From page 132 of the Oxford Companion to Chess by D. Hooper and K. Whyld (Oxford, 1984), in the entry on ‘Grandmaster’:
‘A correspondent writing to Bell’s Life 18 Feb. 1838 refers to Lewis as “our past grand master”, probably the first use of this term in connection with chess.’
In an article on page 19 of the March 1989 CHESS Nigel Davies writes:
‘The original grandmasters, however, were created by the Tsar at the great St Petersburg tournament of 1914. They were Lasker, Capablanca, Alekhine, Marshall and Rubinstein, arguably the five best players of the day, and of whom three held the world championship at one time or another.’
For Rubinstein read Tarrasch; A.K.R. came nowhere in the St Petersburg tournament. The Tsar’s conferment of the five Grandmaster titles is a recurrent story in historical works, but what proof of it is there in Russian literature of the time?
Louis Blair (Knoxville, TN, USA) believes that the source of the Tsar story is almost certainly page 21 of Marshall’s My Fifty Years of Chess (New York and Philadelphia, 1942), a book in which Fred Reinfeld is known to have played an extensive role. Our correspondent quotes a passage (referring to the period of the St Petersburg, 1914 tournament) from page 198 of Nicholas II by Dominic Lieven (New York, 1993):
‘The imperial family spent April and May 1914 in the Crimea. The Council of Ministers no longer had an effective chairman, but the monarch was hundreds of miles from his capital with communications passing by post and courier.’
We note that both the Wiener Schachzeitung and the Deutsche Schachzeitung were using the term ‘grandmaster (Großmeister) tournament’ to describe St Petersburg, 1914 before the event began.
Page 28 of the January 1914 Deutsche Schachzeitung called Capablanca ‘der kubanische Großmeister’. (This news item also reported that in a simultaneous display at St Petersburg, in 1913, a draw had been scored by a ten-year old, Prince Gedroiz, who was ‘the son of a lord-in-waiting of the Imperial Court’.)
Page 119 of the second volume of Complete Games of Alekhine by V. Fiala and J. Kalendovský (Olomouc, 1996) offers a strange twist to the question of whether Tsar Nicholas II conferred the title of ‘grandmaster’ on the finalists of the St Petersburg, 1914 tournament. The book quotes an interview with Alekhine in El Debate of 28 May 1922. Asked whether he had started to play chess at a very early age, he replied:
‘I have played chess since the age of seven and when I was 14 I was named a master by the Tsar himself when I won the national tournament in St Petersburg.’
For 14 read 16. The event in question was the St Petersburg, 1909 All-Russian tournament, but is there any more evidence of the Tsar’s involvement in that event than there is, at present, concerning St Petersburg, 1914?
On page 265 of Chess Digest Magazine, December 1974 Larry Evans, a chess writer not famed for accuracy, stated: ‘Czar Nicholas I coined the title of “Grandmaster” when he sponsored the great St Petersburg tournament in 1914.’ Nicholas I lived from 1796 to 1855.
With regard to the origin of the term ‘grandmaster’, Znosko-Borovsky dealt with the issue extensively on pages 221-222 of the November 1925 L’Echiquier. His conclusion was that the title was over-used:
‘In truth, the only players whom we should consider grandmasters are Capablanca, Alekhine, Lasker, perhaps Marshall (if we wish to forget his misfortunes in match play) and, on account of their former successes, Tarrasch and Rubinstein. All the others should be regarded as plain masters.’
In C.N. 2080 a correspondent suggested that the story about the grandmaster title being conferred by Tsar Nicholas II at St Petersburg, 1914 probably originated with Marshall’s 1942 book My Fifty Years of Chess. We have now found, however, a slightly earlier occurrence. In an article ‘Things I Never Knew’ on page 149 of Chess Review, October 1940 Fred Reinfeld quoted the following passage from an article by Robert Lewis Taylor in The New Yorker of 15 June 1940:
‘[A grandmaster] is a master who has either won, placed, or showed in a major tournament or been named a Grand Master by Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. The Tsar, it seems, was a rather arbitrary chess fan who enjoyed watching matches, and when he saw a player he liked the looks of, he just slapped the title on him.’
