Grandmaster vs. International Master – What’s the Difference?

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With so many people new to chess due to the Queen’s Gambit effect, it can be a bit difficult getting straight all the chess terminology. Grandmaster, International Master, tournament norms… What is all of that?

In this post, we’re answering all your questions.

The Absolute Basics: What’s a Grandmaster? What’s an International Master?

Grandmaster is the highest title in the chess world, and achieving it is the most prestigious recognition to a chess player’s strength.

Sure, World Champion has a nicer ring to it, but only one person at a time can get it.

The Grandmaster title is awarded to anyone who meets the qualification criteria, so there’s no restriction to becoming Grandmaster other than playing strength.

International Master is the title immediately below that of Grandmaster. These titles are for life.

Highlighted course

Grandmaster Gambits: 1. e4 - Part 1

History of the Grandmaster Title

During the 1914 Saint Petersburg super tournament, Russian Tsar Nicholas II declared the five finalists as chess Grandmasters (Emmanuel Lasker, Jose Raul Capablanca, Alexander Alekhine, Siegbert Tarrasch, and Frank Marshall).

It was a symbolic event, but the term stayed within the chess community informally to refer to outstanding players, usually after an international tournament victory.

In 1950, FIDE – French acronym for World Chess Federation, the international chess governing body – established the modern international title system, and the qualifying criteria for earning them.

In ascending order, the system is: FIDE Master (FM), International Master (IM), and Grandmaster (GM),

Difference between the Grandmaster Title and International Master Title

The difference between both titles lies in the difficulty of meeting their requirements: earning the GM title is far more difficult than the IM title. Thus, there are far more IMs than GMs in the world.

Usually, a player earns the International Master when he/she has had a live rating of at least 2400 Elo at any point of their career, and achieves 3 IM norms.

Considerably harder is achieving 3 GM norms and a live rating of at least 2500 Elo, the qualifying criteria for the title of Grandmaster.

What Are Ratings and Norms?

International chess ratings are measured by the Elo system. Created by the Hungarian-American mathematician Arpad Elo, this system establishes the expected result from a game between two rated players, and varies according to the actual result.

A GM norm is achieved when a player scores a 2600 rating performance in a tournament (a result such that a 2600 rated player’s rating wouldn’t vary) against at least a 2380 rating average opposition (the average rating of their opponents).

More conditions have to be met to make a norm valid, such as scoring the result throughout no less than nine games, facing a minimum number of GMs and titled players, and facing opponents from at least three different federations, amongst some others.

On top of requiring an outstanding tournament performance, these little details make attaining norms very difficult.

IM norms differ mainly in that the requirements are lower: at least a 2450 rating performance against a 2230 average opposition. Equally, there are similar details concerning the amount of titled players and federations one has to face, that validate IM norms.

Some Facts about the Titles

  • The requirements for any chess titles can be fulfilled in any order, within any time span. It’s not necessary to have the required rating at the moment of achieving the norms. Similarly, surpassing the amount of norms doesn’t compensate for the rating requirements.
  • Usually, a player would become an IM, and then chase the GM title. However, there is no obligation to follow this progression. A player who fulfills all the requirements can become a GM without having the IM title.
  • Alternatively, the GM title is conferred automatically (disregarding rating or norms achievement) to the Junior World Champion, the Women’s World Champion, and the Senior World Champion. The IM title too is conferred automatically, upon certain (lower) competitive achievements.
  • FIDE also has awarded an honorific GM title to 31 players for their contribution to chess. In fact, the popular Youtuber Agadmator has a campaign for FIDE to award the honorific GM title to Rashid Nezhmetdinov. There is no distinction between honorary Grandmasters and ‘full Grandmasters’.
  • Over 1950 people have earned the GM title since 1950. The amount of active IMs (players who have competed in official tournaments within the last two years) in 2021 was close to 4000.
  • Women’s chess has a similar titles system (WFM, WIM, and WGM) which require lower conditions than their ‘absolute’ counterparts. Due to women’s reduced participation in professional chess, far fewer are titled: only 317 WGM and 839 WIM. However, women can also become an IM or GM upon achieving the qualifying criteria for those titles. Only 39 women have achieved the GM title. World Champion Nona Gaprindashvili was the first one to do so in 1978, and eighteen have done it since 2010.
  • FIDE can strip a player of their title in the event of a proven cheating incident, which last happened in 2019.
  • Chessable power user Abhimanyu Mishra is the youngest person in achieving both the IM title and the GM title. He became an IM in November 2019, aged 10 years, 9 months and 20 days, beating Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa’s by a full month. In June 2021, he became a GM aged 12 years, 4 months, and 25 days, beating Sergey Karjakin’s record by 65 days.

For an interesting and instructive course on one player’s journey from newbie to International Master, check out the Chessable course How I Became an International Master by IM Alan-Safar Ramoutar.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Is Grandmaster better than International Master?

Yes. Grandmaster -formerly known as International Grandmaster too- is the highest title FIDE awards. International Master is the title before Grandmaster.

2. What is the difference between an international master and a grandmaster?

The difference between both titles lies in the requisites. To qualify for the title of International Master, -usually- a player must reach the 2400 rating mark at least once, and accomplish three IM norms. To qualify for the title of Grandmaster, a player must reach the 2500 rating mark at least once, and accomplish three GM norms (see above for more details on norms). There are shortcuts to both titles, such as winning local competitions by age and honorific titles awarded by FIDE (see above for more details).

3. Can an International Master become a Grandmaster?

Yes. International Masters, FIDE Master, and untitled players can become Grandmasters by fulfilling the GM qualifying criteria. It seldom happens that a player leapfrogs the natural progression of international titles, but there is no law against it.

4. How many international grandmasters are there?

Currently, there are about 1300 living Grandmasters in the world (not all of them competing actively). Since 1950, FIDE has awarded the GM title to about 2000 people.

Highlighted course

Grandmaster Gambits 1. e4 - Part 2: Aggressive Lines

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