The list of the greatest chess players in history: from American prodigy Paul Morphy to exceptional player Magnus Carlsen

The greatest chess players in the world, since Morphy to Carlsen

If you're a chess fan, you're probably interested in the history of the game and the careers of its greatest champions. Curious to know who are the players who have most marked the history of chess? presents you the best chess players of all times.

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Paul Morphy (1837-1884)

Paul Morphy is a strong American player of the 19th century who beat all the best American players of the time. He then decided to go and play against the strongest players of the time. He even ended up beating Johann Löwenthal and Adolf Anderssen, the best European players of the beginning of the century.

Adolf Anderssen (1818-1879)

Adolf Anderssen was considered the best chess player in 1851 when he won the famous London tournament. He is known for his hyper-aggressive playing style, which did not prevent him from losing to Morphy in 1958.

Wilhelm Steinitz (1836-1900)

Wilhelm Steinitz is a strong Austrian chess player, he became the first official world champion after beating Zukertort in 1886.

Before that he had already beaten the strongest players (Anderssen, Blackburne...etc.), which made him the most respected player of the time.

He defended his title victoriously against Tchigorine in Havana in 1889, and refused to play against the other players who challenged him for the title, because he considered their level insufficient.

Nevertheless, he eventually met Emmanuel Lasker, against whom he lost his title in 1894, and he did not manage to recover it in the match-revival.

He is considered today as one of the first specialists in chess strategy.

Emmanuel Lasker (1868-1941)

Emmanuel Lasker was a German chess player, who had his first successes in the 1890s. He decided to go to America, where the world champion Steinitz lived. He managed to beat him in 1894, becoming the second world champion. He then defeated Steinitz in the match-revival in 1896.

In 1907, he had to face the American Frank James Marshall to defend his title, which he did without much difficulty.

In the 1909 tournament in St Petersburg, the Polish Rubinstein managed to beat him, which left some doubt.

However, he defended his title again against the German Siegbert Tarrasch in 1908.

The Austrian Carl Schlechter also challenged him in 1910, but he was defeated, and Lasker retained his title.

It was not until the end of the First World War, in 1921, that Lasker was challenged again. This time it came from the very strong Cuban, José Raoul Capablanca. The match was held in Havana, and Lasker suffered a crushing defeat against the Cuban. He gave up the match before the end and Capablanca became world champion.

Nevertheless, he is the world champion who reigned the longest: 27 years in total.

He had a particular style, which consisted in playing according to the opponent and countering him on his strong points.

Akiba Rubinstein (1882-1961)

Akiba Rubinstein was a Polish player who was known for his strategic play and great understanding of position.

He won many tournaments between 1907 and 1912, and was awarded the title of International Grandmaster in 1950, when he had finished his career.

José Raoul Capablanca (1888-1942)

José Raoul Capablanca was a Cuban chess player, who at the age of 13 managed to beat the Cuban champion.

In 1911, he became known by winning the strong tournament of San Sebastian, where he beat several strong players such as Rubinstein or Schlechter.

In 1921, he managed to beat the world champion, Emmanuel Lasker, and thus became the third world champion.

He also won the famous New York tournament just ahead of Alekhine, the future world champion.

Indeed, in the same year, Capablanca was challenged by Alexander Alekhine. The match took place in Buenos Aires and it took a total of 35 games to decide between them. Alekhine won and was declared world champion.

Afterwards, Capablanca demanded a rematch, but Alekhine refused for fear of losing his title.

After that Capablanca won several more strong tournaments (like the one in Moscow in 1936), but he never got a match-revival.

Capablanca became famous for his highly developed positional game and for his great technical abilities in the final.

*endgame: the end of a game, when there are few pieces left on the board

Many strong players consider him today as one of the most talented players of all time. Indeed, he remained undefeated between 1917 and 1923, and made almost no mistakes. He said himself that he never opened a chess book, but he is the author of a famous (in the chess world) book, Fundamental Principles of Chess, J-R. Capablanca.

Aaron Nimzowitsch (1886-1935)

Aaron Nimzowitsch is a strong Russian player, who distinguished himself by winning many tournaments in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

He is the founder of the hyper-modern school, a new view of chess theory. In addition, he is the author of several chess books such as The Blocking, My System, and Practice of My System.

