Quick Summary: Who are the Greatest Chess Players of All Time?
- The greatest chess players of all time is a bone of much contention among chess fans the world over, and the source of many hours of (hopefully friendly) debate!
- Much of the discussion should take into account a series of key questions: How to calculate greatness? What chess achievements hold weight over others? What would happen if these greats could play each other?
- To this last point, there is another interesting debate to be had over how to calculate historical ELO differences, taking into account the impact of modern preparation and computer-backed analysis vs natural talent.
Without wanting to cite Webster’s Online Dictionary here, before we begin discussing the greatest chess players of all time, it is worth pointing out that greatness is a wholly subjective, personal, and elusive concept, and that everyone mentioned on this page was in different ways great both at and for chess. Due to this chess writer’s particular lack of interest in controversy, the following list will be presented in chronological order, followed by a list of honourable mentions who more than likely deserve to be included in the list itself.
So, navigating historical rating differences, chess politics, years at the top, cultural relevance, impact on chess theory, and work in establishing the game of chess as a global cultural phenomenon, we present to you our list of the greatest chess players of all time, including credentials, playing styles, and achievements to inspire you to your own personal chess greatness.
Twelve of the Greatest Chess Players of All Time
Stepping back in time to one of the undisputed historical chess greats, let’s revisit the heyday of Emanuel Lasker, the German mathematician, philosopher, playwright, and chess master. Lasker held the title of World Chess Champion for no less than 27 years – from 1894-1921 – the longest reign of all time.
Lasker’s reign was a long one, and he saw many challengers come and go. He first gained the title by defeating Wilhelm Steinitz (the man who led the chess world from the days of giddy Romanticism to principled reason), and these two players would maintain a fierce rivalry – facing off in 1894 and 1896 in World Championship matches, with Lasker retaining his title on both occasions. Over the years he also defended his title against would-be champions such as Carl Schlecter (who came within a hair’s breadth of victory), David Janowski, Siegbert Tarrasch and Frank Marshall. After much wrangling, several failed attempts, bitter arguments, and one World War, Lasker and José Raúl Capablanca finally faced off in Havana in 1921, with the younger Capablanca succeeding to the crown.
Though Lasker didn’t take on any direct apprentices à la Botvinnik, he was responsible for introducing several novelties into the game, including the stunning double bishop sacrifice in this match against Johann Hermann Bauer, which saw the tactical maneuver named after him (although he wasn’t the first to use it in a match – John Owen deployed it first, but went on to lose the game and naming rights!) Lasker was dubious of much of the opening theory at the time (though he did follow Steinitz’s freshly developed chess principles) and instead focussed on playing flexible, patient chess, often inducing deeply strategic complications to make the most of his usually superior positional understanding.
But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t tactically astute! Here’s a quick look at that double bishop sacrifice reached after a Bird opening that continued 1.f4 d5 2.e3 Nf6 3.b3 e6 4.Bb2 Be7 5.Bd3 b6 6.Nc3 Bb7 7.Nf3 Nbd7 8.0-0 0-0 9.Ne2 c5 10.Ng3 Qc7 11.Ne5 Nxe5 12.Bxe5 Qc6 13.Qe2 a6 14.Nh5 until the following position:
Black continues 14…Nxh5, and Lasker lets fly with the bishops! 15.Bxh7+ Kxh7 16.Qxh5+ Kg8 17.Bxg7 Kxg7:
Lasker has dramatically given up both his bishops, but believe it or not, the game is won for White! He brings his queen to g4 with check, lifts the rook to f3, and forces Black to surrender his queen to avoid checkmate with 19… e5 20.Rh3+ Qh6 21.Rxh6+. After also picking up a bishop with a handy fork with Qd7, the material advantage is decisive for Lasker, and his double bishop sacrifice went down in history.
Nice, right? Take a look at some of Lasker’s best checkmates!
