Chess titles can be pretty confusing, especially since they can vary depending on the organization that is granting them. Here's an idea of what it means to be a master, a grandmaster, or any of the other important titles that can be bestowed on strong players.
Expert and Class Titles
Many players will refer to themselves as being a "Class A," "Class C," or "Expert" chess player. These titles are based entirely on ratings, and are, for the most part, very informal. Most players refer to the title that their current rating belongs in, although some (particularly those that once reached the Expert level) will refer to themselves by their peak class. These class titles are usually considered to correspond to the following rating ranges:
- Expert: 2000-2199
- Class A: 1800-1999
- Class B: 1600-1799
- Class C: 1400-1599
- Class D: 1200-1399
- Class E: 1000-1199
The USCF now also offers "norm-based" classes, which are granted based on tournament performances as a sort of lifetime achievement recognition. We'll come back to this sort of system when we talk about the higher FIDE titles that can be awarded.
National Master Titles
Master titles are often awarded by national chess federations as a way of honoring the strongest players in their country. For instance, the USCF awards the National Master title to any player who reaches an established rating of 2200; an additional Senior Master designation is awarded to any player who reaches the 2400 level.
Unlike the lower "titles," it is usually considered perfectly acceptable for a player to refer to themselves as a master if they ever held a master title. In addition, the USCF also has the Life Master title, which is granted only to players who have held a rating of 2200 or greater for at least 300 USCF-rated games.
The most prestigious titles are granted by FIDE, the World Chess Federation. These titles require high FIDE ratings, and the highest titles also require strong performances in tournaments against other elite players. Once granted, FIDE titles are not taken away from players, even if their performance drops. The FIDE titles and their requirements are as follows:
Candidate Master: This title is awarded to any player with an established FIDE rating of 2200 or higher. This is the least prestigious title awarded by FIDE.
FIDE Master (FM): The FIDE Master title is awarded to any player who establishes a FIDE rating of at least 2300. Many international junior tournaments also award the FIDE title to winners; for instance, one may earn the FM title by winning a section at the Pan-Am Youth Games, even if they do not meet the rating requirement.
International Master (IM): In order to earn the IM title, a player must normally have an established FIDE rating of 2400. However, players must also prove their strength by having sufficiently strong results in (normally) three tournaments against very strong competition. Like the FM title, however, there are potential shortcuts to winning the IM title, such as by being the runner up at the World Junior Championship.
Grandmaster (GM): The GM title is the most difficult title to earn for any chess player. In order to become a grandmaster, a player must establish a FIDE rating of at least 2500. In addition, they must go through the same norms process required of an IM, but with a higher standard required to achieve each norm. Only a few tournaments award a GM title outside of this system; winning the World Junior Championship or the World Senior Championship are two ways in which a player might earn the GM title despite not otherwise qualifying for it.
FIDE also awards a number of titles that are exclusively awarded to female players. These titles are somewhat controversial; while most contend that they help promote top female players and award their achievement, others argue that the titles are demeaning and unnecessary, as women can (and do) reach the levels of achievement necessary to earn the normal FIDE titles. In fact, most of the top female players in the world are now grandmasters. However, the women's titles have lower standards required for achieving them, so more female players have the women's titles than the corresponding "proper" title. The female titles are as follows:
- Woman Candidate Master (WCM)
- Woman FIDE Master (WFM)
- Woman International Master (WIM)
- Woman Grandmaster (WGM): This title is approximately equivalent to the overall IM title, and players who qualify as both may choose to identify themselves with either of the two titles.