Friday, December 23, 2011

Top Ten Chess Players in the History

Chess is one of the most popular board games in the world. Making a list of ‘top ten’ great players of any spots with a long history is very difficult. It is even more difficult for chess, given that there was no established tournament to decide the world champion until 1948 when FIDE (World Chess Federation) introduced World Chess Championship. Moreover, there was no ranking system in chess before 1971. So, making comparison between players of different eras is not only hard, but almost impossible to be flawless. Different methods of comparison have been introduced over the years, but still no concrete solution has been found so far to make an undisputed list of top ten great chess players of all time.

Here, while making the list, not only did I consider the player’s strength, skill, number of world championship reigns, and duration of their reigns, but also I took into account the player’s innovations, distinctive playing styles and above all, their overall contribution to the development of the game. No doubt, there are a number of other great players whom I could not give a place in this list, but I mentioned their names at the end of this article. I hope you will enjoy this list and just feel free to put your opinions in the comment section:

Garry Kasparov

The Russian grandmaster is arguably the greatest player in the history of chess with many records to his name. A graduate of famous Mikhail Botvinnik chess school, Garry Kasparov became serious to pursue a career in chess when he won the Sokolsky Memorial tournament in Minsk and eventually became a chess master at the age of 15.

A six-time world champion, Kasparov won his first world championship title in 1985 when he defeated another great Anatoly Karpov in a historical match, and thus, becoming the youngest ever undisputed World Chess Champion at the age of 22. Since then, he dominated the chess world in the following two decades, almost always remaining world champion, until his retirement.

Overall, Kasparov is the highest rated player in the chess history with 2851 FIDE ratings and holds the record for winning the highest number of consecutive tournaments, remaining world number 1 for 255 months, and winning highest 11 Chess Oscars.

Bobby Fischer

To many, Fischer is the greatest chess player of all time. His reign as world chess champion from 1972 to 1975, covering 54 months in total, is the third longest of all time and Fischer was the first number-one rated player in FIDE ranking in 1971. He started showing his chess talent from his childhood. At the age of 13, he played a match against Donald Byrne which is widely considered as the “The Game of the Century,” and at the age of 15 and half, he became grandmaster which was a record at that time.

Bobby Fischer also had immense contribution to the modification of chess timing system and his proposal of adding a time increment after each move by a chess player is now a well-established rule. He also invented and promoted Chess960, a variant of traditional chess, which is also known as Fischer Random Chess.

Anatoly Karpov

Another great disciple of Mikhail Botvinnik Chess School, Anatoly Karpov is undoubtedly one of the legends of chess history. He remained world chess champion for a total of 90 months, second only to Garry Kasparov, spanning two periods: first from 1975 to 1985 and then from 1993 to 1999. He produced many classic matches including the 1984 world championship match against Kasparov, the only championship match which ended without producing a winner after 48 games in five months, and that was the beginning of a great rivalry between the two Russians.

Karpov loved to put pressure on the opponents by following a pure positional play and always looked for opponent’s mistakes and did never hesitate to attack his opponent ruthlessly even in case of a very small mistake by the opponent.

Mikhail Botvinnik

A professional electrical engineer and computer scientist, Botvinnik is a great chess player who, besides winning chess matches and tournaments, contributed heavily to the development of chess and was one of the founders of ‘Soviet School of Chess.’ His coaching system which is also known as Mikhail Botvinnik School of chess has produced the future greats like Anatoly Karpov, Garry Kasparov and Vladimir Kramnik.

Image source: Wikipedia

Botvinnik won the first ever FIDE organized World Chess Championship in 1948 to become the new world chess champion after the death of previous champion Alekhine. His three reigns as world chess champion, covering around 13 years, made him the dominant player in the world following the World War II. Botvinnik is also remembered as one of the early advocates of computer chess and he created a chess-playing algorithm himself in an attempt to enabling computer to think like a human player.

Emanuel Lasker

Lasker’s contribution to chess is also not limited to winning matches and tournaments. Besides his 27 year-long reign as world chess champion, the German chess maestro was the first to apply psychological approach in chess. He often made inferior moves to deceive his opponents. Well-known for his openings, he employed a complex method in his game, so it is a bit difficult to draw lessons from his games.