José Raúl Capablanca
José Raúl Capablanca was a Cuban master and World Champion who dominated world chess for much of the first 30 years of the 20th Century, earning the nickname “The Human Chess Machine” for his unnerving endgame technique and ability to find the best move after a quick glance at a complicated position. Despite strong international results as early as 1911 (winning a large tournament in San Sebastian ahead of a strong field featuring other greats Aron Nimzowitsch, Akiba Rubinstein, and Siegbert Tarrasch), it was difficult in the early 1900s to get a world championship game, and Capablanca spent several years attempting to play the reigning champ, having to wait out World War I before he could finally face Emanuel Lasker in 1921 and secure his place at the top.
Throughout this period, and including the World Championship match with Lasker, Capablanca was undefeated, on a streak that lasted from 1926 to 1924. When he did lose, it was a great surprise to the chess world (coming at the hands of one Richard Reti), and not long before he surrendered the World Championship title to Alexander Alekhine, in 1927.
Capablanca’s style was extremely influential on several members of this list, including but not limited to Bobby Fischer, Vladimir Krarmnik, and Magnus Carlsen. Mikhail Botvinnik was also a fan, considering Capablanca’s Chess Fundamentals the best chess book of all time. Most tellingly of all, on the great Cuban’s death, his rival Emanuel Lasker said: “I have known many chess players, but only one chess genius: Capablanca.”
A favourite among grandmasters throughout the ages, Alexander Alekhine’s place on the list of greatest chess players could never be in doubt. This French-Russian chess luminary held the title of World Champion from 1927 (with a hiatus from 1935-1937 following defeat to Max Euwe) until his death in 1946. He is also the only player ever to have died holding the title.
Alekhine’s style was aggressive, direct, and considered to be wildly ahead of his time. Besides his strong positional understanding and exemplary technique in all phases of the game, above all he was revered for his ability to calculate much deeper than his contemporaries, often delivering checkmate after a complex series of forcing moves that his opponents had not even considered. Max Euwe described him as “a poet who creates a work of art out of something that would hardly inspire another man to send home a picture postcard”. Garry Kasparov, Bobby Fischer, Mikhail Botvinnik, and Levon Aronian are among many others who have also eulogized Alekhine.
As well as writing several books on chess and creating a series of acclaimed endgame studies, Alekhine also has his own opening named after him — Alekhine’s Defense (1.e4 Nf6) — and many variations across a variety of openings, including the French Defense, the Dutch Defense, the Sicilian, the Slav, Catalan, and Queen’s Gambit Accepted! There is no doubt that he is one of the greatest pawn-pushers ever to have lived.
An absolute giant of chess, Mikhail Botvinnik was the first top player to emerge from the Soviet Union, and his impact on the game is as undeniable as it is vast. As well as holding on to the title of world champion for 15 years, from 1948 (when he won a quintuple round-robin tournament format that he helped to design, following the death of Alekhine in ‘46) until 1963, when he was definitively dethroned by Tigran Petrosian. During this period, Botvinnik lost two world championship matches to Mikhail Tal and Vasily Smyslov, but won both the rematches that the rules at the time permitted him.
Beyond his competitive success at the board, Botvinnik’s innovative approach to chess success also contributed to the preparation and research techniques that would go on to define the famously strong Soviet School of Chess, leading to years of Soviet domination based in no small part on the Botvinnik-inspired scientific approach to chess openings. He also taught the ropes to such greats as Karpov, Kasparov, and Kramnik at his own chess academy.
Botvinnik left a serious theoretical footprint, including the Botvinnik Variation of the Semi-Slav Defense, the Botvinnik English system, as well as variations in the Queen’s Gambit Declined, the Caro-Kann, and French Defenses. Check out the renowned Botvinnik English System:
Not only that, he was also a renowned electrical engineer and was a driving force behind the research and development of the possibilities of artificial intelligence in chess and beyond the board. Quite the chess legacy!
Start playing like Botvinnik, with the course: The Iron English: Botvinnik Variation by GM Simon Williams!
Next up is Mikhail Tal, “The magician from Riga”. This Latvian/Soviet genius is one of the most beloved chess figures from history, due to his endless imagination, improvisation, and brilliancy over the board.
