The Ten Best Chess Players of All Time

If one wants to start an argument, picking the ten best chess players is a good way to do it. Many people feel very strongly about this particular issue. Books have even been written about it. Elaborate cases have been made to try to prove who was the best ever by estimating peak ratings.

One way to judge the best players is a simple one. How much did they stand above their contemporaries? This is one valid way to compare players form different generations. Here they are in the order in which they most dominated their respective eras.

1. Capablanca, Jose Raul (1888-1942) Cuba

Capablanca was world champion from 1921 to 1927. Many people considered him the strongest player in the world prior to 1921, but he was unable to arrange a match with the then champion, Emanuel Lasker. When public sentiment became overwhelming in demand of a match, Lasker simple tried to resign his title to Capablanca. This behavior seems to add credence to the view that Capablanca was the better player years before the match finally took place. In fact, beginning in 1914 Capablanca lost only a single game over the next ten years.

Though most people love to look at the games of the great attacking masters, some of the most successful players in history have been the quiet positional players. These players slowly grind you down by taking away your space, tying up your pieces, and leaving you with virtually nothing to do! Of all the great positional players, probably the most feared was the Cuban genius Jose Raul Capablanca, a man considered in his prime to be virtually unbeatable. Possessing a simple and clear style, Capablanca was particularly famous for his endgame skill. During the first two phases of a game, he was content to gain some small advantage in space, convert it into a small material edge (like one pawn ahead), and then trade pieces. In the endgame, he would convert his extra pawn into a Queen and win the game easily.

Capablanca's dominance was so great that he was nicknamed "the chess machine." Even great players felt that he was unbeatable. Capablanca eventually became somewhat bored with chess because it was too easy for him. It may have been.

2. Fischer, Robert James, (1943-) United States

In 1971 Fischer shocked the chess world by winning 19 consecutive games against an extremely high level of competition. This feat has been compared to throwing back to back no-hitters in baseball. During his peak playing period, players spoke of "Fisher Fever," where they would feel ill just having to play against him. Just as with Capablanca, Fischer had and aura of invincibility which was not far from the truth. Fischer was head and shoulders above the best players of his day.

His abrupt withdrawal from chess was tragic. Rumors of Fischer sightings were rampant, and the public was often tantalized by stories of his impending re-emergence. Unfortunately, Fischer waited more than twenty years before playing in public again. His behavior, always intense had become increasingly odd over the years, and it is doubtful that he will ever again subject himself to the rigors of tournament or match chess.

3. Kasparov, Gary (1963-) Armenia

Kasparov won the world championship in 1985 in the first of several titanic struggles with Anatoly. Although he has been defeated, Kasparov's tournament results during his peak were just as impressive.

Kasparov entered only the very strongest tournaments and routinely won them. Only Karpov could challenge him- and because Karpov is also one of the ten best players of all time, this restriction only add to Kasparov's resume. The two of them were fierce combatants in what must be considered the greatest chess rivalry of all time.

4. Karpov, Anatoly (1951-) Russia

Although Kasparov eventually eclipsed Karpov, no one would dream of leaving Karpov off of this list. Karpov won the championship by default when Fischer refused to defend his title. Many people considered this a black mark on Karpov's record because Karpov never actually won the title by playing a championship match. Perhaps it was this event that spurred him on to incredible achievements in tournament chess.

Only the great Viktor Korchnoi was able to test him in match play, but even he could not best Karpov, and Karpov dominated the tournament scene. From 1978 to 1981. Karpov played in ten major tournaments and finished clear first, or in a tie for first, in nine of them. Karpov was clearly the dominant player after Fischer and before Kasparov.

5. Morphy, Paul (1837-84) United States

Morphy's career was meteoric. He burned brightly for a short period of time and then never played again. It is quite sensible to move him up or down this list depending upon how much or how little you value longevity.

Morphy defeated all the best players of his day with the exception of Howard Staunton- who managed to avoid playing Morphy. Most historians give Staunton no real chance of ever being able to defeat Morphy in a match. It was not so much that Morphy played scintillating chess. His games still serve as classic examples of how powerful rapid development can be.

In the early 1890s, people played chess in one of two simple ways: Either they attacked or they defended. The year 1857 saw the unveiling of a new strategy. That was the year that Paul Morphy won the first American Chess Congress. On the strength of that success, he decided to go to Europe to challenge the world's greatest players. One year later, he had defeated everyone who was brave enough to accept his challenge. Clearly the best player in the world, he returned home to New Orleans and retired from chess.

What made Morphy a superior chess player? Morphy was the first player to appreciate the value of development. While his opponents would bring out two or three pieces and start a berserker-style attack, Morphy would quietly defend against their threats, develop his whole army, and then shatter their defenses with his greater force.

After defeating the best and the brightest, Morphy retired from chess to set up his law practice in New Orleans. Unfortunately, what many believe to have been serious mental health problems surfaced and haunted him for the remainder of his days.

He died of a stroke at the age of 47, while taking a bath.

