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Who are the best chess players? That is a difficult question to answer. Best in what sense? Best by FIDE rating, best by the number of world championships won, or best by years being rated as the top player? It depends on which measure you prefer. In this article, I will look at all three measures and make our own list of who are the ten best chess players ever.
Best Chess Players by FIDE Rating:
The FIDE rating is a ranking system for chess players, which has been in place since 1970. It’s calculated based on an average of all their games played over the last few years (the more recent games are weighted more heavily). This list includes only active players as of May 2018 with ratings greater than 2700:
- 2882 Magnus Carlsen – May 2014
- 2851 Garry Kasparov – July 1999
- 2844 Fabiano Caruana – October 2014
- 2830 Levon Aronian – March 2014
- 2822 Wesley So – February 2017
- 2820 – Shakhriyat Mamedyarov – September 2018
- 2819 Maxime Vachier-Lagrave – August 2016
- 2817 Viswanathan Anand – March 2011
- 2817 Vladimir Kramnik – October 2016
- 2816 Veselin Topalov – July 2015
- 2816 Hikaru Nakamura – October 2015
- 2816 Ding Liren November 2018
Best Chess Players by World Championships:
This list is based on the number of world championship wins and successful defenses of the titles. There was a split between the FIDE and Classical World Titles for around 13 years between 1993 and 2006 and this is taken into account.
- Emmanual Lasker
- Alexander Alekhine
- Anatoly Karpov
- Garry Kasparov
- Mikhail Botvinnik
- Wilhelm Steinitz
- Viswanathan Anand
- Magnus Carlsen
- Vladimir Kramnik
- Tigran Petrosian
10 Best Chess Players in the World
Who are the best chess players in the world? How have they contributed to the game? What were/are their achievements? You’ll find out the answers to all these questions along with some fascinating stories. Every player on the list has been ranked on a mix of their achievements, chess strength and their contribution to the game.
This list is presented in Alphabetical order rather than any rating, or reference to lists above
1. Alekhine, Alexander
Alexander Alekhine was the 4th World Champion known for his fierce attacking play, along with great positional and endgame skills. He became a world champion from 1927-1935, and once again from 1937-1946.
He dominated his rivals during the 1930s, often winning important tournaments by a huge margin. Also, the story of him becoming a world champion is quite fascinating. In 1927, no one had expected Alekhine to win against Capablanca. Capablanca was too strong during that period. However, Alekhine surprised everyone with his great preparation and managed to beat Capablanca. Soon, the relationship between the two world champions became strained. As a result, an exciting official rematch never happened.
In 1936, Alekhine lost the World Championship to Max Euwe (remember the Mathematician?). However, he soon regained the title in the rematch in the following year. Alekhine was also a highly respected writer and he made important contributions in that regard as well. One of his biggest gifts to chess is the Alekhine opening. It perfectly combines the elements of the hypermodern school of chess. Because of his contribution to chess and his domination during the 1930s, he’s considered to be one of the best chess players by many.
2. Anand, Vishwanathan
Vishwanathan Anand is a five time former world champion from India who holds a very unique record to his name. He is the only player to have won the numerous reputed titles apart from the World Championship title. They include the World Junior Champion(1987), the World Rapid Chess Champion(2003, 2017) and the World Blitz Cup(2000). Apart from that, he has also won a lot of prestigious chess tournaments over the years.
During the period 2008-2013, Anand was at his best, dominating the top level chess scene. No wonder he was a world champion during that time. It was Carlsen who dethroned Anand as the World Champion in 2013.
One cannot forget Anand’s contribution to the game, off the board. He alone has inspired a whole nation to pick up the sport. Today, India is one of the upcoming powerhouses in chess. The main catalyst for this is no one other than Anand. His contribution to chess on the board and off the board make undoubtedly one of the best players for chess in general.
3. Botvinnik, Mikhail
Botvinnik was a true genius. He was a man who made immense contributions to the development of chess in a lot of different aspects. If you’ve read our article about chess and mathematics, you might have a glimpse of his mathematical brilliance.
