Thirteen Super Grandmasters!

by Frederic Friedel
8/18/2020 – In 1983 rookie chess journalist Frederic Friedel wrote an article for a German magazine, defining and celebrating "Super Grandmasters" – players who were rated 2600 or higher. There were 13 such players, and they were 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. Today things have changed somewhat – to put it mildly.

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The history of the game of chess knows around 30 players who have at some point exceeded the dream mark of 2600 Elo points. They are the "Super Grandmasters," of whom remarkably more than 60% are still alive today. This proves that over the years the general level of chess playing has increased. Perhaps the players of the past were as strong as those of today, but there have never been so many so strong.

World Champion Anatoly Karpov led the FIDE list in 1983 ...

In the last Elo list of the International Chess Federation (FIDE) there are 13 players with a rating of 2600 or more (in the previous list there were 16). For the first time since Bobby Fischer, an American, the young Yasser Seirawan, is represented in the illustrious group of super grandmasters. Germany's top player Robert Hübner, who was fourth on the previous list, was overtaken by Ljubomir Ljubojevic from Yugoslavia and the tough Swede Ulf Andersson. The runner-up Viktor Kortschnoi, who lost 35 Elo-points, dropped back considerably (from 3rd to 12th place). The rise of 20-year-old Garry Kasparov, on the other hand, seems to be almost unstoppable. He has now broken away from the rest of the field with 45 points. Only 20 points separate him and world champion Karpov.

... closely followed by upstart grandmaster Garry Kasparov

The 13 Supergrandmasters in the FIDE List are:

1 Anotoly Karpov USSR 2710 +10
2 Garry Kasparov USSR 2690 +15
3 Ljubomir Ljubojevic Yugoslavia 2645 +30
4 Ulf Andersson Sweden 2635 +25
5 Lev Polugajewski USSR 2625 +15
6 Robert Hübner West Germany 2625 –5
7 Mikhail Tal USSR 2620 +10
8 Lajos Portisch Hungary 2620 –5
9 Jan Timman Holland 2605 +5
10 Tigran Petrosian USSR 2605 --
11 Boris Spassky USSR 2605 –5
12 Yasser Seirawan USA 2600 +5
13 Viktor Korchnoi USSR 2600 –35

In the women's singles, for the first time, a Western player is at the top: the very young Swedish player Pia Cramling has gained no less than 95 points and is considered an absolute super talent (she usually plays in men's tournaments and has already brought Viktor Kortschnoi to the brink of defeat).

No.1 in women's rating in 1983: 20 year old Pia Cramling from Sweden

Meanwhile the reigning world champion Maja Tschiburdanidse lost 30 points and has to share the top spot with three other players. Barbara Hund from Leverkusen, who last August became the first German player ever to win the title of "International Grandmaster of Women", is gratifyingly represented among the ten best in the ladies list:

1 Pia Cramling Sweden 2355 +95
2 Nona Gaprindashvili USSR 2355 +30
3 Nana Aleksandriia USSR 2355 –15
4 Maya Tchiburdanidse USSR 2355 –30
5 Alla Kuschnir Israle 2330 --
6 Nana Ioseliani USSR 2295 –30
7 Elena Akhmilovskaya USSR 2290 –20
8 Marta Litinskaja USSR 2275 --
9 Barbara Hund Germany 2270 +65

The masters of creation view the rapid rise of the female elite with mixed feelings. It wasn't long ago that Fischer offered to spot the reigning world champion a full knight, which was already at that time quite a misjudgement (Tal said that the world champion would take the American apart, because "Fischer is Fischer, but knight is knight"). Today nobody would dare to give Cramling or Chiburdanidze a single pawn.

22-yer-old Women's World Champion Maia Chiburdanidze

The ladies are far undervalued terms of Elo. The world champion, called "Chib" by most tournament participants, walks around with 2355 Elo points, but clearly plays like a 2500 champion. Grandmaster Hort, who has already had unpleasant experiences, demands - half in fun - such undervalued ladies should be excluded from GM tournaments. The psychological advantage is too great when they play against men, who are confronted with such a situation once or twice a year at most. Some of his colleagues - “burnt children” - agree with the Czechoslovakian in all seriousness.

Current ratings

So let us see how things stand today (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.

Among the women there are 104 players rated 2356 (peak rating in 1983) or higher, and eleven players rated 2500 or higher. There is one active player rated over 2600: Chinese GM Hou Yifan.

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.


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tomohawk52 tomohawk52 8/21/2020 01:47
A TED talk about sports improvement:

The premise of the talk is that much of the improvement over the decades can be attributed to improved equipment, better diet, more intelligent training, and better self-selection.

For chess, the last one is helped greatly by computers. It is not unreasonable to expect that someone from a traditionally non-chess country can more easily now become world class since they can get more information and training via computer and don't need to rely so much on being physically close to other strong players.

Check out the talk. Especially the part about the 1904 marathon runner's drink concoction.
chessbibliophile chessbibliophile 8/20/2020 03:51
"If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants"-Newton. Bobby Fischer knew. So did Kasparov. Kramnik and Carlsen also know and they don't have to sing praises of the great masters of the past.
adbennet adbennet 8/20/2020 12:03
Ratings don't measure chess strength, they measure chess performance. It's not like swimming, where they compete against the clock, and a faster time is an absolute measure rather than a relative measure. (If it's true he never lost, what would Weismuller's swimming "Elo" have been?) That's a hard fact for chess players to wrap their heads around, because chess players **want** ratings to be a measure of chess strength. But it's not so. Of course ratings of today are loosely dependent on the ratings of yesterday, because they use the ratings of yesterday as input, but immediately afterwards comes the formula, causing the output to diverge from the input.

