Netflix's The Queen's Gambit has generated an interest in chess unlike anything seen since the American chess prodigy Bobby Fischer. He took the chess world by storm in 1956, by winning the Game of the Century when he was only 13 years old. His opponent, Boris Spassky, was nearly three times his age.

Not that age has anything to do with playing chess, beyond how much experience a player might have.

So impactful has that Netflix series been that YouTube chess channels have enjoyed a significant viewership boost and the premier chess website, Chess.com, has seen a nearly 50% rise in membership.

That's just in the past six months and it's possible that the pandemic also had something to do with it. What else are you going to do when you're stuck at home, right?

Still, of all the lockdown fads and challenges social media has brought us - from baking sourdough bread to Tiktok dances, chess may be the most intellectually stimulating and the longest lasting. Because when you fall in love with chess - or even just in fascination with it, that passion is for life.

Is it as enduring, rewarding and compelling as the series makes it look?

Let's meet some of the top chess grandmasters to find out.

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Levon Aronian

Dubbed the David Beckham of chess in his home country of Armenia, Levon is one of about 45 chess grandmasters from Armenia. And, undoubtedly, he is the most celebrated.

His older sister introduced him to the game when he was nine years old. His talent for chess became evident almost immediately so he started training under Coach and chess grandmaster Melikset Khachiyan. Any doubt about his ability to excel in chess fled when he blew the competition away during the World Youth Chess Championship event in 1994.

He'd only been playing for three years.

Levon Aronian concentrates fiercely on his game
Levon Aronian's fierce focus on the game makes him a formidable chess player. Source: Wikipedia Credit: Stefan64

He continued to rack up wins, notably the Armenian Chess Championship, which rocketed him to the World Junior Chess Champion title. In that championship, he blew past established junior players such as Bu Xiangzhi - at the time the youngest-ever chess grandmaster, and Surya Ganguly, who became an International Master at 16 years old.

In 2004, Levon debuted at the FIDE World Chess Championship tournament, where he defeated then-13-year-old Magnus Carlsen. That event was Magnus' debut, too.

For all that Levon is celebrated in his country and throughout the chess world, he feels enthusiasm for the game and support for players slipping at home. The ongoing clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan also influenced his decision to switch his Federation alliance to the US Chess Federation.

Current Elo rating: 2781; highest ever: 2830

Ian Nepomniachtchi

Young Ian learned to play chess at the tender age of four-and-a-half by no fewer than four coaches, one of them his uncle. His first coach moved to Ian's hometown of Bryansk, in southwest Russia, and worked with him until he turned 13.

As soon as he was qualified, Ian took part in Championship tournaments. His outstanding accomplishment as a young chess player was winning the European Youth Chess Championship no fewer than three times - the first time when he was under ten years old.

He recorded his third such championship win in 2002, only just beating today's highest-rated grandmaster, Magnus Carlsen, in a tie-breaking game.

We'll talk more about Carlsen later on.

With his chess legacy firmly secured, Ian placed second for his group (FIDE Class C) in the world's most prestigious chess tournament, the Tata Steel, in 2007. He picked up his second grandmaster norm in the European Individual Chess Championship and his third in a tournament held in his homeland.

Uncertain of what a norm is? You should check out our 'How many Grandmasters' article that explains how to become a chess grandmaster.

Ian is due to play against Magnus Carlsen in the upcoming World Chess Championship match to be held in Dubai, in November-December 2021.

Current Elo: 2792; this is also his peak FIDE rating.

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Liren Ding

Ding Liren did for chess in China what Yao Ming did for basketball, and with just about as stunning a performance. A chess grandmaster since 2009 - a title he earned when he was just 17, he is the highest-rated Chinese chess player ever.

He also scooped the Chinese Chess Championship title three times.

Besides being the first-ever Chinese player to play in the Candidates' Tournament, he's also the first player from China to exceed an Elo rating of 2800. As if all of that weren't enough, he blasted Blitz chess rankings by amassing a rating of 2875 in 2016. At that time, he became the highest-rated Blitz player in the world.

It's hard to say which style of chess Liren enjoys the most. He's no slouch at Rapid chess and, considering the stats we just quoted, Blitz chess is no problem for him either. What about classical chess, then?

For more than a year, from August 2017 to November 2018, Liren remained unbeaten for 100 games - that would be 29 wins and 71 draws. His was the longest unbeaten streak in the history of chess... until Magnus Carlsen broke it.

