Grandmasters two a penny?

by Frederic Friedel
6/28/2024 – When FIDE created the inaugural list of grandmasters, in 1950, there were 27 of them. Today, there are more than 1,850. “There are too many grandmasters,” said GM Nigel Short, FIDE director for chess development. “To call me grandmaster adds nothing. They are two a penny.” Dylan Loeb McClain writes about the situation in this interesting New York Times article.

ChessBase 17 - Mega package - Edition 2024 ChessBase 17 - Mega package - Edition 2024

It is the program of choice for anyone who loves the game and wants to know more about it. Start your personal success story with ChessBase and enjoy the game even more.


In a June 24 article in the New York Times, entitled "Chess Players Wonder if Being a Grandmaster Still Has Meaning", Dylan Loeb McClain discussed the question with a number of influential contemporary grandmasters. "Not all grandmasters are created equal," he speculated. Grandmaster Magnus Carlsen is rated 2,830 on the Elo scale, coach and trainer GM Jacob Aagaard is 2,426. In February Jacek Stopa lost a tournament game to Ashwath Kaushik, an 8-year-old from Singapore. Stopa is a grandmaster, currently rated at 2,333.

“There are too many grandmasters,” MaClain quotes GM Nigel Short as saying. “To call me grandmaster adds nothing. They are two a penny.” And the title are earned for life. You do not lose it if your play becomes weak, or in fact you do not play at all. There are more than 400 grandmasters who record less than one tournament game per year. Some in fact have not played in decades.

In consequence, chess fans have for a long time been referring to elite players, rated above 2,700, as “super grandmasters.” Nigel Short is not in favour of this designation – what next, he speculates, "super intergalactic grandmasters"? GM Yasser Seirawan thinks there should be a special distinction for the top ten players in the world – suggesting “All-Stars,” for the elite group, with the designation renewed every six months.

How about "Top-Ten", Yasser?

Read the full New York Time article here

Looking back

In 1983, as a rookie chess journalist, I wrote an article for a German magazine, defining and celebrating "Super Grandmasters" – players who were rated 2600 or higher. There were 13 such players at the time, led by World Champion Anatoly Karpov, with a young upstart named Garry Kasparov hard at his heels. The top female player in the world, Pia Cramling, was rated 2355.

"So let us see how things stand today" (I wrote in August 2020). "I have counted a total of 237 players rated 2600 or higher. Of these, 201 are rated between 2600 and 2700, 33 are rated 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 in the world gave us 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
Czechia: 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-Herz: 8
Peru: 8
Moldova: 7
Scotland: 7
Chile: 6
Egypt: 6
Montenegro: 6
Estonia: 6
Indonesia: 6

What is your opinion? Tell us in the feedback section below.

Editor-in-Chief emeritus of the ChessBase News page. Studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford, graduating with a thesis on speech act theory and moral language. He started a university career but switched to science journalism, producing documentaries for German TV. In 1986 he co-founded ChessBase.
Discussion and Feedback Submit your feedback to the editors


Rules for reader comments


Not registered yet? Register

arzi arzi 7/1/2024 07:23
Actually GM, IM titles are ghosts of the past. Can you imagine similar titles in tennis, athletics, swimming...? In the old days, chess players wanted to tell the public how great and wonderful chess is. That's what it is, of course, but those "Titles" are old gibberish. In other sports, the players are mostly remembered as World Champions, Olympic winners, and record-makers. Maybe Titles should be stopped (except Honorary Master) and start using strength list rankings?