Alexander Alekhine (1892-1946)

Alexander Alekhine is a Russian player, naturalized French in 1927. He won his first tournaments just before the First World War.

After the Russian revolution, Alekhine became USSR champion (in 1919 and 1920), but he was arrested by the secret police and ended up in prison where he would have played a game with Leon Trotsky.

He finally escaped the death penalty and was released from prison. In 1921, he left the USSR and never returned.

He won many tournaments during the 20s, which made him play against Capablanca in 1927.

Alekhine won the match and became the fourth world champion.

He later refused to play Capablanca, which allowed him to keep his title.

Instead, he chose to fight his compatriot Efim Bogoljubov, whom he beat twice (in 1929 and 1934).

In 1935, he chose to fight the Dutch champion, Max Euwe.

Against all odds, Euwe won the match and became world champion. This surprise defeat was mainly due to Alekhine's alcoholism problems. However, he managed to overcome this problem, and won the rematch in 1937, which allowed him to regain the title.

To choose the new challenger of Alekhine, a tournament was organized between the 8 best players of the world. The tournament was won by Botvinnik, but the Second World War disrupted the preparations for the championship, which was postponed to 1946.

But Alekhine did not have the opportunity to face his challenger, as he died mysteriously in March 1946.

Alekhine is known for his ultra-aggressive style and his taste for attack.

Mikhail Botvinnik (1911-1995)

Mikhail Botvinnik was a Soviet chess player, the sixth chess champion. He was proclaimed Master in 1927, and won many tournaments in the early 1930s, such as the USSR Championship. In 1946, he was to face Alekhine for the world title, but the latter died suddenly a few months before. A tournament was then organized to decide who would win the title, three Westerners and three Soviets were invited, including Botvinnik. He easily won the tournament with 14/20 points and was declared world champion in 1948. This victory by a Soviet was the first of many, and it was like the inauguration of the Soviet domination of the chess world, a domination that continues to this day (Russia is first in the FIDE Nations Ranking).

In 1950, Botvinnik was named International Grandmaster, and a year later he had to defend his title against David Bronstein, which he did successfully.

He defended his title again against Vasily Smyslov in 1954, with a draw (score: 12-12).

However, he lost his title against Smyslov in 1957, but regained it in a rematch in 1958.

He lost his title again to Mikhail Tal in 1960, and regained it in the match-revival the following year, taking advantage of his opponent's health problems.

In 1963, Botvinnik met a new competitor who definitely took his title: Tigran Petrossian.

Vasily Smyslov (1921-2010)

Vasily Smyslov was a Soviet chess player and a brilliant opera singer.

He was several times a candidate for the world title, and he was appointed International Grandmaster in 1950. He became the seventh world champion in 1957 after beating Botvinnik, but he lost the title again in the match-revival.

Mikhail Tal (1936-1992)

Mikhail Tal is a Latvian chess player (who became a Soviet in 1944).

At the end of the 50s, he became USSR champion and won many tournaments. In 1960, he was a challenger for the world title, and became the eighth world champion by winning against Botvinnik, at only 23 years old. However, he lost his title in the match-revival in 1961, due to health problems. Tal was nicknamed "Wizard of Riga", because of his very aggressive playing style. He is also known to have been an alcoholic and smoker, which caused his loss.

Tigran Petrossian (1929-1984)

Tigran Petrossian was an Armenian (then Soviet) chess player.

He was appointed International Grandmaster in 1952, and qualified several times for the Candidates Tournament in the 1950s. In 1963 he qualified for the world championship against Botvinnik. He eventually beat him and became the ninth world champion. In 1964, FIDE abolished the right to a rematch, and Petrossian did not play Botvinnik again.

In 1966 he defended his title against Boris Spassky after winning only one game and drawing 23 games.

However, he had to defend his title again against Spassky in 1969, which he did not succeed in doing, as he was defeated and lost his title after a very close match.

He tried to regain the title in 1971, but was eliminated by Bobby Fischer in the final of the Candidates Tournament.

He tried several times to qualify for the world championship, but was eliminated each time by the Soviet, Viktor Kortchnoi.

