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Friday, June 18, 2010

Greatest Players in History

Coincidently after reading that Bobby Fischer is in the news again (he’s getting dug up for DNA testing, but that’s another story) I recently came across an old article from the early 1960’s by Bobby Fischer in which he listed the 10 greatest players who ever lived: Morphy, Staunton, Steinitz, Tarrasch, Chigorin, Alekhine, Capablanca, Spassky, Tahl and Reshevsky.

Fischer left off players like Lasker and Botvinnik claiming that just because someone held the world championship for many years it didn’t mean they were a great player. I can agree with that because in the old days the title was the personal property of the title holder and they often dodged matches against players against whom it was possible they could have lost. And of course, there’s some question about Botvinnik’s conduct as world champion.

When the article came out Edward Lasker wrote, “Fischer has a lot of growing up to do…I predict that despite his youth…Fischer will never become world champion.” He was wrong. Lasker cited the fact that Fischer had not produced works of art of the same quality as some of Emmanuel Lasker’s games. Of course Edward was living in the past.

Euwe claimed Fischer left Botvinnik and Petrosian off the list because at the time the article was written they were his rivals. Euwe also pointed out that during the time Tahl was world champion Fischer had expressed the opinion that Tahl was a weak player, but after Tahl lost the world championship, Fischer considered him a great player. Euwe expressed the opinion that Fischer added Tahl and Spassky to his list because they were not his rivals although Spassky was to become one.

There are different criteria for selecting the best player. One such method I saw was using an engine to measure “errors” per thousand moves, but if you rely on ratings only, and even then, there are some defects in that method (for an extreme example, see this article on Claude Bloodgood) then you get the following list which is based on the best 20 year performance. If I remember the list based on the number of erros per thousand moves showed Smyslov as one of the very best while Steinitz did very poorly, having made a lot of errors. As the ELO system inventor, Prof. Arpad Elo, pointed out, ratings measure performance, not ability. The Bloodgood story makes that clear but still, the best players usually have the best results so in my opinion, ratings are about as good a way as any of determining the greatest players who ever lived. This list is from Chessmetrics.

I’m not surprised to see Kasparov listed as number one; in my opinion he’s the best player in history…not my favorite though.

# Player Rating
1 Kasparov, Garry K-2853
2 Capablanca, José R-2841
3 Fischer, Robert J-2794
4 Karpov, Anatoly E-2788
5 Botvinnik, Mikhail M-2770
6 Alekhine, Alexander A-2762
7 Steinitz, Wilhelm-2733
8 Korchnoi, Viktor L-2732
9 Ivanchuk, Vassily-2728
10 Anand, Viswanathan-2724
11 Petrosian, Tigran V-2719
12 Lasker, Emanuel-2716
13 Spassky, Boris V-2716
14 Smyslov, Vassily V-2712
15 Reshevsky, Samuel H-2711
16 Keres, Paul-2707
17 Gelfand, Boris-2704
18 Polugaevsky, Lev A-2697
19 Tal, Mikhail-2692
20 Timman, Jan H-2719

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