Who Are The 8 Best U.S. Chess Players Ever?

Who Are The 8 Best U.S. Chess Players Ever?‎

Pete
Pete
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286 | Fun & Trivia

On July 4, the day the United States of America celebrates its independence, let's take a look at the best chess players in American history.

The United States has long produced top chess talent, with some of the game's finest players, authors and theoreticians calling the U.S. home.

In recent years, the U.S. has been a force on the international chess scene, and its "big three" grandmasters are staples at the world's top tournaments. The United States had a world-championship contender in 2018, with GM Fabiano Caruana coming up just short against the world champion, GM Magnus Carlsen.

Caruana obviously makes the list of the best-ever U.S. players, but where does he rank? And who is ahead of him?

There are many ways to make a "best-of-all-time" list. Your selections will be different from mine. I am using peak playing strength as my primary metric, not overall career achievement because I am most interested in the best possible chess produced by each American on this list.

8. GM Gata Kamsky

Peak rating: 2763

Gata Kamsky
Gata Kamsky. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Gata Kamsky is a true chess prodigy. He became a strong grandmaster at age 16 and reached his peak in the 1990s. His career pinnacle was in the 1996 FIDE world championship bracket, where he made the finals but dropped the championship match against the reigning FIDE world champion, GM Anatoly Karpov.

Kamsky was born in the Soviet Union but moved to the United States early in his career. Kamsky won the U.S. chess championship five times (1991, 2010, 2011, 2013, and 2014), cementing his status as an American chess legend.

Here is a 22-year-old Kamsky beating the super-GM Nigel Short in 26 moves.

7. GM Leinier Dominguez Perez

Peak rating: 2768

Leinier Dominguez
Leinier Dominguez. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Even with much recent success, Leinier Dominguez Perez remains an underrated American chess talent.

Dominguez Perez officially became an American chess player less than two years ago, in December 2018, when he transferred federations to the United States. Before that, he was the five-time Cuban chess champion.

His career peak was likely his sole first place in the 2013 FIDE Grand Prix leg in Greece, finishing ahead of 11 other super-GMs, including three others on this list.

Dominguez Perez's attacking prowess was on full display in 2014 when he practically wiped future-compatriot GM Wesley So's kingside off the board in this brutal miniature.

6. Paul Morphy

Peak rating: 2811 (estimated by Edo)

Paul Morphy.
Paul Morphy.

It's not a stretch to call Paul Morphy the father of American chess.

A true prodigy, Morphy was not just a chess force at an early age. His game was also about 100 years ahead of its time in terms of style and even tactical strength.

GM Bobby Fischer called Morphy "the most accurate player who ever lived," which should tell you something because many chess fans give that title instead to Fischer.

Morphy's game peaked quite early, and the apex was his European tour in 1858 at age 21. Morphy pretty much destroyed every strong player the European continent could throw at him, and by the time he returned to the United States, he was recognized as the unofficial world champion.

Morphy retired from competitive chess a year later to begin his law practice, never returning to the game before his death at age 47.

Morphy is the author of arguably the most famous chess game ever played, an exhibition against the Duke of Brunswick and Count Isouard at an opera house in Paris. If you're going to show a chess beginner one game, use this one.

5. GM Hikaru Nakamura

Peak rating: 2816

Hikaru Nakamura
Hikaru Nakamura. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Hikaru Nakamura, while quite a formidable traditional chess force, is truly a chess player of the modern age.

Nakamura has made his mark as unquestionably the best American blitz chess player ever, and also the best American online chess player ever. Since most chess games in 2020 are both played online and at fast time controls, these are fairly important arenas.

Nakamura has also established a tremendous following on the live-streaming site Twitch and was called "the grandmaster who got Twitch hooked on chess" by Wired magazine. On Chess.com, Nakamura has won the two most recent editions of the Speed Chess Championship (2018-2019).

Of course, Nakamura has enjoyed solid over-the-board success as well, winning the U.S. championship five times.

No game quite captures the modern, fun, and online-friendly nature of Nakamura's style like his thorough trolling of the computer engine Crafty back in 2007, when Crafty was one of the world's strongest engines and Nakamura was just 20 years old.

4. GM Wesley So

Peak rating: 2822

Wesley So.
Wesley So. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Wesley So transferred to the United States federation six years ago, and since then he has established himself as one of the world's best players.

So is 26 years old and it's reasonable to think that his chess peak is just getting started. So's style of play is precise and safe, rarely getting himself into trouble. This less-risky approach has been cited (mostly unfairly) as evidence that So is not an exciting chess player.

That argument went right out the window last November when So destroyed the classical world chess champion, Carlsen, in the finals of the first FIDE world Fischer random chess championship. So ran up the score, winning the match 13.5-2.5, putting to rest any doubts of his brilliance and creativity.