The fact that there are so many GM and IM titles today does not mean that the value of the titles has deteriorated. The skill of the players has improved. Today children know their classics, which few knew about 100 years ago. The fact is that chess has become more and more popular around the world. So many facts :). Through that, there have also been more players, champions as well. In some countries, chess is still used as a kind of image of superiority, as during the Soviet Union time, as a political tool against capitalist societies.
Frits Fritschy Frits Fritschy 6/30/2024 09:41
@fgkdjlkag (what a name),
Yes, there will always be gamesmanship and cheating. Small tournaments will not be closely watched, but players reaching the top-x place (for the GM title) will be. Like Firouzja was when trying to reach the candidates, in his first tournament to that end. Also see, art. 0.2: 'The QC Chairman may refuse to register a tournament'.
Both me and Albert Silver made clear we want a regular update of the figures we propose to use.
I left the reasoning behind choosing the x number of spots open. A percentage of the total number of the registered players is an option. A target number of GM's (or other titles) could be so as well. That is a matter of policy: what does the chess world want, a limited number of GM's, or a reachable target for aspiring players? Do you want to lessen the number of GM's, keep it at the same level, or let it grow? In the end, what you need is at least a manageable an controlable system. Which a rating figure in itself is not, and tournament results make it much more complicated.
I don't care too much about extra titles at the top, if people want it, so let it be. But the system I propose also makes it easy to make extra titles at the bottom (which would make the GM title the much coveted top of the pyramid), like 'level A- (B-, C-) player. Russia and the USA have systems like that, as far as I know. And as FIDE has no problem in sending me for free e-mails about their online chess in which I'm totally not interested, it shouldn't be much programming to send players a level-x certificate automatically when they reach the next level spot. Ehhh, they would need to find other sources of income...
fgkdjlkag fgkdjlkag 6/30/2024 07:07
I agree with the commenters who have pointed out that it is even more rare today to become a GM in percentage terms in the past, and that players are much stronger today, agree with Phishmaster's comments.

They should clean house with the GM irregularities in ppl trying to purchase the title, etc.

@Frits, however the qualification is, it is still going to be used by others, for invitations or free entry into tournaments or to give a lecture. Surely there can still be gaming of tournaments, someone who is 105 ranking with a top 100 ranking making GM could find some small tournament where players will throw games since there are not official, regulated, closely watched and FIDE-monitored norm tournaments. And why to base it on x number of spots, with or without x being changed periodically? Why not to make it as a percentage, isn't that more logical?

I don't see the need for a new higher title, it will devalue GM and ppl can informally use whatever term they want like super-GM.
Frits Fritschy Frits Fritschy 6/30/2024 10:59
Masquer, see my previous comment.
Masquer Masquer 6/30/2024 04:39
Lesser GMs can make the "Candidates" tournament, as we recently saw with Abasov, due to FIDE's uneven qualification criteria. And many super strong GMs may not get to qualify to one.
I'd be in favor of creating a Super GM title, but that too could become somewhat arbitrary. 2700 could be used as a threshold, but there is inflation/deflation of Elo worth considering as well. And what if someone spikes above 2700 briefly, never to return to that level?
Deactivating/inactivating the GM title once someone is inactive for long, or drops below a certain rating makes a lot of sense to me.
Frits Fritschy Frits Fritschy 6/29/2024 11:55
@Albert Silver
Your solution looks a bit like mine, in that it links 'title worthiness' to place on the elo ranking (240 with you), but you still seem to primarily connect it with rating and playing against titled players. Why not just let go of these and just say: 'getting into the top-100 earns you the GM title'? Then you don't have to check tournaments on how many titled players competed, what were the individual ratings of the titled players ('Was it a +2450 GM') and what were the individual results of each title candidate. And as was your argument: it's about how you competed at a certain period in time against a certain level of players. The PLACE on the rating list gives you exactly that.
You can use the same method for all other titles. And you can easily regulate the number of titled players, by adapting on certain moments (you wrote once every 5 years, I wrote at each FIDE congress) the spot you need to reach for a specific title.
After that, you can either wait for natural causes to diminish the number of titled players, or if you don't see the need to diminish that number, add a new title for those who reach the top ten spots.
As I wrote, simple and clean.
Albert Silver Albert Silver 6/29/2024 05:01
The issue is not new and I refer readers to an article I wrote on the topic back in 2013:

