It is impossible to give a list of the "greatest" chess players in history, since there is not a single, consistent measure we can use to determine if one player would defeat another.
Any rating system is meaningless when comparing players from different eras, since they are based on performance against contemporaries.
However, it is generally agreed that whilst there were undoubtedly some incredible players throughout history, the strongest players are those alive and playing today. Nowadays, chess theory is studied in great detail, with computer-aided training and coaching helping to build skill and tactical development in younger players.
Indeed, as chess is a game where even the strongest player can sometimes be caught off guard and succumb to a weaker player, a rating system is generally only a "snapshot" of a player's performance, usually over their "best" period of playing results.
Here, we have tried to list who we feel are some of the most noteworthy chess players throughout history - those players who cannot fail to be mentioned when a list of "chess greats" is composed.
Be sure, however, that there are many more exceptionally talented players we have not listed.
Note: Many of the links on this page will open a new window, leading to articles in Wikipedia - an excellent source for further reading and information!
Rúy López de Segura (Spain, c1530-1580)
See Rúy López for more information.
A Spanish priest, immortalized by the popular "Ruy Lopez" (or "Spanish Game") opening.
Known more for his theory on chess than actual game playing, Ruy Lopez published a 150-page book entitled "Libro del Ajedrez" in 1561, which included systematic studies of this and other openings.
François-André Danican Philidor (France, 1726-1795)
See Philidor for more information.
Philidor was regarded as the greatest chess player of his time, and is responsible for the "Philidor Defense", as well as the famous book "Analyse du jeu des Échecs", published in 1749, in which he analyzes nine different types of opening.
Taught by Legall de Kermeur, Philidor soundly trounced the chess master Philip Stamma in a famous match in 1747, thus heralding Philidor's rise to fame.
Karl Ernst Adolf Anderssen (Germany, 1818-1879)
See Adolf Anderssen for more information.
Anderssen led a stable and respectable middle-class life. His career was teaching math (he was a professor of mathematics), but his passion and hobby was chess.
At the first international chess tournament in London, 1851, Anderssen was victorious, much to everyone's surprise.
For several years, he was considered the world's strongest player.
In 1858 he lost to the rising star Paul Morphy in a famous match in Paris, although in 1862 he won the first international round-robin tournament, and in 1870 he was victorious at the "Baden-Baden" tournament, which was attended by the strongest compliment of players ever assembled up to that point in chess history.
Anderssen is often remembered for his Immortal Game, against Lionel Kieseritzky which highlights profoundly the style of play in the 1800s, where rapid development and attack were often thought of as the best way to win.
Although generally not considered the "best" way to play nowadays, such games are incredibly entertaining, often with pieces being sacrificed seemingly continually to gain a positional advantage.
Paul Morphy (USA, 1837-1884)
Hailed by some grandmasters to be the greatest player who ever lived, Morphy was a child prodigy.
By age of 9, he was one of the strongest payers in New Orleans. At age 12, he emphatically defeated Hungarian chess master Johann Löwenthal.
In 1857 in New York, Morphy was victorious at the First American Chess Congress, and became hailed as the USA Chess champion.
In 1858 Morphy traveled to Europe. He easily won a match against Adolf Anderssen (see above), winning 7 and losing 2, despite a serious illness.
See Paul Morphy for more information.
During his travels, Morphy's reputation became greater and greater, culminating with him being proclaimed "The Champion of the World" in London in 1859.
Prior to his arriving home, Morphy issued an open challenge to any player in the world - he would give them a pawn advantage and play for any amount of money. Finding no-one willing to take up his offer, Morphy retired from the public limelight at the age of 22.
Not considering chess as a worthy profession, Morphy effectively spent his life in idleness, supported by his family fortune.
Tragically, Morphy's last years were consumed by depression and delusions of persecution. He died at the age of forty-seven due to congestion of the brain (stroke).
