The Top Ten Chess Players of All Time
Yes I know. Lists are controversial. Nobody agrees and in extreme cases even friendships are broken. I have seen close relatives block themselves on facebook (in modern times AKA: I will never talk to you again) because one of them dared to say Cristiano Ronaldo is better than Messi.
I have also read that it is impossible to compare generations. That the skills evolve. That one was more talented than the other, that if the other one had been born I don’t know where he would be the best of all, If X didn’t drink vodka on breakfast since he was 15 no one would ever beat him and on and on.
Well, lists are personal. So personal that in some of them Maradona is ahead of Pelé. In this case personal and irrational.
I know all that and I will take the risks. Ladies and gentleman, members of the juri, here is my list of the top 10 chess players of all time. Let the criticism begin!
But, before someone starts cursing me about the list, let me clarify: I am only mentioning players that were World Champions of the modern era (starting with Steinitz). That’s why I urge the reader not to ask about Morphy, Philidor, da Vinci, Ruy Lopez, Tutankamon or even that friend of your neighbour who plays “really well”.
I know many will complain about the absence of Mikhail Tal in this list. Indeed , the “Magician of Riga” was a genius and one of the best ever. Actually he is one of my favourite players. But who will go out of this list?
10- Emanuel Lasker
Lasker was the second World Champion, taking the title from Steinitz. A mathematician, philosopher and a friend of Albert Einstein. Until today he is the player who held the crown for the longer period: 27 years (from 1894 until 1921, when he was defeated by Capablanca).
For many he had a “psycological” style of play where he would spot his opponent’s fears and weaknesses. But the truth is that he was a great strategist and one of the best ever.
One of his best games was the magnificent win against Capablanca in the tournament of Saint Petersburg 1914. The concept he showed with the move 12.f5! was really deep and is studied even today by players of all levels.
9- Mikhail Botvinnik
Considered the “Patriarch of Soviet Chess School”, whatever that means.
To many he should be ranked higher in this list, but I believe ninth place is fair enough. His contribution to chess is gigantic, although he was not an active World Champion. But both Karpov and Kasparov studied with him, making his contribution to chess even greater.
His cientific method of analysis and preparation was way above his time.
8- Vladimir Kramnik
Some may debate whether Kramnik can be considered a World Champion. After all he lost, in 1998, the match against Alexey Shirov, who should have been the real contender for the crown.
Ok, the way he qualified for the title match was not fair, since he enden being chosen by the organization, but we can’t deny that he was the only player ever to beat Kasparov in a match. And without losing a single game!
For more than 20 years he has been one of the top 5 players in the world. He has made great contributions to development of the game with hist classical games, usually positional masterpieces. Let’s even forgive him for making the irritating Berlin Defense so popular!
For all those reasons, Kramnik deserves the 8th place in my ranking list. But I know that many will not agree with this. Check out one of his fine wins against Magnus Carlsen.
7- Viswanathan Anand
One of Kramnik’s great rivals, Anand is also on the top 5 for more than two decades. He played a dramatic match against Kasparov in 1995, when the World Champion’s energy and pshycological tricks proved too much for him.
Anand is one of the great “pure” talents of the game. In his youth he could trounce strong grandmasters spending no more than 10 minutes for the whole game.
It’s not hard to presume his strenght in faster time controls, something I could witness when he played a Super Tournament in Brazil in 2004. At least I managed to make a draw in one of my games with him!
Anand took the title from Kramnik convincingly in 2008 and had to bow to the unstoppable power of Magnus Carlsen in 2013.
Once I asked legendary trainer Mark Dvoretsky why his favourite pupil (Yusupov) could not become World Champion. He told me: he was not a genius like Anand.
Vishy still shows his class today, even with a chesswise advanced age (47), fighting on equal terms with the younger generation, as we can see from this brilliant win agains Caruana.
For all those reasons, Vishy Anand deserves the 7th spot in my list.
6- Anatoly Karpov
Karpov was World Champion during 10 years, from 1975 till 1985, when he lost the match to the young Kasparov in a moment that it was not very clear who was the best.
10 among 10 chess fans deplore the fact the match Fischer x Karpov never took place. I had the chance to ask Karpov in person (he visited Brazil many times and I played against him in 3 occasions) who would have won this match. He told me Fischer had about 60% chance to win.
Karpov was cold as ice, with nerves of steel, with an enigmatic style of play. For him the most important was to avoid his opponent’s play. He was the supreme master os prophylaxis. And his play became stronger after he was already World Champion.
5- Magnus Carlsen
It’s very hard to write about someone who is still in his prime, with many brilliant years still ahead. Magnus is just 26 but he already deserves to be considered of the 5 best chess players ever.
