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Who is the best chess player of all time?


The specialized italian site scacchierando.it has tried a fascinating exercise that has been a great success: who is the strongest chess player ever? Judges the readers of the site, who had to express their preferences in direct matches, starting from the round of 16 (article here).

The winner was Bobby Fischer who in the direct clashes overtook Anand in the second round, Capablanca in the quarterfinals, Kasparov in the semifinals (51% against 49% of the votes) and Carlsen in the final (with 61% of the votes).

The result has opened a wide discussion. In some cases, the comments trace the careers of the best players ever. In other cases, valuable network sources are provided for anyone who wants to better understand the history of this sport, such as this wikipedia page. Fischer’s supporters claim that Bobby, in the years in which he has climbed the top of the world, has expressed an unparalleled strength of play, opposed only him to the Soviet bloc. That’s enough to identify him as the strongest ever.

Those who dispute the result, on the other hand, blame Fischer for being world champion for only 1 day. Indeed not even that, since he never put the title up for grabs and withdrew before doing so.

Interesting discussion and, like all those of this type (also for other sports) of impossible resolution. There are compelling arguments for and against every great champion. The experience of every enthusiast is worth it and it is impossible to be able to settle the question definitively.

As game lovers and fans of the history of chess, however, we can’t help but cast our vote too. Which we will also try to argue.

When you confront champions of the same sport from different eras, we try to use some elements that allow for comparison. Having followed a similar attempt for boxing, cycling, tennis, etc. .. let’s try to list them.

First of all, the number of successes in relation to the matches made (Merckx is Merckx first of all for the over 500 races won). As a second element, then, the value of the opponents faced comes into play. The third element, but in this case not in order of importance, is the “weight” of the successes obtained (a world championship will certainly be more important, for example, than a national championship). Fourth element to take into consideration, how these successes were obtained (to understand, the world championship of Ali against Foreman in Kinshasa is one of those that leave their mark .. not only on Foreman!). In the end, however, all these things may not be decisive if we do not also take into account what a given sport was, before the advent of a champion, and what it became afterwards. In short, to understand, the revolutionary strength of a player.

Having said that, let’s not back down and try to have our say as far as chess is concerned. For us Fischer is not the greatest chess player of all time. Those who have read us for some time may have understood that we are inclined to assign this title to Kasparov, even if our heart beats for Alekhine.

But let’s proceed step by step.

As for the first element, we have not found a statistic that would tell us the absolute percentage of games played / won for the best players (but surely some fans can help us). We therefore turned to chessgames.com for a comparison. The site, it must be remembered, draws up its own percentage of successes with respect to the games played based on this “algorithm”: won + draws / 2 in relation to the number of games played. Exhibition matches, blitzes and all those that in some way do not fall within traditional official matches on the site database (actually quite complete) are excluded.

However, we were not satisfied with the work of the site and we wanted to calculate the percentage of wins of each individual player based on all the games played.

What emerges you see below.

GIOCATORI=Players; GIOCATE=Matches; VINTE=Matches win; PERSE=Matches loss; PATTE=Matches drawn

We have compiled the order of players based on the record indicated by chessgames.com, but we do not consider this ranking as definitive. We find some elements interesting. Fischer is the player who has the best percentage of games won and played, practically on par with Alekhine (57%). Except that the Russian has played twice as many games as the American in his career. Also noteworthy is the percentage of defeats of Kasparov, the only one, among the players considered, who has lost less than 10% of the games played. Again in the face of a number of significant matches.

As for the value of the players faced, you are spoiled for choice. Lasker, Capablanca and Alekhine have lived through periods of great turmoil, both theoretically and in terms of the number of opponents. Only their presence in that phase significantly raises the overall level, just look at the statistics of each one: all three have a win percentage above 50% of the games played. Difficult to find an era with as many champions on these levels. Fischer, as all his fans remember, was opposed to the Soviet bloc when they “made” the theory and dominated the scene: it is not a trivial matter. In fact, during his long reign Kasparov had only one real opponent, but of an exceptional specific weight, Karpov.

Quality of successes . Defending or regaining a world title is unmatched. Maradona’s goal against England at the World Cup has a universal value not only for the athletic gesture but also because it was achieved in an absolute event. From this point of view, the domains of Lasker, Kasparov and Carlsen tip the balance in their favor.

Fischer has struck a streak of impressive victories in the nominee tournament, but what the brilliant American player lacks is continuity. After the success with Spassky, his sporting history ends and we have no proof that he could have continued to play at those levels even after. To explain the concept, let’s take Fabiano Caruana for example. Fabiano in the 2014 Sinquefield Cup expressed a playing strength calculated on about 3100 elo points. He told himself, something never seen before. Thinking that for that exploit he could be one of the strongest players ever does not do justice to him, nor to the history of chess. Fischer would have had to continue to play to the standards demonstrated that season to be able to climb the top step, proving to be able to manage even the moments of difficulty or tarnish, inevitable in any commercial career.

Revolutionary force – Lasker has ferried chess from the romantic to the classical era. Alekhine has brought the game to an absolute strategic and combinative completeness. Above all, it paved the way for Soviet domination, shifting the balance of the game for 50 years. Kasparov broke this dominance, handing the game back to the rest of the world riding an era of great change with the intelligence of a great one. Carlsen is completing the evolution begun by Kasparov in which chess must coexist, at least as regards the study and analysis, with engines that express playing strength superior to that of men. The Norwegian especially lives in an era (and handles it with dexterity) in which the opportunities for discussion have grown exponentially, thanks to the potential of the web. It is no coincidence that (and let’s go back to the published table) the player who has played the most games is Magnus. More games, more chances of defeat. Therefore the value of the Norwegian, with these standards of performance, is certainly among the highest in history.

Best player ever?

We believe that the title is contended by Aleckhine and Kasparov. The first for the performance standards and for the revolutionary strength expressed in that historical context. The second for an impressive solidity, never achieved by any other player, for the duration of his reign and for the ability to ride an era of great changes not only in the game of chess but which inevitably ended up also affecting this sport. Bringing the art of Caissa into the modern era.

original article (in Italian)

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