Botvinnik was a World Champion during different periods in history, from 1948-1957, 1958-1960, 1961-1963. Apart from that, he was also the man who coached 3 other world champions!
Yes, you read that right – 3 other world champions including Anatoly Karpov, Garry Kasparov and Vladimir Kramnik, all of them who are considered to be the strongest chess players of their era. Botvinnik is often credited for the dominance of the Soviet Union in chess. For that, he’s popularly known as the ‘Patriarch of Soviet Chess School’.
But apart from that, Botvinnik was also a computer scientist by profession. He was the first person to develop a computer algorithm that could play chess.
4. Carlsen, Magnus
If there’s one person who has been dominating the chess world in recent times, it is none other than Magnus Carlsen. After defeating Anand in 2013, he has proven time and time again why he’s the best chess player in the world. He successfully defended his World Championship title against players like Anand(2014), Karjakin(2016), Caruana(2018). In 2021, he’ll be defending the same title against Ian Nepomniachtchi. Carlsen’s domination in all formats of the game is well known. He has been a World Champion in Rapid and Blitz a lot of times as well.
However, the story doesn’t stop here. Carlsen is the only player to have achieved the highest elo rating in chess of 2882. He became a world no.1 at the age of 19. From July 2011 to the current date, Carlsen has been the number one ranked player in the world. It’s been 10 years that he has been at that spot, proving his mettle against other strong players. At one point, the difference between Carlsen and the second ranked player in the world was more than 50 elo points. It’s a huge gap at that level.
Many people attribute his success to his immense fighting spirit and physical stamina. He consistently wins top events, often dominating his rivals. The records speak for themselves.
5. Capablanca, Jose Raul
Jose Raul Capablanca was the third World Champion. He was considered to be one of the most gifted players in the world. Capablanca became a world chess champion in 1921, defeating Emmanuel Lasker.
Endgame play was his specialty. He had the ability to outplay his rivals in equal endgames. A lot of the future world champions have praised him for this, and modeled his style of play. Anatoly Karpov is one such player who comes to mind.
But that’s not to say Capablanca didn’t pay enough attention to other aspects of the game. He was also sharp and alert in tactics. When his play was evaluated by modern engines, it was found that his accuracy score was amongst the best when compared with other greats. In that sense, Capablanca had a very universal style. Another quality he was known for was his fast play, often taking very little time to think.
His dominance during his prime makes him one of the greatest chess players to have ever lived.
6. Caruana, Fabiano
Fabiano Caruana is a modern-day chess player. With the third-highest peak rating of all time, 2844, Fabiano is there at the top behind Carlsen. Over the years, he has dominated certain events against a world-class opposition.
One such event which comes to mind is the 2014 Sinquefield Cup in Saint Louis. In that tournament, Fabiano had a perfect score in the first 7 rounds – 7/7! The opposition? Magnus Calrsen, Levon Aronian, Veslin Topalov, Hiakru Nakamura and Maxime Vaicher Lagrave. No easy feat by any means, and it was truly a historic event in chess!
On the board, Caruana is known for his ability to calculate like a machine and his immense fighting spirit. With a solid track record of victories in important top-level events, Caruana’s achievements are only behind that of Magnus Carlsen. Even though Caruana is renowned only for Classical time control, he falls under the category of being one of the best players in the world currently.
7. Fischer, Robert James
Fischer was undoubtedly one of the strongest chess players in the world during his prime. He was an official world champion for only 3 years 1972-1975. You might wonder then why he was considered the best?
It was because of the way he dominated his rivals. At one point when Fischer was the world no.1, he was rated 100 points more than the World No.2 of that time, Boris Spassky. His dominance over some other Grandmasters is well documented in chess literature.
He scored an astonishing 6-0 victories over Mark Taimanov and Bent Larsen. Such a dominant performance was something that nobody had expected. In fact, after winning 6-0 against Mark Taimanov, a lot of strong players thought that it was a one-off thing, something that wouldn’t occur again. However, he soon surprised the world by beating Larsen with the same margin.
