By definition, a grandmaster might be any high-ranking officer in a military or fraternal order, such as the Masons or the Templars. Any recipient of a knighthood could also be considered a Grand Master.
On a more generic level, any person demonstrating the highest level of ability or achievement in their field is considered a grandmaster.
It's a good thing we specified chess grandmasters then, right?
That definition strikes a discordant note, doesn't it? If 'grandmaster' is meant to describe the pinnacle of a field - say, chess, unless contenders are equal in every way, how can there be more than one player to carry the title at any one time?
And then, if one particularly adept player qualifies for the grandmaster title at age 15, would they then been deemed less apt in comparison to a grandmaster crowned at 14?
Keep in mind the definition of grandmaster: one who demonstrates the highest level of ability, as well as extraordinary levels of achievement. A younger person accomplishing the same feats as someone older must be more capable, right?
Fortunately, we don't need to fret over semantics. The International Chess Federation, FIDE, has the whole grandmaster thing figured out.
Superprof takes a page out of their book and passes that information on to you.
What Is a Chess Grandmaster?
To explain the concept clearly, let's compare it to the martial arts - a discipline that, incidentally, also uses the term 'grandmaster', at least on occasion.
The martial arts belts, a fairly recent addition to the discipline, denote the artist's rank. The darker the belt, the higher the rank. Before they can attain a certain rank, they must undergo a requisite amount of training and demonstrate their knowledge through a series of exercises - katas, as they are most familiarly known, though the name varies according to the art in practice.
The same holds in chess.
To be called a chess grandmaster, it's not enough to be a chess prodigy and win every single chess match against anyone who sits across the table from you. You have to follow a set of steps and meet specific requirements before you can qualify for the title. And then, once you qualify, you have to apply to FIDE to grant it to you; it's not simply bestowed.
There are different paths to becoming a chess grandmaster, depending on qualities you embody that are external to chess. Say, if you're a very young player or female.
Did you know that, long before The Queen's Gambit, women were making waves in chess? Find out about some of the most remarkable female chess grandmasters.
What Does it Take to Become a Grandmaster?
Set aside, for now, the need for dedication to the sport and starting as young as possible - two personal factors that are essential to achieve the highest level of skill in chess. FIDE has specific requirements every player must meet to claim the title of grandmaster.
You must complete three norms and hold an Elo rating of at least 2500.
A norm is a chess tournament in which at least three grandmasters from different countries also play. These tournaments impose a time control of at least 120 minutes and you must play at least nine rounds, some opposite a grandmaster. For a tournament to qualify as a norm, an international arbiter must oversee it.
Aspiring grandmasters must play in at least three such tournaments and generate at least a 2600 Elo performance in each for their efforts to count towards their grandmaster qualification.
The chess Elo rating system calculates players' skill levels.
In a tournament, both you and your opponent come to the chessboard with a rating earned by playing in other tournaments. If they are a stronger player, they have a higher rating and, if they're weaker, their rating is lower. Let's say they are a stronger player than you.
If you win the match, you will 'receive' some of your opponent's rating. Your rating will go up and theirs will go down.
By this we see that Elo is not a matter of accruing points that are forever attributed to you; you must constantly defend and improve your rating. Also, it shows that you must earn your rating; it's not bestowed upon you based on how many matches you play in.
You can build your rating by playing in chess tournaments sponsored by your local chess club. If you're still in school, you can join the chess club and compete against other schools in your area.
Naturally, you should become a member of your country's Chess Federation as well as a registered FIDE member.
Now, let's look at other ways a chess player can become a grandmaster.
Progress Through the FIDE Titles
Practically every chess player who is serious about the game sets their sights on the ultimate title: chess grandmaster. Those in the know aim for Super Grandmaster. That's not an official title but, as long as you're aiming, why not aim that high?
Like the martial arts with its belt system, FIDE provides a ranking system by which chess players can be categorized.
- Candidate Master - CM (2200 Elo rating): introduced in 2002
- FIDE Master - FM (2300 Elo rating): Alekhine Nouri is the youngest-ever in this category, earning the title at seven years old
- International Master (IM): besides a 2400 Elo rating and norms, there are other paths to the IM title
- Grandmaster (GM)
You don't have to progress through every rank to become a chess grandmaster.
