If you think of the biggest names in chess - Kasparov, Karpov, Ivanchuk or Demchenko, you might already intuit which country has the most chess grandmasters without reading the whole article. But then, consider Carlsen, Hou and Fischer; all from different countries. Two of them currently dominate the chess world and one of them singlehandedly created a chess mania that still impacts his country today. Could it really be so easy to say that the land of Kasparov and Karpov has full bragging rights over the most chess grandmasters? Well... if you know where to find the stats... this could be a very short conversation, indeed. But it would be neither enlightening nor interesting. Besides, why search out the information for yourself? Superprof has amassed facts, figures and anecdotes to make your discovery of which country is home to the most grandmasters the most fun.
Chess historians all agree that the game played today has its roots in a similar board game called chaturanga. It made its first appearance during the Gupta Empire, which reigned in the 6th Century. The game's mention in the Bavishya Purana, a Hindu text dating back to that time, supports that assertion. The version of chess played today more resembles the game played in Renaissance Europe but 'Romantic chess', the version of the game played in the 1800s is what today's games are grounded in. Today, in India, chess players outnumber those playing chaturanga, and the All India Chess Federation boasts a respectable number of chess grandmasters; 67, to be exact. Even if you have just a casual interest in chess, you must know about Viswanathan Anand, India's first grandmaster. He is a five-time World Chess Champion who earned the title of Undisputed World Champion in 2007. The year before achieving that feat, he became the fourth chess player worldwide to exceed the 2800 Elo rating mark. We could hardly call Mr Anand passé - he still plays competitive chess and, just last year, won the World Blitz Chess Championship. However, there's another chess player from India claiming her share of attention just now. Humpy Koneru made history when she beat Judit Polgar's record for youngest chess grandmaster ever. She is second only to Ms Polgar for a female achieving an Elo rating above 2600. Ms Koneru's feats in chess are legendary; we talked about in our Female Grandmasters article.
Several chess grandmasters hailing from other countries earned their title in their homeland and then emigrated to the US. Susan Polgar is an excellent case in point. After earning her grandmaster title - the first female chess player to do so by the same standards as male players, she moved to the United States and transferred her national federation affiliation from Hungary to the US. She stayed active in chess, competing in various arenas and earning new titles - she's the first female chess player to ever be named Chess Grandmaster of the Year, a title she picked up in 2003. Another first for women in chess, spearheaded by Susan: she coached the all-male Texas Tech Knight Raiders chess team to a division victory in 2010. In the two years following, the team she coached went on to win the President's Cup both times. She became the first woman to coach a men's chess team to a national title.
When emigrated chess players compete, they generally represent the American chess teams rather than the countries of their birth. That tends to rather skew the numbers.
If we count the number of chess grandmasters currently living in the US, we come up with 119 - not too shabby a standing. That puts the US in the top five countries with the most chess grandmasters. Trouble is, we don't get an accurate count of American grandmasters. If we only counted those who learned how to play chess in the US, competed and earned their title as Americans, that number would be closer to 80. Still a respectable number but, by contrast, of Germany's 115 chess grandmasters, only 14 hail from other countries. That distinction is made more dramatic since Germany has a strong chess culture. Indeed, they've cultivated far more chess grandmasters as a proportion of their population than the US has. Is all of this hair-splitting necessary? That depends on how you see the matter. In many countries, chess is an integral part of the culture. Those countries devote a lot of resources to cultivating the best and brightest chess players they can and those players undergo rigorous training so they can be fighting fit for competition. When seen in that light, representing one's country when earning a title is particularly significant - politically, economically and athletically. With all of that taken into consideration, is it fair for another country to claim so many grandmasters that they did not devote time and resources to?
