An in depth look at the players who changed the game throughout history.
When it comes to choosing the most important chess players of all time, there is a lot of grey area. Are we looking for the best players, the most influential, or the most successful? It would be hard to pin down top players in any of these categories, let alone all of them. So, to make sure everyone’s on the same page regarding how subjective player comparisons are, let’s take a look at some of the common methods used to try and compare them:
The Elo Rating System
The Elo rating system is one of the most common systems used to try and estimate the relative strength of chess players. It was created by Physicist Arpad Elo, and it’s the system by which we determine the strength score of players to this day. Despite its popularity, it is by no means a perfect system. In fact, Arpad Elo often said that it could only provide an estimate of skill, similar to, “the measurement of the position of a cork bobbing up and down on the surface of agitated water with a yard stick tied to a rope and which is swaying in the wind”
We think the Elo system is a bit more accurate than that, but it does have its drawbacks. For instance, it is not suitable for measuring the relative strength of players of different eras who never played against one another. It is only able to offer accurate ratings on contemporary players. Furthermore, because of a system artifact known as ratings inflation, the average Elo score of chess players has been gradually rising over the years. That may be why Magnus Carlsen, the most recent World Chess Champion, was able to achieve the record breaking high Elo score of 2882. Garry Kasparov achieved a score of 2851 15 years earlier, which may mean that he was still the stronger player. It’s impossible to say for sure, though Carlsen did beat Kasparov in a match that took place when Carlsen was only 13 years old, which may mean that the ratings are spot on.
The basics of how the Elo rating system works are simple- each player has an Elo rating represented by a number which will increase or decrease after every match played against another rated player. In essence, the winning player takes points away from the Elo score of the losing player and adds them to his or her own Elo score. The relative difference in strength between the two players will determine the magnitude of the exchange. For example, if a high rated player wins a match against a player who is rated vastly lower, the transfer of points will be minimal. However, if the lower rated player wins in that match, they will earn themselves a large boost in rating. Because of this factor, the system is largely self-correcting because a player who is rated too low for his or her actual skill level will consistently outperform expectations and quickly make up the point difference.
Chessmetrics is a comparison system invented by statistician Jeff Sonas. It is loosely based on the Elo rating system, as most modern chess rating systems are, but it claims to have corrected for the ratings inflation that plagues the Elo system, making it impossible to compare players from different eras accurately. However, the Chessmetrics system doesn’t really do a good job of that either, considering that it takes into account the frequency of play. As soon as you go a month without playing a chess match, your Chessmetrics rating begins to go down. Sonas himself had this to say on the subject, “Of course, a rating always indicates the level of dominance of a particular player against contemporary peers; it says nothing about whether the player is stronger/weaker in their actual technical chess skill than a player far removed from them in time. So while we cannot say that Bobby Fischer in the early 1970s or José Capablanca in the early 1920s were the “strongest” players of all time, we can say with a certain amount of confidence that they were the two most dominant players of all time. That is the extent of what these ratings can tell us.”
Warriors of the Mind
In the book, Warriors of the Mind, authors Raymond Keene and Nathan Divinsky claim that there’s is the only rating system that claims to be able to directly compare the strength of chess players across different eras. The ratings assigned to players using this system are referred to as Divinsky numbers, and they don’t correspond to Elo ratings at all. Based on their calculations, this is the list of the top 10 chess players Keene and Divinsky came up with:
1. Garry Kasparov, 3096
2. Anatoly Karpov, 2876
3. Bobby Fischer, 2690
4. Mikhail Botvinnik, 2616
5. José Raúl Capablanca, 2552
6. Emanuel Lasker, 2550
7. Viktor Korchnoi, 2535
8. Boris Spassky, 2480
9. Vasily Smyslov, 2413
10. Tigran Petrosian, 2363
This system is not widely accepted within the chess community, and critics claim that the ratings were assigned arbitrarily with considerable bias toward more modern chess players. There is not a lot of solid evidence to suggest that this is a credible ratings system and not just someone’s published list of their top ten favorite chess players.
Chess’s Most Important Players
So, who are the most important chess players of all time? Well, when we look back on the history of chess, there are a few notable people who stand out from the rest; namely Anatoly Karpov, Mikhail Botvinnik, Judit Polgar, Jose Raul Capablanca, Bobby Fischer, Garry Kasparov, and Magnus Carlsen. Each of these players shaped chess history and influenced how the game is played in their own way. They are not just strong chess players, though many on this list are among the strongest in the world, but they are influencers that played a critical role in guiding chess to become the game it is today. Read on to learn more about what makes each of these famous chess players so important to the game of chess.
