If the Netflix series The Queen's Gambit ignited in you a passion - or, at least an interest in chess, you might be keen to know a few interesting facts behind the story.
Chess grandmaster and former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov consulted on the series, as well as the premier US chess coach, Bruce Pandolfini. In an even stranger twist, 38 years before the show exploded onto our screens, Mr Pandolfini consulted on the book's creation.
Going further to establish the show's authenticity, at least one renowned match was reworked to fit the narrative of Beth's improving chess skills. Another, a game played by American grandmaster Patrick Wolff, opposite Ukrainian GM Vasyl Ivanchuk in 1993 was the model for the pivotal game in series' the last episode.
Several chess grandmasters critiqued the show, saying that it reflected the pressure of competition well, albeit downplaying certain negative aspects of playing competitive chess, especially for female players. That would be a valid critique, considering the show's protagonist is female.
On a broader scale, though, The Queen's Gambit - perhaps aided by pandemic restrictions that imposed isolation brought about a renewed interest in the game. Despite restrictions slowly being lifted, that interest appears to continue unabated.
Many have compared Gambit's phenomenon to the craze the legendary American chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer sparked when he won the Game of the Century in 1956.
What about you? Is your interest in chess fleeting or do you sense that playing chess will become a lifelong pursuit?
Whether you play just for fun at your local chess club or envision yourself one day being spoken of in the same reverent tones at today's hottest players, you should know about the grandmasters of chess and how they ascended to the top of chess royalty.
How Many Chess Grandmasters Are There Currently?
It is sometimes unfortunate that our world is so hyper-competitive. Rather than focusing from the outset on how to improve our skills - at anything we set our hand to but especially titled, competitive activities, we want to know how many people we have to beat to get to the top of the heap.
Such activities might include martial arts, boxing and the world's top cycling event, the Tour de France. Through competition and/or attrition, eventually, a single person is crowned the ultimate winner.
Team sports fit that mould as well. Rugby, footy, basketball... For instance, South Africa is ranked #1 in World Rugby, Munich/Bavaria is #1 for football and the US sits atop the heap of the International Basketball Federation.
By ranking athletes, teams and federations that way, it's easy for competing entities to see who they have to beat to become the best - and, usually, how many more points they need to unseat the current elite team or player.
Whether or not you know anything about chess, if the question of how many grandmasters you have to beat is knocking around your brain, you should know it is misleading.
Once a chess player earns their grandmaster title, they keep it for life, even after they retire from competitive chess.
The only time a grandmaster title may be revoked only if a player misuses their FIDE ranking to gain an advantage or in cases of cheating. In the last five years, only three players have had their GM titles revoked.
On the other hand, if you were interested in knowing who the current World Chess Champion is, or the World Rapid Chess Champion, the World Blitz Chess Champion, those would be valid questions. Whose answers, incidentally, are all the same this year.
Still, we're left with the question of how many grandmasters there are. The answer will be very different depending on whether we want to know how many GMs there are overall or only how many GMs are active players.
Check out the numbers and the distinctions that drive them in our companion article.
The Female Chess Grandmasters
As correctly portrayed in the Gambit series, female chess players suffer quite a bit for their love of the game. Indeed, the female chess grandmaster who is said to be the strongest female chess player of all time, Judit Polgar, did not mince her words on the subject.
She stated categorically that the male players depicted in the show were 'too nice' and that much of the sexism in chess was downplayed.
Is hers a lone voice or is she the lead singer in a chorus of many that intones from the same songbook?
Among the admittedly sparse ranks of female chess grandmasters, Judit's assertions are backed up by others. Not only do many female chess grandmasters resent having a championship of their own, the Women's World Chess Championships - an additional route to earning a grandmaster title open exclusively to female players, but they prefer playing against males.
Incidentally, if we needed any more proof of sexism in chess, we only need to reflect on Garry Kasparov's and other male players' comments about how women are unsuited to chess. That's a debate that rages on, still today.
That Judit Polgar would still sting from such a disparity even though she retired from competitive chess in 2014 is not without foundation. As a 17-year-old player facing off against the world's #1-ranked chess grandmaster at the time, she was shocked and appalled that he would apparently cheat in such a highbrow tournament as Linares.
If you're interested in chess lore, you should read all about the Kasparov touch-move controversy as well as other female grandmasters' feats.
Which Country Has the Most Chess Grandmasters?
Chess is played around the world but some countries devote more time and resources to cultivating prospects with a genuine talent for chess.
FIDE has ranked countries' emphasis on chess, but not by the number of grandmasters it has - we've already shown that that statistic can be misleading. Furthermore, counting only grandmasters omits every other competitive chess player who has not yet achieved that status, such as International Masters, who are just one level below grandmasters.
Another way we might tabulate countries with the most chess grandmasters is by mean Elo rating.
The Elo system is a way to calculate chess players' relative skill by assigning aspects of chess play a numerical value, and according a number of points to each player. The player who wins a match will take points off the defeated player's Elo rating, meaning that a player's Elo rating is constantly in flux.
If those ratings are likely to fluctuate from match to match, how can they be used to certify which country has the most grandmasters?
And another point to consider: countries' overall populations.
For instance, the US has a very large population. However, it boasts relatively few chess grandmasters. Conversely, India and China both boast a respectable number of grandmasters but those countries populations number in the billions. So, if you were to divide the number of chess grandmasters in China (48) by the total population, you would get a decidedly small number.
By contrast, were you to divide the number of Norwegian grandmasters (16) by that country's population - roughly 5.4 million, the number of Norwegian grandmasters would be shockingly close to the number of Chinese GMs.
There is a way to tell which countries have the most chess grandmasters. Fortunately, the method is rather straightforward; why not find out how it's done?
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Who is the Current Reigning Chess Grandmaster?
Chess is more like the martial arts than other sports like football or rugby; more than one player can be grandmaster at a time. Indeed, the currently active chess grandmasters number in the hundreds; if we count all of the grandmasters of chess, that number would exceed a thousand.
Doesn't that make you wonder: if there are so many chess grandmasters, what's the point of being one?
There are lots of reasons to aim for the ultimate in recognition in chess, not the least of which is being able to add your title to your name on signed documents, much like doctors or lawyers do. That's just a superficial perk, though. The real question is: why wouldn't you want to attain the highest level possible?
Leaving that question aside, let's consider what it takes to become a chess grandmaster. You have to have a certain Elo rating and complete three norms - specific criteria that prove you meet or exceed the required skill level, such as playing in tournaments against grandmasters from different countries.
Once you've met all of the requirements, your title is assured regardless of whether you Elo rating - your demonstrated strength as a chess player goes up or down.
One accolade that does matter from year to year in chess is who the World Chess Champion is.
We're not exactly saying that chess grandmasters are a dime a dozen but there's only one World Chess Champion (also one World Rapid Chess Champion and one World Blitz Chess Champion) even though that's the way it is.
Fortunately - for us and the chess world, the same person holds the top-rated grandmaster spot and those three World Champion titles.
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