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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.

Statistical methods

Elo system

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:

(Though published in 1978, Elo's list did not include five-year averages for Bobby Fischer and Anatoly Karpov. It did list January 1978 ratings of 2780 for Fischer and 2725 for Karpov.)

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).

Table of top 20 rated players of all-time, with date their best ratings were first achieved
Rank Rating Player Year-month
011 2882 Magnus Carlsen 2014-05May 2014
022 2851 Garry Kasparov 1999-07 July 1999
033 2844 Fabiano Caruana 2014-10Oct. 2014
044 2830 Levon Aronian 2014-03Mar. 2014
055 2817 Viswanathan Anand 2011-03Mar. 2011
066 (tie) 2816 Veselin Topalov 2015-07July 2015
066 (tie) 2816 Hikaru Nakamura 2015-10Oct. 2015
088 2811 Vladimir Kramnik 2013-05May 2013
099 2810 Alexander Grischuk 2014-12Dec. 2014
1010 2798 Anish Giri 2015-10Oct. 2015
1111 2793 Teimour Radjabov 2012-11Nov. 2012
1212 (tie) 2788 Alexander Morozevich 2008-07July 2008
1212 (tie) 2788 Sergey Karjakin 2011-07July 2011
1212 (tie) 2788 Wesley So 2015-02Feb. 2015
1515 2787 Vassily Ivanchuk 2007-10Oct. 2007
1616 (tie) 2785 Bobby Fischer 1972-04Apr. 1972
1616 (tie) 2785 Maxime Vachier-Lagrave 2016-01Jan. 2016
1818 2782 Ding Liren 2015-09Sep. 2015
1919 2780 Anatoly Karpov 1994-07July 1994
2020 2777 Boris Gelfand 2013-11Nov. 2013

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:

  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

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.

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
3 Kasparov Capablanca Kramnik
4 Botvinnik Smyslov Kramnik; Botvinnik Kasparov Smyslov; Kasparov
5 Capablanca Karpov; Smyslov Botvinnik Karpov; Smyslov
6 Karpov Kramnik Smyslov Fischer
7 Smyslov; Tal Botvinnik; Alekhine Karpov Karpov; Lasker Botvinnik; Spassky Botvinnik; Spassky; Petrosian
8 Spassky; Lasker
9 Petrosian Anand Alekhine; Anand Anand
10 Euwe Tal; Spassky Anand Lasker; Petrosian Anand
11 Spassky Petrosian Petrosian; Spassky Tal
12 Alekhine; Anand Lasker; Euwe Tal; Alekhine Tal; Alekhine Alekhine; Lasker
13 Euwe; Tal
14 Lasker Petrosian Euwe Euwe Euwe
15 Morphy Morphy Morphy Steinitz Steinitz Steinitz
16 Steinitz Steinitz Steinitz - - -

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.

Subjective lists

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, writing: "In a set match he would beat anyone alive today."

In 1970 Fischer named Morphy, Steinitz, Capablanca, Botvinnik, Petrosian, Tal, Spassky, Reshevsky, Svetozar Gligorić and Bent Larsen the greatest chess players in history.

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)

In 2000, when Karpov, Korchnoi and Kasparov were still active, Anand listed his top 10 as: Fischer, Morphy, Lasker, Capablanca, Steinitz, Tal, Korchnoi, Keres, Karpov and Kasparov.

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 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".

Leonard Barden (2008)

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.

Levon Aronian (2012 and 2015)

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.

Magnus Carlsen (2012 and 2015)

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.

World Champions by world title reigns

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
Emanuel Lasker 6 6 27 27
Garry Kasparov 6 4 2 8 7 15
Anatoly Karpov 6 3 3 10 6 16
Mikhail Botvinnik 5 5 13 13
Viswanathan Anand 5 4 1 6 2 8
Alexander Alekhine 4 4 17 17
Wilhelm Steinitz 4 4 8 8
Vladimir Kramnik 3 1 2 1 6 7
Tigran Petrosian 2 2 6 6
Magnus Carlsen 2 2 2 2
José Raúl Capablanca 1 1 6 6
Boris Spassky 1 1 3 3
Bobby Fischer 1 1 3 3
Max Euwe 1 1 2 2
Vasily Smyslov 1 1 1 1
Mikhail Tal 1 1 1 1
Ruslan Ponomariov 1 1 2 2
Alexander Khalifman 1 1 1 1
Rustam Kasimdzhanov 1 1 1 1
Veselin Topalov 1 1 1 1

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