Petrossian had a very particular style of play: he would defend himself for hours, and wait for the opponent to make a mistake, before finally launching a deadly counterattack.

Viktor Kortchnoi (1931-2016)

Viktor Kortchnoi was a Soviet, then Swiss chess player. In 1956, he obtained the title of International Grandmaster at the age of 25. He was for a long time one of the best players in the world, and he certainly has a very impressive record of achievements.

His childhood was rather difficult, and disturbed by the conflicts of the Second World War. Nevertheless, from the age of seven he was able to benefit from the support of the best coaches, which allowed him to win the USSR junior championship (under 20) in 1947. In 1949 he became a Master Candidate after a superb performance on the first board of the Leningrad team (his club) in the USSR team championship.

He obtained the title of International Master in 1954 at the age of 23. He refused the help of the famous coach Tolush and won the title without any help. However, he suffered many defeats during this period, and after resting for several years, he returned to the world stage winning many major tournaments, which earned him the title of Grandmaster-International.

During the 1950s, he defeated many of the great players of the time, including the future world champion Mikhail Tal.

In 1960 he won the USSR championship, and was selected to play in the USSR team, which won (with his help) the 1960 Olympics.

Between 1960 and 1970 he won the USSR championship four times, but from 1963 to 1969, when Petrossian was world champion, he played only a few tournaments and was sidelined.

He then participated in the 1971 Candidates Tournament, beating the strongest players such as Spassky, but he had difficulties when his coaches left him to join the new Soviet prodigy, Anatoly Karpov.

In 1971, at the age of forty, Kortchnoi decided to change his lifestyle: he started to play sports, stopped smoking and drinking. That same year he managed to beat the former world champion Petrossian.

Three years later, in 1974, Kortchnoi qualified for the final of the Candidates' Tournament with Karpov. However, Karpov was more in line with the wishes of the USSR, so he was favored: he had better coaches, government support...etc.

Kortchnoi, however, did not accept this favoritism, and understood that he had to leave the USSR. In 1975, when Karpov had to face Fischer, the world champion, Kortchnoi refused to help him, which cost him dearly: he was severely sanctioned by FIDE and the USSR: he was not allowed to play tournaments for a year, his apartment was bugged...etc.

The following year, he was allowed to participate in a Dutch tournament, and took the opportunity to ask for political asylum, which allowed him to stay there. However, a boycott was instituted against him, many convictions were signed, and his family was kept hostage.

In 1978, Kortchnoi still managed to qualify for the world championship in Baguio (Philippines), during which Karpov (the world champion), supported by the USSR, used psychological methods to destabilize his opponent, and won the match 5-4. That same year, he decided to move to Switzerland, where he was granted political asylum.

Nevertheless, he lost the world championship match against Karpov in Merano (Italy) in 1981.

It was also during these years that the FIDE ranked him number 2 in the world, behind Karpov.

In the early 1980s, the boycott eased, and Kortchnoi won many tournaments, but was eliminated from the Candidates Tournament by Kasparov in 1984.

In the 90s, Kortchnoi was able to return to Russia (the USSR was dissolved in 1992), and even though he was already quite old (over 60), he won several prestigious tournaments, including the World Veterans Championship (over 55) in 2006.

His immense record includes more than 220 tournaments won, and Fischer (11th world champion) said of him: "If there is one person I feared, it was Kortchnoi. I don't understand his shots at all and I don't know how to play against him."

Kortchnoi was primarily known for his versatile style and great perseverance. He rarely settled for a draw, and always maintained superhuman concentration, and extraordinary composure, even if he had only a few seconds left on the clock.

Boris Spassky (1937- Today)

Boris Spassky is a Soviet, then French chess player. During his youth, he was considered a prodigy, and in 1952, at the age of sixteen, he obtained the title of International Master. In 1954, he became world junior champion, and International Grandmaster (at the age of 18). In 1961, he became USSR champion, and in 1966, he qualified for the world championship, which he lost to Petrossian.

The second attempt was the right one, as he won the 1969 world championship with the score 12.5-10.5, becoming the tenth world champion.

