50 Ways to Name your Masters


In a blog entry the redoubtable chessiq mentioned that Mark Taimanov was one of the strongest chess players of all time and this led to the following exchange:


I'm not so sure I would call Mark Taimanov one of the strongest Grandmasters of all time. He was (and is) certainly strong player and one of the better ones in his time, afterall, he contended (and lost) twice for the right to play the World Champion. His ignominious loss to Fischer in the interzonals, however, must keep him off anyone's "one of the strongest of all time" list. He was great, but not "all time" so.


Batgirl, thanks! I see your point, but I choose to differ. IMHO, we would have to go through a list of greatest of all time Chess Grandmasters, say 50 of them, and see what makes them great. From that list of criteria, we would see what those 50 have that Taimanov didn't have.... Some qualities, that I can think right now: (1) making it to candidate matches,
(2) having one own's line of play//variation in famous openings and defences,
(3) playing for a long time and being relevant while doing it.
You can add more... I think things like that make him ONE of the strongest GMs of all time.

A difference of opinion, pure and simple.

I would add an additional criterion - since all time is a long time and encompasses many different phases of chess development, one of the most important elements, to me, would be how dominant a player was in his time. 


Now, who should go on this list of the 50 strongest chess players of all time?

1. Garry Kasparov

2. ?

I think we can safely include every official and unofficial World Champion.



Theres an interesting wiki article, showing the different ways to compare past and present chess players. 


I saw on Bill Wall's website he has a list he compiled of the top 100 players of all time (including their peak year/age when they were best)


This is it: Bill Wall's Top 100 Chess Players of All Time


We all have our own opinions of course, (he has Fischer as #1), but it seems like a very accurate list that took quite a bit of time and research to compile. I do have to say that I would have to put Kasparov as #1 though.


Thanks. But even that article falls far short. For instance, it cited Sonas' chessmetric but totally disregards EDO and Glicko (which give far different evaluations). It cites measuring for accuracy though comuter analysis and mentions the controversy about the strength of the program used, but never mentions that objective analysis can't account for the different developmental levels of chess theory throughout the years.  People who try to judge historical players seem to be particularly lacking in historical perspective for some reason. Keene and Divinski's book has been alternately praised and ridiculed by people more astute than myself, so it's inclusion in the article is a bit disconcerting.


Mr. Wall is very well versed in both chess and chess history. His opinions carries a lot of weight. 


I would like to see, if one wants to nominate a player for this list, that one must explain exactly why that player should be included.


It's so hard to try to compare players of the past with players of the present day.. 


Let's face it, if you time-warped a 21 year old Paul Morphy to the year 2007, any FM or IM would "blow him off the board". He simply didn't have access to MCO, Fritz 9 (for analysis) or the thousands of works that have been published on Chess in the last 140 years. His knowledge of openings would be truly outdated, however he was of course a brilliant tactician.


You can't do a "direct comparison" of a modern day player and a player from the 19th century.. but what you can do is attempt to gauge his strength relative to players of his/her period. In that case, someone like Morphy or Emanuel Lasker would rate very high, and using this type of reasoning I would say Lasker has got to be in the top 5 all-time. 


Why Lasker? Well, for starters, he held the WCH title for an incredible 27 years, successfully defending his title against the likes of Steinitz, Tarrasch, Marshall, Janowski and Schelechter. He also devoted years of his life to studying mathematics instead of Chess, so who knows how great he could have been if he focused more on Chess... His win percentage was about 65%, and for comparison Vladimir Kramnik's is around 63%.


A lot more could be said about Lasker but I am sure batgirl is already well aware of what he accomplished.. and she better agree with me that Lasker was one of the all-time greats.. :) 


"Let's face it, if you time-warped a 21 year old Paul Morphy to the year 2007, any FM or IM would "blow him off the board"."


People like to say that for some reason, but, knowing Morphy as I do,  I, for one,  sure wouldn't bet the farm on it.