While my proposed solution still stands, I would add one more condition: norms only be obtainable by playing players whose titles also meet the current requirements. I.e. beating a 2414 GM is fine, but they don't count as one of the three GMs needed. To not be overly draconian, a 50 Elo margin is ok. So 2451, but not 2380. Same for IMs.
PhishMaster PhishMaster 6/29/2024 01:28
P.S. I also think that a lot of the lower-rated players in this thread, and elsewhere, might change their minds about stripping players of titles, if they actually had one, and had previously put in the work to get it. Getting old is already hard enough.
PhishMaster PhishMaster 6/29/2024 01:25
There are so many GMs today because so many players are stronger due to the Internet. We should penalize them for living in an era that they are stronger than ever? Sorry, but no. I strongly believe that most GMs today would beat most of the GMs of yesteryear with the same rating. It should not be about numbers, and making some GMs feel special because there are fewer of them, but about pure strength.

I am also not in favor of taking the title away from players, who age out. I am an ordinary USCF Master, but I am also almost 63, and after 17 years of inactivity, I recently got back to 2200 in the middle of a tournament (and promptly, so I am below 2200 again. Why should you take away a title that I worked VERY hard to get, in an era, in which, I only had books to improve (no Internet, no lessons, and only a couple of other NMs in my entire state)?

I can also say that I was shocked at how much better players where when I came back. Even players, whom I used to beat easily, now required work, and MUCH more diligence, to beat...A 1700 was no longer a 1700 from 20 years ago. And, do not even get me started on how good kids are, and how underrated.

My title does not affect your rating when we play. No one else gains anything, or loses anything, based on someone's title. That is what ratings are for in competition. The title just represents the work that a player put in, mostly when they were younger, and should not be taken away. The only argument here might be based on number of titled players faced for norms, but this was always an issue, and again, a 2500 GM in the 1980s-2000s is probably on par with lower-rated GMs today, so even that is a wash.

Because of all the improvement, I would be in favor of making the informal title of "Super Grandmaster" a formal one.
josvdkaap josvdkaap 6/29/2024 12:54
To be sure, Short has already been aware of the existence of an intergalactic GM: But maybe he doesn't like the idea of this title also being handed out too often?
Jacob woge Jacob woge 6/29/2024 11:50
Is this a true story: ?

True story?

A chess master just awarded the GM title, approached Korchnoi, “Now we are colleagues”.

Upon which Korchnoi replied, “We are not colleagues. You are colleagues with Damjanovic.”

A lesser GM, at the time.
Jacob woge Jacob woge 6/29/2024 11:24
At one point, winning tje Junior WC awarded you the GM title.

At a later point, any junior WC would already have been awarded.
Jacob woge Jacob woge 6/29/2024 11:22
Having played, or qualified for, a Candidates’ tournament or match sets one group of players apart. Wildcards exempted.

-Was Kevin Spragett just an IM?
mrstillwater mrstillwater 6/29/2024 10:17
Titles are simply a designation that a player has reached a certain standard at some point in their life and don't have any importance beyond that. It's only natural that there will be more titled players when there are more people playing, plus the fact that players have gotten better over time due to improved training methods, greater opportunities to play in tournaments and simply increased knowledge from learning from past players. Being 2500 or higher will still put you well above the 99% percentile of all rated players in the world and that seems like a perfectly reasonable standard to call someone a "Grandmaster" to me. And on a side note I agree that "All stars" is a terrible name.
Frits Fritschy Frits Fritschy 6/29/2024 09:33
An advantage I forgot to mention in my earlier post, of making all titles purely honorary (not using them any longer for things as title results, but using reaching a top-x place on the rating list instead), is that tournaments only designed for making title results (or playing in the candidates...) by inviting some aging GM's as cannon fodder, are no longer useful.
Petakas Petakas 6/29/2024 09:06
Perhaps a minimum rating requirement and a minimum number of games per year to keep the tittle active.
gwrtheyrn gwrtheyrn 6/29/2024 05:40
If one is determined to make an issue of this, there's one convincing path to a proper Grandmaster title, what might be called the Fischer path: has the player made it into the Candidates? A GM who hasn't managed that seems clearly a lesser sort of animal.