One of the all-time attacking greats, Tal’s style was defined by dazzling moments of attacking flair. He would often sacrifice material in return for an initiative, and had the ability to find remarkable, surprising combinations where others would see nothing. Speaking of his approach to chess, Tal said: “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.” Let’s take a look at a typical example of Tal’s play, from a game against Vasily Smyslov in 1959 (probably the best player in the world at that time). Here is the position, White (Tal) to move, after Smyslov played Nf6:
Can you see the move? 19.Qxf7!! What!? Tal sacrifices his queen in outrageous style. What was the continuation? Well, if the rook captures on f7, 20.Rd8+ would lead to smothered mate if 20…Ng8 21.Nxf7#, so Smyslov is actually bafflingly short on options here. In the game he played 19…Qa1+, cleverly forcing the king to block the d-file rook, but after 20.Kd2 Rxf7 21.Nxf7+ Kg8 22.Rxa1 Kxf7, Tal finishes up an exchange, and on the way to victory. This type of unpredictable attack is a constant feature of Tal’s fearless play, and part of what makes him such a revered player.
Tal became World Champion in 1960, defeating Mikhail Botvinnik in 1960 through a whirlwind of tactical complexities and daring wins. However, he only held the title briefly, after Botvinnik took advantage of his rematch rule to regain the title a year later after the engineer Botvinnik maneuvered the play into slower, more positional struggles.
He also suffered from ill-health, and despite strong results never had another chance at the world crown, but Tal’s swashbuckling attacks, instinctive combinations, and jaw-dropping sacrifices have inspired chess players throughout the ages to throw the kitchen sink at their opponents.
If you want to attack like Tal, it’s a good idea to make sure you have the right foundations in place… and who better to learn from than the man himself? Check out the course: Forwarding and Reversing the Tactics of Mikhail Tal Part 1: 1949-1970, with trainable exercises based on 170+ tactical positions from the games of the Latvian master.
Bobby, Bobby, Bobby. Robert James “Bobby” Fischer, the eleventh World Chess Champion and many people’s champion of champions, is regarded as one of the greatest individual sportsmen of all time, let alone chess players.
From a young age, Fischer appeared destined for greatness. At just 13, he won a game that went down in history as “The Game of the Century”, and became the youngest GM of all time (then) two years later. But he was just getting started. Apart from the total dominance he showed on the chess board, the geo-political context of his World Championship match against Spassky in 1972 – billed as a Cold War clash between the US and Soviet Union — made the fact of his victory an event that transcended chess. Add to that the subsequent narrative of his refusal to defend his title, fallout with FIDE, sudden disappearance and mysterious 20-year obscurity, and subsequent return to defeat Spassky, and you should get an idea of why Fischer is one of the most well-known and fabled chess greats. The lore of his rise to the top and eventual fall from grace is depicted in several movies, biographies, and documentaries. He is probably the best known chess player of all time.
If his story somehow wasn’t enough to convince you Fischer belongs in this list, his contribution to chess also includes a whole raft of theoretical variations named after him, or revived by him (from the Ruy Lopez exchange to Gruenfeld to the Nimzo-Indian) to the creation the creation of his own variant of the game, Fischer random chess (aka Chess 960), and a must-read classic of chess literature My 60 Memorable Games.
For more insight into how Fischer played the game, check out this piece on Fischer’s dominance, by Malcolm Pein.
1951 – present
Next up, the man Fischer refused to defend his title against in 1975, the Russian World Champion, Anatoly Karpov!
Though Karpov gained the title due to Fischer’s resignation, there is no doubt he was a worthy World Champion. He reigned from 1975-1985 and then again from 1993 (after his arch rival Garry Kasparov and Nigel Short broke away from FIDE to play their own World Championship match) until 1999 (when Karpov himself resigned in protest of FIDE’s new rules about how the title would be defended).
Resignations and top-level chess politics aside, Karpov was a master chess player, known for his exceptional resourcefulness, positional solidity, and ruthless conversion of even the most minute advantage. His epic rivalry with Garry Kasparov yielded some of the most gripping drama the chess world has ever seen. In particular, the 1984 battle for the World Champion title between the pair lasted for 5 months and 48 games (this match permitted unlimited draws) before the match was controversially abandoned, citing both players’ health.
