Grandmasters like mushrooms after rain: Quantity over quality?

29.06.2024 09:12 | News

The proliferation of grandmasters in the world of chess is reaching new heights. But what does it really mean to be a grandmaster today?

Conversations with chess personalities reveal that the title "grandmaster" isn't what it used to be, prompting discussions about potentially redefining the elite of chess.

When the International Chess Federation first awarded the title of grandmaster in 1950, it was akin to winning a gold medal at the Olympics. However, today it seems that grandmasters are as common as mushrooms after rain. "There are too many of them," argues GM Nigel Short, who heads chess development at FIDE. "Being called a grandmaster isn't a big deal anymore. They're literally everywhere." This is detailed in a thought-provoking article by Dylan Loeb McClain in the New York Times.

In his June 24th article titled "Chess Players Wonder if Being a Grandmaster Still Has Meaning," Dylan Loeb McClain discusses the issue with several influential contemporary grandmasters. "Not all grandmasters are created equal," he speculates. For instance, Magnus Carlsen boasts an Elo rating of 2830, while GM Jacob Aagaard, a coach and trainer, stands at 2426. In February, Jacek Stopa found himself in a bind against 8-year-old Ashwath Kaushik from Singapore. Stopa, with a current rating of 2333, holds the grandmaster title, but what does this title truly signify?

"There are too many grandmasters," McClain quotes GM Nigel Short as saying. "Being called a grandmaster isn't a big deal anymore. They're literally everywhere." The title of grandmaster is for life, so you don't lose it even if your performance declines or if you stop playing altogether. There are over 400 grandmasters who don't play a single tournament game per year. Some haven't played in decades.

As a result of this surplus, chess fans have long referred to players rated over 2700 as "super grandmasters." However, Nigel Short isn't a fan of this designation. "What's next?" he speculates. "Super intergalactic grandmasters?" GM Yasser Seirawan proposes a special distinction for the top ten players in the world—suggesting "All-Stars" for this elite group, with the title renewed every six months.

How about "Top-Ten," Yasser?

Back in 1983, as a chess journalist, I wrote an article for a German magazine defining and celebrating "Super Grandmasters"—players rated 2600 or higher. At that time, there were 13 such players, including World Champion Anatoly Karpov and the rising star Garry Kasparov. The top female player in the world, Pia Cramling, had a rating of 2355.

In August 2020, I revisited the scene. "I counted a total of 237 players rated 2600 or higher. Of these, 201 are rated between 2600 and 2700, 33 between 2700 and 2800, and two rated over 2800 (Carlsen 2863 and Caruana 2835). Compare that to the 13 players rated over 2600 in 1983."

A recent count of grandmasters worldwide provided the following numbers:

  • Russia: 256
  • USA: 101
  • Germany: 96
  • Ukraine: 93
  • India: 64
  • Hungary: 58
  • Serbia: 58
  • Spain: 56
  • France: 50
  • China: 48
  • Poland: 45
  • Armenia: 44
  • Israel: 43
  • Czech Republic: 36
  • Netherlands: 36
  • England: 36
  • Bulgaria: 34
  • Croatia: 32
  • Georgia: 32
  • Cuba: 27
  • Azerbaijan: 26
  • Argentina: 23
  • Romania: 22
  • Sweden: 22
  • Belarus: 18
  • Uzbekistan: 17
  • Italy: 16
  • Norway: 16
  • Kazakhstan: 15
  • Brazil: 14
  • Canada: 14
  • Greece: 14
  • Iran: 14
  • Iceland: 14
  • Denmark: 13
  • Philippines: 13
  • Slovakia: 13
  • Latvia: 12
  • Slovenia: 12
  • Turkey: 12
  • Switzerland: 11
  • Vietnam: 11
  • Australia: 10
  • North Macedonia: 10
  • Austria: 9
  • Belgium: 9
  • Colombia: 9
  • Lithuania: 9
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina: 8
  • Peru: 8
  • Moldova: 7
  • Scotland: 7
  • Chile: 6
  • Egypt: 6
  • Montenegro: 6
  • Estonia: 6
  • Indonesia: 6

The rapid increase in the number of grandmasters is evident, but the question of the quality of their play remains unanswered. How do elite players thrive in this environment, and what impact does this massive number of grandmasters have on the essence of chess?

0x 119x Petr Koutný
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