The All-Time World Chess Champion Bracket

The All-Time World Chess Champion Bracket

| 213 | Fun & Trivia

Who is the best chess player of all time?

Today, World Champion Magnus Carlsen leads Vishy Anand 1.5-0.5 after two games at the world chess championship in Sochi, Russia.

Carlsen is the 16th classical world chess champion — more players than that have been called world champion, but just 16 stand out as both undisputed and officially recognized.

While the 16th and 15th world champions duke it out in Sochi, let’s consider who would win a tournament of all 16 world chess champions.

The winner would be the all-time world champion, the greatest chess player ever.

Obviously, this mega-tournament can only take place in hypothetical form, since 10 of the 16 world champions are deceased, and three more are retired from competitive chess.

The fictional nature of the tournament, though, does allow for some interesting twists we can add to make for a more competitive and exciting event.

Since chess knowledge has increased so much since 1886, when Wilhelm Steinitz became the first official undisputed champion, we have to find some way of leveling the theoretical playing field — otherwise, the early world champions would get crushed by modern international masters, much less keep up with the likes of Carlsen, Anand, and Kramnik.

The following tournament rules have been designed to create as fair and competitive a fictional event as possible.


  • Each of the 16 undisputed world chess champions is teleported to present day at the peak of his playing ability — whatever age that may have been.
  • Each player is given modern chess literature, opening books, databases, software engines, and a MacBook Pro.
  • Players have one year to study for the tournament, and a stipend of $100,000 USD for the preparation year. (This would mean a huge pay cut for Carlsen, Anand, and Kramnik, but they’ll have to make do.)
  • The world champions are free to spend that year however they see fit, whether it’s to acclimate themselves to modern life, catch up on 100 years of Ruy Lopez theory, fall in love with Meg Ryan, or spend countless hours playing bullet on


  • A single-elimination, seeded knockout tournament, each round decided by a 12-game match. 
  • Winners advance until one world champion remains. The losers of the semifinals play one extra match for third place.
  • The All-Time World Chess Championship begins Tuesday, November 10, 2015 in a sold-out stadium in Arlington, Texas, and simulcast on for millions of viewers around the world.

Match Rules:

  • The match schedule, rules, and time control are identical (with one exception) to the current world championship: best of 12 classical games, with a tiebreak round at faster time controls in the event of a 6-6 tie.
  • The exception: all 12 games will be played, regardless of match score. If we are taking the trouble to reanimate chess geniuses and send them traveling through time, we might as well play all 12 games for pride and posterity.
Seeded Bracket:

brackets via brackets ninja

Round 1 Matches:

Here's a look at how the first round would play out. Remember, this is a fictional tournament based on opinion and speculation. 

You'll probably have different opinions about seedings and match outcomes, so please let us know in the comments or on Facebook who you think would win. 

Max Euwe was a renaissance man in addition to a world chess champion. He was not a full-time professional chess player. Instead, he pursued interests in mathematics, education, and literature.

He does not draw a favorable first-round matchup against Garry Kasparov, who is widely considered one of the greatest chess players ever.

Transported to 2014, Euwe would probably be just as interested in the advancements made in modern science, art, and the humanities as current chess theory. I don’t think Euwe would obsessively prepare for the year, and even if he did, Kasparov is just too strong.

Kasparov romps in round one, hardly needing any preparation beyond his pre-existing knowledge — and remember, he is playing at his peak. He wins six games and draws the other six, going undefeated. 

WINNER: Garry Kasparov, 9 to 3.

This is the classic irresistible force vs. the immovable object.

Mikhail Tal was one of the greatest attacking players ever. His creativity in conjuring king hunts and positional combinations out of seemingly nowhere is legendary and well documented. Give him a year to prepare with Stockfish on his side, and there’s no telling the complex ideas he could create for this tournament.

Meanwhile, Petrosian is considered the greatest chess defender who ever lived. He almost always stopped his opponent’s ideas before they even happened, and his preparation was top-notch. With a year to study modern databases, he'd become the chess incarnation of a brick wall.

This was the toughest first-round match to pick. The two played 48 times in real life with an equal score: each player had 5 wins, 5 losses, and 38 draws.

Logically, then, this match would be tied 6-6 and would go first to rapid tiebreaks, then blitz. It’s here that the dangerous Tal has a big edge, and he advances by winning the blitz tiebreak.

WINNER: Mikhail Tal, 6 to 6 (on tiebreaks).

Capablanca was a chess prodigy, with an intuitive understanding of the game that was far beyond his own time. But his natural ease with chess became his downfall. He lost the 1927 world championship to Alekhine after reputedly not preparing at all.

Capablanca was charming and embraced his celebrity. I do not think he would take the year of preparation all that seriously, instead relying on his pure chess talent.

Steinitz, of course, was the first official and undisputed world chess champion. He was a brilliant player who changed the game forever with his understanding and advancements.

The match with Capablanca would be closer than expected. Capablanca is often mentioned as one of the top three or four chess players of all time based on talent alone. Steinitz would be a tough nut to crack, though.

Capablanca wins, but just barely.

WINNER: José Raúl Capablanca, 6.5 to 5.5.

Vladimir Kramnik is one of the most underrated world champions. At his peak, his game simply had no weaknesses. His brand of chess is clean, positional, and overwhelming.

His opening preparation was unbelievable and revolutionary. In his shocking win over Garry Kasparov in the 2000 world championship,  Kramnik withstood Kasparov’s attacks in the Ruy Lopez by employing the Berlin Defense, an opening for Black that had been out of favor for a century.

