Comparison of top chess players throughout history
This article presents a number of methodologies that have been suggested for the task of comparing the greatest chess players in history. Statistical methods offer objectivity but, while there is agreement on systems to rate the strengths of current players, there is disagreement on whether such techniques can be applied to players from different generations who never competed against each other.
- 1 Statistical methods
- 2 Moves played compared with computer choices
- 3 Subjective lists
- 3.1 Bobby Fischer (1964 and 1970)
- 3.2 Irving Chernev (1974)
- 3.3 Miguel Quinteros (1992)
- 3.4 Viswanathan Anand (2000, 2008 and 2012)
- 3.5 Chess Informant readers (2001)
- 3.6 David Edmonds and John Eidinow (2004)
- 3.7 Vladimir Kramnik (2005 and 2011)
- 3.8 Leonard Barden (2008)
- 3.9 Levon Aronian (2012)
- 3.10 Magnus Carlsen (2012)
- 4 World Champions by world title reigns
- 5 See also
- 6 References
Perhaps the best-known statistical model is that devised by Arpad Elo in 1960 and further elaborated on in his 1978 book The Rating of Chessplayers, Past and Present, he gave ratings to players corresponding to their performance over the best five-year span of their career. According to this system the highest ratings achieved were:
- 2725: José Raúl Capablanca
- 2720: Mikhail Botvinnik, Emanuel Lasker
- 2700: Mikhail Tal
- 2690: Alexander Alekhine, Paul Morphy, Vasily Smyslov.
As of August 2014, there were 95 chess players in history who broke 2700 and seven of them exceeded 2800. Particularly notable are the peak ratings of Fischer, Karpov and Kasparov, who achieved their peak ratings in earlier years (1972, 1994, and 1999 respectively).
Table of top 20 rated players of all-time, with date their best ratings were first achieved Rank Rating Player Year-month 1 2882 Magnus Carlsen May 2014 2 2851 Garry Kasparov July 1999 3 2844 Fabiano Caruana Oct. 2014 4 2830 Levon Aronian Mar. 2014 5 2817 Viswanathan Anand Mar. 2011 6 2813 Veselin Topalov July 2006 7 2811 Vladimir Kramnik May 2013 8 2797 Alexander Grischuk Oct. 2014 9 2793 Teimour Radjabov Nov. 2012 10 2789 Hikaru Nakamura Jan. 2014 11 (tie) 2788 Alexander Morozevich July 2008 11 2788 Sergey Karjakin July 2011 13 2787 Vassily Ivanchuk Oct. 2007 14 2785 Bobby Fischer Apr. 1972 15 2780 Anatoly Karpov July 1994 16 2777 Boris Gelfand Nov. 2013 17 2775 Shakhriyar Mamedyarov Aug. 2013 18 2769 Peter Svidler May 2013 19 (tie) 2768 Leinier Domínguez May 2014 19 (tie) 2768 Maxime Vachier-Lagrave Aug. 2014 19 (tie) 2768 Anish Giri Oct. 2014
Average rating over time
The average Elo rating of top players has risen over time. For instance, the average of the top 10 active players rose from 2751 in July 2000 to 2794 in July 2014, a 43-point increase in 14 years. The average rating of the top 100 players, meanwhile, increased from 2644 to 2703, a 59-point increase. Many people believe that this rise is mostly due to a system artifact known as ratings inflation, making it impractical to compare players of different eras.
Arpad Elo was of the opinion that it was futile to attempt to use ratings to compare players from different eras; in his view, they could only possibly measure the strength of a player as compared to his or her contemporaries. He also stated that the process of rating players was in any case rather approximate; he compared it 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".
Many statisticians since Elo have devised similar methods to retrospectively rate players. Jeff Sonas' rating system is called "Chessmetrics". This system takes account of many games played after the publication of Elo's book, and claims to take account of the rating inflation that the Elo system has allegedly suffered.
One caveat is that a Chessmetrics rating takes into account the frequency of play. According to Sonas, "As soon as you go a month without playing, your Chessmetrics rating will start to drop."
Sonas, like Elo, claims that it is impossible to compare the strength of players from different eras, saying:
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.