However, he didn't stay for long, because in 1972 a memorable world championship took place in Reykjavik (Iceland), which opposed, in the middle of the Cold War, a Soviet (Boris Spassky) and an American (Bobby Fischer). This one ended with the victory of the American, Bobby Fischer, on the score 12.5-8.5.

Afterwards, Spassky won a few more tournaments, but serious health problems forced him to retire from competition. He now resides in a fitness center in Moscow.

Bobby Fischer (1943-2008)

Bobby Fischer was the 11th World Chess Champion from 1972 to 1975
Bobby Fischer was the 11th World Chess Champion from 1972 to 1975

Bobby (or Robert James) Fischer is an American chess player, naturalized in Iceland in 2005. At the beginning, he had difficulty to distinguish himself: at the age of twelve, he finished only fifth in the club tournament, but he managed to find a coach, who will push him to play competitions, and to devote himself to chess.

In 1955, he moved to another club to meet stronger players, and this is when his progression began. The following year, he finished fifth in the New York Open, and became, a few months later, the United States Junior Champion. In 1957 (at the age of 14), he won the U.S. Adult Championship, which put him on the world stage, and allowed him to obtain the title of International Grandmaster the following year (at 15). He went on to win several major tournaments, but had two major breaks between 1963 and 1965, and between 1968 and 1969. He returned to competition in 1970, and then won the 1972 World Championship against Spassky, becoming the 11th World Champion.

However, he turned away from chess, preferring to live in luxury and organizing numerous conferences and simultaneous play. He lost his title by forfeit in 1975, refusing to play the world championship against Anatoly Karpov. He was prosecuted by his country for tax evasion in the 1990s, which forced him to seek refuge in Iceland, where he died in 2008.

His style of play was very variable, but in general, very dynamic.

Anatoly Karpov (1951- Today)

Anatoly Karpov is a Russian chess player, politician and businessman. At the age of four, he learned to play chess, and at the age of 12, he was admitted to the Botvinnik Chess Grand School in Moscow. Botvinnik is said to have said at the time, "This boy understands nothing about chess and there is no future for him in this profession." He was very much mistaken.

In 1969, at the age of 18, Karpov became world junior champion, and International Master, then International Grandmaster, in 1971.

In 1974, he won the Candidates Tournament and became a challenger for the world title. However, he did not have to compete for a championship since he won the title by forfeit in 1975, thus becoming the 12th world champion.

During the late 70's and early 80's, he won many tournaments in front of the best players in the world.

In 1978, he had to face the dangerous Kortchnoi. To ensure victory, he decided to engage in a real psychological warfare, which aimed to destabilize his opponent. This cheating even took on disproportionate proportions and Kortchnoi decided to play with tinted glasses to avoid his opponent's gaze. Finally, Karpov won the match and retained the title.

He defended his title again against Kortchnoi in 1981. This time he won the match easily.

In 1984, Kasparov appeared at the world championship, to face Karpov. This match, which took place in Moscow, was the longest in history. Neither of them managed to win, and the match had to be postponed after the 48th game. The end of the match took place in 1985, and was played in 24 games. Kasparov won the match 13-11, and became the world champion. Karpov then lost the rematch in London in 1986.

He then tried to regain the title, in 1987 in Seville, and in 1990 in New York. He failed each time: the first time, on a tie 12-12, the second time, he lost 12.5-11.5.

In 1993, Karpov was able to regain the title, because Kasparov had left FIDE, giving up his title.

However, he lost his title again in 2001, to Ruslan Ponomariov.

Since then, Karpov has been politically involved in the Duma (Russian parliament), and has also founded an oil company.

He also tried to become president of FIDE, but failed.

He is known for his very positional style of play, and his great strength in the middle game, which was based on restricting the opponent's counterplay.

Garry Kasparov (1963- Today)

Garry Kasparov is a Russian chess player and politician, and Croatian since 2014.

In 1980, at the age of 17, he became World Junior Champion and International Grandmaster. The following year, he won the USSR Championship and qualified for the Candidates Tournament, which he also won, in 1983.

He then faced Karpov in a long match that would not end until 1985 after 72 games. Kasparov, who won the match, became the 13th world champion.

He defended his title victoriously in 1986, 1987, and 1990, against Karpov.