Given Reinfeld’s involvement in Marshall’s autobiography, it may be wondered how the Nicholas II story found its way into the book.
The Chess Review article shows that on his day Reinfeld could be scathing:
‘The author is one Robert Lewis Taylor, whom The New Yorker describes (with unnecessarily brutal frankness) as A Reporter at Large. Mr Taylor’s style is compounded of breathless inanities smothered in pixillated whimsy. What matter-of-fact detail he presents is vitiated by a slick and phony innocence which forever seems to be saying, “Terribly quaint, my deah!” One’s irritation is increased by the numerous errors which are liberally strewn over every page. Presumably it is a sign of sophistication to hash up even the simplest set of facts, and such elementary accuracy as might be found in the Penmanship lesson of a 1A class is beyond the powers of A Reporter at Large.’
Books continue to claim, without substantiation, that the title of ‘grandmaster’ was first conferred by Tsar Nicholas II at St Petersburg, 1914. The matter was discussed on pages 315-316 of Kings, Commoners and Knaves and pages 177-178 of A Chess Omnibus, and we have still found no earlier occurrence of the story than in an article by Robert Lewis Taylor in The New Yorker, 15 June 1940.
To pose a broader question: do 1914 sources contain references to Tsar Nicholas II in connection with any aspect of the St Petersburg tournament?
Raymond Keene, naturally enough, has continued to spread the Tsar Nicholas II story. It appeared twice in his unspeakably awful book The Official Biography of Tony Buzan (Croydon, 2013), on pages 137 and 415:
‘Chess, of course, was the template for royal endorsement of the Grandmaster title, when Czar Nicholas II conferred the original chess Grandmaster titles on Lasker, Capablanca, Alekhine Tarrasch and Marshall at St Petersburg in 1914.’
‘In 1995, paying homage to the initial award of the chess Grandmaster title by Tzar Nicholas II, the Mind Sport of Memory was granted Royal patronage by Prince Philip of Liechtenstein.’
P.W. Sergeant wrote a general historical article about the use of titles on pages 72-73 of the third issue of Chess Pie (1936).
Below is an extract from an editorial on page 169 of the June 1946 BCM:
‘Of late years a new custom has crept into chess life, a custom which is not altogether desirable, if we look upon chess as an art.
We refer to the custom of giving chessplayers various and rather high-sounding titles. For the best part of a century we were satisfied with the denominations of amateurs and masters, the master being either a front rank professional or an amateur able to hold his own in the best company. Comparatively recently we have heard of candidates for mastership, masters and grandmasters.
In art there is really no call for titles. The artist himself creates his own title by the lustre his achievements give to his name, and nobody will contend that the title “Grandmaster” is an adornment to the name of Botvinnik. It is rather the other way about. We are becoming blinded to the absurdity of it all, but it would become clear to many if they tried to say “Grandmaster Morphy”.’
On page 202 of the July 1955 Chess Review Ossip Bernstein wrote, after referring to the ‘grandmaster tourney at St Petersburg’ in 1895-96:
‘The title Grandmaster was as yet unknown, but the idea was widely understood. The title, Grandmaster, was introduced in the international tourney at Ostend in 1907, in which I shared first prize with Akiba Rubinstein. I should have contested a match for this title – but the match never took place.’
(A Chess Omnibus, page 178)
From page 32 of the February 1943 BCM:
‘Vasily Smyslov is a student at the Moscow Aircraft Institute, and is 21 years old. Nevertheless he has earned a place among the six chess grand-masters of the Soviet Union. … Great maturity, level headedness and confidence mark Smyslov’s playing in spite of his youth, and many of his admirers predict that he will be a candidate for the world championship.’
‘What is a chess master player? What is the difference between a “master” and a “grand master”? About what date may we anticipate the advent of the “great grand master”? These are the conundrums of the moment for the amusement of any detached spectator of the chess world.
Time was when there were no masters. There were plenty of woodshifters (as now), and a few good players of varying strengths (as now). But this must have been in a pre-historic era; even As-Suli has a boast about his mastership. Having invented the stupid term “master” (thrice stupid – untrue, unnecessary, unholy in its commercialism) the few good players temporarily basked in a complacent glow of superiority.
