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I like to win games, and I like to gain rating. I want to do this as much as possible without breaking any of the explicit rules. So a fortiori no engines or external assistance and no creating accounts or hiring people to lose to me deliberately.

Afaik, it's not against the rules in chesscom or lichess to keep on deliberately private challenging people lower rated or much lower rated than you. If there's any such rule I may have missed, then please feel free to correct me.

Question: Assuming it's not cheating (i.e. against the rules), is it perhaps unethical to do so?

I'm asking because I've been accused of 'rating manipulation' by some people eg when I do farmbitrage. But this seems pretty arbitrary.

  1. If you say that I shouldn't challenge people much lower rated than me, then how much lower rated?

  2. If you say that doing this 'excessively' is rating manipulation then how many can I do?

But then again maybe it's like aborting games. You can do it once a day but maybe 5x in 30 minutes will get you temporary blocked. The difference between aborting games and playing lower rated players is you get warned for aborting any game. You don't get warned for fairly winning against a lower rated player.

Note: Obviously this won't work in the long run unless you're doing something like this: Farmbitrage: Fixed starting rating for chess960 causes loophole to easily get 2000 rating in lichess? So I'm asking for the short run where you in fact do get a boost.


Related:

Could you raise your score arbitarily high by only playing against much weaker opponents?

What stops me from pumping up my rating by playing a 200 game match against a much weaker (>400 point difference) player?

Why wouldn't Magnus Carlsen just farm rating points by playing weak tournaments to reach 2900 kinda like what Igors Rausis did?

  • According to David, it would not be 'proper' if Magnus did this FIDE OTB.

Farming: Prevent reaching a certain rating without having beaten/drawn someone of that rating (up to a point of course)?


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  • Seems like this shortchanges you and you miss out on the rating gains that come from your skill increasing by playing stronger and/or peer players. In this way, it actually seems self-defeating. Jan 26, 2023 at 14:44
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    By design, my comment did not mention ethics. I understand it doesn't answer your question (the reason it is a comment). Jan 27, 2023 at 12:45
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    I respectfully disagree. Ethical ≠ optimal (bi-directional statement). The presence or absence of one does not by itself imply the other (or the lack of the other). Jan 27, 2023 at 20:02
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    Ratings are not chess specific. In my opinion, discussing whether this is ethical or not is not in the chess scope. Edit: It might be a philosophy SE question.
    – Minot
    Jan 28, 2023 at 6:41
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    Why? I understand why some people (sandbaggers) wish to be underrated. What is the joy in being overrated? Does a high chess.com rating help you to impress women, or what?
    – bof
    Jan 28, 2023 at 8:22

2 Answers 2

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My answer will be divided into 1) a short discussion of rating manipulation because you explicitly mention farming, farmbitrage, rating manipulation, and your liking of rating gains, 2) whether it is wrong to challenge only weaker opponents and 3) a short conclusion. The first point is also relevant, because in deontological ethics the intention / the characteristic of the action itself is the relevant factor for judging the morality of an action, whereas in consequentialist ethics, the outcome of an action is the basis for the assessment of the morality of an action.

1) Rating manipulation

In my view, it is not right to manipulate one's rating (no matter why or whether it's rating inflation or sandbagging). The rating aims to have a fair and accurate strength estimation of the players. Players use these ratings to get interesting and fairly matched games.

The main issue is that you're impacting other players if successfully inflating your rating. If your rating is not accurate, the rating adjustments of the affected players will also not be accurate. As you stated that you love winning, I think you can relate to people not wanting their ratings to be too high, as they will be matched with stronger opponents and therefore are less likely to win games.

Other people like to play strong opponents in order to have challenging games, and if you are rating-matched in a game, your opponent may not have a game that is as interesting as he'd like it to be.

Similar arguments can be made if the rating gets artificially decreased ("sandbagging", which in my opinion is even worse than rating inflation).

Another issue is dishonesty, which is also generally morally wrong (for most people, in deontological ethics). However, from a consequentialist viewpoint, it may not be that bad - provided you enjoy the numbers only for yourself and do not brag about them or use them to pretend false facts to others. If no one gets harmed, then it is OK from a consequentialist point of view.

2) Playing weaker opponents only

If you are playing enough games and play normally (without any assistance), then it is absolutely OK to play with weaker opponents (from the consequentialist point of view).