Magnus is an extraordinary talent (that’s why he was nickname the “Mozart of Chess”) he astonished the world from an early age, becoming one of the younges grandmasters ever.
Apart all that, I should mention that Magnus revolutionized chess. Before him, top chess was dominated by openings analyzed to the death with the computer, with the vast majority of elite grandmasters studying lines past move 20 (anyone remembers the ridiculous Leko x Kramnik match, when many games ended in a quick draw and modern opening theory was blamed by the players?).
Carlsen showed that chess can – and should – be fought on the board. He almost never win games due to opening preparation and deliberately searches for less theoretical paths.
Can he become the best chess player ever? Only time can tell. Check out here a fine Carlsen win against one of his main rivals!
4- José Raul Capablanca
What can we say about the mythological figure of the cuban José Raul Capablanca? So much has been said about him that it’s even difficult to separate legend from reality. It’s said he learnt to play chess at the age of 4, watching his father play. And many say he only lost the match against Alekhine because he was absolutely certain of victory and didn’t take the match seriously.
The fact is that he is (probably) the biggest natural talent ever (although Morphy might have a say here). But this incredible talent made things, let’s say, a little too easy for him. For this reason he never had to work too hard.
If he had added to his talent the discipline of Kasparov or Alekhine, he could have been the best ever. But talent made him lazy and for this reason in my list he is below his rival in my list.
3- Alexander Alekhine
Many will be angry with Alekhine being ahead of Capablanca in this list. But this is not the list of the most talented ever. A great chess player is made of many qualities – and capacity to work is one of them.
The contibuition of Alekhine to chess is greater than Capablanca’s. Maybe because he didn’t have the same talent he had to work hard. And he ended up building the pilars of what is known as “modern preparation”.
His playing style was much ahead of his time. He was able to break the laws of positional chess with concrete play – to him everything needed to be evaluated according the the unique elements of each position.
It’s not by chance that Alekhine is Kasparov’s idol. Their playing styles are very similar.
For all these reasons Alekhine deserves the number 3 spot in my list.
2- Garry Kasparov
I almost can hear Kasparov’s fans screaming in anger: “Are you crazy? How can he be number two?”. Yes, according to the numbers the was the best ever. An extraordinary talent, a visionary, a playing style that produced many spectacular games.
He was the player with the best opening preparation in the history of the game and made a smooth transition to the computer age.
But numbers are not everything and before anyone else complains: this is my list!
Kasparov was also a brilliant strategist. When he faced Karpov in their first match he was still somewhat “fresh”. In a few games the score was already 5-0 to the seasoned World Champion. The match would end if a sixth victory happened.
What Kasparov did then was magnificent. He started playing solid (contrary to his style), imitating Karpov’s openings. This resulted in the longest drawing streak in a world championship match and the duel was cancelled after months of battle, when the score was already 5-3. A new match was arranged and Kasparov won. The rest is history.
His contibution to the development of the game is second to none. He showed a superior understanding of positions with material inbalances and with the initiative. Like Alekhine, he sought the most energetic solution since the first move. His games in the Najdorf, the King’s Indian, the English Opening and King’s Pawn in general are models even for modern standards. No other player used so many theoretical novelties.
Even with all that he is still number 2 in my list. Because no one could ever surpass the feats of…
1- Bobby Fischer
There is no doubt in my mind: Fischer was the best of all. Many disagree with this simply because the american genius become more and more problematic with the passing years, arriving at the point of complete craziness.
But in this list I only care about what he did on the chessboard. And this 64 squares world he was brilliant.
A child prodigy and the character of a champion made Fischer the youngest grandmaster of his time, at the age of 15 (something nearly impossible at those times). He was chess fanatic and was able to play and analyze at all times.
He had a mysterious personality and was capable of leaving an Interzonal while leading and stop playing chess for large periods of time. We can only speculate what the did between 1968 and 1970, when he played almost no games.
What he did after that cannot be compared with anything that happened before or after. He thrashed his opponents one by one, beginning with Petrosian in the URSS x The World match (he won by 3×1), passing throught the Interzonal Tournament where he finished miles ahead of the second place. Following that, in the Candidates Match, he crushed Taimanov and Larsen by 6×0 and Petrosian by 6,5 x 2,5, including 4 wins in a row! Who could win 4 games in a row against the great Petrosian?
In the “match of the century” he beat Boris Spassky easily, even after losing the first game in a completely drawn position and the second one by not showing up.
And after that…emptiness. Fischer refused to defend his title against the young Karpov. Many years later he played another match against Spassky, but he was no longer the same.
The man that alone defeated the Soviet chess hegemony came like a thunder on the chessboard. He smashed his opponents and then vanished.
This is my list of the 10 best chess players evers. Feel free to disagree!