In any sport, fans love to argue about who the GOAT is at their game. Chess players are no exception.
You might think that determining this answer would be easy, since chess has a reasonably accurate statistically-derived rating system (called Elo).
However, said system is more helpful for comparing players within generations than across them.
This is because, in chess, as in so many other domains, humans have a tendency to keep getting better.
And whether we are talking about the professional or the amateur level, human chess ability has been turbo-charged in recent decades by studying with our silicon friends (chess players commonly refer to chess computers as "engines").
You can use statistically-driven historical sites like Chessmetrics.com to help form an opinion, but a top 10 list will still often come down to personal philosophy.
Do you prefer the player with the highest peak (Bobby Fischer) or one with a much longer reign (Emanuel Lasker)?
Disagreements notwithstanding, most chess players actually concur on the top three players of all time, but they often clash on the order to put them in, and there is little consensus on the remainder of the elite ranks.
My own top three is in line with the chess player consensus, but let’s go through the whole top 10 to get there.
RadioTimes.com ranks the 10 best chess players in the of all time.
10. Paul Morphy
Morphy is always a particularly contentious player because he peaked way back in the 1850s. This means that modern players are leaps and bounds better than him, but Morphy was utterly dominant over his peers. Grandmaster Larry Kaufman wrote: "Morphy was by far the largest leap over his predecessors and contemporaries of anyone in chess history."
Morphy doesn’t make that many top 10 lists, but for me, this dramatic leap in chess understanding when there were very few resources to learn from should count for something!
9. Vasily Smyslov
A stalwart of the mid-20th century Soviet system, Smyslov was known for his harmonious playing style. Fellow world champion Boris Spassky called him "the hand" because he felt like Smyslov’s hand magically knew where to put the pieces, without thought.
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8. Emanuel Lasker
Lasker’s 27 year reign (1894-1921) as world champion was the longest in chess history. While this is undoubtedly impressive, one must dock him a few points because he sometimes dodged his fiercest competitors. Lasker’s style emphasised the psychological element of a one-on-one chess match, and many of his successors have credited him with trailblazing this approach.
7. José Raúl Capablanca
The legendary Cuban-American champion was one of the players who Lasker dodged, although Capablanca nonetheless eventually ascended to the throne. Capablanca didn’t focus much on the opening phase of the game, and was better known for tremendous endgame acumen.
6. Mikhail Tal
The Latvian legend was only world champion for a short period, from 1960-1961, but his fierce attacking style left an indelible imprint on chess history. Tal was known for frequently sacrificing pieces to put his opponents under pressure. In explaining this approach, Tal is said to have famously quipped, "They can only take one piece at a time."
5. Mikhail Botvinnik
An electrical engineer and computer scientist in addition to world champion, Botvinnik foresaw the dominance of chess computers decades before Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov. Botvinnik studied and prepared methodically, and was among the first greats to take a professional approach to chess preparation and study away from the board.
4. Alexander Alekhine
Alekhine was an incredible, aggressive player who could attack with both creativity and accuracy in foreseeing move sequences. If they ever ask in a pub quiz who the only chess player to die as reigning world champion was, he is your answer. (Although I generally advise people that Bobby Fischer is the best default guess when they don’t know the answer to a chess trivia question.)
3. Bobby Fischer
Speaking of Fischer, he likely had the most dominant period in chess history in the late 1960s to early 1970s. Fischer famously beat consecutive world-class players 6 to 0 in match play in the run up to winning the 1972 World Championship. In a game that often ends in a draw, this level of superiority simply does not happen. This period of dominance causes some to rank Fischer No.1, but his peak was very brief, as he soon disappeared from the chess world.
2. Magnus Carlsen
The current World No.1 amassed countless titles and held the World Championship title for 10 years until he got bored with beating everyone and stepped down in 2023. Magnus is excellent at all phases of the game, but many consider him the best endgame player of all time. The arguments for Magnus as the GOAT are legitimate, but one guy did it for a bit longer.
1. Garry Kasparov
'The boy from Baku' showcased deep opening preparation, a fierce attacking style and a legendary competitive drive that struck fear in his opponents. Kasparov reigned supreme for 17 years despite the fact that his main rival, Anatoly Karpov (who he beat in five World Championship matches) also has a legitimate argument as a top 10 player of all time.
If Magnus were to maintain his dominance for another five to 10 years, he might supplant Garry in these rankings - but the competition is fierce, and Magnus seems to (rightfully) be somewhat content with what he has achieved.
Ben Johnson is the author of new book Perpetual Chess Improvement: Practical Chess Advice from World-Class Players and Dedicated Amateurs. Available from November 2023 on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.
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