Nevertheless Sonas' website does compare players from different eras. Including data until December 2004, the ratings were:
|Rank||1-year peak||5-year peak||10-year peak||15-year peak||20-year peak|
|1||Bobby Fischer, 2881||Garry Kasparov, 2875||Garry Kasparov, 2863||Garry Kasparov, 2862||Garry Kasparov, 2856|
|2||Garry Kasparov, 2879||Emanuel Lasker, 2854||Emanuel Lasker, 2847||Anatoly Karpov, 2820||Anatoly Karpov, 2818|
|3||Mikhail Botvinnik, 2871||José Capablanca, 2843||Anatoly Karpov, 2821||Emanuel Lasker, 2816||Emanuel Lasker, 2809|
|4||José Capablanca, 2866||Mikhail Botvinnik, 2843||José Capablanca, 2813||José Capablanca, 2798||Alexander Alekhine, 2781|
|5||Emanuel Lasker, 2863||Bobby Fischer, 2841||Bobby Fischer, 2810||Alexander Alekhine, 2794||Viktor Korchnoi, 2766|
|6||Alexander Alekhine, 2851||Anatoly Karpov, 2829||Mikhail Botvinnik, 2810||Mikhail Botvinnik, 2789||Vasily Smyslov, 2759|
In 2005, Sonas used Chessmetrics to evaluate historical annual performance ratings and came to the conclusion that Kasparov was dominant for the most years, followed by Karpov and Lasker. He also published the following list of the highest ratings ever attained according to calculations done at the start of each month:
Rank Rating Player 1 2895 Bobby Fischer 2 2886 Garry Kasparov 3 2885 Mikhail Botvinnik 4 2878 Emanuel Lasker 5 2877 José Capablanca 6 2860 Alexander Alekhine 7 2848 Anatoly Karpov 8 2833 Viswanathan Anand 9 2826 Vladimir Kramnik 10 2826 Wilhelm Steinitz
Warriors of the Mind
In contrast to Elo and Sonas's systems, Raymond Keene and Nathan Divinsky's book Warriors of the Mind attempts to establish a rating system claiming to compare directly the strength of players active in different eras, and so determine the strongest player of all time. Considering games played between sixty-four of the strongest players in history, they came up with the following top ten:
These "Divinsky numbers" are not on the same scale as Elo ratings (the last person on the list, Johannes Zukertort, has a Divinsky number of 873, which would be a beginner-level Elo rating). Keene and Divinsky's system has met with limited acceptance, and Warriors of the Mind has been accused of arbitrarily selecting players and bias towards modern players.
Moves played compared with computer choices
A computer-based method of analyzing chess abilities across history came from Matej Guid and Ivan Bratko from the Department of Computer and Information Science of University of Ljubljana, Slovenia, in 2006. The basis for their evaluation was the difference between the position values resulting from the moves played by the human chess player and the moves chosen as best by the chess program Crafty. They compared the average number of errors in the player's game. Opening moves were excluded, in an attempt to negate the progress in chess opening theory.
The method received a number of criticisms, including: the study used a modified version of Crafty rather than the standard version; even the standard version of Crafty was not strong enough to evaluate the world champions' play; one of the modifications restricted the search depth to 12 half-moves, which is often insufficient. As of 2006 Crafty's Elo rating was 2657, below many historical top human players and several other computer programs.
|Position||best year||best 2-year period||best 3-year period||best 5-year period||best 10-year period||best 15-year period|
|1||Fischer||Fischer||Fischer||Fischer; Kasparov||Fischer; Capablanca||Capablanca|
|2||Kramnik||Kramnik; Capablanca; Kasparov||Capablanca; Kasparov||Karpov; Kramnik|
|4||Botvinnik||Smyslov||Kramnik; Botvinnik||Kasparov||Smyslov; Kasparov|
|5||Capablanca||Karpov; Smyslov||Botvinnik||Karpov; Smyslov|
|7||Smyslov; Tal||Botvinnik; Alekhine||Karpov||Karpov; Lasker||Botvinnik; Spassky||Botvinnik; Spassky; Petrosian|
|10||Euwe||Tal; Spassky||Anand||Lasker; Petrosian||Anand|
|12||Alekhine; Anand||Lasker; Euwe||Tal; Alekhine||Tal; Alekhine||Alekhine; Lasker|
An analysis done with Rybka 3 and comparisons with modern ratings can be found at http://www.scribd.com/doc/132380754/Chess-Player-Analysis-by-Rybka-3-14ply.
