Past and Present

  • GM Gserper
  • | Aug 12, 2012

I am frequently asked (mostly by young chess players) if the best players from the past could successfully compete against today's chess elite. I always had an opinion that the human natural abilities are approximately the same today as they were 200 years ago and the only difference is the amount of knowledge available today (information) and the training methods (computers). So I always believed that if Morphy was alive today and was given about a year to catch up with modern chess developments, he would be in the top 10 in the world. Of course this opinion is impossible to prove or refute.  Except now I have my own indirect proof.  Of course you, my dear readers, are welcome to agree or disagree with my argument here. 

I am extremely happy that we have our own "Mozart of chess" - Magnus Carlsen. Besides the wonderful games that he plays, he really helps me to prove the above point. My conclusion is simple:  Carlsen is what Capablanca would have been today. They have more in common than just an excellent endgame technique. 

As strange as it might sound, they both have a very poor opening preparation. It was a well-known fact that Capablanca didn't work on chess at all and achieved his great results only due to his unbelievable natural talent. According to Botvinnik, Capablanca had the biggest natural talent in chess history.  Considering that Botvinnik knew Karpov and Kasparov since their childhood and also studied hundreds of Fischer's games for their match that unfortunately never took place, he probably knew what he was talking about. According to a well-known legend, the great Cuban didn't even have a chess set at home!  I don't know the cause of Carlsen's poor opening knowledge, but when he plays fellow 2700+ GMs, he is usually way under-prepared in the opening. Here are just two recent examples:

Strategically Black is completely lost here. It just proves Magnus' extraordinary endgame skills that he didn't lose the game (moreover, towards the end he even tried to play for a win!).  But how did he get into these troubles in the first place? A crushing novetly of GM Morozevich? Unfortunately, this is a well-known variation which Black should avoid. A Russian IM Maxim Notkin mentioned that this particular line was marked in his notebook as unplayable for Black many years ago. Here is another game from the same tournament:

The opening is not over yet, but Carlsen (playing White!) has to fight for his dear life. And again, the opening variation of this game is well-known. There are many more examples like this.

Now let's look at some similar technical ideas in the games of both geniuses:

This is one of the most famous games of Capablanca and also the iconic example of the Bishop completely locked out of the game.  And the following is a game played just a couple of weeks ago:

Here is another famous endgame of Capablanca:

Notice how both Capablanca and Carlsen used their flexible pawn structure in the center and the Queen's side to their advantage!

Again, I could provide more examples like these, but for me it is enough. I already have enough evidence that Capablanca today would be definitely in the chess elite and I rest my case here!


  • 3 years ago

    NM BMcC333

    What Morphy madness? All the rumors have been debunked to my knowledge. Try "The Chess Player".

  • 3 years ago


    I think Morphy would for sure be in the top 3 today. He was the first known chess genius with the exceptionally disadvantage for not having any chess lecture or databases available. I’m not a psychologist but his madness in the end had all to do with power that had no way out.

    And if Carlsen and Capablanca are the Mozart of chess, Fischer must be Beethoven for that matter. The question remains what composer Kasparov should be compared with. Maby Tchaikovsky orNiccolò Paganini.


  • 4 years ago


    I don't think dynamic positions are really Magnus's style. By the way, even Capablanca was an absolutely brutal attacker; he has a lot of attacking examples featured in a book titled "The Art of Attack in Chess."

  • 4 years ago


    I think I agree with your analysis, relying on pure calculation and not wanting to be limited by set repetoire.

  • 4 years ago


    Quite sorry but aside from endgame skill and opening weakness, these 2 have little in common as far as their styles are concerned. Magnus takes chances, Capa rarely did, Magnus is a tactical / dynamic player in the style of Kasparov. Capa was an almost purely positional player, although was also tactically proficient he just chose uncomplicated positions, looking toward the end game where he would nurse an very small advantage to victory

  • 4 years ago


    One thing I think about when thinking about magic time boxes to shuttle player to and fro is the fact that these players of history were very often creating chess knowledge, not just aquiring it. There was a continual rebirth of chess as there was constant building upon the foundation. A lot of the ideas of chess, the gems of knowledge, have been unearthed by these pioneering players, and now we have to gift of computers to help polish them. Lets not forget the men who carried those first shovels, whose natural talents and hard labour gave us grand chess ideas to nuture and ween into modern theory. Computers today can be very humbling, but let's make sure they are not reducing the past accomplishments to less than they deserve. I'm pretty sure a Morphy, Capa, or 9 year old Reshevsky could do a number on most people, just like they did the first time!

