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.
Read main article: Elo rating system
Read main article: List of chess players by peak FIDE rating
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:
In 1970, FIDE adopted Elo's system for rating current players, so one way to compare players of different eras is to compare their Elo ratings. The best-ever Elo ratings are tabulated below.
As of December 2015, there were 101 chess players in history who broke 2700 and nine 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).
|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 (tie)||2816||Veselin Topalov||July 2015|
|6 (tie)||2816||Hikaru Nakamura||Oct. 2015|
|8||2811||Vladimir Kramnik||May 2013|
|9||2810||Alexander Grischuk||Dec. 2014|
|10||2798||Anish Giri||Oct. 2015|
|11||2793||Teimour Radjabov||Nov. 2012|
|12 (tie)||2788||Alexander Morozevich||July 2008|
|12 (tie)||2788||Sergey Karjakin||July 2011|
|12 (tie)||2788||Wesley So||Feb. 2015|
|15||2787||Vassily Ivanchuk||Oct. 2007|
|16 (tie)||2785||Bobby Fischer||Apr. 1972|
|16 (tie)||2785||Maxime Vachier-Lagrave||Jan. 2016|
|18||2782||Ding Liren||Sep. 2015|
|19||2780||Anatoly Karpov||July 1994|
|20||2777||Boris Gelfand||Nov. 2013|
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:
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.
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.
A similar project was conducted in 2007 using Rybka 2.3.2a and a modified version of Crafty 20.14. It arrived at the following results:
|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 .
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.
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, writing: "In a set match he would beat anyone alive today."
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
In a 2005 interview, Vladimir Kramnik (World Champion from 2000 to 2007) stated, "The other world champions had something 'missing'. I can't say the same about Kasparov: he can do everything."
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".
In his 2008 obituary of Bobby Fischer, Leonard Barden wrote that most experts ranked Kasparov as the greatest ever, with either Fischer or Karpov second.
In a 2012 interview, Levon Aronian stated that he considers Alexander Alekhine the greatest player of all time.
In a 2015 interview after the 8th round of the Sinquefield Cup, Levon Aronian stated that he considers Garry Kasparov the greatest player of all time.
In 2012, Magnus Carlsen said that Kasparov is the greatest player of all time, adding that while Fischer may have been better at his best, Kasparov remained at the top for much longer.
In December 2015, he repeated his great respect to both R. J. Fischer and G. K. Kasparov when he mentioned them several times in an interview, saying he would like to play against them at their peak performance. Also, he said he liked the style of play and games of Vladimir Kramnik. As the toughest opponent to beat nowadays he named Levon Aronian.
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|