Mr Ding's current Elo rating is 2799; his peak rating is 2816.

Ding Liren held the world record for number of winning games
Ding Liren sits at the pinnacle of chess achievement in China and the world. Source: Wikipedia Credit: Vladimir Barskij

Rounding Out the Top Ten

As you might have figured, we're working our way down the Top five players with the highest FIDE ratings. Much as we'd love to share details about every chess grandmaster's journey, that list - comprising of 735 active grandmasters of chess and about 1000 more inactive ones, is simply too long.

However, you should know more than just a handful of the top-ranked grandmasters. In that spirit, let us present:

  • Anish Giri, from the Netherlands, has a current FIDE rating of 2780
  • Alexander Grischuk, from Russia, has a current rating of 2776
  • Wesley So, from the US, has a current rating of 2770
  • Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, from Azerbaijan, is tied with Mr So
  • Teimour Radjabov, also from Azerbaijan, has a current rating of 2765

As you can see by the grandmasters we've featured so far, this type of chess talent is cultivated all over the world. Furthermore, each of these grandmasters - and every other chess player who earned their title, prodigy or not, put in a lot of time and hard work, playing in tournament after tournament, often travelling around the world, to compete for their claim to chess mastery.

Our one regret is that, currently, there are no female chess grandmasters featured in FIDE's top five - or, for that matter, the top 10. That's why we devoted an entire article to female grandmasters; you should check it out!

Fabiano Caruana

Primary schools in Brooklyn, New York offer students many after-school enrichment programs; anything from art to athletics, including chess. That's where five-year-old Fabiano discovered he's a chess prodigy. With no apparent hesitation, he participated in his very first tournament within a few months of discovering chess.

After that, there was just no stopping him. He travelled to Europe, South America and all around the United States to compete in tournaments, steadily increasing his Elo rating as he went along. When he was 12 years old, his family moved to Madrid so he could pursue a chess career.

Three years later, he moved to Budapest to work with Alexander Chernin, a Hungarian grandmaster and, three years after that, he relocated to Lugano, in Switzerland. There, he trained with Belgian grandmaster Vladimir Chuchelov.

Rather than playing for the Spanish Chess Federation when he lived in Madrid, he played for Italy. He remained affiliated with the Italian federation until he moved back to the US in 2014. A year later, he signed on with the US Chess Federation.

What makes Fabiano so remarkable is that, despite all of the relocations during his childhood, his chess skills continued to improve. He continued to dominate tournaments; he won the elite Dortmund Sparkassen Chess Meeting three years in a row.

Imagine trouncing seasoned chess grandmasters in tournament after tournament, as you learn a new language and how to navigate a new city... all while still a child!

His current Elo rating is 2820; he has a peak rating of 2844.

Fabiano Caruana is a fierce chess competitor
Fabiano Caruana gets ready to play in the World Chess Championship. Source: Wikipedia Credit: Pablo Martinez Rodriguez

Magnus Carlsen

Norway has 16 chess grandmasters; clearly, it doesn't rank high on the list of countries with the most GMs. Nevertheless, Magnus is, without a doubt, the most renowned. He is also the hottest chess player, sitting at the top of the FIDE list with an Elo rating of 2847.

His peak rating of 2882 is even more remarkable. In fact, it's the highest in the recorded history of the game.

Magnus is second only to Garry Kasparov in the amount of time he's spent as the highest-rated chess player in the world. Furthermore, he's the youngest person on that very short list of players to claim that record. Not only is he the current World Chess Champion, but he is also the World Blitz Chess Champion and World Rapid Chess Champion.

And, as we know, he broke Liren Ding's record for the longest unbeaten streak; another remarkable feat.

His father taught him how to play chess when he five years old. Although he generally enjoyed intellectually stimulating activities as a child, he didn't have much interest in chess until sibling rivalry kicked in. He was determined to beat his older sister at the game!

Magnus is a chess autodidact. He spent hours recreating the games he read about in chess books, analysing the moves and, eventually, trying different ones to see how they would play out.

He is blessed with a phenomenal memory; unquestionably an asset in chess. All of the books about chess that Magnus devoured as a child - all of those tactics and strategies, gambits and pitfalls to avoid are firmly cemented in his brain, making him one of the most formidable chess players ever.

Although he claims the middlegame is his favourite part, it's really his positional play and endgame that steal the show.

You might compare Magnus to a stalking panther, enjoying the play until it's time to go in for the kill.

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