Unhappy men! Fools! Were they permitted to enjoy their superiority undisturbed? Not on your life! By this path, and that snicket, and yonder ginnel, crept woodshifter after woodshifter into the sacred circle. With no precise definitions, interpreted by Babel in as many ways as the tongues of Europe, a flood of mediocrity has swamped the realm of “masters” thoroughly and efficiently as commercialism must ever swamp mere merit.
The few good players of the age have realized that “master” is a ruined term. In self-defence someone has invented “grand master” as a new mark. Futile endeavour – at the present rate of production of “grand masters” it is a calculable distance to their successors, the “great grands”.
Is there not here, again, work for the FIDE?’
The above is an article by ‘Theta’ on page 129 of the Chess Amateur, February 1926.
Little-known nineteenth-century occurrences of the term ‘grandmaster’ are always welcome. Robert John McCrary (Columbia, SC, USA) forwards one from page 324 of the Chess Player’s Chronicle, 1854:
‘Many a player can conduct a game without the board coolly and steadily, but who, save De la Bourdonnais, under such circumstances, invented attacks profound in conception, brilliant in execution, and enduring upon analysis? Who but the Chess Grand-Master could have contested a game without the board against a player like Boncourt, with the remotest chance of success?’
The following item, submitted by John Blackstone (Las Vegas, NV, USA), was written by Gunsberg on page 6 of The World, 16 January 1891:
On pages 297-298 of the October 1968 BCM D.J. Morgan noted Bernstein’s remark about Ostend, 1907 (see above) and added:
‘The following note comes to us via the Illinois Chess Bulletin, May 1968. George Tiers, the editor of the Minnesota Chess Journal, has found this reference in the chess column of the Winona Republican of 8 September 1858 to “our ancient ‘Chess Grandmaster’ Philidor”. Furthermore, George Walker, in his New Treatise of 1841 (page 109) wrote of the famous Frenchman as “our Chess-grandmaster”.’
Following publication of the first edition of the Oxford Companion to Chess by David Hooper and Kenneth Whyld (Oxford, 1984), C.N. 848 quoted from the entry on ‘Grandmaster’ (page 132):
‘A correspondent writing to Bell’s Life 18 Feb. 1838 refers to Lewis as “our past grand master”, probably the first use of this term in connection with chess.’
On page 156 of the second edition of the Companion (Oxford, 1992) ‘grand master’ was changed, incorrectly, to ‘grandmaster’.
Olimpiu G. Urcan (Singapore) provides the full letter, from page 4 of the 18 February 1838 issue of Bell’s Life and Sporting Chronicle, contributed by ‘Un vieux moustache, The Wigwam, Carisbrooke’:
The relevant passage:
‘I have heard and smiled much about this graduated scale of Chess talent. Cannot we venture to draw some indistinct sketch of Chess precedence. I believe there are only three forms, and then follows the motley group of aspirants. Let us first place our past grand master, Lewis, on the platform of exclusive privilege, and behold him lifting up his hands with that unaffected courtesy so peculiarly his own – let us fancy him, I say, in this exhorting posture, beseeching the three forms below to abhor all rancorous and jealous feeling; and that, although they can never reach his distinguished eminence, yet they possessed merit of no common order, and were eligible for high consideration.’
William Lewis (detail from opposite page 197 of the New York, 1859 edition of F.M. Edge’s book on Morphy)
There have come to light no pre-1838 occurrences of the term
‘grand master’ or ‘grandmaster’ in a chess context, or any
pre-1984 mentions of the Bell’s Life citation. The Companion
should thus continue to receive full credit for a significant
discovery, and no honest writer would hesitate to give such
Under the title ‘Grandmasterly research’ Raymond Keene wrote on page 5 of The Times, 7 November 1994 about claims that the grandmaster title was created by Tsar Nicholas II at St Petersburg, 1914, and he then added:
‘Following up a clue from the Oxford Companion to Chess, Barry Martin, chess captain of the Chelsea Arts Club, has now demonstrated that the term is considerably older.