Lasker? he was WC for 27 years. Of course he's great.


But the purpose isn't so much to rank players from best to worst. Rather to see if we can agree on players to include in the 50 best, based on mutually agreed-upon criteria. Maybe a better way to look at it would be to try and find 50 candidates for the top 10 best players of all time.






"batgirl said: People like to say that for some reason, but, knowing Morphy as I do,  I, for one,  sure wouldn't bet the farm on it."


Yeah, people do say it a lot... and from my point of view, it has to be true, and that's why it is said a lot.. :) I just don't think Morphy would be able to get himself into a position favorable enough for him to be able to use his tactical brilliance if he was playing against a modern IM/GM.


Master-level players these days have so much information available to them, and with Chess databases and computer analysis, it seems that it would be much easier for them to find their weaknesses (and correct them) then it would be for a player of the 19th century. This means the modern player is simply better, even if he doesn't have as much natural talent as Morphy. I really think Morphy would be left puzzled by the accuracy of a modern Master's opening/early middlegame play. His "board vision" was unmatched, but for him to win against a modern IM/GM, he would first need to get into a position where he would have some options tactically.. and I don't see how it could happen.


And no I am not biased against Morphy... I am originally from New Orleans actually, and he is one of my all-time favorites. Smile


Oh, and I am sure you know ten times as much as I do about Chess history, but I can still have an opinion.. :)


I am glad we can at least agree on Lasker. :)


Certainly you're entitled to your opinion, which is no better and no worse than anyone's, including my own.


My opinion of Morphy's chances aren't based on what he may or may not have known, but of what he was capable of learning - at a rate seemingly faster than anyone before or after him.  


If you read my article on The Romance of Chess - the Art of Giving Odds you would see that Kasparov, objectively the strongest player in history, had trouble giving odds of a pawn against an opponent probably 600 points ELO below him. Whereas Morphy had less trouble giving Knight odds to a player who considered himself Morphy's equal.  While odds-giving raises certain questions, I think the comparison should give some pause for thought.


A different article, What's so Great about Paul Morphy?, examines Morphy's unusual place in chess.


Fischer fully appreciated the potential that Morphy possessed when he said he felt that in a set match, Morphy would eventually overcome any living player. While that was obviously overstatement on his part, still, when someone like Fischer sees such potential, it exists.


Can we dismiss Botvinnik?:

"To this day Morphy is an unsurpassed master of the open games. Just how great was his significance is evident from the fact that after Morphy nothing substantially new has been created in this field."

 or Smyslov?:

"He played with inspiration, without striving to penetrate into the psychology of the opponent; he played, if one can express it so, "pure chess". His harmonious positional understanding the pure intuition would have made Morphy a highly dangerous opponent even for any player of our times."


Or do we just say, Morphy? Any FM today would kick his butt?



Good read guys. :)  I have nothing intelligent to offer though.

Wow!Nice post! Nice debate! Nice and informative comments!

First, batgirl, thanks for your kindness, "redoubtable"? Me? I am humbled.

Second, andy and o0obruceleeo0o thanks for the links. They helped me a lot in giving me pointers on how greatest of all time are rated, or how to go about doing it. It was interesting to see things like, "average errors", "Divinsky numbers", etc.

I really liked Billwall's list. It was nice to see Taimanov on the list. Since my Chess history and knowledge is nowhere close to billwall's. I adopt his list. Even if Taimanov was not on the list, I would have adopted it. I then would have looked at the people on that list, try to see what makes them make it to that list - the criteria, and see if Taimanov didn't have those Criteria/characteristics - for the most part.

Regarding Morphy being blown off the board, I have to side with batgirl  in that Morphy would not be blown off the  board. I would have to go as far as to say, that , from having played you,  you would not  be blown off the board  if  you put your mind to it. You know the principles enough to play very good Chess. I think, Chess, unlike Physics, does not change that much for  the players, after several hundred years. Once you are good enough, you can hold your own against anybody regardless of their knowledge and home preparation. (Has it ever occured to you that Fischer is the Morphy-reincarnation?)


