Strongest Chess Players through time

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Scroll Down over the Names to read more about the players in Wikipedia.

Perhaps the best-known statistical model is that devised by Arpad Elo in 1960 and further elaborated on in his 1978 book The Rating of Chessplayers, Past and Present, he gave ratings to players corresponding to their performance over the best five-year span of their career. According to this system the highest ratings achieved were:

(Though published in 1978, Elo's list did not include five-year averages for Bobby Fischer and Anatoly Karpov. It did list January 1978 ratings of 2780 for Fischer and 2725 for Karpov.

In 1970, FIDE adopted Elo's system for rating current players, so one way to compare players of different eras is to compare their Elo ratings. The best-ever Elo ratings are tabulated below.

As of January 2015, there were 97 chess players in history who broke 2700 and eight of them exceeded 2800. Particularly notable are the peak ratings of Fischer, Karpov and Kasparov, who achieved their peak ratings in earlier years (1972, 1994, and 1999 respectively).

Table of top 20 rated players of all-time, with date their best ratings were first achieved

Rank

Rating

Player

Year-month

1

2882

Magnus Carlsen

May 2014

2

2851

Garry Kasparov

July 1999

3

2844

Fabiano Caruana

Oct. 2014

4

2830

Levon Aronian

Mar. 2014

5

2817

Viswanathan Anand

Mar. 2011

6

2813

Veselin Topalov

July 2006

7

2811

Vladimir Kramnik

May 2013

8

2810

Alexander Grischuk

Dec. 2014

9

2798

Hikaru Nakamura

Mar. 2015

10

2797

Anish Giri

Feb. 2015

11

2793

Teimour Radjabov

Nov. 2012

12 (tie)

2788

Alexander Morozevich

July 2008

12 (tie)

2788

Sergey Karjakin

July 2011

12 (tie)

2788

Wesley So

Feb. 2015

15

2787

Vassily Ivanchuk

Oct. 2007

16

2785

Bobby Fischer

Apr. 1972

17

2780

Anatoly Karpov

July 1994

18

2777

Boris Gelfand

Nov. 2013

19 (tie)

2775

Shakhriyar Mamedyarov

Aug. 2013

19 (tie)

2775

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

Feb. 2015

Average rating over time

The average Elo rating of top players has risen over time. For instance, the average of the top 10 active players rose from 2751 in July 2000 to 2794 in July 2014, a 43-point increase in 14 years. The average rating of the top 100 players, meanwhile, increased from 2644 to 2703, a 59-point increase. Many people believe that this rise is mostly due to a system artifact known as ratings inflation, making it impractical to compare players of different eras.

Arpad Elo was of the opinion that it was futile to attempt to use ratings to compare players from different eras; in his view, they could only possibly measure the strength of a player as compared to his or her contemporaries. He also stated that the process of rating players was in any case rather approximate; he compared it to "the measurement of the position of a cork bobbing up and down on the surface of agitated water with a yard stick tied to a rope and which is swaying in the wind".

Chessmetrics

Many statisticians since Elo have devised similar methods to retrospectively rate players. Jeff Sonas' rating system is called "Chessmetrics". This system takes account of many games played after the publication of Elo's book, and claims to take account of the rating inflation that the Elo system has allegedly suffered.

One caveat is that a Chessmetrics rating takes into account the frequency of play. According to Sonas, "As soon as you go a month without playing, your Chessmetrics rating will start to drop."

Sonas, like Elo, claims that it is impossible to compare the strength of players from different eras, saying:

Of course, a rating always indicates the level of dominance of a particular player against contemporary peers; it says nothing about whether the player is stronger/weaker in their actual technical chess skill than a player far removed from them in time. So while we cannot say that Bobby Fischer in the early 1970s or José Capablanca in the early 1920s were the "strongest" players of all time, we can say with a certain amount of confidence that they were the two most dominant players of all time. That is the extent of what these ratings can tell us.

Nevertheless Sonas' website does compare players from different eras. Including data until December 2004, the ratings were:

Rank

1-year peak

5-year peak

10-year peak

15-year peak

20-year peak

1

Bobby Fischer, 2881

Garry Kasparov, 2875

Garry Kasparov, 2863

Garry Kasparov, 2862

Garry Kasparov, 2856

2

Garry Kasparov, 2879

Emanuel Lasker, 2854

Emanuel Lasker, 2847

Anatoly Karpov, 2820

Anatoly Karpov, 2818

3

Mikhail Botvinnik, 2871

José Capablanca, 2843

Anatoly Karpov, 2821

Emanuel Lasker, 2816

Emanuel Lasker, 2809

4

José Capablanca, 2866

Mikhail Botvinnik, 2843

José Capablanca, 2813

José Capablanca, 2798

Alexander Alekhine, 2781

5

Emanuel Lasker, 2863

Bobby Fischer, 2841

Bobby Fischer, 2810

Alexander Alekhine, 2794

Viktor Korchnoi, 2766

6

Alexander Alekhine, 2851

Anatoly Karpov, 2829

Mikhail Botvinnik, 2810

Mikhail Botvinnik, 2789

Vasily Smyslov, 2759

In 2005, Sonas used Chessmetrics to evaluate historical annual performance ratings and came to the conclusion that Kasparov was dominant for the most years, followed by Karpov and Lasker. He also published the following list of the highest ratings ever attained according to calculations done at the start of each month:

Rank

Rating

Player

1

2895

Bobby Fischer

2

2886

Garry Kasparov

3

2885

Mikhail Botvinnik

4

2878

Emanuel Lasker

5

2877

José Capablanca

6

2860

Alexander Alekhine

7

2848

Anatoly Karpov

8

2833

Viswanathan Anand

9

2826

Vladimir Kramnik

10

2826

Wilhelm Steinitz

Warriors of the Mind

In contrast to Elo and Sonas's systems, Raymond Keene and Nathan Divinsky's book Warriors of the Mind attempts to establish a rating system claiming to compare directly the strength of players active in different eras, and so determine the strongest player of all time. Considering games played between sixty-four of the strongest players in history, they came up with the following top ten:

  1. Garry Kasparov, 3096
  2. Anatoly Karpov, 2876
  3. Bobby Fischer, 2690
  4. Mikhail Botvinnik, 2616
  5. José Raúl Capablanca, 2552
  6. Emanuel Lasker, 2550
  7. Viktor Korchnoi, 2535
  8. Boris Spassky, 2480
  9. Vasily Smyslov, 2413
  10. Tigran Petrosian, 2363

These "Divinsky numbers" are not on the same scale as Elo ratings (the last person on the list, Johannes Zukertort, has a Divinsky number of 873, which would be a beginner-level Elo rating). Keene and Divinsky's system has met with limited acceptance, andWarriors of the Mind has been accused of arbitrarily selecting players and bias towards modern players.