Anatoly Karpov started his chess career with a bang, becoming the youngest ever Soviet grandmaster at the tender age of 15. He became the World Chess Champion in 1974, after Bobby Fischer’s eccentricities led him to forfeit the final match. Karpov retained his title most years (losing it once to Garry Kasparov) until 1999, when he voluntarily conceded it in protest over FIDE’s changes to the way that the title was decided, which he deemed unfair. Karpov studied under Mikhail Botvinnik and achieved a peak rating of 2780. His 90 months spent as World Chess Champion make him the second longest reigning World Chess Champion behind Kasparov.
Mikhail Botvinnik greatly influenced the game of chess- both through his own career as a competitive chess player and through his foundation of a chess school that taught his strategies to generations of new chess players. He coached many of the great Soviet chess masters including Karpov, Kasparov, and Kramnik- though he did once say of 12 year old Karpov, “The boy does not have a clue about chess, and there’s no future at all for him in this profession.” Luckily, he was wrong about that one!
Botvinnik remained at or near the top of the chess charts for 30 years, in large part due to his innovative play style. He was famous for taking a large amount of risk during his games and making sacrifices that would further the advancement of his long term goals. His opponents have described playing against him as feeling like they were in the inevitable path of a bulldozer, sweeping away everything that got in his way.
Judit Polgar is commonly known as the strongest female chess player in history, but her performance and rating actually put her on any list of the best chess players ever, period. This status is evident by her performance in open championship tournaments. Experts speculate that she could have easily dominated any women’s tournament in the circuit, but she chose not to, in favor of playing in the open tournaments. Polgar has inspired a new generation of women to take an interest in chess and work hard at it if they want to succeed. She is often quoted as saying, “I always say that women should have the self-confidence that they are as good as male players, but only if they are willing to work and take it seriously as much as male players.”
Jose Raul Capablanca
Jose Raul Capablanca is a legend in chess history. He dominated tournaments in the 1920s and destroyed his contemporaries with what seemed like very little effort on his part. Because of this laid back style of play, he was nicknamed “The Human Chess Machine.” His success in the World Chess Championship reignited a national interest in the game in Cuba. To this day, his legacy lives on there in the form of the Capablanca Memorial chess tournament, which has been held in Cuba every year since 1962.
In 1922, he played 103 consecutive chess matches against different challengers and came out with the amazing results of 102 wins, 1 draw. Modern chess fans have used computer analysis to analyze his games and many consider Capablanca to be the best chess player of all time.
Bobby Fischer achieved a level of fame that few chess players ever do. He was not only a strong player and a chess champion, for many, he was the symbol of something greater when he defeated long-reigning Soviet champion Boris Spassky on the heels of the Cold War. The 1972 championship match in which that happened will not soon be forgotten. It was an event that marked chess history forever, with many Americans seeing it as the event that broke Soviet domination of the game of chess.
Unfortunately, Fischer never met his full potential for success in the game of chess due to his many personal eccentricities and, some would say, mental illness. He declined to defend his World Championship title in 1975 due to disagreements with FIDE over the conditions of the match. For many years-long periods he disappeared from the public eye until another controversy would bring him up again. This pattern continued until his death in 2008.
Garry Kasparov is certainly one of the strongest chess players of our time, and many consider him to be the strongest player of all time. Even now, more than a decade after his official retirement from the game of chess, he remains an influential person. He dominated the world of competitive chess from 1985 until his retirement in 2005. Kasparov is also famous for breaking off from FIDE and the World Chess Championship to start his own competitive organization, the Professional Chess Association, or PCA.
Perhaps his most significant moment in chess history was his participation in the historic match against chess computer Deep Blue. The computer was able to defeat him in a game of chess, which was a feat that no computer up until that point had ever even come close to accomplishing. This event represented the exact moment when the tide turned and technology outpaced human knowledge of chess. Now, that same technology has given us a number of innovations that can improve anyone’s chess game, including 1 player chess versus a computer, chess computer analysis, and much more.
Magnus Carlsen is not only the best player of the moment, but he has the potential to become the greatest player in the history of the game. It’s impossible to say where his career will take him, since he is still so young, but we’re already excited to see what impact he’ll have on the game of chess! He was able to defeat Kasparov at age 13 and now, at age 24, he is on top of the chess world as reigning champion. It’s likely that he’ll hold that title for many years- or even decades to come.