Martin’s research shows that in Bells Life [sic], a popular Sunday paper, of February 18, 1838, a leading British player, William Lewis, is referred to as “our past grandmaster” [sic]. Here is a sample of play by the man whom the latest research indicates to have been the first player described as a grandmaster in print.’
Barry Martin had not demonstrated or researched anything. In an article about Staunton in the October 1994 CHESS he had merely given the Bell’s Life quote about Lewis (see page 34), without bothering to acknowledge that it had been published by the Companion a decade previously. Nor was the Companion credited when Martin’s article was reproduced on pages 191-201 of Staunton’s City by Raymond Keene and Barry Martin (Aylesbeare, 2004).
It is also worth dwelling on Keene’s deceitful introductory words in The Times:
‘Following up a clue from the Oxford Companion to Chess, Barry Martin ... has now demonstrated ...’
The Companion did not supply ‘a clue’. It supplied the exact relevant text supported by a precisely dated reference.
Worse was to follow. On page 100 of The Spectator, 4 July 1998 Keene made no mention of the Companion and affirmed flatly:
‘Lewis, according to research by Barry Martin, the secretary of the Staunton Society, was the first player to be described as a grandmaster.’
In a report on the 11th Capablanca Memorial Tournament in Camagüey on page 196 of the April 1974 CHESS David Levy stated that Guillermo García ...
‘... had the satisfaction ... of beating three grand masters and he left no doubt that he will be Cuba’s first GM.’
That occasioned a reaction on page 79 of the December 1974 CHESS:
The prediction about Guillermo García proved wrong (he became a grandmaster in 1976, the year after Silvino García), but the matter came back to mind when we saw page 9 of the 8/2013 New in Chess. A reader, John DiLucci of Irving, TX, USA, condemned the statement (‘so ridiculous that it is beyond comprehension’) from page 36 of the 6/2013 issue that ‘in 1975 Cuba’s first grandmaster Silvino García dedicated his title to Che’. Mr DiLucci wondered whether the author of the offending article on Che Guevara (Adam Feinstein) and the New in Chess editorial staff could be ‘so uneducated ’ as to be unaware of Capablanca.
The letter was deemed easy to rebut and, therefore, printworthy, and in the 8/2013 New in Chess about 40 lines were made available for the ‘discussion’, which included the editorial response that Capablanca was never ‘officially’ a grandmaster, given that he died some years before FIDE introduced the title (a perfectly defensible argument).
In fact, though, Mr DiLucci had merely been reacting to a pull-out quote in the 6/2013 issue, and neither he nor the editorial staff apparently realized that on the previous page of Adam Feinstein’s article (i.e. page 35) Capablanca was specifically mentioned:
‘... Silvino García, who in 1975 had fulfilled Guevara’s prophesy [sic] by becoming Cuba’s first grandmaster since the death of Capablanca in 1942.’
Mark Hoffman (Leipsic, OH, USA) asks whether it is possible to name about half-a-dozen players who gained the grandmaster title for over-the-board play at a relatively advanced age. Moreover, from such a list can it be determined who achieved the title the fastest and from the lowest starting-point in terms of playing strength?
Paul Dorion (Montreal, Canada) notes two players who achieved the grandmaster title in their mid-40s: Vasja Pirc (born 1907) in 1953, and Albéric O’Kelly de Galway (born 1911) in 1956.
From Martin Weissenberg (Savyon, Israel):
‘Several players received the grandmaster title when in their 50s, including Julio Bolbochán (born 1920) in 1977 and Gösta Stoltz (born 1904) in 1954. Slightly younger title-holders: Isaac Kashdan (born 1905) became a grandmaster in 1954 and Raúl Sanguineti (born 1933) in 1982. Carlos Torre (born 1904 or 1905) was awarded the title in 1977, over half a century after almost completely retiring from competitive chess.