In this famous game against the top Chinese GM Ding Liren, So answers any lingering questions you might have about whether three pieces are better than a queen.

3. GM Fabiano Caruana

Peak rating: 2844

Fabiano Caruana.
Fabiano Caruana. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Fabiano Caruana is currently at the top of his career and sits just 28 rating points behind Carlsen on the live list. Caruana and Carlsen are the only players above 2800. The pair fought a close battle in the 2018 world chess championship, with Carlsen needing the tiebreaks to retain his title.

Caruana is still in contention for the next world championship whenever that process resumes, with the American one game off the lead of the 2020 candidates' tournament at the time of its postponement halfway through the schedule.

Caruana's chess highlight reel is too extensive to fully appreciate in this space. He won the U.S. chess championship on his first try in 2016, and he was the four-time Italian chess champion before transferring to the U.S. federation.

Why pick a draw for Caruana's showcase game, when all the other players get wins?

This game against Carlsen in the 2018 world chess championship represents the peak of chess on two levels. On the surface, you have the tremendous underdog Caruana outplaying and pressuring the world champion Carlsen, who was lucky to escape with the draw and maintain an even match.

On a deeper level, there is a beautiful and inscrutable endgame lurking in this game that astounded everyone who analyzed it. The chess super-computer "Sesse" found a forced checkmate for Caruana in 30 moves in real-time, as millions watched the game around the world. The legendary former world champion GM Garry Kasparov said no human could ever spot the win. Yet it was in there, on the board as surely the 64 squares themselves.

I still get goosebumps playing over this endgame.

2. GM Bobby Fischer

Peak rating: 2785

Bobby Fischer.
Bobby Fischer.

Bobby Fischer stands as the most legendary U.S. chess player ever and is universally considered one of the three greatest world champions, along with Carlsen and Kasparov.

Fischer was responsible for a renaissance in American chess in the 1970s as he racked up ridiculous winning streaks on his way to the world title over GM Boris Spassky in 1972. Fischer elevated the game of chess to geopolitical philosophy, representing American individualism against the Soviet chess machine.

The most striking aspect of Fischer's chess was how far ahead he was of his competition. His peak rating of 2785, earned before the considerable rating inflation in the 50 years since would place him near the top of the chess world even today.

Computer studies have confirmed Fischer's strength and accuracy as other-worldly for his time. His style was universal, elegant and above all, accurate. His fierce competitive spirit is something the computer engines can't measure; Fischer had one of the strongest wills to win in chess history.

Fischer's career was cut short by disagreements with chess organizers along with mental and physical health problems. Nonetheless, in the short time he spent at the top of the game, he changed it forever with the millions of American players he inspired.

Almost as a side note, Fischer invented Fischer random chess (chess 960), which is considered one of the most creative chess variants. Fischer also held a patent for a chess clock with an increment, which is the preferred time control today of many players.

The below game, one of the most famous in chess history, shows the stunning chess clarity possessed by Fischer even as young as age 13 when he eviscerated a leading American chess master, Donald Byrne.

1. AlphaZero

Peak rating: 3500+

alphazero

I can already see the objections in the comment section. But the headline in this article said "chess players," not chess humans, and I am a big fan of non-human chess.

AlphaZero is an artificial intelligence project that plays chess. Given just the rules of the game, AlphaZero taught itself to play chess to superhuman levels in mere hours using machine-learning techniques.

It stormed onto the chess scene in late 2017 when its operators released the results of a 100-game match with Stockfish, the traditional champion chess engine.

AlphaZero plays chess differently from most computers, possessing an almost-intuitive understanding of the game and handling many positions in a beautiful, human-like manner. Of course, AlphaZero is stronger than any human, but if you played through its games you'd think it had a distinct personality. Maybe it does.

AlphaZero inspired a whole wave of neural-network chess engines, including the international open-source project Lc0, which currently sits second behind Stockfish on the computer ratings list. The machine-learning approach pioneered by AlphaZero transformed the scientific basis of computer chess, and it will be the neural-network engines that evolve the game to its next levels, wherever that may be.

Is AlphaZero American? AlphaZero runs on American TPUs. The project's inventor, the AI company DeepMind, is headquartered in the United Kingdom, but the company has been owned by an American corporation (Google/Alphabet) since before there was an AlphaZero.

If George Washington was born a British subject but can still be considered a founding father of the United States, we can extend that same leeway to AlphaZero, especially on the American day of independence from Great Britain.

Of course, there are many other American chess engines, most of them far stronger than the human players on this list, but here they are collectively represented by the intrepid AlphaZero, which changed computer chess forever.

I'll never forget where I was when I saw this game by AlphaZero against the reigning top computer engine Stockfish, and if you care about the evolution of chess, you might not either.

Who do you think are the top chess players in American history? Let us know in the comments.

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