This is due to the rating mechanism: It is hard to inflate one's rating. Sandbagging is easy. But for lasting rating boosts, you would most likely need 1) to stop playing after reaching a high rating (and probably keep a provisional rating), or 2) to cheat in order to maintain it (I do not need to tell you that this would be another immoral thing to do).
That is because your rating will approach your "true" rating the more games are played. For each game result, your rating change will depend on the expected score, and if you for example lose against a much lower-rated opponent who is close to your actual playing strength, the rating loss will be high; but if you win the rating gain will be low. This is why the rating mechanism works and everyone is expected to get an appropriate rating with enough played games. This means, that the rating you can gain by playing weaker opponents is capped and therefore it does not matter whether you play strong or weak opponents - your rating adjustments take this into account.

3) Conclusion

If applying deontological ethics, it could be considered problematic (depending on the concrete moral values, e.g. regarding dishonesty or manipulation). In case your intention of "farming" weaker players is to increase your rating above the correct level, then this action can be considered wrong even if not successful! The attempt of doing something immoral cannot be moral itself (for example, it would violate Kant's categorical imperative).

If applying a consequentialist ethic, it is not unethical to (try to) gain rating by playing against only weaker players (farming) because the rating mechanism prevents adverse effects on others (i.e. a successful rating manipulation). However, if you were successfully inflating your rating the arguments from section 1) would also apply in the consequentialist framework. One way to make it more acceptable in that unlikely case would be to play in a "clique" of players who only play each other - and no one outside, so that the ratings, which may be meaningless or inaccurate do not affect other players from the public pool.

If you ask me personally, I share the latter point point of view - if it makes you happy, play weaker opponents.

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    1 - 'therefore it does not matter whether you play strong or weak opponents - your rating adjustments take this into account.' --> Consequently it's not unethical? 2 - What's the relevance of anything before your last 2 paragraphs? Of course rating 'manipulation' is wrong, but I don't see how seeking lower rated players is rating 'manipulation'.
    – BCLC
    Jan 27, 2023 at 19:28
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    "your rating adjustments take this into account." True. As the gap (your rating less your opponent's rating) grows, the less rating gain you enjoy upon victory. Jan 27, 2023 at 20:05
  • The entire answer is nullified by the last sentence, which in my opinion the only salient point. Rating gain from a win is proportionate to the differential between the two players; while some margin of error may exist that you believe gives you some 'edge' not accounted for by the rating mechanic you are playing under, that would involve something like trivial single-point rounding, at the risk of many points given a loss / draw if you have a bad game. Jan 27, 2023 at 21:17
  • @Grade'Eh'Bacon Why is it nullified? I explain 1. the case if he were successful 2. discuss the dishonesty issue and 3. explain why it is OK in practice to play weaker opponents. Even if you think that point 3 would "nullify" point 1 which it doesn't, then there is still point 2. And by the way, stating that it is OK is also a valid answer.
    – Hauptideal
    Jan 27, 2023 at 21:34
  • @Hauptideal "Is it unethical to run a marathon by speed-walking, instead?" Can be answered merely with "Speed-walking doesn't give you an edge in running marathons", without a pre-amble discussing general sport ethics. Jan 27, 2023 at 21:38
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The rating system is designed to be fair. Beating a lower rated player will give you a small rating increase. Drawing with them will give a small rating loss and losing to them a large rating loss. There is no guarantee that you will win. If you try and play your best game without cheating by using external sources then, of course, it is perfectly ethical for you to play whoever you want, lower rated or otherwise.

There are some obvious flaws in your question. First, lower rated does not guarantee weaker. To identify "weaker" you need to look at a lot more than just rating.

For example, our club runs an annual handicap tournament. Last year we all knew who the winner was going to be as soon as he entered. He is a young player who, like a lot of youngsters, is improving rapidly. That already gave him an advantage but to make matters worse his rating was more than a year out of date because of the lockdowns. He won, of course, and he is likely to win again this year.

Then there are GMs with YouTube channels who like to produce content and might start a new "rating run". That is where they start afresh with a new id on a chess site with a ridiculously low rating with the intention of recording and commentating on the games for their channel. Pick one of them by accident and you will just be road-kill.

Ideally to know whether your opponent is really weaker than you you will also need to know their age and playing history. A young player who hasn't played for a while is likely to be stronger than their rating. Similarly an old player (say 60+) who hasn't played for a while is going to be weaker.

If the player is winning all their games against similar or higher rated players then it is likely that their rating is a long way behind their playing strength.

The main unethical practices are using outside sources (engines, books, stronger friends, etc.) and sandbagging where you deliberately lose to lower rating enough to enter a rating-limited tournament and win prize money.

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