Monday, 14 May 2007

Soft Titles

Hand in hand with the Oceania Zonal (either this years or previous ones) is the debate about "soft" titles. Under current FIDE regulations players that score 66% or above are eligible for an IM (International Master) title, while players that score 50% or above are eligible for an FM (FIDE Master) title.
However, since Zonals moved from being exclusively Round Robin to big open swisses, there were a couple of instances where large numbers of titles were awarded. Not just in Oceania (which is the example most often quoted), but also in a Central American Zonal. Consequently FIDE regulations only allow the awarding of 1 IM title, and 2 FM titles per Zonal. But even under these restricted conditions there is still a debate about whether the IM/FM title is being devalued.
So to my thoughts ....
This debate is only occasionally about the IM title. This is because by and large, the players who have earned their IM titles at the Oceania Zonal have gone on to, or already were, that strength. In the case of young Australian IM's David Smerdon and Zong-Yuan Zhao, both earned their titles at Zonal's, both played Olympiad chess for Australia, and both have GM norms under their belts Smerdon has 2 GM norms under his belt, and both will probably earn the GM title in the near future.
It is the FM title that seems to generate the most discussion. This is because there appears to be a division between "real" FM's and "zonal" FM's. The "real" FM earned their title the hard way, ie by getting their rating over 2300, while the "zonal" FM picked up their title due to FIDE watering down the title regulations in an effort to generate more cash. And the "real" FM's resent having to share the title. Or at least that is how it seems to me.
However, this description doesn't cover everything.
Way back when (prior to the late 70's), the FM title was a norm based title, earned in the same way as the IM and GM title. But in the late 70's FIDE decided to change the way titles were earned, in part due to the perception that it was too easy to get an IM or GM title. So they increased the performance ratings required for IM and GM norms. But at the same time they changed the rules for an FM title to make it a ratings based, rather than performance based, title. It was still hard to earn, but easier than it had been previously, especially if FIDE ratings inflation is taken into account.
By the early 80's it also suited FIDE to make it easier to earn titles, especially FM titles, as a way of spreading the reach of chess into "non-traditional" areas such as Africa and Asia. This also extended to the ratings system as players could earn FIDE ratings by scoring 50% in Olympiads, Asian Cities etc etc
I suspect the increased spread of FM titles isn't the real money maker that people suppose, as payment to FIDE is a one off, and then you have the title for life. Instead the real money maker is the number of players on the rating list, and awarding of titles was more a way of improving the standing of chess in that country, and consequently getting more players onto the ratings list.
Over the years FIDE have made it easier to earn the FM title, which is now held by an estimated 4,700 players around the world. And while this has suited FIDE's globalist agenda, it has devalued the title.
Having said that, different players seem to attach different values to the title anyway. In the early 90's the Doeberl Cup (of which I was an organiser), decided to extend discounts to FIDE Masters. IM' and GM's received free entry, while FM's entered for half price. This was motivated by a discussion I had had with FM Craig Laird about what recognition FM's received compared to other titled players. So we tried it for a few years in the hope that FM's would feel rewarded and play. In fact they didn't. There was no increase in the number of FM's entering after the scheme was introduced, and around the time of the 1998 Oceania Zonal when a whole raft of "zonal" FM's were created, we dropped the idea. Also a number of players who were eligible for the title didn't bother to apply, on the grounds that it wasn't a "real" title.
At the time I wrote an editorial for "Australian Chess Forum" lamenting the cheapening of the title, especially the effect it had on titles earned by Eddy Levi or Max Fuller. And I still stick with this position.
Nonetheless I feel the major opponents of "cheap" FM titles are doing it out of a belief that the "FM club" should be an exclusive club, for themselves and other strong players, possibly ignoring the fact that even when they earned the title it had become even easier than for the previous generation.

Now for my own disclaimer. At the Bled FIDE Congress (2002), FIDE changed the rules for the FM title. Players who scored 66% or above in future olympiads (2004 onward) would be awarded the FM title. Now I happened to score 6/9 at the Bled Olympiad (playing for PNG). So my timing was out in terms of earning the title. In the 2004 Olympiad I managed to score 0/14 (you can look up those reasons yourself), while in Turin I again fell short.
However at the Turin Congress the Titles commission ruled on a couple of FM applications for results prior to 2004 and decided to accept them. Commision member Stewart Rueben then told me that all Olympiad results back to 1976 are now eligible for consideration re FM titles, so apparently my Bled result counts. However this change has yet to make it into the FIDE hand book, so I am holding off on my application. And to be honest I have considered not applying, but in watching the debate about "cheap" titles I have seen how precious some people consider "their" FM title. So I figure that if such a title is so valuable I'd be a fool not to grab one for myself.


Pax said...

Does Zhao actually have any GM norms?

Shaun Press said...

Actually no. When I wrote the post I was thinking of Zhao's performance at this years Australian Open, which would have likely been a GM norm if any of the other Australian IM's had bothered to play.
I'll correct the entry if I can work out how to do those fancy "strike out" letters.

Pax said...

It's the sort of result that FIDE would have bent the rules for in the past. But I don't know if they do that sort of thing anymore.