Not included on this list are honorary title-holders such as George Koltanowski, Esteban Canal, Erik Lundin and Vladas Mikėnas, who were granted the title when in their 80s or late 70s. Similarly, the group of veteran players Jacques Mieses, Géza Maróczy, Akiba Rubinstein, Ossip Bernstein, Oldřich Důras, Milan Vidmar, Boris Kostić, Savielly Tartakower, Grigory Levenfish, Ernst Grünfeld and Friedrich Sämisch, who were awarded the grandmaster title en bloc by FIDE in 1950 in recognition of their past achievements. Another old-timer, Efim Bogoljubow, who belonged to the same group of players, received the title the following year, the delay being for political reasons.’
After the general topic of the ‘oldest grandmaster’ was raised in C.N. 6146, Andrew Bull (Cheltenham, England) referred in C.N. 6155 to Tim Krabbé’s ‘Open Chess Diary’ (item 193), where it was noted that Jānis Klovāns (born 1935) became a grandmaster in 1997 by winning the world senior championship. Mr Bull added the case of Valery Grechihin (born 1937), who gained the title in 1998, and he now mentions Leif Øgaard (born 1952) in 2007 and Mark Tseitlin (born 1943) in 1997, as well as world senior champions (e.g. Yuri Shabanov, Larry Kaufman and Vladimir Okhotnik) who, by winning that championship, received the grandmaster title when over 60.
Morten Fabrin (Viborg, Denmark) adds that Jens Kristiansen (born 1952) became a grandmaster by winning the World Senior Championship in 2012.
Chapter XI (pages 53-56) of Lessons from My Games by Reuben Fine (New York, 1958) was entitled ‘I Become a Grand Master’, and on page 53 he reiterated a claim already made on page xv: that as a result of winning Hastings, 1935-36 he ‘was officially a grand master’. What is the factual basis of that statement?
Fine also asserted on page 53 that after his first-round victory over Flohr ‘first prize was never in any doubt’. He annotated the game not only in Lessons from My Games but also on pages 3-4 of the January 1936 American Chess Bulletin and on pages 166-167 of CHESS, 14 January 1936.
Further to the above reference to Tartakower it is worth noting that on the front cover and the title page of Bréviaire des échecs he was described as ‘Grand maître international’:
An illustration of how casually the term ‘grandmaster’ (in this case ‘Großmeister’) was sometimes used is on page 401 of Kagans Neueste Schachnachrichten, December 1929:
Many chess books and articles unquestioningly state that the first five official grandmasters were the finalists at St Petersburg, 1914, and that they received the honour from Tsar Nicholas II. At first sight, there may seem no reason to doubt the story, given what appeared on pages 20-21 of My Fifty Years of Chess by Frank J. Marshall (New York, 1942):
However, complications have been mentioned in C.N. items over the years: the claims that Marshall’s autobiography was ghosted, the failure to discover any pre-1940 version of the story, and the Tsar’s absence from St Petersburg during the 1914 tournament.
Even cumulatively, those points naturally do not suffice to disprove the story about Nicholas II, but they do suggest a verdict of ‘not proven’ and that, at least, the tale should not be repeated without reservation. Alas, few chess writers like expressing reservations or surrendering the opportunity for name-dropping.
No Russian-language sources dating from 1914 have been traced which shed light on the ‘grandmaster title’ affair. Nor has it been possible, so far, to examine the writings (i.e. diaries) of the Tsar himself for the relevant period. We have the Journal intime de Nicolas II (Paris, 1934), but it begins shortly after the St Petersburg, 1914 tournament.
Nor has positive information been found in secondary sources, such as the biographies of the Tsar by Marc Ferro, Dominic Lieven and Edvard Radzinsky.
That Nicholas II had involvement of some kind with St Petersburg, 1914 is shown by a brief paragraph on page 79 of La Stratégie, February 1914:
From page 230 of How To Play Winning Chess by John Saunders (London, 2007):
‘The title of grandmaster first came into frequent use in chess when Tsar Nicholas II conferred it upon the participants of the 1914 St Petersburg chess tournament. The five players – world champion Emanuel Lasker, future champions José Raúl Capablanca and Alexander Alekhine, plus Siegbert Tarrasch and Frank Marshall – were the leading players of their day and fully deserved the honour.’
The same text, with the same photograph of the Tsar, is on page 236 of The Practical Step-by-Step Guide to Chess & Bridge by David Bird and John Saunders (London, 2010) and on page 236 of the same authors’ The Complete Step-by-Step Guide to Chess & Bridge (London, 2015). The chess content of the three books is more or less identical.
