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Nonactuarial Pursuits of Casualty Actuaries

Chess the Two of Us

by Brian D. Haney

Normally, the nonactuarial pursuits article covers a hobby or pursuit that seems odd and in which one might not expect an actuary to engage. Now, I would have expected that many actuaries play chess and that there would be a number of them who are Chess Masters in the U.S. I would have expected wrong. Based on my conversations with one of them, there are very few.

Given the scarcity of Masters in our society, it might be a good idea to explain what this all means. A Master is a person who has achieved a certain point rating in a chess federation. The U.S., like many countries, has its own chess federation; in addition, there is an international chess federation. These federations sponsor chess tournaments and matches and record the results of these matches. The outcomes of the individual matches are used in a mathematical rating formula. I won't go into the details of the calculation because it is extremely complex and hard to understand—and because I have absolutely no idea how it works!

The U.S. federation has many levels, the highest two being Expert and Master. In contrast, the international federation's two highest levels are Grand Master and International Master. Roughly speaking, the U.S. federation rates players such that a 400-point difference in rating corresponds to a 10 to 1 odds differential. So Bobby Fischer, whose rating was at one point 2790 should have had 10 to 1 odds when facing an opponent with a rating of 2390.

The average rating of the 70,000 ranked chess players in the U.S. is 1450. A Master has achieved a ranking of 2200. The FCAS I interviewed has a current ranking of 2300, and so is a Master. In fact, he is also a Master in Israel.

Born in the Ukraine, this FCAS has spent most of his life in Israel and the U.S., and has played chess since he can remember (which I suppose also means he could have been playing since before he can remember, if you think about it). As you might imagine, it has taken a lot of effort for this FCAS to reach the level of Master and to maintain his high rating. So much effort that by the end of 1999, this FCAS will have played 600 games.

But the effort doesn't end here with playing matches. A player at the Master level cannot simply play; he has to study. The successful player has to study end-games, openings, and even his own games, which can be stored on a computer. A player will also study his opponents' games, looking for patterns and weaknesses to be exploited. To maintain his skills, this Master has to play and study constantly. Simply try to imagine all of this on top of a full-time job as an actuary.

This Master/FCAS was introduced to chess while a young child in the Ukraine. As a part of the former Soviet Union, the Ukraine was a place where being a good chess player could be a ticket to a better life. Good chess players were well supported by the government and traveled to places that the ordinary citizen would never see. This Master eventually left the Ukraine and became an actuary in the U.S., but he never completely gave up his first hobby—although he admits that taking actuarial exams certainly put a damper on his chess career.

For those actuaries interested in pursuing chess as a more serious hobby, the Master recommended several things. First, you could get a good player to oversee your chess development, as a coach or mentor. There are also less pricey ways to get more serious about chess. There are many good books available, and computer software can help hone your skill and study games. Finally, once you've prepared yourself, you could enter tournaments and get a rating. But, as I've mentioned, it's a lot of work—and eventually you might play Boris Privman, FCAS. Given his rating of 2300, it would be a tough match.

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The author, Brian D. Haney, is an ACAS who likes chess but avoids tournaments because a negative rating would be just too embarrassing.