Image source: Wikipedia

Emanuel Lasker, who was also a mathematician and philosopher, was world chess champion six times in his career. He also contributed to other games like contract bridge, Go and Lasca, and his analysis of games is regarded very highly.

José Raúl Capablanca

Capablanca is undoubtedly one of the greatest chess players of all time with some considering him to be the greatest of all greats. He always kept it simple while playing with extraordinary speed and his excellent endgame skill was the brightest part of his style. His tactical skill and outstanding control over the chess board earned him the nickname ‘Human Chess Machine.’ He became world champion in 1921 and remained so until 1927.

Image source: Wikipedia

The Cuban former grandmaster dominated the chess world for almost two decades, beginning from the preceding years of World War I to until losing the world championship match to Alekhine in 1927. During this period, he defeated almost all the opponents and won a number of tournaments that led many to consider him to be invincible.

Alexander Alekhine

A great player with strong imaginative ability, Alexander Alekhine earned greatness by winning tournaments and matches against almost all the contemporary greats, and of course, thanks to his innovations in the game. He became the fourth world chess champion in 1927 when he defeated Capablanca, who was earlier considered to be invincible, in a match which, until 1985, was the longest chess championship match in the history. He remained world champion twice in his lifetime; first from 1927 to1935 and then from 1937 to until his death in 1946. He is credited as one of the founders of ‘Soviet School of Chess.’

Image source: Wikipedia

Alexander Alekhine’s creative attacking style was based on extraordinary positional sense and endgame skill. As a popular chess writer and theoretician, he presented the chess world with some innovative chess openings and created a defense theory which is now popularly known as Alekhine’s Defense.

Mikhail Tal

A soviet-Latvian grandmaster, Mikhail Tal achieved greatness, not just winning games, but winning in style. Tal, also known as ‘The magician from Riga,’ is widely considered as the greatest attacking chess player in the history. His combinatorial playing style was based on improvisation and diversity in moves. His unconventional but highly effective style produced many ‘classic’ matches which are now studied by top chess players. About his style, Tal once said that every game was “as inimitable as invaluable as a poem.” He was the world champion in 1960-61 and achieved his peak rating 2705 in 1980.

Image source: Wikipedia

An annual chess tournament named Mikhail Tal Memorial is organized in Moscow since 2006 in his honor.

Wilhelm Steinitz

Steinitz was the first undisputed and modern chess champion in the world during 1886 to 1894. He is also well-known for introducing and advocating positional style of play in chess in 1873 which led him to be involved in a ‘Ink War’ with some other contemporary greats who termed the position style as ‘cowardly’. All-out attacking style was popular and established among his contemporaries, and even Steinitz himself followed this style to become world no. 1.

Image source: Wikipedia

However, the positional style became increasingly popular among the later greats like Emanuel Lasker who defeated Steinitz to become the next world champion. During his illustrious career, Wilhelm Steinitz remained unbeaten for more than 25 years.

Paul Morphy

The American is perhaps the most mysterious of chess legends. According to Bobby Fischer, Morphy is the greatest chess player of all time and had the ability to beat any player of any era. It may sound a bit wired to attribute such greatness to someone who retired from chess at the age of 26 and since then did not play competitive chess until his death.

Image source: Wikipedia

Well, this is where lies the greatness of Paul Morphy. A child prodigy who learned to play chess by simply watching a match between his father and uncle, Morphy became one of the best players in his native state New Orleans by the age of nine and defeated a Hungarian master Johann Löwenthal at the age of 12. He defeated almost all the best players of America and Europe in the period between 1857 and 1859, and was widely regarded as world’s best chess players at that time.

Some of his ‘classic’ games are the brightest examples of combinative style of play in which a player sacrifices his important pieces to deceive the opponent, eventually resulting in his victory.

Some other great chess players: Paul Keres, Adolf Anderssen, Howard Staunton, Vasily Smyslov, Max Euwe, Vladimir Kramnik, Viswanathan Anand, Susan Polgar, Judit Polgar


  1. Anonymous11:16 AM

    "His reign as world chess champion from 1972 to 1975, covering 54 months in total, is the third longest of all time"
    -Fischer was not WC for 54 months (do the math); -Lasker, Kasparov, Karpov, Capablanca and Alekhine were all WCs longer than he was, so it wasn't the "third longest"

  2. Anonymous11:53 PM

    What about the Tiger, Tigran Petrosian?