Salo Flohr on Grandmaster Title
Two Grandmasters featured in this story - Salo Flohr and Mikhail Botvinnik (Amsterdam, December 1963) © Wikimedia Commons

Salo Flohr on Grandmaster Title

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The Chess Grandmaster title has a long and rather confusing history. There is a popular legend that it was first established by Tsar Nicholas II at St. Petersburg 1914 tournament - a theory that has been since debunked by chess historian Edward Winter. It seems that Tsar Nicholas story first appeared in early 1940s in the American publications, including a popular book by Frank Marshall, "My 50 Years in Chess".

As late as 1930s the Grandmaster title was still a very loose designation, which had almost no formal definition and was often a matter of self-declaration. For example, in mid-1930s the Soviet newspaper "64" reported on the arrival of Grandmaster Lajos Steiner to Moscow. It was still early days of the Soviet chess, before it became the most dominant force in the world. In those days all foreign masters were still treated with reverence. However, Steiner's results in the exhibition games and simultaneous exhibitions were not exactly impressive, and in the subsequent years he was no longer referred to in the Soviet press as a Grandmaster. Many years later, in 1950 Steiner would be awarded International Master by FIDE but he would never be formally recognized as a Grandmaster.

No wonder that there was a lot of debate as to who was and was not a true Grandmaster. While browsing the archives of "64" newspaper, I came across an article on this topic that was written by Salo Flohr. It provides a great perspective on what Grandmaster title meant at the time, and so I decided to translate it into English and publish it here. Enjoy!

"On Grandmaster Title", by Salo Flohr

(published in “64” – chess and checkers newspaper, #31, 5 June 1937)

Many chess players are asking themselves the following question: how and when does one obtain the title of Grandmaster?

One must say that there is no exact definition of this title. As far as I know, it was first introduced by Dr. Tarrasch in pre-[First World] war years. Grandmaster is the master who has won the first place in an international tournament at least once.

But who bestows this high title? No one, it happens absolutely automatically. The first international chess unions appeared only in 1922-23. Since then the number of grandmasters is increasing, but officially no one awards this title. Obviously, the initial idea was that only a winner of a very strong international tournament gets this title. However, the definition of the terms “very strong” or “strong” are relative.

In the Western Europe the ranks of grandmasters are growing excessively from one tournament to the next. Moreover, certain masters order business cards with the golden frame and “Schachgrossmesiter” in large font upon winning the first prize for the first time in their life, and after that rest on their dubious laurels without bothering themselves for any further difficult chess battles. For example, Grünfeld started to call himself a grandmaster after a less than convincing victory in Meran. Dr. Bernstein hardly ever won a first prize in the international tournaments. Prof. Vidmar had the right to call himself a grandmaster only a tournament in Sliač 1932, when he was already almost 50 years old. As for Eliskases I could not recall how he “sneaked” into grandmasters, no matter how long and hard I tried to wrap my head around it. Finally (this sounds almost comical), Dr. Euwe, a fine tournament warrior, has never finished first at international tournaments, except for Hastings 1930, where he finished above Capablanca. Hence Dr. Euwe is not really a grandmaster but “only”... a World Champion.

By the way, I would also point out that in the Western Europe there are too many “small masters”.

For example, in Czechoslovakia there are no less than 25 (!) masters for the population of 14 million. In Hungary and Austria, the annual “premier tournaments” (“Hauptturnier”) produce new masters, whose names hardly anyone ever remembers.

Only the USSR follows a strict approach to the awarding the master title. Not counting Botvinnik, there are 30 masters for the population of 170 million. It is an exceptionally small percentage, compared to the number of qualified chess players. And this is in a country, where the chess culture is the most advanced in the world, where the Soviet nations constantly produce new talents, who receive great education both theoretically and practically. I would even venture an opinion that the Soviet chess organization treats the matter of awarding master titles too strictly.

If USSR had 200 masters, the Western Europe would not be surprised and would consider this quite appropriate. The difference in strength between the average Soviet master and a good 1st category player is negligible, and one can never be certain that master would necessarily win against the 1st category player. The average 1st category player from Moscow or Leningrad would definitely have a master title in any country of the Western Europe.

But let us return to grandmasters. Does this title carry special significance? I believe that it does not, if one considers the current state of affairs. In the chess world there is only one high title, which every chess player dreams about – World Champion. This much is clear. There is another respected title – the champion of USSR, the best chess player of the country, which boasts more organized chess players than in all other countries of the world combined. The winner of this title immediately attracts the attention of the whole chess world.

During my stay in Moscow, I read in the newspapers that Grigory Levenfish would be awarded the Grandmaster title if he draws the match with M. M. Botvinnik. I believe that Levenfish already deserves to be awarded Grandmaster title thanks to his outstanding achievement in the 10th USSR Chess Championship in Tbilisi, since the rank of its players was on par with that of major international tournaments. Generally speaking, any discussion of the strongest chess players of the world would be incomplete without the name of the USSR Champion. There are many players in the Soviet Union of a Grandmaster caliber, with Levenfish and Ragozin immediately coming to mind.

In my opinion, the Soviet chess organization is too modest and demanding in awarding the Grandmaster title only to M. M. Botvinnik, an indisputable World Championship candidate.

Levenfish famously drew the match with Botvinnik and thus also obtained the Soviet Grandmaster title. Alas, it was his "swan song". Levenfish was already 48 years old at the time and his results quickly deteriorated in later years. However, he still commanded respect and continued to work as a coach and as a chess writer.

As for the Grandmaster title itself, it was finally formalized by FIDE after the Second World War. In the beginning, grandmasters were few and far between. It was the most exclusive, almost "Hall of Fame" club, with only a handful of people awarded this coveted title each year.

By the way, all three protagonists of this story - Salo Flohr, Mikhail Botvinnik and Grigory Levenfish - were among the first 27 people to be officially declared as International Grandmasters by FIDE in 1950.

Curiously, all of the players that Salo Flohr mentioned in his 1937 article were eventually recognized by FIDE as International Grandmasters, even those whom he considered to have a questionable claim to the grandmaster title.

Flohr himself, Mikhail Botvinnik, Max Euwe, Grigory Levenfish, Osip Bernstein, Ernst Grünfeld, Vyacheslav Ragozin and Milan Vidmar all made it onto the original 1950 list, and it took Erich Eliskases only two more years to join them in the ranks of International Grandmasters.