I haven't read your articles, batgirl, but I'll check them out. 


I have no doubt that if Paul Morphy were born in 1985, he would be a Super-GM of at least 2800 FIDE strength now. I am not questioning his ability to learn, or his ability to analyze and understand a given position, we all know that he was phenomenal at that.


I am simply saying that if you brought the Morphy of 1857 and put him into, say, the Wijk aan Zee 2007 tournament, he would perform miserably. Even compared to a modern FM or IM, his knowledge of modern openings would be so limited it may as well be almost nonexistent. He had little or no experience in playing openings such as the Sicilian Najdorf or King's Indian Defense, and although I imagine he could find some very competent and logical moves, being in uncharted territory in every single game would not be advantageous. (Most of his games were King's Gambit and Evan's Gambit games)


Another thing to mention is that many of his opponents were not superb players (many had sub-50% career win percentages), which contributes to Morphy's insanely high win% of about 80%. If Morphy played at Wijk aan Zee 2007, almost every opponent he would face would have a win percentage much higher than Anderssen, and some higher than Paulsen. Higher win percentages against much tougher players, too, because there are far more superb players now then there were in the mid-19th century.


My main argument is that he has no experience in modern openings, and opening preparation is incredibly important in 21st century Master-level Chess. If he could make it to move 20 or 25 and still have an equal position, watch out... but I couldn't imagine that happening even against an FM (which is about 2300, for those of you who aren't familar with the "FIDE Master" title)


Morphy absolutely dominated the other Masters of his day, and we will probably never see that level of play again. When you judge him relative to his contemporaries, he was the best that ever lived. No one can argue against that.  All I have been saying in these posts is that a Morphy from the 1850s or 1860s would not fare well against a 21st century Master. 


After all this, he (of course) still gets my vote for one of the greatest players ever. I'd probably rate him 3rd. (Kasparov, Fischer, Morphy, Lasker...Botvinnik? :)


It is really absurd that Morphy could beat a talented player at knight-odds...
Yeah, Steve, maybe "blown off the board" was a little harsh. But, I think he (Morphy) would get the feeling of slowly but surely being squeezed, because while I am sure he would play well, I imagine he would make many moves which would be ever-so-slightly inferior. This would lead to a slow but sure degradation of his position. I am very good at speculation, aren't I? :)

LOL! Andy, I see what you mean!

First, that you are comparing people as they are - no assumptions. Morphy as he was, with all the knowledge and resources at that time. Today's FM with all his knowledge and resources. That assumption works - for the most part.

Second, I would like to support your position by comparing Alekhine and Capablanca. People have said that Alekhine prevailed because of the immense work he put in Chess. So that takes away from my point that if you are good enough, you can figure things on your own... that knowledge may not be that much of a factor. It was in the Alekhine-Capablanca World Championship Match. 

One word...dang...lol.
Worded ever so brilliantly! Jolly good!



In order to accept your argument, I would have to agree that chess is ultimately decided in the opening. Is that what you believe?


I would also have to accept that the assimilation of this opening theory would be difficult or impossible for a person with an eidetic memory. Is that what you believe?


I would also have to accept that only one person on the board, presumably the FM, directs the opening phase while the other player simply allows him to have his way.  For instance, the Sicilian Najdorf, would require white to move in ways incompatible to Morphy's usual response to a Sicilian. Is that what you believe?


[Since it have nothing to do with the debate, or whatever this is, I didn't comment on the strength of Morphy's opponents.  Such an argumentboth  presumes and suggests that Morphy was an great and experienced player who could beat up on much weaker opposition.  Whereas, the exact opposite was true...  Morphy was a vastly inexperienced player who beat up on the creme de la creme of the established chess intelligentia. - which is what made him legendary.]