1963 – present
If this list were organized by greatness, in all likelihood Garry Kasparov would have to be at number one. World Champion for 15 years, he is almost unilaterally acknowledged as the strongest player of all time, and his impact on chess is likely unequalled. A student of Botvinnik’s famous chess school, Kasparov ushered in a new age of innovation into how the game is played, trailblazing the use of computer preparation in particular. His opening preparation was feared, his ability to calculate devastating attacks unrivalled, and his will to win the stuff of legend.
Beyond his successes in competitive chess (including the all-time record for the most consecutive tournament wins – 15 tournaments in a row!) Kasparov has done more to promote and popularize chess than any other. A notable highlight of a ream of events and projects dedicated to bringing chess into popular culture, Kasparov was at the forefront of the rise of AI in chess, playing a series of event matches against progressively more sophisticated machine opposition before eventually losing to the IBM supercomputer, Deep Blue in a 1997 showdown that would go down in history. Here is the final position of the final game vs Deep Blue, in which Kasparov (as Black) resigned, losing the match:
Kasparov is also a prolific writer, and author of a vast bibliography covering chess, politics, and culture. The height of his contribution to chess literature is the My Great Predecessors series (now available as a Chessable course!), in which Kasparov devotes five volumes to the chess players that shaped his own career. For more on this chess great, read our account of Kasparov’s rise to the World Championship title, in particular his double match-up with Karpov.
1975 – present
And so we come to Vladimir Kramnik, the man who defeated Kasparov and reigned the chess world from 2000-2007. Known as The Iceman, or Vlad the Impaler, Kramnik’s style is marked by cool-headed precision and crushing endgame expertise. Kramnik was also the man who unified the FIDE and Classical world championship titles, which had been split since Kasparov and Short’s 1993 anti-FIDE mutiny.
Kramnik is one of the most pragmatic players of all time. See as evidence his tactical masterstroke of adopting and reviving the Berlin Defense to neutralize Kasparov’s legendary opening prowess in the Ruy Lopez in the 2000 Classical World Championship showdown. Read this to learn exactly how Kramnik prized the chess World Champion title from Kasparov. As well as skyrocketing the popularity of the Berlin Defense at high-level chess, Kramnik also single-handedly revived the Catalan Opening, and made serious theoretical contributions to the Petroff Defense, the Réti, and White’s approach to the King’s Indian Defence to name just a few of his spheres of influence on the game! Another of Kramnik’s excellent nicknames is “the KID Killer”, as his preparation and results against this defense (popular during his heyday) meant that nobody, not even Kasparov, dared play it against him.
After resigning from competitive chess in 2019, Kramnik has dedicated himself to furthering chess education, sharing his knowledge and spreading his love for the sport. Lucky for us (and you) GM Kramnik has Chessable courses ready for you to study, including a highly instructional opening lesson: Understanding Chess Openings: 1. e4 – Part 1, a free opening lesson, and a frankly brilliant guide to thinking in chess.
1976 – present
Now for a true chess great, and without doubt the strongest female chess player ever: Hungary’s Judit Polgár! One of three prodigiously talented sisters, including Susan Polgár, who became Women’s World Champion, Judit Polgár received the title of Grandmaster at just 15 years of age, breaking the record previously held by one Bobby Fischer for youngest to achieve the title.
Unlike her sister Susan, Judit never competed for the Women’s World Champion title, preferring instead to play in men’s tournaments, and performing strongly in them! So strongly, in fact, she broke into the world top 10 in 1996, the only woman ever to do so. She defeated no fewer than 11 former world champions in her career, and even beat Garry Kasparov in a competitive game while he was still number 1.
Polgar’s chess was direct, aggressive, and lightning quick. With a rock-solid positional understanding, a highly respected tactical genius, and razor-sharp instincts, Polgár was renowned for making her opponents suffer over the board! Check out this attack from Polgár against Anatoly Karpov in 2003, with White (Polgár) to move after Karpov ill-advisedly took some time out to grab a pawn on a3:
25.Bxh7! Polgár strikes with a Greek Gift sacrifice, leading the Black king out to h7 and inducing Karpov to resign on the spot after 25… Kxh7 26.Qh5+. Can you see the continuation? 26…Kg8 27.Bxg7 Kxg7 28.Rg3+ Kf6 29.Qg5# Emmanuel Lasker, eat your heart out.