The most we can say is a 2800-player of today is expected to score 65% against a 2700-player of today; and a 2700-player of yesterday was expected to score 65% against a 2600-player of yesterday. But the rating system doesn't make any statements about what a 2700-player of today is expected to score against a 2700-player of yesterday. The problem with discussing inflation is that it takes as its very premise the idea that ratings are a measure of chess strength. Since that's not so, inflation as a concept is a non-starter.

As for whether players of today are stronger than the players of yesterday, I believe it to be true, although not to the same degree as lajosarpad. But I would argue for my belief based on logic and the games themselves, regardless of how the ratings compare.
hansj hansj 8/19/2020 03:35
Larsen was at some point in time stronger than half of the above mentioned.
mc1483 mc1483 8/19/2020 01:45
Well, Jeff Sonas has done extensive studies on this "problem", and it's time he'll write again on the subject... the debate could become interesting.
I myself think the greater ELO ratings have nothing to do with chess improvements (by any means impressive), but with changes in ELO computing rules instead. Hadn't the rules changed, Carlsen and Caruana would be around 2700-2720 ELO points as well.
Frits Fritschy Frits Fritschy 8/19/2020 01:32
It's not just the improved access to knowledge, it's also the widening of the body of knowledge itself. For instance, before WW2, openings like the Sveshnikov were, if not downright condemned, at least viewed as anti-positional. Such a gaping hole on d5! Just something for coffeehouse players. Marching up your a- and h-pawns used to be something just for an eccentric Danish player. Playing g4 in d4 openings? That was called Basmania. When hardly anyone played things like that, people had no idea how to handle these ideas, on either side of the board.
lajosarpad lajosarpad 8/19/2020 12:59
Chess is progressing. I would bet on large sums that an average GM today would easily beat the Steinitz of the 1880s, the Lasker of the 1910s, the Capablanca of the 1920s, the Alekhine of the 1940s, the Botvinnik of the 1950s, the Fischer of the 1970s, the Karpov and Kasparov of the 1980s, but even the Kramnik of the 2000s. The reasons are:

- the advancement of chess theory provides an arsenal of new traps for the newer players
- the new ways to train, including ideas which were not necessarily known by the greats of the past makes training more effective
- the books and articles published since the prime of past greats collectively include all the ideas of great players ever played publicly
- the ability and know-how to use game databases and chess engines ensures that the grandmaster of today is virtually immune to most traps and ideas prepared for games in the past

So, Fischer & co. would have to strive hard over the board, having limited time against their opponent armed to the teeth with ideas and traps, relying only on their natural talent, which, sadly loses of its relevancy each year.
PhishMaster PhishMaster 8/19/2020 12:22
@Fredric, and not to be sexist, but she is also a woman. The current record is held by Zhang Lin in a time of 7:32.12!
Frederic Frederic 8/19/2020 09:48
@sxb103: I tend to agree. Natural talent is not the only factor in chess excellence -- hard work and advanced training facilities play an equally important role. There is a dramatic (if somewhat distant) parallel in sports:

Johnny Weissmuller was the greatest swimmer of the first half of the 20th Century. He won five Olympic gold medals and fifty-two U.S. National Championships. He set sixty-seven world records and was never beaten in official competition in his entire career. In 1927 he set the 800-meter world record, at ten minutes and 22.2 seconds. In 2016 Katie Ledecky, a 19-year-old American swimmer, swam the 800 meter freestyle final at the Olympic Games in eight minutes and 4.79 seconds. She would have had to wait more than two minutes for Weissmuller to finish. She could have got out of the pool and stood for the full National Anthem before that happened. This was doubtlessly the result of natural talent, but modern training and equipment played a far greater role. Here is the full story:
sxb103 sxb103 8/19/2020 05:27
@frederic: I think today’s top players are objectively better. Chess is one of those fields ( like physics/math) where you stand on the shoulders of giants. Top players today may not have more innate ability than 40 years ago but they know more and the advent of the internet and formidable engines has made training faster and more thorough and exposed them to more situations. In addition the opportunity to communicate with other players anywhere in the world and exchange ideas is much greater than 40 years ago, speeding up learning.
frankiekam frankiekam 8/19/2020 03:46
Mikhail Tal was World Champion in 1960. Fast forward to 1983, he was still among the 10 ten players. Wow!
KevinC KevinC 8/19/2020 02:52
sxb103 A little of both, but mostly, players are better with the new tools available to them: Things like Chessbase, strong engines, and the Internet, which gives access to high-level competition at the click of a mouse.

The rating system also does introduce small amounts of inflation through the provisional rating system, before a player has an established rating.
Frederic Frederic 8/18/2020 11:10
@sxb103: I was hoping for speculation and proposed explanations. I presented some numbers, you guys should draw conclusions.
sxb103 sxb103 8/18/2020 08:57
so what do we conclude ? The players today are just objectively better or the ratings somehow got inflated ( not sure how that happens though)