Of course, that does require that a clear World Championship/Challenger system be in place, something not always guaranteed.
shivasundar shivasundar 6/29/2024 12:55
Percentages, Frederic. If we say we have ~2000 GMs, we also have, I believe little less than 200,000 RATED players in the full list. Only 20,000 are total titled players. That includes women titles. Only <10% of those are full GMs. Becoming a GM is still hard, if we see it as strictly percentages. Of course, seeing your opponents' games real-time, live analysis of your own game in seconds, and engines in general - mean that more and more people would have the opportunity. I believe chess should become MORE democratic, not less though! 2000 among 8 billion is not a big number - it still feels/sounds like a snobbish game! FIDE should look at how it can award the title to online players who have played a certain number of games, and other broader reforms that make travel NOT a requirement for norms... this will make chess vastly less expensive a sport!
Poisondart Poisondart 6/29/2024 12:02
at least close some loopholes. A player cannot lose points if they win an event. Or all draws in a match do not cost points. They never have a decisive game. Fabi would have caught Magnus for #1 in the match they had. But Magnus kept the #1 spot. If they do not play? I'll bet AAgaard would still sell as a former GM.
ricpol ricpol 6/28/2024 11:51
I am curious... did anyone happen to notice that chess players as a whole have increased a little in the meantime?
The oldest list I can download from the fide site is from 2001: at first glance I find 734 GMs out of 36978 there. In the latest list, I would say there are 1829 out of 1463540. So, in the last 25 years it has gone from 2% to 0.1% GM! GMs are getting rarer and rarer in the player pool! This is a disaster! Quick, summon the experts! Write to the New York Times! Oh, decay of the ages!
Ajeeb007 Ajeeb007 6/28/2024 11:15
The GM title is so watered down it can be bought. Look at how the youngest GM to date got his title in the GM mills of Eastern Europe.
Frits Fritschy Frits Fritschy 6/28/2024 10:39
On the contrary, I think all GM's should retain their title, but the title (and all the other titles) itself should be only honorary. That means: it should not have any consequences for other players. You could relate it to an achieved rating, but rating figures can be inflated or deflated (according to opinion or hard figures, whatever you like).
Why not just relate it to reaching a certain spot on the rating list? Reaching the top-100 earns you the GM title, with, say (somebody else may do the stats) top-500 for IM and top-2500 for FM.
You might after each FIDE congress change the top spot(s) depending on what number of GM's you would like to have on that moment or in the future.
Clean and simple.

On the honour subject: I would still feel very honoured to play an old GM who lost a couple of 100 elo points, no matter the result.
David Clarke David Clarke 6/28/2024 10:30
I would support enhancing the value of the GM title by replacing it with the IM title for anyone whose rating falls below 2500 for an entire year or who plays less than 5 rated games per year.
TheSamuel TheSamuel 6/28/2024 10:05
I don't think they should create a title above Grandmaster. Those kinds of titles would be artificial, pompous, and they would devalue the title of Grandmaster. Instead, they should keep Grandmaster as the highest title, and create the title Honorary Grandmaster (HGM) for those Grandmasters who are not performing at the 2600+ level anymore. Then we'd have some 300 Grandmasters and 1500 Honorary Grandmasters. If I were an old or inactive Grandmaster, I wouldn't mind being an Honorary Grandmaster.
ranger64 ranger64 6/28/2024 09:29
If top players really need their own term (which I doubt), then I'm in favour of 'Top Ten', as it's universally understood. 'All Stars' is too much of an Americanism, and as such to be rejected.