Despite Arpad Elo’s remarkable system, upsets still happen at the chessboard

February 26, 2019

It was nearly 60 years ago that Arpad Elo, a physics professor at Marquette and a fine amateur player, set out to quantify the seemingly unquantifiable how strong one’s chess ability really is. Building on the work of U.S. Chess Federation Official Kenneth Harkness, the Hungarian-born Elo in 1960 introduced a statistically subtle way to rate and compare players’ strengths, a system that within 10 years would be adopted by FIDE as the world standard.

In addition to making modern class tournaments possible and setting off any number of raging historical debates what was Morphy’s peak rating, anyway? the Elo rating system remains a remarkably strong predictor of actual results. Check out any large database like the 2,000-plus games offered every Monday in the indispensable TheWeekInChess.com, and the odds are strikingly strong that the higher-rated player will prevail.

Not always fortunately. Young Russian GM Daniil Dubov, recently crowned world rapid champion, first burst on to the scene with a tie for first at the 2015 Aeroflot Open. He was on his way to another strong finish at the elite open event last week when he was upset by veteran Estonian GM Kaido Kulaots, despite a 160-point ratings edge for Dubov.

With the center locked in this English Opening, Dubov as White appears to have the early edge with his two powerful bishops, a number of potential pawn breaks, and Black’s awkward-looking rook on a6. But White’s kingside play goes nowhere, and the modest Black queenside expansion with 28...b5 and 30...a4 begins to dominate the game.

By 35. Qf4 (Bf3 axb3 36. Qb2 Qb6 just leaves White a pawn down with no compensation) g6! (and not 35...fxe4?? 36. Qf7+ Kh7 37. Rh2+ Bh3 38. Rxh3 mate) 36. bxa4 Qe7 37. Bf3 Rxa4, Dubov is completely stymied while Black’s rook has flared to life.

After 43. gxf6 Bb5 44. Kf2 Bxd3 45. Rg1, White’s pawns are a mess and his pieces badly scattered, leading to a nice finale: 45...Re2+! 46. Bxe2 Rxe2+ 47. Kg3 f4+! 48. Kxf4 (Kh3 Bf5+ 46. Rg4 Bxg4+ 50. Kxg4 Rxh2) Rxh2 49. Re1 Rh4+, and White resigned a hopeless, piece-down ending.

Through seven of nine rounds in Moscow, Kulaots (ranked 62nd going into the Aeroflot event, according to Elo), was tied for first, including a Round 7 upset Monday of tournament No. 1 seed GM Wei Yi of China.


Our diagram is the three-move mate we offered last week from American problemist (and Baptist minister) Gilbert S. Dobbs, composed 100 years ago. Black has very few legal moves, but the White queen and bishop seem to get in each other’s way when trying to deliver the knockout.

Dobbs ingeniously unlocks the door with 1. Qh8! (the reason for the Black pawn b7 White’s queen needs to get to multiple squares to deliver mate, including along the a-file) bxa2 (Kxa2 2. Nc3+ Ka1 [Ka3 3. Qc8 mate] 3. Qa8 mate) 2. Nd4! (the real star move, temporarily blocking the queen on the long diagonal) b1=Q+ (promoting to rook, bishop or knight makes no difference; on 2...Kb1 3. Qh1 is mate as the knight covers c2) 3. Nb3 mate. The first move is a familiar problem-like idea, but the various permutations on the way to mate are very nice.

Dubov-Kulaots, Aeroflot Open, Moscow, February 2019

1. c4 e5 2. Nc3 Bb4 3. Nd5 a5 4. a3 Be7 5. Nf3 d6 6. d3 Nf6 7. Nc3 O-O 8. g3 Bf5 9. Bg2 Qc8 10. h3 h6 11. b3 Na6 12. e4 Bd7 13. Be3 c5 14. Nh4 Nc7 15. g4 Qd8 16. Nf5 Nh7 17. Qd2 Ra6 18. Nxe7+ Qxe7 19. f4 exf4 20. Bxf4 Re8 21. O-O Nf8 22. Rae1 Ng6 23. Bg3 Ne5 24. Nd5 Nxd5 25. exd5 f6 26. Be4 Qd8 27. Bf4 Re7 28. Re2 b5 29. cxb5 Bxb5 30. Rg2 a4 31. h4 Bd7 32. g5 hxg5 33. hxg5 f5 34. Bxe5 Rxe5 35. Qf4 g6 36. bxa4 Qe7 37. Bf3 Rxa4 38. Qc1 Ra8 39. Qb2 Re8 40. Qc3 Re3 41. Rh2 Qg7 42. Qf6 Qxf6 43. gxf6 Bb5 44. Kf2 Bxd3 45. Rg1 Re2+ 46. Bxe2 Rxe2+ 47. Kg3 f4+ 48. Kxf4 Rxh2 49. Re1 Rh4+ White resigns

David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email dsands@washingtontimes.com.