The 10 Best Chess Players Of All Time
Who are your top ten chess players of all time?

The 10 Best Chess Players Of All Time

| 657 | Chess Players

Our beloved game of chess has had many legends, world champions, challengers, world-class players, and grandmasters.

The games of these masters delight, inspire, and teach us the ways of the royal game. It is common to discuss the greatest players of all time in chess circles—but these discussions always beg the singular question: Who was the best of all time?

Play like the masters

Here are the top 10 best chess players:

Honorable Mentions

The following players are all chess legends and are in the conversation for the best players of all time, but for one reason or another ended up just outside of the top 10.

Paul Morphy

Paul Morphy
Paul Morphy. Photo: Wikimedia.

Paul Morphy was the embodiment of romantic attacking chess, the strongest player of the 1850s and the best player of the entire 19th century. There was no official world championship title during his era, but he was light years ahead of his competition and is recognized as an unofficial world champion.

Morphy won the 1857 American Chess Congress and then traveled to Europe in 1858, winning every match he played against the world's leading players.

Morphy taught the chess world about sacrifices, development, attacking, accuracy, and more. His legendary Opera Game is considered one of the most famous chess games of all time and is still studied today. GM Bobby Fischer listed Morphy as one of the ten greatest players of all time.

Tigran Petrosian

Tigran Petrosian
Tigran Petrosian. Photo: Harry Pot/Dutch National Archives, CC.

GM Tigran Petrosian, or "Iron Tigran," was the world champion during 1963-1969 and a four-time Soviet champion. Undefeated the entire year leading to his world championship title (1962), he was known for his defensive prowess and his famous exchange sacrifices. According to GM Daniel Naroditsky, he was one of the "first elite players with a truly universal style." 

Petrosian defeated the legendary GM Mikhail Botvinnik to become world champion in 1963, defended his title against GM Boris Spassky in 1966, and then lost the re-match to Spassky in 1969.

In 1971 Petrosian was Fischer's last stepping stone before facing Spassky for the world championship in 1972. His victory over Fischer in the second game of their candidates match stopped Fischer's historical and unprecedented 20-game winning streak (although Fischer did win the match).

Viswanathan Anand

Viswanathan Anand. Photo: Peter Doggers/

GM Viswanathan Anand was the FIDE world champion from 2000 to 2002 and the 15th undisputed champion from 2007 to 2013. He lost the Professional Chess Association (PCA) world championship match against GM Garry Kasparov in 1995 and lost to GM Anatoly Karpov in the FIDE world championship match in 1998 (on tiebreaks) before winning the FIDE world championship in 2000.

In 2007 Anand won the double round-robin world championship tournament ahead of GM Vladimir Kramnik and other world-class players and was crowned world champion. In 2008 he defeated Kramnik in a match to become the 15th undisputed world champion. He defended his title by defeating GM Veselin Topalov in 2010 and in 2012 against GM Boris Gelfand. In 2013 Anand was defeated by reigning World Champion Magnus Carlsen

Anand is the strongest Indian grandmaster of all time and has inspired multiple generations of chess players in India and around the world.

#10 Alexander Alekhine 

Alexander Alekhine
Alexander Alekhine. Photo: Wikimedia.

Alexander Alekhine was the fourth official world champion and held the title from 1927 to 1946 (with an exception during 1935-1937). He was a brilliant and well-rounded player with a special ability for combinational play in complex positions. He also taught the chess world that rules and principles can be broken based on concrete analysis of the specific and unique position.

Alekhine became world champion by defeating Jose Raul Capablanca in 1927, despite being a large underdog (he had never won a single game against Capablanca before the match).

Alekhine's reign as world champion was long, but he successfully defended his title only twice (both times against GM Efim Bogoljubow in 1929 and 1934). Capablanca and Alekhine never had a rematch for the world championship due to various reasons. Alekhine faced GM Max Euwe for the world championship in 1935 and surprisingly lost the match.

Two years later Alekhine won the rematch against Euwe to earn the crown back, but he would never defend it again. He passed away in 1946 as the world champion, the only champion ever to do so (although he was finalizing the details to play a match with Botvinnik).

#9 Mikhail Tal

Mikhail Tal
Mikhail Tal. Photo: Ron Kroon/Dutch National Archive, CC.

GM Mikhail Tal, also known as the "Magician from Riga," was the eighth official world champion. He defeated Botvinnik in 1960 to earn the crown at the age of 23 and a half, becoming the youngest world champion in history at the time (although this record was broken by both Kasparov and Carlsen). 

Known for his brilliant and unique attacking style, Tal's approach to the game has been an inspiration for attacking players for decades. One of his famous bone-chilling quotes is as follows: "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."