A study by Chess-DB, based on an analysis of over 50,000 chess games, claims that the "strength" of a player as determined by the method of Matej Guid and Ivan Bratko correlates with the Elo rating strength of modern players.
Many prominent players and chess writers have offered their own rankings of the greatest players.
Bobby Fischer (1964 and 1970)
In 1964 Bobby Fischer listed his top 10 in Chessworld magazine: Morphy, Staunton, Steinitz, Tarrasch, Chigorin, Alekhine, Capablanca, Spassky, Tal, Reshevsky. He considered Morphy the best, saying "In a set match he would beat anyone alive today."
Irving Chernev (1974)
In 1974, popular chess author Irving Chernev published an article titled Who were the greatest? in the English magazine CHESS. He followed this up with his 1976 book The Golden Dozen, in which he ranked his all-time top twelve: 1. Capablanca, 2. Alekhine, 3. Lasker, 4. Fischer, 5. Botvinnik, 6. Petrosian, 7. Tal, 8. Smyslov, 9. Spassky, 10. Bronstein, 11. Rubinstein, and 12. Nimzowitsch.
Miguel Quinteros (1992)
In a 1992 interview GM Miguel Quinteros gave the opinion: "I think Fischer was and still is the greatest chess player of all time. [...] During his absence other good chess players have appeared. But no one equals Fischer's talent and perfection."
Viswanathan Anand (2000, 2008 and 2012)
When interviewed in 2008 shortly after Fischer's death, he ranked Fischer and Kasparov as the greatest, with Kasparov a little ahead by virtue of being on top for so many years.
In 2012, Anand stated that he considered Fischer the greatest, because of the hurdles he faced.
Chess Informant readers (2001)
Svetozar Gligorić reported in his book Shall We Play Fischerandom Chess? (Batsford, 2002):
At the beginning of 2001 a large poll for the "Ten Greatest Chess Players of the 20th Century, selected by Chess Informant readers" resulted in Fischer having the highest percentage of votes and finishing as No. 1, ahead of Kasparov, Alekhine, Capablanca, Botvinnik, Karpov, Tal, Lasker, Anand and Korchnoi.
David Edmonds and John Eidinow (2004)
BBC award-winning journalists, from their book Bobby Fischer Goes to War: How the Soviets Lost the Most Extraordinary Chess Match of All Time (HarperCollins, 2004):
Fischer, some will maintain, was the outstanding player in chess history, though there are powerful advocates too for Lasker, Capablanca, Alekhine, and Kasparov. Many chess players will dismiss such comparisons as meaningless, akin to the futile attempt to grade the supreme musicians of all time. But the manner in which Fischer stormed his way to Reykjavik, his breathtaking dominance at the Palma de Majorca Interzonal, the trouncings of Taimanov, Larsen, and Petrosian—all this was unprecedented. There never has been an era in modern chess during which one player has so overshadowed all others.
Vladimir Kramnik (2005 and 2011)
In an interview in 2011, Vladimir Kramnik said about Anand: "I always considered him to be a colossal talent, one of the greatest in the whole history of chess", "I think that in terms of play Anand is in no way weaker than Kasparov", and "In the last 5–6 years he's made a qualitative leap that's made it possible to consider him one of the great chess players".
Leonard Barden (2008)
Levon Aronian (2012)
Magnus Carlsen (2012)
World Champions by world title reigns
|This section does not cite any references or sources. (June 2013)|
The number of world championship wins, or world championship reigns, is considered by some as a measure of chess greatness. The table below organises the world champions in order of championship wins. (For the purpose of this table, a successful defence counts as a win, even if the match was drawn.) The table is made more complicated by the split between the "Classical" and FIDE world titles between 1993 and 2006.
|Champion||Total||Undisputed||FIDE||Classical||Years as Undisputed Champion||Years as FIDE/Classical Champion||Total reign|
|José Raúl Capablanca||1||1||6||6|
- Arpad E. Elo, The Rating of Chessplayers, Past and Present, Arco, 1978. ISBN 0-668-04721-6.
- Arpad Emre Elo – 100th anniversary, Chessbase, 2003
- This table is based on one created by Przemek Jahr of Poland, which was reported in Chessbase 2-7-2005. FIDE ratings were officially compiled and released quarterly, in January, April, July, and October until July 2009. Starting in July 2009 they were released every two-monthly basis, and since July 2012 FIDE publishes its ratings monthly.
