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It's not fair to compare masters of different eras on an absolute basis. The strongest players today have enormous advantages over the strongest players of generations ago, including the advances in theory (opening theory in particular), thousands of top level games to study, the use of engines to analyze positions and test new lines in openings, and the ability to earn a comfortable living by playing the game.
The only fair way to compare masters of different eras is on a relative basis - their performance against their toughest competition. However, we have to be careful when we do that. There weren't nearly as many top level masters to challenge Philidor or Morphy, as there are today to challenge Carlsen. It would be virtually impossible for the strongest master today to dominate to the extent they did.
I think we need to use a sliding scale. That means we should require greater dominance over their competition from the best masters of earlier eras than the best masters of today. Otherwise, we're going to exclude the greatest masters of modern times, including Kasparov and Carlsen.
Who is the greatest master of all time when evaluated by his performance against the strongest masters of his time? I'm going to nominate Morphy because he was by far the best of his time. He dominated Paulsen and Anderssen in matches. Anderssen was considered the best in the world until Morphy demonstrated he was in a class by himself. But more than that, Morphy's understanding of the game was well ahead of his time.
Of course there are several other "greatest master" contenders. How about some nominations?
Note to self: Come up with a better forum topic.
I nominate Gary Kasparov.
Thanks for your support, Simon. Kasparov is a solid nomination. He has to be a finalist on anyone's list.
And he was well ahead of his time. He wasn't just better than his contemporaries. He had a much greater understanding of the game.
I would also like to nominate Tal. His moves may not always be the best but one has to admit that his attacks had certain swag and ferocity that kept his opponents under pressure even when he did some mistakes, resulting in them often failing to capitulate on it. He probably wasn't the most flawless mover in chess board but he surely was one of the most intimidating in the same.
@Simonpal19 (I try to use this new technology whenever I get a chance), Tal should get at least an honorable mention for his tenacity. That "Tal stare" alone wore an opponent down.
I nominate you for most imaginative screen name. I almost didn't because the name looked familiar but I checked to make sure. Pi begins with 3.14159.
I know, I just typed it in randomly
I'd also say Paul Morphy. Second would be Bobby Fischer imo, with the 11/11 in the U.S Championships being one of the reasons why
Another excellent nomination. That 11/11 was impressive. His results in the 1971 Candidates were also remarkable - beating Taimanov 6-0, Larsen 6-0 and Petrosian 6.5-2.5.
The "relative" piece becomes overwhelmingly significant the farther back you go. So, the best bets may be someone like Philidor or even Greco.
I get your point. There are so many top-tier professional grandmasters today, it would be extremely difficult for one (say Carlsen) to dominate in the way that the best masters of hundreds of years ago did. But we've got to be fair and take that into consideration. Otherwise we wouldn't even consider Carlsen, which would be ridiculous. He doesn't win every tournament he plays in but he's maintained the world's highest rating for years.
The reason I chose Morphy was not only because he was far better than any of his contemporaries, but also because his level of understanding was well above theirs and well ahead of his time. You can say the same about masters that preceded him. The problem is that the further you go back, the fewer strong players there were to challenge the best one. By the time Morphy came along, there were a number of strong masters, including Anderssen, who was generally considered the best in the world before Morphy arrived.
One of the many brilliant games by Morphy:
As I mentioned to HobbyPlayer, a couple of the first famous games I saw were Anderssen's brilliant wins against Kieseritzky and Dufresne. After playing over those games, I was surprised at how easily Morphy beat him. Anderssen was great but Morphy was in a class by himself.
True. This game is just awesome. Battle of the titans.
Bobby Fischer was also in a complete class of his own. He WON all 12 games in the US championship, something no one else has done, and he also had ridiculous winning streaks elsewhere.