Kramnik’s “Berlin Wall” has proven so effective at securing the draw in top-level chess that many super grandmasters now avoid playing 1. e4 if they need to try for a win.

Lasker was surely an all-time great champion. He held the title for 27 years before yielding to the Capablanca.

Like Euwe, Lasker also was an accomplished mathematician and was generally interested in other competitive games aside from chess.

Even with a year to prepare, though, I do not think Lasker could get his chess anywhere near to the level of peak Kramnik.

Kramnik cruises to round two.

WINNER: Vladimir Kramnik, 7.5 to 4.5.

Magnus Carlsen certainly needs no introduction here. He is the highest rated chess player ever, with a peak rating of 2882, 31 points ahead of Garry Kasparov’s peak.

Even with a bit of rating inflation in recent years, there is no denying that Carlsen is one of the strongest chess players of all time.

Carlsen’s game combines the intuition of a prodigy with the relentless preparation of a competitive genius. In match play, he is nearly impossible to beat, as his chess will be risk-averse and accurate almost all the time.

Smyslov only held the world title for one year. He was, however, one of the strongest players in the Soviet era, winning his national championship twice. Smyslov was a kind and entertaining gentleman, and often gave singing performances at chess tournaments.

Nice as he was, Smyslov doesn’t stand a chance against Carlsen. The only reason the match score isn’t more lopsided is that Carlsen will be content to play risk-free chess, drawing nine games and winning three.

WINNER: Magnus Carlsen, 7.5 to 4.5.

Here’s a matchup between two of the greatest preparers chess has ever known. Alekhine was said to work at least eight hours per day on chess, and Botvinnik was an outstanding chess educator in addition to prepping for his own games.

Alekhine comes in as the favorite, with a natural attacking style and a knack for complex positions.

Botvinnik, while universally respected, is not as often mentioned as Alekhine in the best-of-all-time debate. 

But this is a match that actually has to be played out.

Alekhine, though brilliant, was by all accounts an alcoholic.

GM Bryan Smith writes that some of the credit for Alekhine’s win vs. Euwe in 1937 was due to a cow purchased by Alekhine, so he could drink milk instead of vodka. 

Imagine Alekhine bombarded by all the temptations of the modern world for a full year. Sure, he might resist his addictive nature and prepare, but the edge has to go to Botvinnik, whose chess was strong enough to win regardless.

The two played three times in real life, with two draws and a win by Botvinnik. Botvinnik wins here, too. 

WINNER: Mikhail Botvinnik, 7 to 5.

When preparing this article, the first thing I did was seed the 16 world champions for the bracket. The first-round matchup between Fischer and Spassky happened organically, not by intentional design.

Still, it’s a nice coincidence to have these two titans of chess history play a third match. Fischer beat Spassky, of course, in the 1972 world championship that changed chess forever. 

Famously, Fischer emerged from hiding in 1992 to win another unrecognized “world championship” match with Spassky for a prize fund of $5 million — still far and away the richest chess match ever.

Fischer’s strength and contributions to chess are beyond doubt and debate. His will to win was unbelievable. During his competitive chess career, Fischer trained his mind and body relentlessly. He devoured chess information faster and more thoroughly than anyone in history.

He simply refused to lose. Given a year to prepare and the entire catalogue of chess literature and databases, Fischer would do little else but improve his game.

Fischer's biggest problem for this tournament might be the risk of arrest in the United States for playing chess in Yugoslavia in 1992 while the country was under economic sanctions by the U.S. Let's assume the State Department chooses not to prosecute. 

Spassky is an undeniably strong world champion who had the misfortune to run into Fischer’s freight train. Spassky, known as a sportsman and chess gentleman, recently commented at the 2014 world championship match in Sochi that he still dreams about Fischer.

In real life, Fischer and Spassky played 56 times. Fischer won 17 of those games, lost 10, and forfeited one.

In this tournament, with Fischer at his peak and given access to modern theory, it’s not even that close.

WINNER: Bobby Fischer, 8 to 4.

This is the only match in the first round where both combatants are currently alive. This match, though, is not 2014 Karpov vs. 2014 Anand — it’s peak Karpov vs. peak Anand, with a year to prepare.

Karpov and Anand have played 92 times in real life, with Anand holding a humongous edge at +31 =49 -12. It’s not really a fair record to consider, though, because Karpov’s peak as a chess player was much earlier than Anand’s.

Karpov won the 1975 chess championship by default, but after that he went on a formidable run of tournament success, including a then-unprecedented nine tournament firsts in a row.

Karpov then battled Kasparov in four of the greatest world championship matches of all time, epic struggles that threatened the health of both participants. After 144 world championship games with Kasparov, Karpov’s final score was +19 =104 -21 — a single win away from a lifetime tie against arguably the greatest player of all time.

Anand, even as he currently plays to reclaim the world championship, has already secured his place in chess history as an all-time great. He was the undisputed champion from 2007 to 2013 before losing to Magnus Carlsen, but Anand also won four more disputed world championship titles.

The match between Anand and Karpov would be one of the toughest of the entire tournament. I have to give the edge to Karpov based on his record of match play with Kasparov, but it would be very close with both players at their peaks.

WINNER: Anatoly Karpov, 6.5 to 5.5

Here's the All-Time World Chess Champion bracket after the first round.

Bracket After Round 1:

brackets via brackets ninja

Check back on next Monday for the next round of the tournament.

Let us know who you think is the all-time best world champion in the comments and on Facebook.


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