The chess world is suffering from a glut of grandmasters. The January rating list issued by the World Chess Federation (FIDE) contains 1,188 grandmasters, including 66 representing the U.S. Some FIDE officials want to introduce a new title to distinguish “elite” grandmasters from the pack.
More than a century ago, the term “grandmaster” was used informally to describe leading players. Chess lore credits Czar Nicholas II with awarding the first “official” grandmaster titles to the top five finishers in the great St. Petersburg tournament of 1914. However, no international organization sanctioned titles until FIDE took charge in 1950 and deemed 27 living players worthy of the GM title.
FIDE set up a committee to evaluate future title aspirants. Inevitably, political factors influenced many decisions. FIDE’s efforts in the 1970s to link the process to the completely objective rating system profoundly changed the international circuit, as young players sought tournaments offering title norms and organizers tailored events to satisfy the growing demand. Although FIDE raised the performance standard for a grandmaster from 2550 to 2600, the number of title applicants rose sharply. Rating inflation, estimated at about 80 points since the 1970s, has more than offset the change.
There are now 32 players rated over 2700, a level reached in the early 1970s only by Bobby Fischer. At the same time, there are 426 grandmasters rated below 2500, a full class lower. Those who claim a grandmaster should be a serious contender for the world championship would consider hundreds of current titleholders unqualified.
However, I believe FIDE should refrain from creating a new category that would damage the irreplaceable tradition of the grandmaster title. Instead, raising the minimum performance for a GM norm to 2700 would halt degradation of the title without depriving present titleholders.
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