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10 Best Chess Players Of All Time

by Brinda Goel
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There have been many greats, champions, challengers, world-class players, and grandmasters in the game of chess world championship game that we all love.

The games of these experts enthrall, motivate, and educate us in the ways of the royal game. Debates about the finest players of all time are widespread in chess communities, but they usually come back to the same central question: Who was the best?

Honorable Mentions

All of the following are the greatest chess players and superstars who deserve to be mentioned among the top 10 players of all time, but who didn’t quite cut for one reason or another.

Paul Morphy

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Paul Morphy was the greatest player of the 1850s and the finest player in the whole 19th century. He was the epitome of romantic offensive chess. Even though his age didn’t have a formal world championship, he is widely considered to be at least the best in the world.

After dominating the 1857 American Chess Congress, Morphy went to Europe the following year and continued winning against the continent’s top players.

Morphy introduced several new concepts to the chess realm, including sacrifice, development, assault, and precision. One of his most famous games, the Opera Game, is still studied by chess enthusiasts today. Morphy was considered one of the top ten finest players of all time by GM Bobby Fischer.

Tigran Petrosian

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“Iron Tigran,” or Grandmaster Tigran Petrosian, was a four-time Soviet and world champion from 1963 to 1969. His defensive skills and his legendary exchange sacrifices helped him go undefeated in 1962, the year he won the world championship. GM Daniel Naroditsky called him one of the “first elite players with a truly universal style.” 

In 1963, Petrosian won the world championship by defeating the renowned GM Mikhail Botvinnik. In 1966, he successfully defended his title against GM Boris Spassky.

Fischer beat Petrosian in 1971 to go to the 1972 world championship match against Spassky. Although Fischer ultimately won the tournament, his amazing and unparalleled 20-game winning run was ended by his defeat of Fischer in the second game of their candidate’s match.

Viswanathan Anand

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From 2000 to 2002, Grandmaster Viswanathan Anand held the FIDE world title. From 2007 to 2013, he was the third official world champion and was the 15th undisputed champion. After losing the 1995 Professional Chess Association (PCA) World Championship match to GM Garry Kasparov and the 1998 FIDE World Championship match to GM Anatoly Karpov (on tiebreaks), he eventually won the FIDE World Championship in 2000.

In 2007, Anand defeated GM Vladimir Kramnik and other top players to win the world championship event in a double round-robin format. When he played Kramnik in 2008, he won and became the 15th player to hold the title of uncontested world champion. In 2010, he successfully defended his championship against Grandmaster Veselin Topalov, and in 2012, he defeated Grandmaster Boris Gelfand. Magnus Carlsen, the current world champion, defeated Anand in 2013. 

Anand has been India’s most influential chess player, and perhaps the unofficial world champion, for several generations.

#10 Alexander Alekhine 

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From 1927 until 1946 (with the exception of 1935 and 1937), Alexander Alekhine was the undisputed champion of the world. He was a terrific all-around player, but he particularly excelled at combinational play in difficult spots. He also showed chess players that abstract concepts may be subverted by careful examination of each individual chess game move’s circumstances.

Despite being a huge underdog (he had never won a game against Capablanca before the tournament), Alekhine defeated him to win the world championship in 1927.

Although Alekhine held the world title for a considerable amount of time, he only successfully defended it twice (against GM Efim Bogoljubow in 1929 and 1934). Several factors prevented a rematch between Capablanca and Alekhine for the world title. 1935 Alekhine unexpectedly lost the world championship match against GM Max Euwe.

Alekhine regained his title two years later by defeating Euwe in a rematch, but he never defended it again. Even though he was completing the plans to play a match with Botvinnik when he passed suddenly in 1946, he will forever be remembered as the only champion to die while still holding the world champion title.

#9 Mikhail Tal

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Grandmaster Mikhail Tal, the “Magician from Riga,” was the seventh recognized world champion. In 1960, at the age of 23 and a half, he defeated Botvinnik and became the youngest world champion in history (a record since broken by Kasparov and Carlsen). 

Tal’s attitude to the game, particularly his outstanding and distinctive offensive style, has inspired aggressive players for decades. One of his most famous scary quotes follows: “You must take your opponent into a deep dark forest where 2+2=5, and the path leading out is only wide enough for one.”