Fischer was gifted in almost all areas of the game, from positional play to fierce attacking play. Some often call Fischer the perfect chess player. However, critics often point out his longevity at the top. With his demands being unmet before the 1975 World Championship match against Karpov, the chess world didn’t get to witness what would happen if Fischer had continued playing at the top level.
However, his contribution to the game cannot be forgotten. He’s often credited with bringing money to the game of chess.
8. Morphy, Paul
Though Morphy had a very brief chess career, he dominated chess in the 1850s. That’s quite an old era! Paul Morphy was given an unofficial World Champion title and many players believe he was way ahead of his time. Some of them include Fischer, Kasparov, and Anand.
Coming from the romantic era of chess, where sacrifices were very common, Morphy had a style similar to that. It was based on quick development of pieces, controlling the center, and playing aggressive chess. A lot of his game involved beautiful sacrifices and well throughout combinations that a modern grandmaster would appreciate. Garry Kasparov remarked Morphy as a ‘forefather of modern chess’ and ‘the first prototype of a modern 20th century Grandmaster.’
Unfortunately, Morphy only considered chess an amateur activity. He retired at the age of 22, to continue his practice in law. Wilhelm Steinitz, the first official chess World Champion tried to convince Morphy to return to chess. However, Morphy declined it. Despite the brief period he played chess, Morphy’s considered to be among the best chess players of all time.
9. Kasparov, Garry
Kasparov is widely regarded as the greatest ever chess player of all time. He became one of the youngest chess players to become a world champion by defeating Anatoly Karpov in 1985. He was only 22 years old then.
He’s known for his aggressive style of play, opening preparation, and ridiculous work ethic. He had a great understanding of the dynamics of the position and was often able to craft unique ideas out of thin air. A lot of people believe he’s one of the best, if not the best attacking player in the world. He was also the first player to break into the 2800+ elo barrier and achieve a rating as high as 2851. It was only broken by Magnus Carlsen in the decade of 2010. No other modern player has achieved that feat.
Kasparov revolutionized the way chess players worked with computers. One of his main strengths was finding novelties to surprise his opponents.
His matches against Karpov (1985-1990) are considered to be the greatest showdowns between two of the strongest players of their era. Kasparov remained the World Champion despite facing the best of Karpov. Officially he held the title until 1993, before breaking away from FIDE due to disputes. He was beaten by Vladimir Kramnik in 2000 for the World Championship title. But despite that, he still continued to win tournaments and was the world’s highest-rated chess player until his retirement in 2005.
10. Karpov, Anatoly
Anatoly Karpov was a strong chess player from the Soviet Union, who dominated the chess scene during this era. He became a world champion in 1975, after Fischer refused to defend his title due to unfulfilled match demands. So during that time, a lot of people began to doubt whether Karpov was worthy of being a world champion. Karpov proved them all wrong. He dominated that year and won a lot of prestigious tournaments ahead of players like Spassky, Korchnoi and Petrosian.
Karpov himself describes his style of play as ‘positionally active’. He was known for his ability to squeeze wins out of an equal endgame. This is a quality which he modeled from the 3rd World Champion, Jose Raul Capablanca. Another trademark he had was his ability to predict an opponent’s plan and take counter action against it.
Karpov played two very tensely fought world championship matches against Korchnoi and Kasparov. Against Korchnoi, there were a lot of disputes and things took an ugly turn. In the end, Karpov managed to win that tense championship.
Against Kasparov, their rivalry became very popular and involved a lot of closely contested matches. Often the world champion titles were decided by a point difference. In some cases, the title was decided by who the current world champion was. Nevertheless, it was one of the most fierce chess battles in the world, fought between two of the greatest players of their generations.
Karpov’s decade-long dominance from 1975-1985 makes him one of the greatest players of the game.
These lists are always open to debate, perception, and cognitive bias, but I hope you enjoyed the information contained herein, and it has given you a thirst to look into the games and the work of all of the mentioned players