For a country with such a small population, around 41 million inhabitants, Ukraine has cultivated a substantial number of chess grandmasters - 113 of them. Some people suspect that the former Soviet Union had a major impact on Ukraine's sports culture, of which chess is a part. There may be some truth to that. For instance, brothers Vitali and Vladimir Klitschko laid claim to several World titles before they retired from heavyweight boxing. Ukraine's showings in Olympic sports go further to substantiate the idea that Ukraine hasn't shaken off their drive to excel in competition. In chess, Vasil Ivanchuk exemplifies that drive. He commanded the #2 spot at the top of the FIDE rankings list no fewer than three times. Although he's never been World Chess Champion, he gave several thus-titled players a run for their money. Among them are none other than today's World Chess Champion, Magnus Carlsen, who Ivanchuk he twice defeated. Ruslan Ponomariov is another Ukrainian chess player to watch. He does not play a splashy game and he's not a headline grabber. Slow and steady is his playing style and, as the idiom avers, it's slow and steady that wins the race.
If we accept that Ukraine still draws on Soviet discipline in sports, we might also extend that idea to Germany - at least the part of it that was occupied. Rustem Dautov is a prime example of such a player. He was born in Ufa, in the former Soviet Union but played chess in East Berlin while serving in the military there. After the Soviet system collapse, he settled in Germany and now plays for the German Chess Federation which, itself, underwent a transformation to blend the East and West German Chess Federations. Native German chess player Falko Bindrich, a FIDE master since age 13 who earned his grandmaster title a year later, is renowned not so much for any particular chess prowess - although he obviously has it. Instead, he is infamous for the cheating allegations against him. During the first round of the German Chess Federation competition, he excused himself repeatedly to go to the bathroom. His opponent, Russian Grandmaster Pavel Tregubov, was so miffed at losing the match that he refused chess' most gentlemanly act of shaking your opponent's hand after the game. He also complained to match arbiters about Mr Brindrich's frequent bathroom breaks. A couple of days later, Falko again excused himself early in the game. This time, his opponent was not as forgiving. Sebastian Siebrecht, the opponent in question, asked the arbiters to confiscate Falko's smartphone. He suspected chess analysis software was guiding Falko Bindrich's moves, and that Mr Bindrich went to the bathroom to consult the app in private. When that latter refused to surrender his device, he was forfeited. It was never conclusively proven that any cheating had been going on. However, Mr Bindrich's general conduct, along with the suspicion of cheating led the German Chess Federation to suspend him for two years. That ban was overturned on appeal. Find chess teacher here on Superprof.
Before we divulge any interesting anecdotes about the country with the most chess grandmasters, we have to list a few countries that are gaining an ever-stronger presence in the chess world.
- Serbia has 69 chess grandmasters
- China: 66 chess grandmasters, the formidable Hou Yifan among them
- Hungary: 64 grandmasters
- France: 58 grandmasters
- Spain also has 58 grandmasters
These round out the top ten countries with the most chess grandmasters. However, as chess is played all over the world, there are several more countries harbouring chess talent and several more grandmasters. Care to venture a guess as to how many grandmasters there currently are?
Russia comprises a huge landmass; about 1.7 times that of the United States. However, it boasts less than half of the US population: ca. 145 million to 326 million. Yet, Russia has three times the number of chess grandmasters as the US does; 293 to 119. Or, if you subtract the chess players from other countries who now make their home in the US, Russia has closer to four times the number of grandmasters the US has trained and developed. We're not advocating for either side, of course. We just hope to emphasize that, while chess is a worldwide passion, for some, it's ingrained in their culture and traditions. Nowhere is that plainer than in the difference in numbers between US and Russian players. One of today's most exciting chess events, the Dortmund Sparkassen Chess Meeting got its start thanks to the US-Soviet rivalry. In 1972, the already legendary Bobby Fischer was set to play Boris Spassky in what would later become known as the Match of the Century. The Dortmund Public Affairs officer, alongside the City Manager, worked feverishly on their bid to host that game. They intended to bill it as the ultimate East-West face-off, in tune with the military tensions of the day. Their plan fell through but the idea of hosting a prestigious chess tournament didn't. To this day, Dortmund is among the elite chess events in the world. What about that East-West rivalry, then? Unfortunately, from the military perspective, it's heating up again. However, there's no disputing which country's culture is more imbued with chess. Hands down, it's Russia. Now, learn everything you need to know about the grandmasters of chess.
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