Who would you carve into the Mount Rushmore of chess?

Who would you carve into the Mount Rushmore of chess?

NM SamCopeland
Apr 15, 2014, 12:41 PM |

I heard an interesting conversational question the other day - "Who would you carve into the Mount Rushmore of X." Where X can be any category of interest - e.g. chess. Naturally, I couldn't help but mull over who my choices would be. I think this question is particularly fun because, for once, the question isn't about who the "strongest" chess players are. It's a much more subjective question about the greatness and breadth of their legacy.

I think it's interesting to start by thinking about how the faces emblazoned on the actual Mount Rushmore were chosen. Mount Rushmore has four presidents - George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. As described here, they were chosen for the importance of the various historical roles they played in America's development. Presumably, popularity also played a role Laughing Originally, non-presidents such as Lewis and Clark were considered. As it turns out, all my choices are former world champions, but I think one could absolutely choose a non-world champion, or even a non-player such as an organizer or an arbiter.

For me, the following characteristics seemed most important in selection...

  • Chess Understanding - The level to which they surpassed the knowledge and understanding of their peers and priors.
  • Longevity - The length of their chess career and the number of brilliant games they leave behind.
  • Chess Contribution - The impact of their promotional efforts on the stature and popularity of chess.

Another factor is that I selected players from multiple eras. For instance, there were a slew of great players I considered from the 50's and 60's, but in the end, I only selected one. I've posted my choices in chronological order below with my rationale and an annotated game they played in their younger days. There are of course many famous brilliancies that better represent their skill, but I thought it more fun to see lesser known and even flawed examples of their play.

What four chess persons are your picks? What criteria would you use?

Note: Apologies to Fischer, Rushmore, and GIMP for my atrocious effort :)


Emanuel Lasker

For me, Lasker is critical because he spans such a fascinating period of chess history. Lasker won the title in 1894 from Steinitz and held onto it until 1921 when Capablanca defeated him soundly and he resigned the match. For well over two decades, Lasker out-competed vital and imaginative players such as Chigorin, Pillsbury, Marshall, Schlechter, Tarrasch, Janowski, Nimzowitsch, and Rubinstein (who may have been his better in his remarkable period around 1911). Many believe that Capablanca was clearly stronger than Lasker prior to 1921, but the first World War postponed a match for sometime. However, Lasker had one of his great results in New York 1924 and finished with 16/20! ahead of Capablanca so Lasker clearly had some competitive fuel left in his tank.
I believe Lasker was the first player to achieve a truly "modern" understanding of chess. At his peak, Lasker would be a tough opponent for any player in the history of chess. Many have characterized Lasker's play as being "psychological" and focused on swindles. The most common comparison is to Levon Aronian. I think this is an injustice to both players. Lasker's play was simply very strong and the players of his day were not always able to understand his sophisticated play which often creatively violated the principles of the time.

Botvinnik was a hard choice for me. It is not clear to me that Botvinnik was the strongest player in the world for much of his reign, but he was perhaps first among equals. Such equals (those who never wrestled the title from him...) included Keres, Reshevsky, Bronstein, Gligoric, and Fine. Botvinnik held the title intermittently from 1948, when he won the world championships tournament held to select Alekhine's successor until 1963 when he lost a match to Petrosian. He was also bested by Smyslov and Tal, but won rematches against both of them.
I think Botvinnik deserves representation here because of the critical role he played as the patriarch of the Soviet chess system which so dominated chess for decades. Probably, all of the great players of the Soviet era owe some debt of gratitude to Botvinnink. Botvinnik even founded his own chess school. Some of the players who came through the school included... Anatoly Karpov, Garry Kasparov, Vladimir Kramnik, and Alexei Shirov. Kasparov has been particularly vocal about Botvinnik's role in his own chess education.

There is probably little point in discussing Bobby's accomplishments. What can one say that hasn't been said already? Bobby was both one of the most talented and hard working chess players ever. Bobby dominated the 1972 World Championship cycle against Spassky and retained the title until he forfeited it in 1975. His success was a massive inspiration to the Western chess world, which had struggled to compete with the Soviets for decades. At his peak, it seems clear that Bobby achieved a level of chess perfection which few have attained. His 6-0 demolitions of Taimanov and Larsen and his 11-0 US championship are particularly remarkable competitive achievements. Outside of chess, Bobby had a reputation for being difficult to please, but like Lasker before him, he enhanced the stature of the game by demanding superior conditions and prize funds.

Kasparov has perhaps not always been the most beloved of players, but his dominance and influence cannot be questioned. Kasparov won the title from Karpov in 1985, and is generally recognized to have retained the title until Kramnik bested him in 2001. Kasparov achieved a peak ELO rating of 2851 in 1999. That record stood for 14 years. Despite the successes of great players such as Ivanchuck, Anand, Short, Kamsky, and Shirov in the 1990's, Kasparov's dominance in this period was extremely clear. Kasparov has also had an enormous influence on the world chess scene through his political efforts. While his efforts such as the PCA (Professional Chess Association) have perhaps not achieved what Kasparov had intended, Kasparov was determined in moving the chess world towards a more democratic future.