Read all about Judit Polgar’s stellar chess career in this dedicated blog post! Or, even better, improve your chess with her brilliant Chessable courses. Luckily for us, since retiring from competitive chess in 2014, Polgár has continued to share her talent with the chess world, captaining and coaching Hungary’s national team, setting up her own chess foundation for chess education, and creating amazing courses like the three part series Master Your Chess with Judit Polgar, Tactics Training – Judit Polgar, and this free lesson about punishing greedy opponents!
1969 – present
Next up is the much-loved five-time World Champion from India: Viswanathan “Vishy” Anand! Nicknamed “The Lightning Kid” as a youngster for his blistering speed on the board, Anand has been a major force in the chess world since becoming India’s first grandmaster at the age of 18.
After becoming FIDE World Chess Champion in 2002, Anand became the second undisputed World Chess Champion (after reunification) in 2007, defeating Vladimir Kramnik just a year after the unification match (in which Kramnik unified the FIDE and Classical titles). After defending this title against Kramnik, Veselin Topalov, and Boris Gelfand, Anand was finally unseated from the throne after defeat by Magnus Carlsen in 2013 in the World Championship, but remains a top player today, winning the FIDE World Rapid Chess Champion as recently as 2017 and captaining India to bronze at the 2021 Chess Olympiad.
A World Champion in rapid, blitz, and classical chess, and the fourth player ever to pass a FIDE rating of 2800 ELO, Vishy Anand is more than worth his place on any chess greats list!
1990 – present
What to say about Magnus Carlsen? Perhaps that he is quite simply the best chess player on the planet, and has been for some time. Carlsen has been the world’s number one since 2010, and reigning World Champion since 2013, when he usurped Vishy Anand in just 10 games. Since then Carlsen has been on top of the chess world, defending his WC title three times (against Anand, Sergey Karjakin, and Fabiano Caruana) and reaching a massive peak FIDE rating of 2882 – the highest in history! He is also the first player to ever hold the titles of World Chess Champion for Classical, Blitz, and Rapid chess at the same time (in 2014 and again in 2019).
Carlsen’s playing style is defined by overpowering strength in all directions. He is positionally and strategically dominant, tactically unerring, and perhaps the best endgame player of all time. Thanks to his computer-like technique, Carlsen has a handy knack of simply outplaying his opponents; even the smallest advantage is enough for the Norwegian to drill down and get the point. And for his opponents, not giving up that advantage is tough. Carlsen’s game is essentially devoid of weaknesses; instead of focussing on one or two openings, as the Botvinnik school of thought might suggest, Carlsen instead excels at almost every opening, using his universal strength to render the task of preparing to play him significantly more challenging. This prowess, matched with a steely determination to win, make Magnus a near-impossible opponent to face.
However, when asked if he is the greatest of all time, Magnus replied: “Kasparov had 20 years uninterrupted as the world No 1. And I would say for very few of those years was there any doubt that he was the best player. He must be considered as the best in history.” Typical modesty from the World #1, but with several years of chess playing ahead of him, who would bet against Magnus proving himself the greatest of all time?
Want to play like Magnus? Get the Magnus touch!
We would name this section the best of the rest, but honestly they could just as easily have been included in the above list. Here are a few additional chess greats you need to know about!
Touted by many as the most naturally gifted player ever, and definitely the strongest player of the 19th Century, the chess world we know today owes a debt to US master Paul Morphy and his brilliant attacking displays. Check out this free analysis of one of the absolute classic chess game: Morphy’s Opera House Game
Next up, “The Austrian Morphy”, Willhelm Steinitz! The first ever World Champion and the man who developed the chess opening principles that still rule the game today, Steinitz is another key figure in the history of chess. Check out this dedicated article all about his life and chess achievements!
