Chess players are obsessed with ratings these days, even though, because of the COVID pandemic, there is an understandable shift from comparing FIDE Elos to boasting about conquering new heights on online chess servers.
Anyway, here is a typical question that is often asked by improving chess fans:
How many rating points should I try to gain in a year?
Let's talk about the different factors that affect the answer.
The lower your rating is, the easier it is to harvest points
For example, improving from Elo 1000 to 1400 in a year is an attainable feat for many people. A jump from 1400 to 1800 over a year is an impressive rate of progress. 1800 to 2200 in a year is an exceptional result. 2200 to 2600 in a year is not something I have heard of. And 2600 to 3000 in classical chess has never been achieved by any human.
What is your K-factor (not to be confused with the X-factor)?
In article 8.56 of the FIDE Handbook, you will find the following information:
K is the development coefficient.
K = 40 for a player new to the rating list until he has completed events with at least 30 games.
K = 20 as long as a player's rating remains under 2400.
K = 10 once a player's published rating has reached 2400 and remains at that level subsequently, even if the rating drops below 2400.
K = 40 for all players until their 18th birthday, as long as their rating remains under 2300.
If the number of games (n) for a player on any list for a rating period multiplied by K (as defined above) exceeds 700, then K shall be the largest whole number such that K x n does not exceed 700.
To avoid boring you with Math, let's say that with a K factor of 40, you will be getting 20 rating points per win over an opponent with the same rating as you. If your K decreases to 10, you will be earning only 5 rating points per such a win. Most FIDE-rated players have a K of 20, netting 10 points per win against an equally matched opponent. The higher your K-factor is, the larger the variance, i.e., the more rating points you can gain (or lose!) per year.
How many tournament games do you play per year?
In this post, we won't be discussing how many games it is beneficial to play for chess development. This is an important independent topic. Let's say that you can't expect to gain a lot of rating points if you play very few tournaments.
Previously, when the FIDE rating lists were published not monthly like now, but quarterly or even less frequently, a well-known lifehack for a quick boost was to squeeze in, let's say, 60 games in one rating period. By acting this way, you could take advantage of the fact that your rating was fixed, and the gains kept coming "for free". Nowadays, it is much harder to pull off such feats since you can play only as many tournament games in a month, especially if we are talking about the classical time control.
Progress in chess is not linear
This is a crucial thing to know. Some people tend to think that improving players should be gaining rating points more or less steadily. For example, at a rate of 5-10 points per tournament or something like that.
Conversely, it usually takes a player some time to build up a leap to the next level before it takes place. During this stage, anything can happen, including tanking the rating a bit. A simple explanation for this is that as you acquire new knowledge and skills, you move away from some of the methods that benefitted you in the past and may temporarily become even weaker. However, once you master the new skills, you take a giant step forward.
Let's take a look at the rating progress of Magnus Carlsen and discuss it from our topic's perspective:
Unfortunately, the FIDE site doesn't display the whole graph. Carlsen's first published FIDE rating was 2064 in April 2001. You can view the data in his FIDE profile, though.
Using the data from the FIDE profile and looking at the graph, we can determine how many rating points Carlsen gained or lost in a given year (starting from January 2002 for simplicity's sake):
In absolute numbers, Carlsen's best year was 2003 (+205 points), while his worst year was 2015 (-18 points).
From Jan 2002 to Jan 2014, Magnus was consistently accumulating rating points year by year. Since then and until now, his results have been mixed.
The median rating gain per year was 26 points, and the arithmetic average is about 39 points. The figures are something to keep in mind if you are rated above 2000 and ambitious enough to be thinking of progressing at the World Champion rate! Of course, you should remember that Carlsen's K was 10 most of the time, so you can aim for higher gains if your K is still 20 or 40.
Still, please don't be overly obsessed with ratings. Let this thought-provoking quote by Magnus Carlsen guide you on your path of chess improvement:
Without the element of enjoyment, it is not worth trying to excel at anything.