His game collection The Life and Games of Mikhail Tal is a chess classic and is considered one of the greatest chess books of all time.

#8 Emanuel Lasker

Emanuel Lasker
Emanuel Lasker. Photo: German Federal Archives, CC.

Emanuel Lasker was the second official world champion and held the title for 27 years. His reign from 1894 to 1921 is the longest of any world chess champion, and his playing career lasted five decades. Lasker defeated the first official world champion Wilhelm Steinitz in 1894, and he defended his title five times against a host of world-class contenders, including Frank Marshall, Siegbert Tarrasch, David Janowsky, and Carl Schlechter

In 1921 Lasker lost the title to Capablanca but continued to play at the highest level. He placed third in the 1935 Moscow tournament at the age of 66, half a point behind Botvinnik and Salo Flohr, but ahead of Capablanca, the first women's world champion Vera Menchik and 15 other masters. 

#7 Vladimir Kramnik

Vladimir Kramnik
Vladimir Kramnik. Photo: Peter Doggers/

GM Vladimir Kramnik was world champion from 2000 to 2007. He became the classical world champion by dethroning the legendary Kasparov in 2000, defended his title in 2004 against GM Peter Leko, and in 2006 faced the FIDE world champion Topalov in a title unification match. Kramnik defeated Topalov to become the first undisputed world champion since Kasparov in 1993.

At his peak, Kramnik's game had absolutely no weak points—he could do it all. He was known for his fantastic endgame play and his clean, tenacious, and positional style. Kramnik is considered one of the most difficult players to defeat in the history of the game. 

Kramnik was a top player for over 25 years before retiring in January 2019.

#6 Mikhail Botvinnik

Mikhail Botvinnik
Mikhail Botvinnik. Photo: Harry Pot/Dutch National Archives, CC.

GM Mikhail Botvinnik is known as the "father of the Soviet chess school." The sixth world champion reigned from 1948 to 1963 (with two brief intermissions) and was a top player for over 30 years. Botvinnik's style was dictated by iron logic and flexibility, although he was extremely talented with methodical and strategical planning. His flexible style allowed him to adapt to all different types of playing styles.

He became world champion in 1948, defended his title against GM David Bronstein in 1951, and defeated GM Vassily Smyslov in 1954. In 1957 Smyslov defeated Botvinnik, who won their rematch the following year (at that time the world champion had the right to a rematch if they lost the title). In 1960 Botvinnik was defeated by Tal, but history repeated itself as Botvinnik won their rematch in 1961.

Although his reign as world champion was brought to an end by Petrosian in 1963, Botvinnik continued to play at a high level until his retirement in 1970. Botvinnik started his chess school in 1963, and he was the teacher of three future world champions (Karpov, Kasparov, and Kramnik). 

#5 Anatoly Karpov

Anatoly Karpov
Anatoly Karpov. Photo: R.C. Kroes/Dutch National Archives, CC.

GM Anatoly Karpov was the 12th world champion and reigned from 1975 to 1985 while also being the FIDE world champion from 1993 to 1999. Karpov was an exceptionally well-rounded player, but his specialty was positional binds, prophylactic play, and wonderful endgame technique.

Karpov became world champion by default when Fischer withdrew from their 1975 match because his demands weren't met. Karpov defended his crown by defeating GM Viktor Korchnoi in 1978 and again in 1981. In 1984 Karpov would have his first meeting with Kasparov, and the chess world was changed forever.

In the first of five matches between the two legendary titans, the match was called early with Karpov leading five wins, three losses, and 40 draws. In 1985 Kasparov defeated Karpov and claimed the chess crown. They played again in 1986, 1987 and 1990 and when their matches were concluded their lifetime record in world championship matches was 19 wins for Karpov, 21 wins for Kasparov and 104 draws! 

In 1993 Kasparov broke away from FIDE (creating the PCA), and Karpov became the FIDE world champion. Karpov defended his FIDE world champion title by defeating GM Jan Timman in 1993, GM Gata Kamsky in 1996, and Anand in 1998 (on tiebreaks). Karpov refused to play in the 1999 FIDE world championship tournament after FIDE changed its rules.

Karpov's legendary games continue to be a source of inspiration for all positional and endgame players today. Tibor Karolyi's two-volume work titled Karpov's Strategic Wins is considered one of the best chess books ever written.

#4 Jose Raul Capablanca

Jose Raul Capablanca
Jose Raul Capablanca. Photo: Wikimedia.

Jose Raul Capablanca was the third official world champion and possibly the most talented chess player ever to play the game. From 1916 through 1924 he amassed a tournament record of 40 wins and 23 draws, an unprecedented feat at the time and still a historically significant achievement. Capablanca's talent and skill were unmatched during this eight-year period. 

