Arpad Elo

by Bill Wall


Arpad Emrick Elo was born in Egyhazaskeszo, Austro-Hungarian Empire, on August 25, 1903. 


In 1913, his family moved to the United States.


He learned chess in his teens while attending high school in Cleveland, Ohio.  He saw a set of chessmen in a department store and learned the rules of the game from the Encyclopedia Britannica. 


By the 1930s, he was the strongest chess player in Milwaukee.  He won the Wisconsin State Chess Championship 8 times from 1935 (at age 32) to 1961 (at the age of 58).  He played in 37 consecutive state championships in Wisconsin from 1933 to 1969.  He won over 40 tournaments during his playing days.


In 1935, he was president of the American Chess Federation, which later merged with the National Chess Federation and became part of the USCF in 1939.


Elo was among the first to organize Swiss-system chess tournaments in the United States on a regular basis.


He earned his BS and MS degrees, in Physics, from the University of Chicago.  He never earned a PhD.


Elo was a professor of physics and astronomy at Marquette University in Milwaukee  from 1926 to 1972.  He also taught at the University of Wisconsin.


In the 1950s, Elo developed his own formula for a chess rating system base on the normal distribution curve, or function (Bell curve).  The new rating system was used by the USCF in 1960, replacing the old Harkness system that had been used since 1950. One of the flaws with the Harkness system was that you could lose rating points even if you won every game and had a perfect score.  Elo's rating system was adopted by FIDE in 1970.


Elo was the Chairman of the USCF Rating Committee from 1959 to 1976.  From 1970 to 1980, Elo did all the rating calculations for FIDE using paper and pencil until he was able to buy a Hewlett-Packard calculator with enough memory to do the calculations.


In 1978, he published The Rating of Chessplayers: Past & Present.  His list of top players were Fischer (2780), Karpov (2775), Capablanca (2725), Botvinnik (2720), Lasker (2720), Tal (2700), Alekhine (2690), Morphy (2690), Smyslov (2690), Petrosian (2680), Reshevsky (2680), Spassky (2680), Bronstein (2670), Keres (2670), Korchnoi (2665), Fine (2660), Geller (2655), Boleslavsky (2650), Euwe (2650), Steinitz (2650), Rubinstein (2640), Najdorf (2635), Pillsbury (2630), Portisch (2630), Timman (2630), Flohr (2620), Gligoric (2620), Kholmov (2620), Kotov (2620), Larsen (2620), Maroczy (2620), Stein (2620), Averbakh (2615), Nimzovich (2615), Ulf Andersson (2610), Bogoljubow (2610), Furman (2610), Ljubojevic (2610), Szabo (2610), Tarrasch (2610), Mecking (2608), Polugaevsky (2605), Adolph Anderssen (2600), Chigorin (2600), Schlechter (2600), Taimanov (2600), Vidmar (2600), von der Lasa (2600),and  Zukertort (2600).  This was all before Carlsen, Kasparov,  Anand, Kramnik, and Topalov.


In 1988, Elo was inducted in the US Chess Hall of Fame.


Other than chess (he gave it up in his later years because he said it was too much hard work), his hobbies were bridge, beekeeping, wine-making, gardening, classical music, and grinding his own telescope lenses for stargazing.


He died of a heart attack in Brookfield, Wisconsin on November 5, 1992 at the age of 89.