The following players have all been Undisputed World Chess Champions.
|Wilhelm Steinitz||1886–1894||Austria/United States|
|José Raúl Capablanca||1921–1927||Cuba|
|Mikhail Botvinnik||1948–1957||USSR (Russia)|
|Vasily Smyslov||1957–1958||USSR (Russia)|
|Mikhail Botvinnik||1958–1960||USSR (Russia)|
|Mikhail Tal||1960–1961||USSR (Latvia)|
|Mikhail Botvinnik||1961–1963||USSR (Russia)|
|Tigran Petrosian||1963–1969||USSR (Armenia)|
|Boris Spassky||1969–1972||USSR (Russia)|
|Robert J. Fischer||1972–1975||United States|
|Anatoly Karpov||1975–1985||USSR (Russia)|
Wilhelm Steinitz (Austria/America, 1836-1900)
See Wilhelm Steinitz for more information.
Steinitz began playing professional chess at age 26, his style of play resembling most of his contemporaries of the time - being aggressive and replete with sacrificial attacks.
However, in 1873, he started to approach the game from a far more logical, scientific standpoint. Realizing that many victories stem from an opponent's weakness in defense, he studied positional elements such as pawn structure, knight outposts and space.
His new theories allowed games to both develop strong defensive positions whilst retaining the brilliant combinations the era was renowned for.
His match against Johannes Zukertort in 1886 is considered by most to be the first official world chess championship, and although Steinitz started shakily, he went on to victory (10 wins, 5 draws, 5 losses).
Steinitz successfully defended his title from 1886 to 1894, before losing to the great Emanuel Lasker (see next section).
Steinitz became a U.S. citizen in 1888 and spent the last years of his life in a number of institutions in New York, suffering from severe mental problems.
Emanuel Lasker (Germany, 1868-1941)
See Emanuel Lasker for more information.
For several decades around the turn of the 20th century, Lasker was undoubtedly the strongest chess player in the world.
His reign as World Champion began when he defeated Steinitz (see above) in 1894, winning 10 games out of a total of 19.
He held his crown until 1921, finally losing to the great Capablanca, his 27 year tenure representing a feat unequalled in modern chess.
Lasker was an accomplished mathematician - his doctoral thesis was performed under the famous David Hilbert.
Lasker was considered to be a tough player to beat because he often used "psychological" tactics, concentrating on a player's weaknesses as much as the position on the board, sometimes deliberately playing inferior moves to confuse and rattle his opponent.
Chess was never Lasker's main career - he also studied bridge, go and frequently pursued his philosophical ideals.
Lasker, disappointed by the number of chess masters living and dying in poverty, was determined to turn chess into a respectable, paying profession, not just a "game".
To this end, he often commanded large appearance and match fees.
Persecuted by the Nazis during the war, Lasker and family fled to New York in the 1930s, where they made their home until Lasker's death at the age of 72.
José Raúl Capablanca (Cuba, 1888-1942)
See José Raúl Capablanca for more information.
Capablanca is frequently considered to be the most talented player in the history of the game, and is often referred to as the "Mozart" of chess.
Like Paul Morphy, he was a child prodigy, learning the game at age 4 by watching his father play.
By age 13, he was strong enough to defeat the Cuban national champion.
Excelling at fast (blitz) games, Capablanca's lightning fast analyses of board positions meant he was almost unbeatable in such games.
In 1911, Capablanca was victorious in San Sebastián, a tournament attended by all leading players of the time (except Lasker).
The same year, Capablanca challenged Lasker (the World Champion at the time) to a title match. However, Lasker imposed so many conditions on the match, some of which Capa did not agree with, that the match was eventually abandoned.
At the great St. Petersburg tournament in 1914, Capa narrowly lost to Lasker. However, Capablanca was becoming stronger and stronger, resulting in Lasker resigning the title to him in 1920.
Capa wanted a match, however, and in 1921 defeated Lasker in Havana, winning 4 games, losing none and drawing 10.
Capablanca remained World Champion until relinquishing his crown to a well-prepared Alexander Alekhine in 1927.
