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Pursuit of Excellence When I was a young master, I received a


phone call from the warden of a prison invit- ing me to visit his institution to play against a grandmaster. The “grandmaster” was a fraud, of course. He turned out to be a Class B player who had convinced other prisoners of his out- standing chess skill. Such impostors cannot hope to fool us


because FIDE maintains an easily-accessed list of all players with an international title. If you’ve ever wondered why masters care about the title system, there are two reasons. They appreciate the honor, and they do not want to share it with the undeserving. Set aside all thoughts of the glamour or


glory of title tournaments. Masters have always viewed these events as pure business. For today’s aspiring professionals, an international title is a necessary item on one’s chess résumé. Most grit their teeth and spend months com- peting in events offering little reward other than the tantalizing possibility of a norm. Some liken the pursuit to earning an advanced degree, although David Strauss, who did both, claimed that getting a Ph.D. was much easier. In a perfect world, FIDE would oversee a


strict, fair and open title system. In reality, people will always find fault. FIDE has made the system more fair and open, but, according to the titleholders quoted below, far less strict. FIDE began awarding official titles in 1950.


Its regulations initially required prospective grandmasters to be world championship con- tenders, and FIDE found only 27 players, active or retired, who met that high standard. By the 1980s, FIDE would award that many grandmas- ter (GM) titles in a single year. Older players remember when the lesser


title of international master (IM) still denoted exceptional ability. Many IMs of the 1950s and 1960s compare favorably to modern GMs. Some resent the decline in standards. Dr. Anthony Saidy, among the world’s top 100 players in the 1960s, writes, “I made both my norms in Italy —2nd at Reggio Emilia 1967 and tied for 2nd at Venice 1969 in a mostly GM field. And the average GM in those days was strong! Thanks to the FIDE reign of Campomanes, there are 25 times as many “GMs” today.” It’s true that Florencio Campomanes and


others in FIDE welcomed the proliferation of GMs. They argued that having titled players in many countries would encourage younger play- ers and popularize the game, and they might have been right. At the same time, though, their policy


decreased the value of each title. The club of titleholders wasn’t quite as exclusive. Similar


uschess.org


complaints dog the halls of fame in every sport. Perhaps it’s human nature to romanticize the good old days. Yet there is no denying that a title carried more prestige when it was a rar- ity. As Dmitry Gurevich recalls, “When I started playing chess in the Soviet Union in the 1960s, national master was a hard title to get. Inter- national masters were rare and grandmasters were recognized on the streets. Botvinnik, Smyslov and Tal were household names. My mother simply couldn't believe it when I got a GM title myself, years later.” The number of titleholders rose steadily in


the 1980s for a variety of non-political reasons. After the introduction of the FIDE rating system in 1970 and changes in FIDE regulations that pegged title norms to ratings, the system became fairer to all. Bobby Fischer energized a new generation of players who sought title opportunities. To satisfy their demands, more organizers ran title tournaments. The intro- duction of international opens in the late 1970s gave unheralded players their first shot at titles. Those with fewer scruples and ample hard currency could find tournaments in east- ern Europe where norms were surprisingly easy to achieve. FIDE actually raised the minimum perform-


ance rating needed for a GM norm from 2550 to 2600 in 1979. This was a step in the right direction, but rating inflation (roughly 100 points, and rising) has left the standard even more out of date today. For Americans, the requirement of facing at


least four foreign players in a nine-round tour- nament almost compelled a trip abroad. John Watson compared the 1980s with today: “It was extremely difficult to obtain a title without leaving the United States, and even hard to find enough events in Europe unless you spent a great deal of time there. Now both young and old players have an amazing number of opportunities in the United States, have a life- time to achieve their norms (instead of a 3-year period), can achieve the required rating at any time in their lives (even retroactively!), requir- ing only that they achieve a rating level briefly before falling back. Players have so many more paths to titles now.” Jeremy Silman echoed these thoughts in


his inimitable way: “The scarcity of titled events in the U.S. made the title hunt a real pain. In fact, going to Europe and playing in one event after the other was (and still is) the best way to go about it. Oddly, when I finally went to Europe in search of some norms (after dither- ing about for years in a Haight Ashbury alternative reality), I got one on my first try, only


to come to a screeching halt when I realized that the acquisition of food was dependent on money. And that was my problem—if you want to devote yourself to this wonderful game, then you have to have your priorities in the right order: chess first, food second. It took another decade (and a hundred added pounds ... too much eating, too little studying) for the title to finally fall into my chubby hands.” Of course, if one loves travelling as much as


John Donaldson, a trip to Europe presents no problem. He makes it sound easy: “I got my IM title back in 1983 in the Lugano Open, beat- ing GM Nemet in the eighth round (I lost with black to Timman in the last round). The appli- cation went through quite smoothly and all the norms were solid—no near misses. Maybe the only odd thing is that Nemet's flag fell on move 40 in a winning ending. This never hap- pened to me before or after.” At the other extreme is Melik Khachiyan, who


did everything correctly but described earning his GM title as “definitely horror.” Khachiyan made two GM norms in U.S. tournaments in 2003. Combined with his second-place finish in the 1996 Russia Cup in Moscow, those per- formances appeared to satisfy the requirements for a GM title. But a FIDE official denied his claim, demanding more proof and even accus- ing Khachiyan of cheating. “The next year I got another GM norm, and when I applied again, the same guy didn't want to process my application. He asked for everything—games, TD’s papers, crosstables. It took me more than a year to get my title. It was a terrible experience.” The March FIDE rating list shows 1,318


grandmasters and 3,076 international mas- ters. If more than 4,000 players have managed to complete the journey, can it still be regarded as arduous? Cy Lakdawala, who was IM strength for


years before receiving his title in 2002, says that there are still plenty of obstacles for title seekers: “I feel a big number of talented play- ers don't get their titles, not from lack of skill but from lack of financial resources. It takes a large influx of cash to get a coach, books, online resources, pay the expenses of tourna- ments (including lost income while there). These titles are expensive!” Lakdawala makes an excellent point. Even if


today’s title requirements are more attainable, young masters cannot always afford to pursue an international title. And that’s a compelling rea- son to applaud Metropolitan Chess for offering frequent title opportunities at affordable prices. If you are contemplating your own title quest, consider doing it in sunny southern California!


Chess Life — August 2011 45


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