Chess has seen hundreds of masters grace its board, but only a few of them stand out as the true titans of this ancient game. Just like in any other sport, in chess, we attribute the GOAT (greatest of all time) status to a select group of players, which we will discuss in this blog. But before listing the names, it's important to realize that determining the "greatest" in chess isn't solely about skill level. The legends of yesteryears didn't have access to the powerful engines or large game databases that modern players use, and so, they could not be as technically skilled as today's grandmasters. However, they laid the foundation upon which today's grandmasters stand. It's in this context that players like Magnus Carlsen and Jose Raul Capablanca can both be mentioned in a list of all-time greats.
"If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants." - Isaac Newton, 1675
The chess giants from different eras introduced revolutionary ideas, set standards of excellence, and paved paths in the uncharted territories of opening theories and endgame studies. Therefore, as we create a list of the greats, we should look beyond just Elo ratings or championship titles. Greatness in chess is a combination of dominance in their era, contributions to the game, character, and the legacy one leaves behind. So who are the greatest chess players?
Let's honor these legends and explore why they are truly the greatest chess players of all time.
Paul Morphy (1837-1884) is an iconic figure in chess history. Although he lived in an era before the formal establishment of a world chess championship, Morphy's unparalleled skill and dominance were universally recognized. After triumphing at the First American Chess Congress in 1857, Morphy ventured to Europe, challenging and overwhelmingly defeating the continental elites, including the German maestro Adolf Anderssen. Bobby Fischer, one of the game's other great legends, famously remarked, "Morphy was probably the greatest genius of them all". Due to talent and because of his abrupt retreat from competitive chess, Morphy was eulogized as "The Pride and Sorrow of Chess." A prodigy in every sense, Morphy's groundbreaking play left an indelible mark, proving he was decades ahead of his contemporaries. While debates continue about how his inherent talent measures against modern maestros, Morphy's place in the pantheon of all-time chess greats remains unquestionable.
Anand's inclusion in this all-time-greats list is well justified by his remarkable achievements. He secured the World Champion title five times and maintained the number one position in world rankings for 21 months, marking the sixth-longest duration on record. With a peak rating of 2817, he stands as the eighth-highest FIDE-rated player ever. Known as the "Lightning Kid" due to his swift playing style as a child, Anand is also one of the most successful rapid chess players with triumphs in two World Rapid Championships in 2003 and 2017. His monumental role in popularizing chess in India, as its first-ever grandmaster and world champion, further cements his legendary status in the pages of chess history.
The mere fact that Vladimir Kramnik managed to win a championship match against Garry Kasparov, arguably the greatest and most dominant chess player in history, seems enough to place him in the pantheon of chess greats. Yet, this monumental victory was just one highlight in his impressive career. After dethroning Kasparov in 2000, Kramnik held the Classical World Chess Championship title for six years. He then bested Veselin Topalov in the 2006 undisputed World Chess Championship, becoming the first player to unify both the FIDE and Classical titles since the 1993 split. Even after losing his title, Kramnik remained on the top of the chess world, reaching a peak rating of 2817 in 2016, which stands as the joint-eighth highest rating ever. In 2019, Kramnik announced his retirement and decided to devote his time to championing chess for children and educational endeavors.
Emanuel Lasker's name is etched deeply in the legacy of chess, not just for the sheer duration of his World Championship reign—27 years from 1894 to 1921, the longest in history—but also for his groundbreaking approach to the game. While contemporaries often labeled his style as "psychological", suggesting he played inferior moves to unsettle opponents, modern scrutiny reveals Lasker's advanced, flexible strategies, which confounded and outclassed his peers. Instead of strictly adhering to established opening theories, he often charted his own course, leaving a trail of innovations in his wake. Lasker was also a prolific chess author and editor, which further solidifies his place among the chess greats. However, the genius of the second world chess champion was not limited to chess; Lasker made significant contributions to games like bridge as well as mathematics and philosophy. His friendship with the likes of Albert Einstein speaks of the depth of Lasker's intellect.
A man who's considered the "Patriarch" of the Soviet Chess School, arguably the most influential one in history, should undoubtedly be in the GOAT conversation. Becoming the sixth World Chess Champion, Botvinnik laid a foundation for the Soviet Union's dominance in the sport for decades to come. Yet, Mikhail Botvinnik stands out as not only a formidable player but also a distinguished chess coach who had a transformative impact on the next generation. As a mentor, he nurtured the talents of future world champions Anatoly Karpov, Garry Kasparov, and Vladimir Kramnik. Beyond his individual accomplishments, Botvinnik also played an instrumental role in shaping the post-World War II World Chess Championship system.
Halfway through the chess GOAT list, and now ranking becomes a bit more difficult.