As mentioned in C.N. 9317 (see above), the Tsar story lacks proof and should not be repeated without reservation.
The same material about the Tsar appeared on pages 106-107 of another repackaging: Advanced Chess by John Saunders (London, 2009).
From Ola Winfridsson (São Paulo, Brazil):
‘I have browsed through some of the early issues of Tidskrift för Schack (Sweden) for instances of the term “stormästare” (grandmaster) prior to the St Petersburg, 1914 tournament.
On page 141 of the 6/1907 issue the games section began with “Stormästareturneringen i Ostende” (The Grandmaster Tournament in Ostend), and page 50 of the 2/1907 issue had this news item:
“Ostende. Som förut är nämnt skall årets turneringar här börja redan den 15 maj. Turneringsledare blir L. Hoffer. Föreslagna äro: en stormästareturnering med 6 deltagare, 4 omgångar och 10.000 fr i priser samt dessutom 1.200 fr som ersättning för omkostnader; en mästareturnering med 30 deltagare ...” [“Ostend. As previously mentioned, this year’s tournaments will begin as early as 15 May. The tournament director will be L. Hoffer. The following are proposed: a grandmaster tournament with six players, quadruple round-robin ...; a master tournament with 30 participants ...”]
That item also stated:
“Segraren i stormästareturnering skall erhålla titeln ‘Turnier-Champion’ och erhåller som sådan guldmedalj och diplom.” [“The winner of the grandmaster tournament will receive the title ‘Turnier-Champion’ and, as such, receive a gold medal and a diploma.”]
The use of “stormästareturnering” without further explanation suggests that “stormästare” was already a familiar term. I can find no reference in Tidskrift för Schack to Tsar Nicholas II having bestowed the title of Grandmaster on the five participants in the final phase of the St Petersburg, 1914 tournament.’
In his extensive coverage of the Ostend congress in the Field, Hoffer referred to the main event as the ‘Championship Tournament’. The book by the winner, Tarrasch, was entitled Das Champion-Turnier zu Ostende im Jahre 1907 (Leipzig, 1907). Throughout its 1907 coverage, La Stratégie used the term ‘tournoi-championnat’.
See too C.N. 9500, regarding the coverage of the Tsar story in of Players and Pawns by Gary Alan Fine (Chicago and London, 2015).
Information about Tsar Nicholas II and the ‘Grandmaster’ title has yet to be found in Russian sources at the time of the St Petersburg, 1914 tournament, but Dan Scoones (Coquitlam, BC, Canada) notes a Soviet perspective by Lev Travin on pages 4-5 of the 14/1974 issue of 64:
Our correspondent has translated the relevant section, at the start of the article:
‘This international tournament was held in 1914 and featured an outstanding entry. It was organized by the St Petersburg chess circle, which had just moved into a spacious new building at 10 Liteyny Prospekt.
The organizers’ intention was to make it the largest chess event of the day, and it was therefore decided to invite only grandmasters.
At that time, the term “grandmaster” was reserved for players who had gained at least one first prize in a major international tournament. There were very few such players. With the exception of the 77-year-old Winawer, who had retired from tournament chess, there were only two players in Russia who held the title: Akiba Rubinstein of Łódź, and the Moscow lawyer Ossip Bernstein.
The other Russian masters were invited to participate in an event known as the All-Russian tournament, the winner of which would be admitted to the grandmaster tournament ...’
From the Field, 13 March 1909, concerning St Petersburg, 1909:
‘The Czar has generously given an objet d’art and 1,000 roubles in specie towards the prize fund.’
The 20 March 1909 issue of the Field reported:
‘The prizes added by the Czar are not intended, as erroneously stated, for the masters only, but the 1,000 roubles go to the masters, and the objet d’art to the first prize winner of the strong National Tournament. The committee will probably take the equitable step to apportion the 1,000 roubles to all the players pro rata of their scores.’
To the Chess Notes main page.
To the Archives for other feature articles.
Copyright: Edward Winter. All rights reserved.