- All time Top 100 by Highest Elo Rating
- Kramnik possibly reached 2811 in 2002-01. This is the information provided on the FIDE site (), but it is contradicted by FIDE's published ratings for January () and April () 2002, as well as by the reports in The Week in Chess for January () and April () 2002. The source of disagreement is whether FIDE rated or not his four-game match against Kasparov in December 2001.
- World Top chess players and Statistics at FIDE.com
- "ChessBase News | Rating inflation – its causes and possible cures". Chessbase.com. 2009-07-27. Retrieved 2013-10-21.
- Chess Life, 1962.
- The Greatest Chess Player of All Time – Part I, Jeff Sonas, at Chessbase
- About the Chessmetrics Rating System, by Jeff Sonas
- "Peak Average Ratings: 1 year peak range".
- "Peak Average Ratings: 5 year peak range".
- "Peak Average Ratings: 10 year peak range".
- "Peak Average Ratings: 15 year peak range".
- "Peak Average Ratings: 20 year peak range".
- Sonas, J. (2005). "The Greatest Chess Player of All Time – Part IV". Chessbase. Part IV gives links to the 3 earlier parts
- Sonas, J. (2005). "The Greatest Chess Player of All Time – Part II". Chessbase.
- Warriors of the Mind, Raymond Keene and Nathan Divinsky, (1989)
- Divinsky-Keene rankings
- Hooper, David; Whyld, Kenneth (1992). The Oxford Companion to Chess. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-280049-3.
- Winter, Edward (1996). Chess Explorations. Cadogan. ISBN 1-85744-171-0.
- Computers choose: who was the strongest player?, Chessbase, 2006
- Review of "Computer Analysis of World Chess Champions", by Søren Riis, Chessbase, 2006
- "Compare the World Champions!", by Charles Sullivan, TrueChess, 2007
- "by Charles Sullivan". Truechess.com. Retrieved 2013-10-21.
- "by Charles Sullivan". Truechess.com. Retrieved 2013-10-21.
- Chess Play Quality Index, Chess-db.com, 2013
- Bobby Fischer, "The Ten Greatest Masters in History", Chessworld, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Jan.-Feb. 1964), pp. 56–61.
- "Fischer's Top 10".
- the Even More Complete Chess Addict, by Mike Fox and Richard James, 1993, pp. 129–30
- CHESS magazine, November 1970, p. 70
- CHESS magazine, April 1974, pp. 201-202
- Twelve Great Chess Players and Their Best Games, Irving Chernev, 1995 (reprint of 1976 edition).
- Seirawan, Yasser; Stefanovic, George (1992). "Belgrade; Interview with GM Miguel Quinteros". No Regrets • Fischer–Spassky 1992. International Chess Enterprises. p. 255. ISBN 1-879479-09-5.
- The Grandmaster on his ten greatest chess players, Viswanathan Anand, rediff.com
- "He (Fischer) and Kasparov were the greatest in history, but I judge Kasparov as a little ahead. Fischer was a phenomenon from 1970 to 1972 while Kasparov was on top for many years." – Morelia-Linares Super-GM starts today, Chessbase, 15 February 2008
- Anand takes a dig at Kasparov, Viswanathan Anand, The Hindu
- Gligorić, Svetozar (2002). Shall We Play Fischerandom Chess?. B.T. Batsford Ltd. p. 8. ISBN 0-7134-8764-X.
- Edmonds, David; Eidinow, John (2004). Bobby Fischer Goes to War. HarperCollins Publishers Inc. p. 310. ISBN 0-06-051024-2.
- "The most important interviews by GM Vladimir Kramnik, World Chess Champion 2000-2007". Kramnik.com. Retrieved 2013-10-21.
- "Vladimir Kramnik on Chess, Anand, Topalov, and his future". 2011-08-31.
- "Most experts place him (Fischer) the second or third best ever, behind Kasparov but probably ahead of Karpov." – Obituary of Bobby Fischer, Leonard Barden, The Guardian, 19 January 2008
- "Aronian names Alekhine best player of all time". WhyChess. 2012-08-22. Retrieved 2013-10-21.
- "Magnus Carlsen: - Jeg tar verdensrekorden - VG Nett om Sjakk". Vg.no. 1970-01-01. Retrieved 2013-10-21.