Greatest chess player of all time

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Note: This article only deals with human players. See computer chess for machine players.

There is no consensus on who is the greatest chess player of all time, but it is a topic often discussed by fans and addressed by writers. Basically the classification is, and can only be, a matter of opinion of whomever is making the claim.

Determining the greatest player of all time is complicated by a number of factors. For example, it is generally agreed that if 19th century master Paul Morphy (or someone of his era) came back to play 20th century champion Garry Kasparov (or any other modern champion) without preparation, Morphy would be crushed because chess understanding has advanced over time, and modern grandmasters analyze openings much more deeply than ever before. These considerations alone, however, do not mean that Morphy was not as great a player as Kasparov, they only mean that Kasparov has advantages due to living later and having modern chess knowledge. Perhaps Morphy would be able to quickly absorb modern theory and rise to the top again.

One possible criterion for all-time greatness is the amount by which a player exceeded his contemporaries. For example, Morphy was head and shoulders above the competition of his day in a way that Mikhail Botvinnik never was. And Philidor was so far ahead of his contemporaries that for a long time he had to take a handicap against everyone else. But should Botvinnik be considered less great a player for having worthy rivals?

And by another criterion, namely length of time at the top of the chess world, Botvinnik's achievements must be considered far greater than Morphy's (even though his reign as World Champion was interrupted by Vasily Smyslov and Mikhail Tal). But then his reign was nowhere near as long as Philidor's, although there was no official world title back then. Furthermore, Emanuel Lasker was the undisputed champion for 27 years, a reign no other player has even approached. However, he played infrequently in later years, and there was no standardized system for championship matches: champions played challengers whenever both agreed to a match. Especially in today's world, with dozens of possible challengers to the championship, longevity is a poor determinant of skill.

Yet another complication in determining who was the greatest is the dichotomy between talent and hard work. Capablanca's natural gift for chess was arguably unrivaled, but he lost his title to Alekhine because Alekhine prepared much more diligently for their match. Is this evidence that Capablanca was in fact a better player who lost due to laziness, or evidence that due to his laziness Capablanca was in fact the inferior player?

Statistical methods

Statistical methods to determine the identity of the strongest player of all time may seem to offer some chance of objectivity, but here too there is disagreement and controversy.

Elo System

Perhaps the best-known statistical model is that devised by Arpad Elo. In his The Rating of Chessplayers, Past and Present (1978), he gave ratings to players corresponding to their performance over the best five-year span of their career. The players who have the highest ratings in this system are José Raúl Capablanca (with 2725), Mikhail Botvinnik (2720), Emanuel Lasker (2720), Mikhail Tal (2700), Alexander Alekhine (2700), Paul Morphy (2690), and Vasily Smyslov (2690). Elo ratings continue to be assigned to modern players (updated lists are issued by FIDE every three months), and few have surpassed Bobby Fischer's 2785, with (Garry Kasparov achieving the highest Elo rating of all time with 2851), but some contend that Elo ratings have become inflated over time, so it may be impractical to compare modern figures with Elo's originals. For example, the average rating of FIDE's Top 100 Players in the 21st century increases annuallly:

July 2001 - 2645
July 2002 - 2649
July 2003 - 2653
July 2004 - 2658
July 2005 - 2662
July 2006 - 2665

On the other hand, constantly improving chess theory and computer-aided chess training has increased the abilities of top players from year to year, so the ratings inflation may just be an accurate reflection of improving chess ability. Some even argue that there is a constant ratings deflation, because it was mathematically built into Elo's formula.

In any case, 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 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" (Chess Life, 1962).

Other metrics

Many statisticians since Elo have devised similar methods to Elo's to retrospectively rate players. Jeff Sonas, for example, calls his system 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 apparently suffered. The players with the highest five-year Chessmetrics averages are Garry Kasparov (2875), Emanuel Lasker (2854), José Raúl Capablanca (2843), Mikhail Botvinnik (2843) and Bobby Fischer (2841) [2].

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" [3]. While it may be in the best interest of the fans for chess-players to remain active, it is not clear why a person's rating, which reflects his/her skill at chess, should drop if the player is inactive for a period of time.

Sonas, like Elo, acknowledges that it is useless to try and compare the strength of players from different eras. In his explanation of the Chessmetrics system [4] (an opinion he seems to have revised since the link is now defunct), he says:

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 1970's or Jose Capablanca in the early 1920's 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.

In a recent ChessBase article, Sonas uses Chessmetrics to evaluate historical annual performance ratings and comes to the conclusion that Kasparov is the most dominant, followed closely by Karpov.

Warriors of the Mind

In contrast to Elo and Sonas's systems, Raymond Keene and Nathan Divinsky's book Warriors of the Mind (1989) is a rare example of a rating system which claims to directly compare 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 come 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, Johann Zukertort, has a Divinsky number of 873).

Several criticisms can be leveled against the list: for example, because only games played by people in the list against others in the list were considered, the sample size was relatively small; furthermore, the formula used appears to take no account of the fact that players tend not to play at a constant level throughout their career and that games played in old age may not be especially relevant when considering the strength of a player at their peak. It contains several apparent anomalies: the relatively unhailed Semyon Furman, for instance, is at number 26, while first world champion Wilhelm Steinitz is only at number 47. The list remains notable as an effort to objectively determine the strongest player of all time, but has never been treated as more than a curiosity by the chess community.

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