His book, The Life and Games of Mikhail Tal, is widely regarded as one of the best collections of chess games ever written.

#8 Emanuel Lasker

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For 27 years, Emanuel Lasker reigned as the recognized world champion. He held the title of world chess champion for the greatest stretch of time ever, from 1894 to 1921. After dethroning Wilhelm Steinitz as the first acknowledged world champion in 1894, Lasker successfully defended his title five times against such formidable opponents as Frank Marshall, Siegbert Tarrasch, David Janowsky, and Carl Schlechter. 

Despite losing the championship to Capablanca in 1921, Lasker remained a formidable opponent. At the age of 66, he finished third in the Moscow tournament, behind Botvinnik and Salo Flohr by half a point but ahead of Capablanca, the first women’s world champion Vera Menchik, and 15 other grandmasters. 

#7 Vladimir Kramnik

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Grandmaster Vladimir Kramnik held the title from the years 2000 to 2007. In 2000, he dethroned the famous Kasparov and won the classical world championship. In 2004, he successfully defended his title against GM Peter Leko, and in 2006, he challenged Topalov for the FIDE world championship. In beating Topalov, Kramnik became the first player since Kasparov in 1993 to hold the title of world champion without challenge.

At his best, Kramnik could do it all; his game had no holes. His brilliant endgame play and impeccable, dogged, positional play earned him much acclaim. One of the game’s all-time greats, Kramnik is notoriously difficult to beat. 

After more than 25 years at the top, Kramnik announced his retirement in January 2019.

#6 Mikhail Botvinnik

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World Chess Champion from 1948 to 1963 (with two brief interludes) and a top player for nearly 30 years, GM Mikhail Botvinnik is sometimes referred to as the “father of the Soviet chess school.” Botvinnik was a master of systematic and strategic planning, yet his approach was governed by iron logic and adaptability. Because of his versatility, he could play in a variety of playing styles throughout.

After winning the championship in 1948, he successfully defended it in 1951 against Grandmaster David Bronstein and in 1954 against Grandmaster Vassily Smyslov. Smyslov won the championship in 1957, but Botvinnik avenged that loss by defeating him in a rematch the following year. Botvinnik lost to Tal in 1960, but the tables were turned in 1961 when Botvinnik defeated Tal again.

Botvinnik was dethroned as world champion by Petrosian in 1963, although he remained a formidable opponent until his retirement in 1970. In 1963, Botvinnik opened a chess academy where he taught three future world champions: Anatoly Karpov, Garry Kasparov, and Vladimir Kramnik. 

#5 Anatoly Karpov

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GM Anatoly Karpov ruled as world champion from 1975 to 1985 and again from 1993 to 1999 as the FIDE world champion. Although Karpov was a master of several styles of play, positional binds, preventive play, and endgame tactics were his forte.

After Fischer withdrew from their 1975 encounter due to unmet demands, Karpov was declared the official world champion. Karpov successfully defended his title by beating Grandmaster Viktor Korchnoi twice, in 1978 and 1981. The chess world will never be the same when Karpov and Kasparov met for the first time in 1984.

The first of five encounters between the two chess legends was stopped before it could finish because Karpov had a commanding advantage (5 wins, 3 defeats, and 40 draws). Kasparov won the chess championship from Karpov in 1985. The final score of their rematches in 1986, 1987, and 1990 was 19 victories for Karpov, 21 wins for Kasparov, and 104 draws in world championship matches. 

Kasparov left FIDE in 1993 to form the Professional Chess Association (PCA), and Karpov succeeded him as FIDE world champion. In 1993, he beat GM Jan Timman, in 1996 he beat GM Gata Kamsky, and in 1998 he beat GM Anand (on tiebreaks) to retain his FIDE world championship. After FIDE altered the 1999 world championship event regulations, Karpov opted out of participating.

All positional and endgame players today may look to Karpov’s epic games as a source of motivation. Karpov’s Strategic Wins, a two-volume work by Tibor Karolyi, is widely regarded as a masterpiece of the modern chess and literature canon.

#4 Jose Raul Capablanca

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Capablanca, Jose Raul, was the third recognized world champion and perhaps the greatest chess player in history. From 1916 through 1924, he had a 40-win and 23-draw tournament record, which was unheard of at the time and is still impressive today. During those eight years, only some people could match Capablanca in terms of talent or technique. 