Alekhine's refusal to allow Capa a rematch led to both an intense rivalry between the two players, and eventually, for FIDE to take control of the title to allow the best challenger a shot at it.
Capablanca's health started to deteriorate in 1936, and he died in 1942.
During his mature career, Capablanca suffered remarkably few losses in serious games, his legacy being a mastery and natural brilliance at the game that remains unequalled to this day.
Alexander Alekhine (Russia/France, 1892-1946)
See Alexander Alekhine for more information.
Alekhine was born into a wealthy family in Moscow, Russia and from 1907 (Age 14) to 1911, competed in many Russian chess tournaments, generally performing solidly, if not spectacularly.
He won his first major Russian tournament in 1914, taking joint first place with Aron Nimzowitsch.
Also in 1914, he took 3rd place in the major St. Petersburg tournament, behind Lasker and Capablanca.
When World War I broke out, Alekhine (then in Germany), eventually made his way back to Russia where he spent 6 years giving exhibitions and competing in Russian tournaments and mini matches.
Alekhine's tournament record from 1921 to 1927 was excellent, winning or sharing first prizes in 14 out of 22 tournaments he played in. Alekhine became a French citizen in 1925.
In 1927 in Buenos Aires, Alekhine (to the surprise of practically the entire chess world) took the World chess championship title from Capablanca, in a marathon match lasting several weeks.
The win was not convincing, with 6 wins, 3 losses and 25 draws over 34 games, but it was a win nonetheless.
Alekhine dominated chess for quite a while after this victory, although he was criticized for his unwillingness to grant Capablanca a rematch, a fact which some observers claim was the reason for their bitter rivalry.
From 1927 thorough 1935, Alekhine lost only 7 out of 238 tournament games - a remarkable achievement.
In December 1935, Alekhine lost his World Championship title to Max Euwe, a loss largely attributed to Alekhine's alcoholism.
In 1937, a sober Alekhine regained his title from Euwe in convincing fashion and retained it until his death in 1946 due to his refusal to play in any more title matches.
Mikhail Botvinnik (Russia, 1911-1995)
See Mikhail Botvinnik for more information.
Botvinnik first caught the attention of the chess world at age 14, when he defeated the reigning World Champion (Capablanca) in a simultaneous exhibition match.
At age 20, Botvinnik won his first Soviet championship, a feat he repeated 5 more times, his last victory being in 1952.
Botvinnik was not considered a "natural genius" when compared to the likes of Morphy and Capablanca - his real strength was his unyielding dedication to study and analysis of the game and great pre-match preparations. Such tactics enabled Botvinnik to gain the title of World Champion on 3 separate occasions (1948-57, 1958-60 and 1961-63).
With such a long reign, it is surprising that Botvinnik is not more highly considered when the ranks of chess greats are discussed. Some critics attribute this to several factors - his infrequent appearance in post World War II tournaments whilst he was World Champion, his mediocre performance in world title defense matches and finally, his analytic style of play, eschewing flair and inspiration in favor of tried and trusted, "correct" options.
With all fairness to Botvinnik, the outbreak of World War II did interrupt world chess competitions - had it not done so, it is possible that Botvinnik may have challenged Alekhine for the title in the early 1940s, and possibly become World Champion several years sooner than he eventually did.
Additionally, Botvinnik, unlike most other chess players at the time, was not entirely devoted to chess - he had a long and established career as an engineer, which he was reportedly as committed to as he was to chess.
Botvinnik retired from competitive chess aged 59, 7 years after losing the world title for the last time to Tigran Petrosian in 1963.
During his twilight years, Botvinnik occupied himself by helping to develop algorithms for chess computers and by mentoring up and coming Russian grandmasters, most notably Karpov, Kasparov and Kramnik.
Kasparov's accounts of Botvinnik depict him as almost a "father figure", which goes some way to softening the image most have of him as a rather cold and emotionless person.
