Proclaiming anything or anyone to be the best is a subjective affair. What you think is the greatest might be only small potatoes to someone else, right?

But we're talking about the best-ever chess players. Surely there's some sort of ranking or standing, isn't there?

In fact, there are several. While the Elo rating system might be the most renowned and most widely used, others like Chessmetrics and Warriors of the Mind are now crowding the field. And then, there are individual countries' chess rating systems; Canada's is the CFC and England curates its EFC. Now mix in online chess ratings - say, from chess.com, and you have a variety of rankings to choose from.

Overseeing them all is FIDE, the International Chess Federation.

Can you see the trouble with trying to rank the best chess players?

Here we are, commemorating the greatest chess players of all time but the Elo rating system, the one most often taken as legitimate was officially adopted in 1960 (it had been used to rate players for around 20 years before that). And how can we rate and rank chess players who've never sat across the table from each other?

Instead of wracking our brains over all of the different ways players can and cannot be granted greatness, we're going to go by the numbers.

After revealing all of the chess greats, we'll show you how we came by those numbers.

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Magnus Carlsen

The current World Chess champion is a chess prodigy who started winning tournaments when he was just 13 years old. A few months later he was dubbed a chess grandmaster and, two years after that, he won his first championship. When he was 19 years old, he reached the top FIDE rank; he was the youngest chess player ever to do so.

He is also the first person to hold three world championship titles at the same time. Besides World, he holds the World Rapid Chess and World Blitz Chess titles.

As a younger player, he was known for his aggressive style but now, with more experience, he has diversified his game. He uses a variety of openings to throw his opponents off but the middlegame is when he most enjoys himself.

His estimated Elo rating: 2988

Magnus' focus on his match is fierce
The reigning World Chess champion focuses intently on his match. Source: Wikipedia Credit: Andreas Kontokanis

Vladimir Kramnik

With a playing style reminiscent of Anatoly Karpov, Kramnik takes a pragmatic approach to chess. As he is rather a 'head down and just play' type, his opponents found it hard to predict what his next move might be. So adept is he at misleading his opponents that he once went 80 consecutive games without a loss.

He even defeated the next player on our list during their World Championship match in 2000.

When playing, the endgame is Kramnik's forte but, since retirement, he's contributed greatly to chess opening theory.

His estimated Elo rating is 2982

Garry Kasparov

A god of the chess world, this player has racked up so many titles, championship wins and records that we'll describe a stunning upset as a defining benchmark instead of listing his most remarkable accomplishments.

After a dispute with FIDE in 1993, he broke away to establish his own chess organisation called The Professional Chess Association. It was a rather short-lived venture - it lasted only about three years, after which he played a series of six matches opposite the IBM computer Deep Blue, against which he ultimately lost.

Thus, Kasparov earned another accolade: the first world champion chess player to lose to a computer.

His estimated Elo rating: 2974

Viswanathan Anand

As though all of the other chess grandmasters weren't trailblazers in their own right, we have to describe this chess champion as a Man of Firsts.

FIDE recognised him as grandmaster in 1988, making him the first from India. In 1991-92, he became the first person to win the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award, a prize for sportsmanship established that year. He is also the first sports figure to win India's second-highest civilian award.

Known as Lightning Kid when he was a child, he's won two Rapid Chess championships and more than a few blitz events. Indeed, many consider him the best rapid chess player of his time.

His estimated Elo rating: 2962

A young Bobby Fischer plays intently in Leipzig
Bobby Fischer was only 17 years old when he played Mikhail Tal in Leipzig. Source: Wikipedia Credit: German National Archives

Bobby Fischer

Singlehandedly responsible for making chess appealing to the masses, this chess prodigy won what was later dubbed the Game of the Century when he was just 13 years old. A year later, he was heralded the youngest US chess grandmaster and, a year after that, he became the youngest contender for the World Championship and the youngest ever chess grandmaster.

During the 1970s, at the height of his fame, Bobby Fischer's increasingly erratic and obstinate attitude cost him his world champion title. It wasn't because he was outplayed; he simply refused to defend his title. Kasparov claimed it because of Fischer's default.

Estimated Elo rating: 2916

Also, find out where the Game of the Century ranks on the list of seven greatest chess matches ever played...

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Anatoly Karpov

For 10 years, Karpov was the world chess champion. He was finally unseated by Kasparov, whom he faced off no fewer than five times to regain his title. It was only when Kasparov broke away from FIDE that Karpov reigned once again but he, too, got fed up with FIDE. He resigned his title in 1999.

As a player, Karpov was risk-averse but meticulous in spotting opponents' errors and merciless in exploiting their weaknesses. For that, he is often compared to the next player on our list.

