Mirror mirror on the wall...

by Jonathan Speelman
6/20/2021 – A comment in the previous column prompted Jon Speelman to share with the readers which players he considers to be the best to have ever lived. He starts with Bobby Fischer, whom he characterizes as having “precise power”; and with Anatoly Karpov — “deft control”. Chime in your thoughts in the comments section and, if you like, characterize your favourite players’ styles in a couple of words! | Artwork: Unknown (via Quora)

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Fischer and Karpov

[Note that Jon Speelman also looks at the content of the article in video format, here embedded at the end of the article.]

A fortnight ago, in the previous column here, I looked at a couple of Magnus Carlsen’s games in which he’d had to make decisions and overthought them. I also included the “Immortal Bulls**t Game”, in which Michael Basman subjected Ulf Andersson to such egregious provocation that Ulf overextended himself and lost.

In the comments that followed, I was expecting some mild reaction to my appellation, but the thing that apparently caught the eye was when I noted that, while Carlsen had lost these games, “of course, he is the world’s best player — and arguably the best player ever to have lived”.

A diehard Fischer supporter weighed in to declare that Fischer was easily the best ever — and would have been even stronger had he had access to databases and chess engines. While one reader pointed out exactly what I meant (arguably means that an argument could be made for this, not that I’m directly asserting this myself), and another noted that had Fischer lived later, his opponents would have had the databases and computers too.

Vassily IvanchukHistorical comparisons are very difficult, but I think that most people would agree that the strongest players of recent times are Fischer, Karpov, Kasparov and Carlsen. Keeping to world champions only, you can also add in Anand and Kramnik, while personally I think that the most talented player I ever faced — of course his nerves were far too volatile for him ever to become world champion — was Vassily Ivanchuk [pictured].

Going further back, there are Alekhine, Capablanca and Lasker, and way back Morphy. Though there is a problem that most of their opponents really weren’t nearly as strong as top modern players. Capablanca was an incredible endgame player, but his opponents tended to roll over and die in a way that, even at much faster time limits, the top guys today generally avoid.

Rather than stir up a firestorm, it might be fun here for readers to give their top five — or more if you like — in the comments.  You might also like to characterize their styles in a couple of words. I’ve probably left at least one favourite out and apologize (humbly if you like, aka the Magic Roundabout) for any offence caused.   

For the moment, as we ask the mirror not who is the fairest but the strongest, here are a couple of reflected games. I imagine that the mirror will continue to be in operation for a couple more columns, so if there are any favourites you’d like me to look at, then please add these to the comments as well.

Today we look at a fantastic game by Bobby Fischer, whom I would characterize as having “precise power”; and one by Anatoly Karpov — “deft control”. Readers may well want to improve on my somewhat off the cuff characterizations, and please feel free to.

Next time, we’ll start with Garry Kasparov — “volcanic energy”. I thought perhaps the first game would be Kasparov v Nikolic (the game with Nxg7), but please feel free to make other suggestions. It was only after I chose the Fischer and Karpov games that I realized that both had Boris Spassky on the losing side, so perhaps readers can also suggest some favourite wins by him?

Boris Spassky

Boris Spassky (right)


Select an entry from the list to switch between games

Master Class Vol.6: Anatoly Karpov

On this DVD a team of experts looks closely at the secrets of Karpov's games. In more than 7 hours of video, the authors examine four essential aspects of Karpov's superb play.


Jonathan Speelman, born in 1956, studied mathematics but became a professional chess player in 1977. He was a member of the English Olympic team from 1980–2006 and three times British Champion. He played twice in Candidates Tournaments, reaching the semi-final in 1989. He twice seconded a World Championship challenger: Nigel Short and then Viswanathan Anand against Garry Kasparov in London 1993 and New York 1995.


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