6. Lasker, Emanuel (1868-1941) Germany

Lasker is an interesting case. Some people put him first and others put him towards the bottom. The major criticism is that he played infrequently. The major argument in his favor was that he was world champion from 1894 until 1921 - longer than any other player in history. Many people believe that Lasker ducked the toughest opposition, but it is clear from his results that he was the world's best player for a considerable period of time. Lasker established his credentials by winning four consecutive major tournaments (these tournaments were infrequent in those days): St. Petersburg 1895-96, Nuremberg 1896, London 1899, and Paris 1900. From 1895 to 1924, Lasker played in ten major tournaments, finished first eight times, second once, and third once. This achievement was clearly the best record of anyone during that time.

7. Steinitz, Wilhelm (1836-1900) Austria

The first world champion, Steinitz was considered the best player in the world for a period of about 20 years. By virtue of his match and tournament record, Steinitz was probable the best player in the world during the late 1860's and certainly was by the early 1970. From 1862 to 1894, Steinitz had an unbroken string of 24 match victories.

It wasn't until 1886, in a match versus Zukertort, that a winner was officially given the title of world champion. Steinitz won with a score of ten wins, five losses and five draws. Steinitz then successfully defended his title several times before losing at ht age of 58, to the young Lasker.

Steinitz started out playing in the berserker style of the day, but in 1873, he changed his style and with single-minded determination, succeeded in also changing the style of world chess. He came up with several new and profound positional ideas, which led him to drastically alter his style and become the first true positional player. He would start out with a somewhat passive game and would not worry about being attacked as long as he had certain positional trumps. (He particularly favored a superior pawn structure.) Positional and defensive ideas became prominent. The intricacies of pawn formations and pawn weaknesses became hot topics of discussion. By 1905, Philidor had been completely vindicated.

8. Alekhine, Alexander (1892-1946) Russia

Alekhine was single-minded in his pursuit of the world championship and his drive eventually overcame Capablanca's skill. Alekhine's results were never as dominating as those higher on this list, but he still managed an impressive string of results. From 1921 through 1927, he competed in 15 major tournaments and won 8 of them. From 1930 to 1934, he won 5 strong tournaments but let his weakness for drink get the best of him. He lost the title to Max Euwe in 1935, primarily because of his poor physical condition.

Alekhine cleaned up his act and won the return match to regain the title, which he kept until his death. However, his last years were sad ones. His play was unrecognizable, and his physical condition continued to deteriorate. Nevertheless, Alekhine belongs on this list by virtue of his many tournament and match victories.

9. Botvinnik, Mikhail (1911-1994) Russia

Botvinnik won seven consecutive major tournaments from 19841 to 1948, including the tournament held to determine the champion upon Alekhine's death. There is little doubt that he would've defeated Alekhine and it seems certain that he was the best player of the 1940s.

Remarkably, Botvinnik was an engineer by profession and did not dedicate himself to chess the way most of the champions had. He lost his title to Smyslov in 1957 but won it back in the return match the next year. He then lost to Tal in 1960 but again recaptured the title in the return match. The return match clause was stricken in 1963 when he lost to Petrosian, and no one will eve know whether he would've managed to score the hat trick.

Despite a fairly tarnished record in championship match play, Botvinnik was clearly the best player in the world for many years. None of his challengers could make that claim.

10. Tal, Mikhailk (1936-1991) Latvia

Tal barely makes the top ten because health troubles kept him from performing at peak efficiency. Otherwise, he may have been much higher on the list. Botvinnik once said, "If Tal would learn to program himself properly, he would be impossible to play."

Tal won the world championship title from Botvinnik in 1960 but lost the return match. Before this return match, Tal became unwell with kidney trouble but refused to postpone play. Tal eventually lost one of his kidneys and was never really well afterwards.

Nevertheless, from 1949 to 1990, Tal played in 55 strong tournaments, winning or sharing 19 first and 7 second prizes. He won 6 Soviet championships, which were some of the strongest tournament of that time. He also compiled a record of 59 wins, 31 draws, and only 2 losses in 7 Olympiads. Famous for his intimidating stare, Tal joins Capablanca and Fischer as the most feared opponents in history. When playing Tal, players were always afraid of winding up on the losing side of a soon-to-be famous game.

Bobby Fischer's List
In the very first issue of Chessworld (1964), a magazine with a short life span edited by Frank Brady, Bobby Fischer gives several paragraphs explaining his selections in a list of his top 10 players of all time.

1. Paul Morphy; 2.Howard Staunton; 3. Wilhelm Steinitz; 4. Siegbert Tarrasch; 5. Mikhail Tchigorin; 6. Alexander Alekhine; 7. Jose Capablanca; 8. Boris Spassky; 9. Mikhail Tal; 10. Samuel Resshevisky.

The inclusion of Staunton was striking, but the editor states; "In compiling this list of 10 greatest masters in history, Bobby Fisher (who in the editor's opinion belongs in such a list himself) based his final selection on the GAMES of the players he has named rather than on performances and credits earned, which could explain players like Lasker, Botvinnik, etc, not being mentioned. When queried on this point, Bobby replied: "Just because a man was a champion for many years does not necessarily mean that he was a great player, just as we shouldn't necessarily call a ruler of a country great merely because he was in power for a long time."