1921 Capablanca beat the great Lasker to win the global chess championship. Many people think that if Capablanca had been allowed to play Lasker or Alekhine again before 1921, he would have won both times and regained his crown. Unfortunately, Capablanca’s prime years as a player were sandwiched between World Wars I and II.

Capablanca had an exceptional talent for the endgame, but this is true of every world champion and challenger. His endgame play is so strong that it is impossible to find flaws in it even now, in the engine era of chess. The timeless work Capablanca’s Best Chess Endings by Irving Chernev.

Capablanca is the first chess player to win the world championship and maintain a new 8-year unbeaten streak.

#3 Bobby Fischer

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General Bobby Fischer was the 11th and second official world champion and only acknowledged world champion from the United States. Many people see him as the best chess player of all time. Fischer won 20 straight games against top-tier competition in 1970 and 1971, an astounding feat that is unlikely to be matched. This accomplishment is one of the seven most impressive in the history of chess.

Fischer won the “Match of the Century” and the world championship in 1972 despite being down 2-0 against Spassky after Spassky threw away game one in an even endgame and Fischer didn’t show up for game two. One of the greatest individual performances ever was Bobby Fischer’s destruction of the Soviet chess empire from 1970 to 1972, right in the middle of the Cold War.

He had a style that was fresh and innovative. He was a formidable attacker and defender, and his positional intelligence was frightening. Many chess players in the United States and others were motivated by Fischer. 

Fischer’s My 60 Memorable Games is widely regarded as one of the finest chess books ever written, and his “Game of the Century” is widely regarded as one of the greatest chess games of all time.

#2 Magnus Carlsen

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In 2019, Grandmaster Magnus Carlsen was the only player to hold the world championships simultaneously at all three time controls (standard, quick, and blitz). On April 21, 2014, at the age of 21, he set a new record by being the youngest player in history to earn a rating of 2800.

Carlsen has been the best player in the world since 2011 when he climbed to the top of the rankings. Carlsen set yet another record for the reigning world champion in February 2020 when he won 125 consecutive games using conventional time restrictions.

Carlsen, who at the time of writing was only 29 years old, has already amassed an impressive enough playing record to be rated number one player of two on our list of the top players of all time, and he may still achieve his peak playing power!

Carlsen defeated Anand in 2013 and won the world championship, becoming the second-youngest champion in history behind Kasparov. Carlsen has been able to successfully defend his championship four times, doing so against Grandmasters Anand in 2014, Sergey Karjakin in 2016, Fabiano Caruana in 2018, and Ian Nepomniachtchi in 2021.

Carlsen disputes that he deserves to be ranked first. A January 2020 interview quotes Carlsen as saying, “Kasparov had 20 years uninterrupted as the world number one… He must be considered the best in history.” Carlsen continues, “But I feel that time is on my side… I’m not 30 yet. If I were to be considered the best in history at 30, I would have had to start dominating at 10.”

#1 Garry Kasparov

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From 1985 through 2000, chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov reigned as world champion. He originally held the top spot in 1984, and with just a few brief interruptions, he remained there until 2006. Kasparov was unrivaled in the chess world for more than two decades.

On March 3, 2000, Kasparov achieved his highest rating of 2856, which remained unmatched until Carlsen surpassed it.

Kasparov, just 22 and a half years old, defeated Karpov in 1985 to become the youngest world champion in history. In 1986, 1987, and 1990, he successfully defended his world championship title against Karpov each time. He split from FIDE and founded the PCA in 1993, resulting in two distinct world championships until 2006’s unification match between Kramnik and Topalov.

Kasparov successfully defended his championship twice; the first was against GM Nigel Short in 1993, and the second was against GM Viswanathan Anand in 1995. Only Kasparov and Lasker have successfully defended their titles five times as world champions.

In 2000, Kramnik won the world championship by defeating Kasparov, the greatest player in history. Kasparov, however, kept playing in tournaments and won until he finally retired in 2005, at which point he was ranked as the best player in the world.

Kasparov has continued his chess career while being officially retired. He has tutored Carlsen and GM Hikaru Nakamura and has played in exhibition matches against them. One of the finest chess books ever written is his five-volume series, My Great Predecessors.

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