The Top Chess Players in the World

GM Boris Gelfand

Full name
Boris Gelfand
Born
Jun 24, 1968 (age 52)‎
Place of birth
Minsk, Belarussian SSR, Soviet Union
Federation
Israel
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Bio

Soviet-born Israeli GM Boris Gelfand is a longtime elite chess player. His staying power as a top player is legendary, as he has spent most of his life ranked among the top-20 players in the world. He was ranked in the top 30 for nearly 27 years (January 1990 to October 2017).

Gelfand nearly defeated GM Viswanathan Anand for the world title in 2012 but lost in rapid playoff games. He was a six-time challenger to the most prestigious title in chess and won one Chess World Cup, two Belarusian national titles, a Soviet Union Junior Championship, and two European Junior Championships, among other accomplishments. He also has three team medals and a silver medal in Chess Olympiads. In fact, in five of those competitions (out of 11 total appearances), he went undefeated and has never had a performance below 50 percent.

It’s remarkable that Gelfand continues to play in high-level chess tournaments with good results. In the 2019 World Rapid and World Blitz Championships, he placed in the top 25 for both events against the very best competition.

Apart from his play on the board, Gelfand is influencing the chess world as an author of three books. His and GM Jacob Aagaard’s 2015 book, Positional Decision Making in Chess, is already regarded as a modern classic.

Playing Style

Gelfand’s style is tough to pin down. He has been praised for positional chess and the endgame alike but doesn’t seem to shy away from other areas. As he hinted in an interview with ChessPro, a Russian chess website, the most accurate answer may be that he has no singular style at all when he said: "My approach is very simple. Each position requires the strongest move, and you need to try and find it.

"That’s an illusion, of course, because very often you have several moves which are all good and even. Perhaps it’s more practical not to spend too much time and make one move out of three-five possible moves and save time....

"Of course, when you can find the strongest move, the game is wonderful, and you feel proud to create such an artistic performance. You haven’t simply won an ordinary game but the one that is going to become a part of chess history, I would rather say.

"Everyone has his own motivation. One simply wants to win, but I want to play a game that will be a part of chess history. That’s another attitude."

Each position requires the strongest move, and you need to try and find it.
—GM Boris Gelfand

Early Chess Career (1973 To 1988)

Gelfand was five years old when his father, who was always on business trips, bought a chess book so his son would have something to do. At first Gelfand said he didn’t want to read it—Journey to the Chess Kingdom by GM Yuri Averbakh and Mikhail Beilin—but did finish the entire book while his father was at work.

After his family learned more about his interest and talent for chess, Gelfand had his first coach at the age of five. He studied under a couple of other coaches until 1980, when the 12-year-old studied at the Tigran Petrosian School. He stayed there until 1983, which was the same year Gelfand won the Sokolsky Memorial with 11.5/16 points and an undefeated performance. The next year he won the 1984 Belarusian Chess Championship and gained back-to-back national titles with a win the following year.

In January 1985, the 16-year-old prodigy won the Soviet Union Junior Championship a half-point ahead of now-GM Vassily Ivanchuk. Two years later, he entered the world’s top-100 players and became the European Junior Champion. The following year he tied for first place in the 1988 World Junior Championship but placed second on count back (tiebreak system: sum of total scores for opponents defeated, plus half of total scores of all opponents tied with) to now-GM Joel Lautier. Gelfand shared the 1988 European Junior title with now-GM Aleksey Dreev.

GM And USSR Runner-Up at 21 (1989 To 1992)

Gelfand had a sharp ascension to the top. As a 21-year-old, he became a grandmaster and then managed to place joint second in the 56th Soviet Chess Championship against 16 of the USSR’s best grandmasters and masters in 1989. He finished only a half-point behind the winner, GM Rafael Vaganian.

In the July 1990 FIDE rating list, Gelfand racked up 60 rating points to achieve the peak world rating in his entire career as the third-best player behind GMs Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov—two players who typically rank in the 10 best chess players of all time. The same year Gelfand competed in his first Chess Olympiad. He went undefeated on board two, helping a loaded USSR team win gold (Ivanchuk, Gelfand, and GMs Alexander Beliavsky and Artur Yusupov made up the primary four players).

Gelfand also placed second behind Kasparov in Linares and Dortmund in 1990. He shared first place with Ivanchuk at the Manila Interzonal in 1990 and shared first place with GM Valery Salov in the elite Wijk aan Zee tournament.

Dominating The Biel Interzonal (1993 To 1997)

The biggest tournament win in Gelfand’s career thus far came at the 1993 Biel Interzonal. He went undefeated with 9/13 points—topping players like GMs Gata Kamsky, Alexander Khalifman, Michael Adams, Vladimir Kramnik, Alexei Shirov, Anand, and Ivanchuk—which gave him a spot in the 1994 Candidates. There Gelfand beat Adams and Kramnik but lost to Karpov in the finals.

Gelfand unleashed a number of impressive tournament performances in this period of his career. In several events he either placed or tied for first, including Dos Hermanas in 1994, Debrecen and Belgrade in 1995, and Vienna and Tilburg in 1996. He also played in two more Olympiads, this time with Belarus. He earned a medal neither time but did anchor the top board and had dual 2600+ rating performances. He scored 12/19 points in those two events combined.

Rubinstein Memorial Winner (1998 To 2008)

Gelfand captured the 1998 Rubinstein Memorial event with an undefeated performance and 6.5/9 points. He topped a star-studded field that included Karpov, Ivanchuk, Shirov, and GM Peter Leko. The event had an average rating of 2654. Gelfand took the same event in 2000—which upped the average rating to 2674—with another undefeated performance and 6.5/9 points.