  • 4 years ago


    Yes, I agree! In my humble opinion Capablanca and Carlsen are in this order the greatest chess players in chess history! Capablanca didn't need preparation or computers at all: he was the machine!

    The geniality of Capablanca was: he played so simply and clearly, that opponents could not realise why they always were lost! In that simple, not complex, "boring" positions! Paradox?

    Here another link related to this topic: Carlsen in Capablanca's footsteps:

  • 4 years ago


    i love capablanca's games especially when he opens with 1. e4...

  • 4 years ago

    NM BMcC333

    I met Olga Capablanca when Kamsky was 14, probably 86. It was very interesting. She told an anecdote I have in my book. At a cocktail party Alekhine came up to her and starting a conversation. He said, about his match with Euwe, I didn't mind losing the match, what I minded was lsoing to someone so much weaker than me (paraphrase) to which Olga replied, that's funny, Raoul said the exact same thing!!

  • 4 years ago


    "I believe that Morphy is one of the greatest players of all time, and GIVEN TIME, I believe that a 19-20 yo Morphy, if magically transported to the modern world, could - with some time - be competitive against the top players today"

    I doubt both this and the article author's opinion that Morphy would be top ten today if he just had a year to catch up. :-) I mean, Karjakin was a GM at 12 and played top tournaments like Dortmund since he was 14, and has been working extremely hard on improving his chess, probably at least ten hours a day for ten years. Reaching his level in one year sounds difficult if you start out 20 years old and in the 1850s.

  • 4 years ago


    Nice to read alll this stuff here :)
    In my opinion natural play is something which is always ahead of practicing and learning Chess tactics with the help of computers. Morphy, capablanca were surely the best chess players. 

  • 4 years ago


    Morphy would annhilate an FM even in a short match. If guys like Kasparov, Naka can play the Scotch game and resurrect other old gambits, why on earth would a mere Master be able to defeat a guy who was the best in the world?

  • 4 years ago


    Morphy definitely had a huge intellect which counts as well. It's said he memorized the entire civil code of the State of Louisianna while still a teenager and lets not forget about his blindfold abilities as well which speak to immense powers of visualization. As far as Capa I've read where Fine stated that as a teenager when he started spliting lightning games with Alekhine Capablanca would still "beat me mercilessly". And thats coming from Fine who went on to be able to play 5 lightning games simultaneously, while blindfolded, according to Blitz Chess Magazine, so yeah, I think those Giants would be just fine today, given a year or so as the GM states.

  • 4 years ago

    FM KBachler

    I agree with the basic theme, but in discussing this, people can get confused  as to what exactly is meant.

    I believe that Morphy is one of the greatest players of all time, and GIVEN TIME, I believe that a 19-20 yo Morphy, if magically transported to the modern world, could - with some time - be competitive against the top players today.

    But think of the theory (not just opening theory) that has occurred since Morphy - all of Steinitz, all of Nimzovich/Reti/Hypermodern, prophylaxis, Capablanca/Alekhine/Fischer/Karpov attacking and defensive improvements.

    Also note that Morphy more than once started off his matches poorly.

    So, at a time when I was well in shape, I commented that I thought it was possible that a modern FM could defeat a magically transported Morphy in a short match.

    This isn't saying that the FM is naturally better than Morphy - its simply recognizing the "period limitations" that Morphy would start with - and have little opportunity to correct in a shorter match.

    But I do think GM Serper's article is interesting and has merit.

  • 4 years ago


    i agree..todays players are polished by the information and education and therefore more informed. if yesteryears players had an equal footing they would probably be the same or maybe better... Einstein and Newton did not study science but they became scientists.. so im comfortable with the idea that capablanca could well do without a chess-set at his home. It must all be in his mind and probably his mind worked as a chess-set if he had sharp visual acumen.

  • 4 years ago


    "According to a well-known legend, the great Cuban didn't even have a chess set at home!"

    Of course he didn't: he was already using a computer and surfing the net.Laughing

  • 4 years ago


    everybody can complicate matters but it takes a genius to simplify them. Capablanca and Fischer were among the latter.


  • 4 years ago


    BMcC333: Maybe that's true, but there could easily be equivocation anywhere, which is my point.

    You really met his wife? How long ago was this? I would assume they are both long, long gone. That must have been cool.

  • 4 years ago


    natural talent and drive equals great play...the great minds have all this and more....who was better? it doesn't matter...they were all super talented...

  • 4 years ago

    NM BMcC333

    Elubas, I met Capablanca's wife, who hosted a reception for the KAmsky-Kasparov mini match in NY. She confirmed that they did not have a chess set in their home.

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