Botvinnik died of cancer in 1995.
Vasily Smyslov (Russia, 1921-)
See Vasily Smyslov for more information.
Still alive today, Smyslov's career spanned quite a remarkable number of years.
He narrowly missed becoming World Champion in 1948, losing to Mikhail Botvinnik in a tournament to decide who should succeed the late Alexander Alekhine.
In 1954, Smyslov won the right to challenge for the title (against Botvinnik again). Their drawn match meant Botvinnik retained his crown.
In 1957, Smyslov was the challenger again, and this time was victorious against Botvinnik (12.5 - 9.5).
The following year, the rematch against Botvinnik went the other way, with Botvinnik regaining his crown with a score of 12.5 - 10.5.
Smyslov never won another title, but competed in many World Championship qualifying events.
Still a force to be reckoned with in 1983 (at the age of 62), Smyslov was defeated by the great Garry Kasparov in the Candidates Final (the match to decide who plays the current champion - who at that point was Anatoly Karpov).
Today, Smyslov no longer plays competitive chess, partly due to his failing eyesight.
Smyslov has written several books and is renowned for his positional style (particularly the endgame).
Mikhail Tal (Latvia, 1936-1992)
See Mikhail Tal for more information.
Latvian born Mikhail Tal started learning chess at an early age, but did not blossom until he started receiving professional tutelage from Alexander Koblencs in 1949.
By age 15, Tal was strong enough to qualify for the Latvian championships and 2 years later became National Champion.
Tal's attacking, sacrificial style took him to victory in the USSR Championships in 1957 at age twenty.
At the 1960 World Championships, at age 23, Tal defeated the relatively stolid Mikhail Botvinnik, making him the youngest ever world champion up to that point.
Tal's health was never the best - he had chronic kidney problems and was a heavy smoker - which probably contributed to Botvinnik winning the rematch in 1961, although to be fair, Botvinnik did conduct a lengthy analysis of Tal's playing style.
During his career, Tal won the Soviet Championship on six separate occasions - a feat only equaled by Botvinnik.
Tal also won the Estonia International Chess Tournament five times, his last victory being in 1983.
To this day, Tal is considered one of the greatest chess players of all time - his imaginative, sacrificial flair often bewildering opponents with options and complications.
Tal's death in Moscow in 1992 was officially due to "kidney failure".
Tigran Petrosian (Armenia, 1929-1984)
See Tigran Petrosian for more information.
In common with most chess grandmasters, Petrosian learned to play chess at an early age.
After moving to Moscow in his early 20s, Petrosian's game steadily improved.
His victory at the Candidates Tournament at Curaçao in 1962 earned him a shot at the title, which he duly won from Botvinnik in 1963.
Petrosian was the first champion (since Alekhine in 1934) to successfully defend his title, when he defeated Boris Spassky in 1966.
In 1969, Spassky won their second title rematch, and whilst Petrosian was never World Champion again, he did continue to play competitively until his untimely death in 1984 from cancer.
With a very defensive playing style, based more on error avoidance and attack foiling, Petrosian often frustrated his opponents into making mistakes, which were then quickly capitalized on.
Boris Spassky (Russia, 1937-)
Born in Leningrad, Spassky learned to play chess during the tumultuous evacuation during World War II.
Spassky earned his first shot at the world title in 1966, after defeating the legendary tactician Mikhail Tal in the Candidates Final match.
Although narrowly losing to Petrosian, 3 years later, Spassky was challenging again, and in 1969 took the title.
Spassky is considered a "well rounded" player, able to adopt his style of play depending on the opponent; some commentators suggesting this was a factor in his 1969 victory against Tal, his mimicking of Tal's negative playing style giving him the edge.
At the height of the "Cold War" between USA and Russia, Spassky's participation in the World Title match against the legendary Bobby Fischer in 1972 had become as much as a political war as a tactical one.
Dubbed Match of the Century and held in Reykjavik, Iceland, Spassky eventually lost the match and returned home to the U.S.S.R. in disgrace.
