U.S.-born grandmasters’ educational attainment, careers, and advice

by Alexey Root
10/20/2020 – There are 40 living U.S.-born grandmasters listed by the International Chess Federation (FIDE) as playing for the USA. WIM Alexey Root and IM John Daniel Bryant researched their educational backgrounds and careers. They also asked the grandmasters to give advice to today’s high-rated high school players. | Pictured: John Harvard statue at Harvard University | Photo: Jessica Williams

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Research questions

IM John Daniel Bryant and WIM Alexey Root wondered whether grandmasters were more highly educated than the native-born U.S. population. To make the comparison fair, we surveyed only U.S.-born grandmasters. The first research question is: How educated are U.S.-born chess grandmasters compared to U.S.-born men of similar ages?

Having gained so much chess knowledge, grandmasters are in demand as chess coaches and writers. Perhaps many of them therefore choose careers in chess. Thus, a second research question is: What do U.S.-born grandmasters choose for careers?

Asking the grandmasters what advice they would give to very high-rated high school chess players might indicate their satisfaction with their own life choices. If they like their own careers and lives, then they might advise younger versions of themselves to follow in their footsteps. However, this reasoning has holes. For example, the grandmasters might consider changing conditions, such as the current pandemic, and advise today’s high-rated high school players to avoid past educational or career paths. Also, maybe the grandmasters would recommend going to college because that’s the conventional wisdom in the United States. The last research question compared the advice the grandmasters gave to their own educational attainment and careers. Do the grandmasters tell high schoolers to “Do as I say, not as I did” or do they recommend what they actually did?

Methodology

Finding U.S.-born grandmasters took several steps. First, we searched the September 2020 FIDE list of the top-100 USA Federation players, including both active and inactive players. Then we eliminated grandmasters born abroad or playing for foreign countries now. For example, Grandmaster Yasser Seirawan learned to play chess in the United States but was born in Damascus, Syria. We also limited the study to U.S.-born grandmasters who are listed by FIDE as USA. Therefore, Grandmaster Jonathan Tisdall, born in the United States but listed as Norway in FIDE’s database, was not included. 

Not all US-born grandmasters are on that top-100 FIDE list, so we also searched USA Federation grandmasters on FIDE (an advanced search). Ultimately, we found 40 living U.S.-born grandmasters. If we overlooked one, let us know!

Via email and accounts on Facebook and chess servers, grandmasters received the following three questions during the last week of September of 2020. They were asked to reply within one week.

1) What is your highest-level of education? a) did not finish high school b) finished high school c) some college d) two-year degree e) four-year degree f) master’s degree g) professional degree [MD, JD etc.] h) doctoral degree [Ph.D., Ed.D. etc.]

2) What are you doing now? (What is your present career, or, if retired, what was your main career?)

3) What advice would you give to very high-rated high school chess players who are considering whether or not to go to college?

Their answers are on this Google Sheet. If a grandmaster’s name is highlighted in yellow, in Column B, he answered the three questions above. 16 of 40 grandmasters participated. The next section summarizes and interprets the data on that sheet.

Educational attainment

In addition to relying on grandmasters’ replies, we also accessed public records (such as biographies of the grandmasters) to determine educational attainment. If unsure, we left the “highest degree” column blank. All of the U.S.-born grandmasters are men. All are either White, Asian, or two races (White and Asian). 

Educational attainment data for native-born men 25 and older is found in Table 2 (select “Male”) on this United States Census webpage. We have excerpted one relevant part here:

In the above excerpt, 35.5% of native-born men 25 years and older have bachelor’s degrees. 12.7% of native-born men 25 years and older have master’s, professional, or doctoral degrees. 

Educational attainment data for men and women combined, broken into ages 18-24 and 25 and older, is found in this National Center for Education Statistics table. The table differentiates by race. In 2017, for Whites ages 18-24, 13.5% had completed a bachelor’s degree or higher. For Asians ages 18-24, 23.4% had completed a bachelor’s degree or higher. In 2017, for Whites ages 25 and older, 35.8% had completed a bachelor’s degree or higher. For Asians 25 and older, 54.1% had completed a bachelor’s degree or higher. For two races (White and Asian) ages 18-24, 15.7% had completed a bachelor’s degree. For two races (White and Asian) ages 25 and older, 51% had completed a bachelor’s degree.

We left out Awonder Liang and Brandon Jacobson, the only U.S.-born grandmasters under age 18. Of the ten U.S.born-grandmasters ages 18-24, whose birth years are highlighted in blue on the Google Sheet, at least three have completed a bachelor’s degree or higher. That 30% degree-completion rate tops the White, Asian, or two races (White and Asian) comparison cohorts. However, we did not analyze whether this is a statistically-significant difference.

For the 30 U.S.-born grandmasters 25 and older, at least 21 have completed a bachelor’s degree or higher. That’s 70%, well above comparison cohorts. Even more grandmasters may have completed degrees; again, any blanks in the “highest degree” column mean we don’t have educational attainment data for those grandmasters. Results may or may not be statistically significant. Sophisticated statistical analysis was not performed on the Google Sheet data.

We could further break down the percentages and numbers for the grandmasters by race, but the number of grandmasters in each category would be small (such as grandmasters who are both White and Asian).

Careers

Although 24 of the 40 U.S.-born grandmasters did not participate, for several of them we could determine that their careers are in chess. For example, Grandmasters Fabiano Caruana and Joel Benjamin did not reply. Yet it is well known that Caruana is a professional chess player; his website states his profession as well. As of the spring of 2019, Benjamin was a chess coach and a chess writer.