In the middle of the Rubinstein Memorial wins came a win at Malmo in 1999, and Gelfand took the 2004 Pamplona Tournament with four wins, three draws, and no losses. That performance was good enough for full-point victory over the field, which was notably led by second-place 14-year-old GM Sergey Karjakin. In 2005, he shared first place with GM Pentala Harikrishna and won in Biel, topping the competition that included top teenage GMs Hikaru Nakamura and Magnus Carlsen (who was 14 at the time).

Gelfand finished fifth in the Chess World Cup 2005, granting him a spot in the 2007 Candidates event. There he won against GM Rustam Kasimdzhanov and Kamsky to make it to the World Chess Championship. Gelfand was ranked seventh out of eight players in the double round-robin tournament to decide the world champion and impressed by tying for second place. Anand won the title while Gelfand and Kramnik shared second—Leko and GMs Peter Svidler, Alexander Morozevich, Levon Aronian, and Alexander Grischuk rounded out the rest of the field in order.

Arkadij Naiditsch and Boris Gelfand in 2007
Arkadij Naiditsch (left) and Boris Gelfand in 2007. Photo: Gerhard Hund, CC 4.0.

During this period, Gelfand started playing for Israel at the Chess Olympiads, and he participated in every competition from 2000 until 2014. For the six competitions that fall under the period of his career ending in 2008, Gelfand suffered just three losses over the 58 games he played as Israel’s top board. He led them to silver and gold medals in 2008 and 2010, respectively, and the 2008 event was especially notable. Gelfand had five wins and five draws in 10 games, earning him individual silver (his only individual medal in the Olympiads) and a tournament performance rating of 2833. It was easily one of the best performances of his chess career.

From World Cup Winner To Anand Challenger (2009 To 2012)

Gelfand entered the Chess World Cup 2009 as the top-seeded player in the 128-player single-elimination tournament, and he didn’t disappoint. He defeated a number of top players, including GMs Judit Polgar, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, and Karjakin on the way to the final against GM Ruslan Ponomariov, who won the FIDE World Chess Championship in 2002.

In the final match, by defeating Ponomariov 7-5, Gelfand gained a place in the 2012 Candidates Tournament. There he continued his impressive run, beating GMs Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, Kamsky, and Grischuk to win the event. That made Gelfand the challenger to Anand for the world title.

Boris Gelfand and Viswanathan Anand in 2012
Boris Gelfand (left) and Viswanathan Anand in 2012. Photo: R. Fernandez, CC 3.0.

The World Chess Championship 2012 match kicked off with six draws, and then Gelfand took the match lead in the seventh game by capitalizing on a critical mistake by Anand. However, the advantage was short-lived. In the eighth game, Anand managed to trap Gelfand’s queen and won, remarkably, in just 17 moves—the shortest decisive game in world championship history. The rest of the 12 games in the regular schedule ended in draws, so the match headed to rapid tiebreaker games (25 minutes plus 10 seconds per move).

After a draw in the first tiebreaker, Gelfand fell behind on time in the opening during the second game. Time trouble persisted for Gelfand, and he lived on the 10-second increment, which prevented him from being able to follow through on the drawing chances he had. Anand took the lead and after two more draws, the world champion edged Gelfand to retain his title.

Other notable performances during this period include a win in the ACP World Rapid Cup in 2009, when he defeated Svidler in the final to take the event that also featured Karpov. Gelfand won the 2010 Leon Rapid Tournament over Aronian and had two notable second-place finishes against top-level competition in the 2009 Bazna Tournament and the 2010 King’s Tournament. Gelfand tied for first place with GMs Veselin Topalov and Mamedyarov at the FIDE Grand Prix London in 2012.

Tal Memorial Winner And Highest All-Time Rating (2013 To 2020)

A year after dueling Anand for the world title, Gelfand had an impressive 2013. It started by finishing, ironically, a half-point ahead of Anand in equal first-place with Aronian at the Alekhine Memorial 2013 in March. Unfortunately for Gelfand, Aronian won on tiebreakers by having three wins to Gelfand’s two.

In June, Gelfand won the Tal Memorial, finishing a half-point above Carlsen and topping a field that also included Anand, Nakamura, Karjakin, and GM Fabiano Caruana. (The participants of the 2018 World Championship Match, Carlsen and Caruana, finished second and third, respectively.) Gelfand finished with an undefeated score, earning 6/10 points, while earning a tournament performance rating of 2905.

Then in October, Gelfand shared first place with Caruana at the FIDE Grand Prix in Paris. Aside from another strong tournament performance—the field included Nakamura, Grischuk, Ivanchuk, and Ponomariov—Gelfand achieved his highest rating of all time at 2777.

In subsequent years, Gelfand has remained active as a player and in other facets of the game. Those other areas include coaching—he has helped the likes of GM Daniil Dubov and the Norwegian chess team—and writing.

By late 2020, Gelfand has published four books with the publisher Quality Chess which are all highly recommended:

  • Positional Decision Making in Chess (2015)
  • Dynamic Decision Making in Chess (2017)
  • Technical Decision Making in Chess (2020)
  • Decision Making in Major Piece Endings (2020)

Present And Future

Gelfand continues to elude time as a top chess player. For instance, at the 2019 World Blitz Championship and the 2019 World Rapid Championship, the 51-year-old placed in the top 25 for both events (placing 19 and 25, respectively) against the very best competition on the planet.

For decades, Gelfand has enhanced chess as a player, coach, and author. Hopefully, he will continue enriching the game for many more years.

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