Spassky continued to play and was a strong challenger in 1974 and 1977, losing to Anatoly Karpov and Victor Korchnoi in respective years.
Spassky remained a world class player throughout most of the 80s, but was never a serious contender for the title again.
Since becoming a French Citizen in 1976, Spassky has been living out his twilight years in France with his third wife.
See Boris Spassky for more information.
Robert J. Fischer (USA, 1943-)
Never has so much controversy and infamy followed a single chess player in the history of the game as that of the iconoclastic Bobby Fischer.
Born in Chicago, Illinois, the Fischer family moved to Brooklyn, New York when Bobby was still an infant. Fischer learned to play chess at an early age, and joined the Brooklyn Chess Club at age 7, where he was taught by its president.
In 1956, aged 13, Fischer won the USA Junior Chess Championship, the same year he played several brilliant games, including one dubbed The Game of the Century, against Donald Byrne.
Fischer went on to become the youngest ever US Chess Champion a year or so later in January 1958, aged only 14.
At the Candidates Tournament in Yugoslavia in 1959, Fischer finished a very respectable fifth, being outclassed by the eventual winner, Mikhail Tal.
During the 1960's, Fischer's career was tumultuous - he started dedicating his time to the church after "personal problems" and had numerous disputes and infractions both with Soviet chess players and tournament organizers.
Fischer voluntarily withdrew from the 1966 Championship cycle and during the 1969 Championship, scheduling disputes related to the "Worldwide Church of God's Sabbath" led him to forfeit 2 games in protest, and later withdrawing completely.
The stage is thus nicely set for the 1972 World Championship match against Boris Spassky.
Although the match was as much an exercise in propaganda as anything else, Fischer's victory propelled him to immediate celebrity status, appearing on the cover of Life and Sports Illustrated, as well as being offered numerous product endorsements.
Although due to defend his title in 1975 against Anatoly Karpov, Bobby's major dispute with the ruling body of FIDE concerning how the match should be declared won led to him resigning his World Championship title.
To this day, Bobby Fischer claims he is still World Champion as he never lost a tile match.
See Bobby Fischer for more information.
Anatoly Karpov (Russia, 1951-)
See Anatoly Karpov for more information.
Karpov is generally recognized as being the greatest tournament player of all time - his record in top class events is unmatched.
Accepted at age 12 into the renowned Mikhail Botvinnik's Chess School, Karpov became the youngest Soviet National Master in history, aged only 15.
Karpov improved steadily, convincingly winning the World Junior Chess Championship in 1969 with a score of 10/11.
After qualifying for the Candidates cycle in 1974, Karpov (against even his own expectations), beat former world champion Boris Spassky (+4 -1 =10) and went on to face fellow Russian Victor Korchnoi in the final.
The match was a marathon struggle with Karpov taking an early 3 game lead, but fading towards the end. Karpov eventually prevailed with a score of +3-2=19.
Although the Fischer/Karpov title match was eagerly anticipated, Fischer's unrealistic demands on FIDE resulted in the match being abandoned before it was even started.
In 1975, Karpov duly became World Champion by default.
Karpov, with a burning desire to prove himself, set about silencing those critics who called him a "paper" champion, by participating in just about every major tournament over the next 10 years - his record being truly phenomenal.
Karpov successfully defended his title twice more against Victor Korchnoi - both matches being remembered as much for psychological warfare as the games themselves!
It was not until 1984 when Gary Kasparov burst upon the scene that Karpov's dominance was threatened.
Karpov remained a formidable opponent throughout most of the 80s and into the 90s, playing in 3 more World Championship matches against Kasparov.
In 1993, Karpov actually became FIDE world champion again, due to Kasparov and British player Nigel Short splitting from the FIDE organization.
Since 1995, Karpov has been more involved with politics in his home country of Russia than with competitive chess, and he was ranked 32nd in the world in the FIDE ranking list of April 2006.
More to be added...