What Does It Mean To Be Good At Chess?

Time after time I see widespread confusion about what it means to be good at chess. The question is relative of course, good compared to what? But views on chess strength tend to be very confused, with concepts such as Grandmaster being plucked out of the air.

Yet compared with many other fields of endeavour, excellence in chess can be clearly measured via its rating system. This doesn’t stop random claims of excellence or grandmasterhood but it does give us a means of falsifying them.

Here is a rough breakdown of the higher echelons of chess ratings based on data from November 2011:

5839 players had an active rating between 2200 and 2299, and are usually associated with the Candidate Master title.
2998 players had an active rating between 2300 and 2399, and are usually associated with the FIDE Master title.
1382 players had an active rating between 2400 and 2499, most of whom had either the International Master or the International Grandmaster title.
587 players had an active rating between 2500 and 2599, most of whom had the International Grandmaster title
178 players had an active rating between 2600 and 2699, all but one of whom had the International Grandmaster title
42 players had an active rating between 2700 and 2799
5 active players had a rating over 2800: Magnus Carlsen, Veselin Topalov, Viswanathan Anand, Vladimir Kramnik and Levon Aronian.

What about ratings below 2200? Well this is the area that most people occupy. Having a rating below 1200 is officially seen as being a ‘novice’, though I would say that novice level is really below around 500. After that we get a certain level of skill kicking in with players above 1,000 often being amongst the better ones in their town. Players with a rating of 1500 really know something about the game and as you go up towards 2000 there’s real expertise coming in.

Of course these levels are not necessarily those indicated by some of the servers which can massively inflate a player’s real strength. But if you play on the Internet Chess Club or Chess.com, they’ll probably not be too far out.

Here’s an attempt to clarify matters from Youtube:

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