Of the 16 that replied, nine are in chess careers, such as playing, streaming, coaching, and developing chess engines. The careers stated by the other seven grandmasters are entrepreneur, software engineer, tax lawyer, data scientist, professor, research associate, and librarian (retired).

Joel Benjamin

Joel Benjamin, who recently became the first player to win the U.S. Junior Championship, U.S. Championship and U.S. Senior Championship | Photo: new.uschess.org

Advice

Do grandmasters who attended college recommend college, while the non-college grandmasters don’t recommend college? For the 16 grandmasters who replied, the answer is yes. Grandmasters gave advice that echoed their own educational paths. The fourteen that matriculated recommended college, either immediately after high school or after taking a gap year or two to pursue professional chess. The two grandmasters who replied and who did not attend college, Jeffery Xiong and Kayden Troff, did not recommend college over chess. Of course, there are nuances to each reply. Visit the Google Sheet to read the unabridged version of grandmasters’ advice for top-rated high school chess players.

Both sides now

Grandmaster James Tarjan dropped out of college to be a professional chess player. Then he returned to college and became a professional librarian. Having followed both paths, he has no regrets about either. Though, he adds, life is more complicated than chess.

As Alexey read Tarjan’s answer, she thought of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now. Mitchell sang, “I've looked at life from both sides now, from win and lose, and still somehow it’s life’s illusions I recall, I really don’t know life at all.”

Here is an excerpt from Tarjan’s advice:

Was it a mistake to drop out of school and play chess? Was it a mistake to later stop playing chess and pursue something entirely different? I don’t believe it is simple to determine such things. Chess is difficult, but at least has fixed rules. Life is more complicated. I do know that in both cases, dropping out of school to play chess, and then later returning to school to pursue something entirely different, I was following my heart and my inner motivations. And I also know that I don’t regret either decision. I loved working as a librarian; it worked for me not merely financially but also personally. And of course I love chess, and cannot really regret the chess years in my teens and twenties. 

Alexey is not suggesting Tarjan doesn’t know life; the part of Mitchell’s song that resonates is that Tarjan has looked at life from “both sides now.” Moreover, Tarjan draws upon his own life to advise high-rated high-school chess players.

Future research

The Google Sheet data could be the starting point for other research. For example, Grandmaster Ron Henley may have received “the first chess scholarship in America to attend University of Southern Florida.” One could research if there were earlier chess scholarships, and how chess scholarships have shaped where high-rated high school students have attended college from 1976 to the present day.

The next U.S.-born Grandmaster?

IM John Daniel Bryant has three grandmaster norms. If his FIDE rating goes over 2500, he will be the next U.S.-born grandmaster. John wrote:

I’d heard many people question the intelligence of chess grandmasters, and I thought this was absolutely ridiculous. I thought it would be an easy task to provide statistical evidence to the contrary in terms of educational attainment and income which are both positively correlated with IQ. It was amazing to get in touch with GMs who became Google software engineers(2), a VP of Data Science, Wall Street traders and hedge fund managers(2), and Ken Rogoff, the former Chief Economist of the World Bank and now an Economics Professor at Harvard. Not mentioned in our study is that GMs are more likely to go to elite colleges like Ivy League schools if they choose to attend college. GMs born before 1980 were going into finance, economics, and law, and after 1980 they started going into tech. Larry Kaufman (born in 1947) was ahead of the game in that respect as he programmed Komodo, although he got an economics degree which is the most common degree for GMs as far I know; it’s probably because we all want to take over the world. As for myself, I’ve always gone my own way, so I can relate to GM Tarjan. I’m currently 2422 FIDE with 3 GM norms, and I’m due to finish my BS in economics in Spring 2022. I highly recommending reading the Google Sheet for the nuanced answers to question three. It’s a terrific read!


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Topics: education

Alexey was the 1989 U.S. Women's Chess Champion and is a Woman International Master. She earned her bachelor’s degree in History at the University of Puget Sound and her doctoral degree in Education at The University of California, Los Angeles. She has been a Lecturer in Interdisciplinary Studies at UT Dallas since 1999 and is a prolific author.
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fgkdjlkag fgkdjlkag 10/22/2020 12:16
Very interesting idea and article. Would also have been interesting to look at players who came to the US at an early age, eg maybe Gabriel Schwartzman. One week is a very short period of time to expect a response; the rate might have been higher if they were told they had more time initially.
sshivaji sshivaji 10/21/2020 07:03
Advice is not applicable if you are Magnus of course :) you can get a degree without any debt, colleges will soon change structure a lot.

My advice was for people who are not in the world top 20. It's easier to get a career that does not have to be boring. Not all jobs are boring dead end.
jakaiden jakaiden 10/21/2020 03:37
Great advice sshivaji! Give up what you love, go $60.000 in debt and work a boring dead end job. Thanks. Magnus can quit and come work in our cubicle.
sshivaji sshivaji 10/20/2020 09:44
I have strong advice on this matter. Feel free to pursue chess to GM level especially when you are young. After that, stop playing chess, and use this as a sports scholarship to get into top universities and get good jobs in your field.

Unless you are a top player in your teens, its not worth pursuing chess as a career, not because chess in itself is bad. There are just too many more profitable options outside of the chess world.

I am not a GM, just an FM. However, I could easily see that options outside chess were far better.
treetown treetown 10/20/2020 07:49
This is a very interesting article. Thank you for running. The Google Sheet document is worth a look because some of the comments are very interesting.
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