"I can make a case for myself, Garry, and Fischer... I think there are decent arguments for all of them. I've said before and I haven't changed my mind that Garry generally edges it, because of the longevity in the competitive era." (Magnus Carlsen via Lex Fridman podcast, 2022)
Yes, Karpov deserves a spot in the top 5! The 12th world champion can sometimes be overshadowed by the success and dominance of his successor, Garry Kasparov, but it's crucial to recognize not just Karpov's achievements but also the profound impact he had on the game. Holding the World Championship title for a decade from 1975 to 1985, Karpov was a master of positional play and methodical strategy and took these aspects to a whole new level. Even amidst the meteoric rise of Garry Kasparov, Karpov showcased true dominance, consistently challenging his successor and elevating their rivalry to one of the most iconic in the history of the sport. Karpov also made significant contributions to the USSR team victories, clinching an impressive six gold medals at the Chess Olympiads. With over 160 tournament victories to his name and a peak Elo rating of 2780, his 102 months as world number one rank him third, behind only Magnus Carlsen and Garry Kasparov. His consistent excellence was recognized with nine Chess Oscars from the International Association of Chess Press, and it surely needs to be recognized by us as well.
The man who single-handedly elevated endgame technique in a time without computer engine analysis or endgame tablebases deservedly stands as our fourth-highest pick in the GOAT list. Cuba's very own, José Raúl Capablanca was a chess prodigy rumored to not even have a chessboard in his house. At only 13, he defeated the Cuban champion, and by 1921, he claimed the world championship crown from Emanuel Lasker. Capablanca's name is also associated with one of the most impressive streaks in chess history, as he went undefeated from 1916 to 1924. This consistency was largely attributed to his ability to simplify complex positions and outplay his opponents from there. Iconically, his exceptional endgame technique is still studied to this day. Future world champions like Fischer and Karpov famously admitted Capablanca's great impact on their development as chess players.
For many, Fischer might be the unequivocal greatest player of all time. What prevents us from placing him at number one is the brevity of his reign. Fischer never defended his title, and yet, the colossal talent and innovation he brought to the game secured his position in the top 3 of all-time greats. Fischer achieved an astonishing amount before his championship match. He was the first player to challenge the Soviet chess hegemony, dominating nearly every tournament he took part in. Then, of course, comes the most iconic chess match in history. During the tensions of the Cold War, the 1972 Fischer vs Spassky face-off in Reykjavík transcended into a geopolitical event, drawing unprecedented global attention. Fischer outclassed his peers, achieving an unparalleled peak rating of 2785 for that era. In addition to all of his achievements as a player, Fischer also played a tremendous role in increasing the chess player's pay, which had a direct impact on the future generations choosing chess as a career.
"Contrary to many young colleagues, I do believe that it makes sense to study the Classics," - Magnus Carlsen. This quote by Carlsen perfectly highlights the influence of chess legends on the development of the new generation of chess talents. Undoubtedly, Magnus Carlsen is the strongest chess player the world has ever seen. He is the highest-rated player in history and holds the record for the longest unbeaten streak in classical chess at the elite level. Before he even turned 20, he was the youngest player to surpass a 2800 rating and reach the No. 1 spot in the FIDE world rankings. He has multiple world titles in classical, rapid, and blitz formats, which displays his absolute dominance across all time controls. Becoming the World Chess Champion in 2013 by defeating Anand, he's successfully defended his title multiple times, before deciding to vacate it due to the lack of interest in the championship format and upcoming opponents. However, we place him in the second spot, because skill and rating are just one part of what counts as greatness, while the other aspects favor our number 1 pick, Garry Kasparov.
The fact that Kasparov retired nearly two decades ago, in 2005, yet many of his records remain untouched, speaks volumes about the towering chess giant he was. Holding the world no. 1 ranking for an unparalleled 255 months, Kasparov achieved a streak of the most consecutive professional tournament victories (15) and claimed the most Chess Oscars (11). While his peak FIDE rating of 2851 was eventually bested by Magnus Carlsen, it remained the zenith for over a decade. In an era of rapid technological advancements, with every chess professional accessing near-perfect computer analysis, Kasparov's dominance was challenged principally by Carlsen. Remarkably, in Kasparov's prime, his only match loss came against a computer — Deep Blue — which, after initially losing to him, had to refine its approach to finally clinch a win. Post-retirement, Kasparov mentored Carlsen, guiding him to ascend to the world no. 1 position and eventually become the youngest world champion, breaking Kasparov's own record. Coupled with his monumental chess literature, "My Great Predecessors", which delves into the legacies of past world champions, Garry Kasparov rightfully claims the pinnacle as the greatest chess player of all time.
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