Who Are the Best Players not to be World Champion?

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"Who are the best players not to become World Champion?"

This was a question on this week's "Q&A with Coach Heisman" TV show (first Friday each month from 5-6:30 PM ET).

My first thought in answering this question was: When do we start? We probably want to draw the line at the first World Championship Match in 1866. That means everyone who was considered the best player in the world before that (Morphy, Anderssen, Staunton...) would not qualify.

I think the first player that would make our list is Akiba Rubinstein. Henry Nelson Pillsbury is also a candidate. Some ask about Aron Nimzovich; I don't consider him a candidate for "best players not world champion" - he is one of the most famous and original, but not best.

Among the pre-war players we have Sammy Reshevsky, Reuben Fine, and the great Paul Keres.

After World War II the Soviet bloc created so many great players that many would be bound for this list. Lev Polugaevsky, Efim Geller, Leonid Stein, and then Victor Korchnoi immediately leap out. David Bronstein is a special case as he tied Botvinnik in their championship match. In the west we have Miguel Najdorf and Bent Larsen (a little lesser are Svetozar Gligoric and Lajos Portisch).

From the modern day Lev Aronian stands out. It's more difficult to determine this list lately, too, as for a while FIDE had knockout World Champions of lesser stature. Does winning that event exclude them? It remains to be seen if some of the great players today can eventually beat Magnus Carlsen and avoid getting on the list!

I know I forgot some (or your favorite!), but that's probably part of the fun...


"What's a good way to evaluate a position?"

First, let's define our term:

Evaluation: The process of determining which side is better, how much better, and why.

A key point in evaluation is which positions you evaluate. During your thought process, unless there is something unclear like a speculative sacrifice, you usually reserve evaluation for quiescent positions. Quiescent positions are ones where further forcing moves (checks, captures, and threats) either don't exist or seem to be extremely unlikely to change the evaluation. If you don't wait for quiescent positions, you get silly evaluations, such as you play QxQ and evaluate yourself as ahead a queen when in fact the opponent can simply recapture (quiescence).

I have written extensively about evaluation criteria and I think there are four in a position (time/clock situation is a 5th off-board):

  1. Material
  2. King Safety
  3. Activity of each side's forces
  4. Pawn Structure
All other evaluation criteria are either relatively minor or can be contained within one of the above. A common example is space; if more space gives your pieces more activity, then it's a positive; if it doesn't, it may be a negative. Therefore activity is the real goal and evaluation element; space is a means to try to obtain that goal.
In older books, humans evaluated positions something like (+/=) meaning that White was slightly better. Today we are leaning more and more toward providing computer evaluations in hundredths of a pawn, e.g. -0.34 means Black is better by about third of a pawn.

"What's a good, solid opening for Black that doesn't have a lot of book theory?"

As I have noted on the show several times, in general, the more solid the opening, the more popular. For example, against 1.d4 2.c4 more top players play the Nimzo-Indian Defense than the Albin Counter Gambit.

However, the more popular the opening, the more "book lines" exist. That's not to say that all openings don't have a lot of book lines these days, but popular openings have more. The good news is that unless you are a fairly strong player, knowing a lot of book lines is not really that necessary for playing competitive chess. It's much more important to follow good opening principles like "Move every piece once before you move any piece twice, unless there is a tactic." Yes, there's many exceptions to that one, but most players I coach would be far better off not even looking for the exceptions til they get a lot stronger.

So the bottom line is that more solid openings have more book. There are no wonderful solid openings without extensive book - that's almost any oxymoron. But again, the good news is that you can play a solid opening by just learning some of the ideas and learning more as you go; waiting til you know dozens of lines to play it is not required.