Capablanca became world champion by defeating the legendary Lasker in 1921. Many believe that Capablanca would have defeated Lasker had he been given the chance before 1921, and many believe that he would have reclaimed the title had he been given an opportunity for a rematch with Alekhine. Unfortunately for Capablanca, his peak playing time happened both during and between World War I and World War II.

Every world champion and contender is well-rounded, but Capablanca had a special gift for the endgame. Even now (in the engine era of chess) it is difficult to poke holes in his endgame play. Irving Chernev's book Capablanca's Best Chess Endings is a classic.

Going eight years without a single loss and becoming world champion are something the chess world won't ever see again, and only Capablanca achieved this feat.

#3 Bobby Fischer

Bobby Fischer
Bobby Fischer. Photo: Bert Verhoeff/Dutch National Archives, CC.

GM Bobby Fischer was the 11th official world champion as well as the first and only American world champion. He is considered by many to be the most famous chess player ever. From 1970 to 1971 Fischer won 20 consecutive games against world-class opposition, an unprecedented and mind-boggling achievement that will most likely never be equaled. This feat is counted among the seven most amazing chess records.

In 1972 Fischer defeated Spassky in the "Match of the Century" and was crowned world champion, despite starting the match with a 0-2 score after throwing away game one in a completely equal endgame and not even showing up for game two. Fischer's dismantling of the Soviet chess empire from 1970 to 1972 during the midst of the Cold War is considered one of the greatest individual performances of all time.

His style was unique, original and creative. He could attack and defend with the best of them, but he also showed a very deep and almost scary positional understanding. Fischer inspired multiple generations of chess players in the U.S. and around the world. 

Fischer's "Game of the Century" is one of the most famous chess games of all time, and his book titled My 60 Memorable Games is considered one of the best chess books in history.

#2 Magnus Carlsen

Magnus Carlsen
Magnus Carlsen. Photo: Maria Emilianova/

GM Magnus Carlsen is the only player to hold the world championship in all time controls (standard, rapid, and blitz)—he held all three simultaneously in 2019. In 2009 he became the youngest player in history to reach the 2800-rating threshold, and on April 21, 2014, he reached his peak rating and the highest rating ever at 2889.

Carlsen has been the number-one ranked player since 2011 and has been dominating the game ever since. In February 2020, Carlsen went on a 125-game undefeated streak in standard time controls, another record for the world champion.

His resume is already more than enough to be considered number two on this list of the best players of all time, but at the time of writing Carlsen is only 29 years old and may not have even reached his peak playing strength!

Carlsen became the world champion by defeating Anand in 2013 just before turning 23 years old (the second-youngest world champion ever, behind only Kasparov). He has successfully defended his title four times: in 2014 Carlsen won the rematch against Anand, in 2016 he defeated GM Sergey Karjakin, in 2018 he edged out GM Fabiano Caruana, and in 2021 he beat GM Ian Nepomniachtchi.

Carlsen himself does not believe he has earned the #1 spot on this list. According to an interview in January 2020, Carlsen states: "Kasparov had 20 years uninterrupted as the world number one... He must be considered the best in history. But I feel that time is on my side... I'm not 30 yet. If I were to be considered the best in history at 30, I would have had to start dominating at 10."

#1 Garry Kasparov

Garry Kasparov
Garry Kasparov. Photo: David Monniaux, CC.

GM Garry Kasparov is the 13th world champion and held the title from 1985 to 2000. He first reached the number-one ranking in 1984 and with a few minor exceptions remained the number-one player in the world until 2006. Kasparov dominated the chess world for over 20 years.

Kasparov reached his peak rating of 2856 on March 3, 2000—at the time an unprecedented number and a record that wasn't broken until Carlsen surpassed it.

In 1985 Kasparov defeated Karpov to become the youngest world champion ever at the age of roughly 22 and a half. He defended the world championship title against Karpov on three consecutive occasions in 1986, 1987, and 1990. In 1993, he broke away from FIDE and started the PCA—this break would create two different world championships until the reunification match between Kramnik and Topalov in 2006.

Kasparov defended his title by defeating GM Nigel Short in 1993 and successfully defended his title again by defeating Anand in 1995. Kasparov and Lasker are the only two world champions to defend their titles successfully five times.

In 2000 Kramnik defeated Kasparov, ending the reign of the best player of all time as world champion. However, Kasparov would continue playing in (and winning) tournaments until his retirement in 2005—he left the game as the number-one player in the world.

Kasparov has remained active in the chess world after his effective retirement. He has played exhibition matches and even trained Carlsen and GM Hikaru Nakamura. His five-volume series titled My Great Predecessors is considered one of the best chess books ever.

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