Before Judit Polgár came along, the Georgian Grandmaster Maia Chiburdanidze was the strongest female chess player in town. She was women’s world champion for 13 years, from 1978 to 1991, reached #48 in the world, and a peak FIDE rating of 2560.
“Iron Tigran”, the World Champion from 1963 until 1969 was another chess great from the Soviet Union. His nickname stemmed from his near-impregnable defense. He was a master of positional exchange sacrifices and prophylactic play, and considered one of the hardest chess players to defeat.
Hou Yifan is a Chinese chess prodigy, four-time Women’s World Champion, and the strongest actively competitive female chess player today (though she has stepped back from competition since 2018). She has been the top female player since 2015. Behind Judit Polgár and Maia Chiburdanidze, she is the third woman to be ranked in the world top 100, reaching #55, with a peak FIDE of 2686!
The tenth World Chess Champion, the Soviet master Spassky is undeniably among the greatest ever players! After defeating Tigran Petrosian for the World Championship in 1969, he went on to face Fischer in the famous 1972 match in Reykjavik. Check out game 6 of that classic match here, in which Fischer played 1.c4 (!) and Spassky gave Fischer a standing ovation.
The longest reigning Women’s Champion of all time (17 years!), Vera Menchik is one of the best chess players ever. She defeated several of the strongest players of her time, including World Champion Max Euwe, Albert Becker (who mocked her chances of defeating any male master player), Conel Hugh O’Donel Alexander, and many others.
Frequently Asked Questions
Who is the greatest chess player of all time?
This is an entirely subjective question whose answer depends largely on how you define greatness. Most people will say Garry Kasparov, but it is a brave man who will bet against Magnus Carlsen surpassing him. However, though there are several likely candidates for the best player ever, how you decide depends on how you value the various chess achievements of each candidate. Is Mikhail Tal’s ability to attack more valuable than Botvinnik’s contributions to chess theory? What about Anand’s impact on chess in India vs Kasparov’s role in developing opening preparation techniques? The good thing is, it is fun to argue about.
Is Kasparov better than Carlsen?
Due to the historical difference in ELO ratings (as modern theory and technology advances and playing strength and ratings rise) it is nearly impossible to accurately compare chess ability between generations. Who is to say if Capablanca born today wouldn’t beat out Carlsen in an endgame? With modern technology, many naturally less talented players from today would run amok with the Steinitz Attack, for example. So, while we can say that Carlsen today is stronger than Kasparov today, it is very difficult to accurately answer who is/was the better chess player in their respective primes (though various methodologies have been suggested to do so).
Is Bobby Fischer better than Magnus Carlsen?
Bobby Fischer was the greatest chess player of his time, and Magnus Carlsen is the best chess player today. Objectively, if it were possible for them to play tomorrow (Fischer at his peak and Magnus at his), Carlsen would have the edge due to his modern knowledge (driven by computer preparation). However, that is not to say that Carlsen is the greater chess talent, which is an essentially unanswerable question.
Was Bobby Fischer the greatest?
Bobby Fischer was the greatest… in 1972. The question of whether he is still the greatest depends on your point of view. His chess achievements are undeniable and, even beyond the competitive scope, his victory in Reykjavik against Spassky is credited with the ‘Fischer Boom’, skyrocketing interest in the sport worldwide.
Did Carlsen ever beat Kasparov?
No. However, Carlsen was only 14 (he had been a GM for just a year) when Kasparov retired from chess, so this is understandable. They played once competitively when Magnus was 13, and in one rapid game Magnus was ahead in material, but had to settle for an admittedly impressive draw. Kasparov was Magnus’s coach in 2009, so it is likely that they played training games, and that Magnus won at least once.
Who is better: Fischer or Kasparov?
Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov are two of the strongest players of all time. They never played each other, though Kasparov said he would love the opportunity to do so. The question of who is the better chess player is a thorny and essentially moot point.
Who has beaten Magnus the most?
Vishy Anand and Levon Aronian are the two players with the best record against Magnus Carlsen.
Can Magnus Carlsen beat Stockfish?
No. Backed by sufficient processing power Stockfish will defeat any human chess player in its figurative sleep.