However, Kasparov broke with FIDE in 1993 and created his own federation: the PCA (Professional Chess Federation). He then organized his own world championships, and remained unofficial world champion until 2000, when he was beaten by Vladimir Kramnik. In 2006, he finally admitted that he had made a mistake in leaving FIDE, and retired from tournaments. He also played against the supercomputer Deep Blue, which beat him in 1997.

Kasparov then coached the future world champion, Magnus Carlsen, in 2009, and ran for FIDE president, but was not elected.

Subsequently, he became politically involved in opposition to President Putin, most notably, as the leader of the opposition movement, The Other Russia. Because of this, he suffered several arrests and interrogations. That is why he fled to Croatia, then to New York, where he lives today with his five bodyguards. He also founded the NGO "Human Rights Foundation", in 2013.

Kasparov is best known for his great knowledge of openings, but also for his lack of fair play: he cheated in two important games (in 1994 and 2016), he left the playing area illegally during a prestigious tournament (2004), and left a tournament rather than admit defeat (2003).

* List of Kasparov books.

Vladimir Kramnik (1975- Today)

Vladimir Kramnik is a Russian chess player, who recently retired after a bad tournament in 2019. At the age of only sixteen, Kramnik became World Junior Champion, and at 17, he obtained the title of International Grandmaster, following a superb performance during the Olympics in Manila (Philippines). In the 1990s, he won many major tournaments, even surpassing world champion Kasparov. He was then chosen, in 2000, to face Kasparov in the world championship. This match was a success for him, as he managed to surprise Kasparov and beat him, thus becoming PCA World Champion.

He then defended his title against Peter Lékò in 2004, but then suffered serious health problems in 2005-2006. He finally came back on the world scene, with his superb performance at the 2006 Olympics. He then won the world championship against Topalov (FIDE world champion) in the reunification of the title (PCA and FIDE).

To determine who would be the official world champion, a tournament was organized in Mexico City in 2007. The Indian Anand won the match and became champion. Kramnik then lost the rematch in 2008. However, he played several more Candidates tournaments, but failed to qualify for the World Championship. Kramnik is known above all for his almost faultless positional and technical play, and his great understanding of finals.

Viswanathan Anand (1969- Today)

Viswanathan Anand is an Indian chess player, International Master at 15 years old.

In 1987, he won the World Junior Championship, and became International Grandmaster the following year. In the 90's and early 2000's, he won many prestigious tournaments such as the Linares tournament and the Wijk aan Zee tournament.

In 2003, he became world champion in rapids, and in 2007, he won the tournament in Mexico City which allowed him to become world champion.

Anand then defended his title against Kramnik in 2008, against Topalov in 2010, and against Gelfand in 2012.

However, in 2013, he had to face the Norwegian prodigy Magnus Carlsen.

He lost the match with a score of 6.5-3 without winning a single game.

The following year, he won the Candidates Tournament and faced Carlsen in Sochi, but Carlsen beat him again, with the score 6.5-4.5.

Since then, Anand has not managed to stay in the top 10 in the world, and has not managed to play a world championship again.

He is best known for his excellent tactical vision, and his great speed of calculation.

Magnus Carlsen (1990- Today)

Magnus Carlsen is a Norwegian chess player, current world champion, and world number one.

Carlsen learned to play at the age of five, and played his first tournament at the age of eight.

He became Norwegian champion in his category at the age of nine.

In 2002, he finished second at the World Under-12 Championship and 13th at the World Youth Championship (all categories).

He then obtained the title of International Grandmaster at only 13 years old, and finished second at the national championship (all categories).

Between 2005 and 2010, he won many tournaments, including the prestigious tournament in Wijk aan Zee (Netherlands). In 2009, he achieved an extraordinary performance in a tournament with more than 3000 ELO!

The same year, he became world number 1 in the ELO ranking, at 19 years old, and also became world champion in blitz.

In 2013, he became world champion, beating Vishy Anand.

He then defended his title against Anand in 2014, against Karjakin in 2016, and against Caruana in 2018. This year, he will also have to defend his title against the winner of the Candidates Tournament, postponed to the fall.

He also had a superb undefeated streak of 121 games from 2018-2020!

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