Several GMs earned their title without first being an IM, Mikhail Tal and Anish Giri among them. And the legendary Bobby Fischer, the American chess prodigy who defeated Boris Spassky in the Game of the Century, was titled GM and IM simply because he qualified for them; not because he played for them.
The world of chess rankings is very different now; it's doubtful that any player would be accorded a title simply on their merits.
Let's talk more about the other paths to the IM title, now.
Winning a World Championship
The stereotypical chess player is male, older, often white and somewhat nerdy. Oh, and they're probably all introverted, too. Real chess players hail from the four corners of the world. They come in all shapes, sizes, ages, levels of intellect and types of personality.
In light of that, should international chess tournaments be one-size-fits-all affairs?
For the 50-years-plus chess players, there are World Senior Championship tournaments to compete in - two divisions, in fact. Any senior player, from either the 50- or 65-division may claim the IM title if they take second or third place in their tournament.
Female chess players may compete in the Women's World Championship tournaments. As long as a player finishes Second, she may be given the IM title.
The many chess-enthusiastic youths of today create a full three divisions of international competition.
The Under-16s (U16), Under-18s (U18) and Under-20s (U20) each have their World Championship titles providing a path to chess grandmaster.
If a U16 or U18 player wins a World Junior Championship outright, they may be granted the title of International Master without undergoing the norm process, provided that their Elo rating is 2200 or higher.
For U20 players, as long as they finish in second or third place and have the requisite Elo rating, they too could enjoy the IM title.
As previously mentioned, the chess world is very different from when Bobby Fischer ruled the game. Whereas he earned his grandmaster title when he was 15, today's chess sensation, Abhimanyu Mishra, is the youngest person ever to earn the IM title.
And, with two norms already under his belt and exceeding the number of points required, he's well on his way to breaking Sergey Karjakin's record for the youngest chess grandmaster.
Incidentally, Karjakin is from the country with the most chess grandmasters. Do you know which one?
Grandmasters Who Were Never World Chess Champions
Can you see how neatly FIDE took the semantics out of the rating debate? By establishing thresholds, players know exactly what the requirements are to earn each successive title. And, contrary to the term's definition, it's not the single, highest-rated chess player who is the grandmaster but all of those players who meet or exceed the ultimate FIDE-set threshold.
FIDE's system even lays out different ways for players to arrive at their titles.
Not every player follows the prescribed routes. Several chess grandmasters never competed for the World Championship title. Again discounting Fischer because his was an exceptional case, here are a few great names in chess who toiled out of the spotlight to win their titles.
- Levon Aronian: a steady player with a good points standing who had the misfortune of competing for the World Championship title just as Magnus Carlsen was on the rise.
- Vasyl Ivanchuk: a chess elite whose misfortunes lie in being of the same chess era as Kasparov and Karpov
- Viktor Korchnoi, who was up against the same giants as Ivanchuk
- Efim Geller who forever played in Fischer's and Tigran Petrosian's shadows
- Paul Keres was cheated of his World Championship shot because of the Second World War
There are others, of course. Plenty of others. Their names and legendary chess skills prove that you don't have to follow every step FIDE laid out to become a grandmaster.
In fact, it might work better for you to hire a chess tutor who will help you study the game and analyse your errors in playing. Compete in tournaments because you can't hone your skills unless you use them in the setting they are meant for.
Play different styles of chess: rapid chess, blitz chess, classical chess... even computer chess.
In short, you should do what all of the grandmasters of chess before you have done: dedicate yourself to the game.
How Many Grandmasters Are There?
Overlooking how chess players achieved their grandmaster titles - whether they followed the prescribed path of ascendency or took a more direct route, and regardless of which category any player might fit in - Seniors, Juniors or Women, there are 1730 names on FIDE's list of chess grandmasters.
However, the number of currently active grandmasters is substantially lower because, once a player earns their title, it is theirs for life unless they are caught cheating.
That means that a chess player may retire from competition - meaning they are no longer a contender you have to play against, or they may become inactive - they're either taking a break from competitive play or they've stopped playing but haven't formally declared their retirement.
Even if they're no longer living, they are still listed on the FIDE grandmaster rolls.
If you consider only grandmasters who are active and meet the criteria for the title - active players with an Elo over 2500, the number of grandmasters shrinks to 735. That is certainly a more palatable number for aspiring chess grandmasters, isn't it?
If you have plans to add your name to that roster, you might need to know who currently sits at the top of the list of chess grandmasters...