Estimated Elo rating: 2813

Jose Capablanca

He played fast and had a wicked endgame. This chess prodigy who, according to Bobby Fischer, played with a light touch, had no problem with changing his strategy if he saw an opportune move. He wasn't necessarily a tactical player; his defence was far stronger an asset for him. Indeed, many opponents walked away in defeat, ruing ever having attempted to attack.

He reigned as the World Chess champion from 1921 to 1927, losing his title to Alexander Alekhine. Those two always tried for a rematch but, over the years, their relationship grew bitter. Eventually, both gave up on the idea.

The man who Boris Spassky dubbed the best player of all time was not well; he died fairly young, leaving the chess world bereft.

His estimated Elo: 2786

Where does Jose fit on your list of famous chess players?

Mikhail Tal

Known as the Magician from Riga, Mikhail's playing style was anything but predictable. A brilliant attack player - some say the best there ever was, it was his unpredictability and creativity that drove his opponents mad. They simply could not out-think him!

This eighth World Chess champion also had a way with words. Not only was he lyrical in his speech but he wrote some of the best books about chess and his experiences in playing. Indeed, grandmaster Andrew Soltis proclaimed him 'the finest writer to become a world chess champion'.

Estimated Elo rating: 2734

Boris Spassky

Looking over Boris' games statistically, his favourite openings were the Ruy Lopez (if he played whites) and the Sicilian Defence (blacks) - a particularly combative opening. That's rather odd, considering that he's pegged as a universal player with a fairly even temperament. His first tastes of chess might give us a clue as to why he favoured aggressive openings.

He learned to play on a train when he was five years old; his family was fleeing Leningrad during the Second World War. At 10, he defeated Soviet chess champion Mikhail Botvinnik and went on to earn his Soviet Master rank at 15 years old. Shortly afterwards, he placed second in the Leningrad Chess championship.

His estimated Elo: 2708

Mikhail Botvinnik

Much of how the World Chess championship system is designed we owe to this engineer-cum-chess player.

He was introduced to the game when he was 12 years old and developed an immediate affinity for it. He started playing in school chess tournaments, easily sweeping the tables. His reputation grew such that, when he lied about his age to gain membership in the Petrograd Chess Assembly, the admitting official allowed him in despite knowing he was three years too young to join.

As the Soviet Union's first world-class chess player, he was instrumental in shaping the coaching system that mentored other Soviet chess greats featured on this list.

And, thanks to his training as an electrical engineer and computer scientist, he was helped pioneer computer chess.

His estimated Elo rating is 2706.

Two future chess titans face off
The 1936 match between Botvinnik and Lasker was a match of chess titans. Source: Wikipedia

Rounding Out Our List

As a chess aficionado, you likely know all of the names we've featured so far; these next five will be no less impressive despite not having an entire section dedicated to them in this article.

  • Vasily Smyslov: grandmaster and World Chess champion 1957-58; estimated Elo rating 2685
  • Alexander Alekhine: defeated Capablanca in 1927; estimated Elo rating of 2647
  • Tigran Petrosian: known for his impenetrable defences; estimated Elo rating 2642
  • Max Euwe: fifth World Chess champion and former president of FIDE; estimated Elo 2637
  • Emmanuel Lasker: the longest reign of any World Chess champion (27 years); estimated Elo 2604

Methodology

As mentioned in the article's introduction, it's hard to talk in absolutes when there is no single path from which any conclusions could be drawn, especially in chess.

To give just one reason why: we may assess Lasker's considerable chess skills against Magnus Carlsen's but we would have to overlook how the game and players have evolved in the century since Lasker held his title.

In Lasker's time, there were no computer chess games where one might hone their skills. There were chess books but no chess tutors and chess theory was woefully lacking. Indeed, Lasker himself made significant contributions to chess theory.

In light of all that disparity, how can anyone compare and rate chess players equitably? Chess.com did a bang-up job of it.

After combing through a huge trove of data, they eliminated any year in which 10 or fewer game stats were recorded. Then, trimming away players' junior years and any games played after they'd retired, they input everything into an Excel spreadsheet and applied a smoothing factor.

Finally, they converted the resulting figures into Elo ratings with the help of a conversion chart. The estimated Elo ratings they arrived at eliminate any discussion over which factors make a chess player the greatest.

So, while some may rank players by how long they've held their titles, how brilliantly they play or how long a career they've enjoyed, this method boils everything down to numbers as equitably as possible.

Now, let's talk about the most prestigious chess tournament ever...

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Daniel

A student by trade, Daniel spends most of his time working on that essay that's due in a couple of days' time. When he's not working, he can be found working on his salsa steps, or in bed.