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Friday, August 17, 2012

Worthy of the GM Title?

      The oldest player ever to receive the GM title was Enrico Paoli (1908-2005) of Italy who was awarded title in 1996 at the age of 88.  Five other players were awarded the title after the age of 80:  Jacques Mieses (1865-1954) of Germany appeared on the first list of GMs in 1950 at 85 years, George Koltanowski (1903-2000) of USA got his title in 1988 at 85, Vladimir Makogonov (1904-1993) of Azerbaijan in 1987 at 83, Mario Monticelli (1902-1995) of Italy in 1985 at 83 years and Esteban Canal (1896-1981) of Peru got it in 1977 at 81.
      Does awarding the title in recognition for past feats, awarding the title for life, after a player has died or for political reasons make sense?
      For example, US player Arthur Dake who was once one of the US’s top players and a very strong one at that, tied for first with Rubinstein and Yates in Antwerp in 1931 and for 3-5 place in a small event won by Alekhine in Pasadena the following year. In 1934/35 he also tied for first with Fine and Kashdan in Mexico City.  Beyond that he only registered some modest successes in US Championships in the 1930’s before dropping out of chess until the Lone Pine events in the 1970’s.
       In 1985 FIDE awarded Golombek an emeritus GM title despite the fact that during the best five year period of his career he only maintained an average estimated rating of around 2450.
       Arnold Denker (February 20, 1914 – January 2, 2005) became an IM in 1950 (the year the title was first awarded) and in 1981 FIDE made him an honorary GM. I think at the time Denker was one of the US representatives to FIDE…sounds political to me.  While Denker was a fine player with a few big name scalps to his credit and was also the winner of one US Championship, he was never a GM caliber player.  BTW, the year Denker won the US Championship, Reshevsky wasn’t playing.  Reuben Fine did participate and as the second best player in the US it was expected he would win but Denker, playing in the tournament of his life, defeated Fine and won the title.
       Back in 1998 Nigel Short wrote a letter to the editor of Inside Chess complaining that the title should only be awarded to the best players in the world and that too many having the title were too low rated to warrant the title.  Short actually proposed that anybody with the GM title who dropped below 2450 two rating lists in a row should get busted back to IM.  In reply GM Andrew Soltis complained that life is tough for old GMs and yanking their title would be an injustice.  Soltis also opined that the title represents accomplishments and not necessarily current statussomething like having a PhD or MD degree.
       There was a discrepancy from the very beginning with the awarding of the GM title. According to Frank Marshall in My 50 Years of Chess (actually the book was ghosted by Fred Reinfeld) in the St. Petersburg 1914 tournament (Corrected year thanks to reader Paul Gottlieb) the title "Grandmaster" was conferred by Russian Tsar Nichols II to the five finalist: Lasker, Capablanca, Alekhine, Tarrasch and Marshall.   Players who didn’t make the cut were Ossip Bernstein, Rubinstein, Nimzovich, Blackburne, Janowski and Gunsburg.  It seems that at least two of this group were probably better than Marshall but didn’t get the title. 
      The first known use of the term “Grandmaster” was in an 1838 issue of was an English weekly sporting paper named Bell’s Life in which one William Lewis was referred to as a GM.  William Lewis (1787–1870) was an English player and author best known for the Lewis Countergambit (1.e4 e5 2.Bc4 Bc5 3.c3 d5).  Lewis himself had referred ro Philidor as a GM.
      In the 1907 Ostend tournament the term Grandmaster (Großmeister in German) was also used. The tournament was divided into two sections: the Championship Tournament and the Masters' Tournament. The Championship section was for players who had previously won an international tournament and was won by Tarrasch over Schlechter, Janowski, Marshall, Burn and Chigorin.  Later the San Sebastion tournament of 1912 won by Rubinstein ahead of Nimzovich and Speilmann was also designated a GM tournament.
      Anyway, just looking at the names of the old-timers who were designated GMs reveals names like Lasker, Capablanca, Alekhine, Tarrasch, Marshall, Rubinstein, Nimzovich, Schlechter etc.  I am not trying to belittle the talent of today’s title holders because they have accomplished a lot and their chess playing abilities are huge but somehow a lot of the people who have reveived “honorary” or “emeritus” titles, or for that matter, some who have obtained the title legitimately under the rules of today just don’t seem to measure up to those “originals.”


  1. I'm pretty sure that was Saint Petersburg 1914 not 1924. I believe there were some important political events in Russia between those two years.

    Marshall was an extremely successful tournament player in 1914. I think people have a tendency to underrate him. His career record with Nimzovich was +5 -6 = 9 And Against Rubinstein he was +9 -11 = 15. In any case, Marshall finished ahead of Nimzovich and Rubinstein in the 1914 tournament. I'm sure that's why his name was on the Czar's list

  2. You are correct; the year was 1914 (typo on my part). You are also correct in that there was a lot going on in Russia in 1914 – strikes, declaration of war by Germany, shortage, etc. The main event lasted from 21 April to 22 May 1914 which was only about a month before stuff hit the fan in Russia.