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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raf7chess raf7chess 9/4/2021 08:37
Depsipeptide Depsipeptide 6/25/2021 04:19
@marcguy: I believe most of us define a supertournament as one that is composed entirely of strong grandmasters. This is really a post-Fischer phenomenon - once FIDE adopted the ELO system, organizers were outdoing each other to have the highest category and average rating for their tournament.
The three Fischer tournaments you mention not only contained a range of srrong and weaker GMs, but also a significant number of nonGMs. This suited his style perfectly - although he had a narrow opening repertoire, he understood his systems and analyzed them more deeply than anyone else. His weaker opponents often got into poor positions straight out of the opening whereas nowadays they would be better prepared thanks to engine analysis.
Although he won those three tournaments by a wide margin, Fischer's score against the top half of the crosstable was less impressive: Stockholm 62 +2 against the top with wins against Korchnoi and Portisch. Rovinj/Zegreb 70 +2 against the top with wins against Gligoric and Minic (and a rare loss against a nonGM Kovacevic rumoured to have received help from the Soviets during the game). Palma 70 +4 against the top with wins against Geller, Taimanov, Uhlmann, Smyslov and Gligoric and a loss against Larsen.
Did Fischer play in supertournaments? Yes, the 59 Candidates where he finished 5th but that was at the start of his career. Three years later, he was in poor form at the 62 Candidates and started with a loss to his countryman Benko and another to Geller and finished 4th, despite the convincing victory earlier that year at the Interzonal. Then there's the double round robin Piatigorsky Cup at Santa Monica 66. Fischer finished the first half at the bottom after losses to Spassky, Larsen and Najdorf. In the second half (the main difference was a change in hotel room!) he played really well and finished 2nd overall, half a point below Spassky. I rest my case - Fischer never won a supertournament.
marcguy marcguy 6/24/2021 08:23
@Depsipeptide: Your point on active world champions is well taken; however, your assertion that Fischer never won a "super tournament" because some lesser players were in the cross table is absurd. I would list the following as qualifying as super tournaments Fischer won. 1) Stockholm Interzonal 1962, ahead of Geller, Petrosian, Korchnoi, Gligoric, Uhllman, Stein, Portisch, Benko, et al. 2) Rovinj/Zagreb 1970, ahead of Hort, Gligoric, Smyslov, Korchnoi, Petrosian, Ivkov, Uhllman, et al 3) Palma Interzonal 1970, ahead of Larsen, Geller, Heubner, Taimanov, Uhllman, Portisch, Smyslov, Polugaevsky, Gligoric, Hort, et al. All the other competitors got to play the "lesser" players as well.
Fritzpa Fritzpa 6/24/2021 04:51
Many thanks to everybody for these fascinating comments.

I didn't really have a clear opinion when I wrote the piece but wanted to get the ball rolling and you've made some excellent points.

Please keep your opinions coming and I'll incorporate some of them next time (Sunday July 4th) when we'll look at some Kasparov games, definitely including the Nxg7 v Nikolic and - many thanks for reminding me Meisterzinger - the wonderful king hunt v Topalov.


Depsipeptide Depsipeptide 6/24/2021 04:17
OK, I'll use a stricter selection- who was the greatest AS world champion, not BEFORE or AFTER. This automatically rules out short-lived champions such as Smyslov and Tal, and it equally eliminates Fischer who quit after winning the title. I am left with only three strong contenders
#1 Karpov- intuitive harmony
Karpov had an amazing domination throughout the 70s, against both the older players and the younger post-Fischer generation. His natural feel for the game was incredible, regularly outplaying strong opponents from equal or inferior positions as Black.
#2 Kasparov- brute force
The antithesis to Karpov in many ways. Deep opening preparation combined with tremendous calculating power at the board. His games seem balanced on a knife edge where the opponent is unlikely to successfully negotiate the complications and find a narrow path to equality. As dominant as Karpov over his generation.
#3 Carlsen- unfettered optimism
Carlsen's strength is his hunger to win and his ability to set little problems for his opponent throughout a game. Of course, it is also his weakness and sometimes his sense of danger is lacking in critical positions. Every generation stands on the shoulders of previous giants, and Carlsen has a more universal style than his predecessors.

Possibly I would add Alekhine and Lasker to the list. However, they had periods of inactivity as world champions and faced weaker opposition than the post-WWII champions. From Karpov onwards, the champions have mainly played in elite tournaments against the strongest whereas before him the events were much more mixed in strength. Fischer, for example, never won a supertournament!
marcguy marcguy 6/23/2021 12:26
@HowardGutman: Your comment about Fischer not missing wins in generally spot on, once Fischer got a clear advantage he was ruthless; however, ironically, in his Wch match in 1972 vs Spassky he missed relatively easy wins in games 7 and 15.
One aspect about Fischer is that with the possible exception of Morphy, no player had the superiority over his contemporaries that Fischer did.
MrPickl3 MrPickl3 6/22/2021 06:57
Fischer was 2785 FIDE in 1972. Nineteen seventy two! That rating would be #5 on the world ranking list today even with all that inflation. He's the GOAT, followed by Kasparov, Karpov, Carlsen and Lasker in that order.
ThachWeave ThachWeave 6/21/2021 05:05
Dear UlyssesGanesh,

Morphy is my super-sub striker and Botvinnik is the manager.
Portlyotter Portlyotter 6/21/2021 04:17
Fischer-genius of his time
ulyssesganesh ulyssesganesh 6/21/2021 03:59
Dear Thatchweave, kindly add Morphy among strikers and put Botvinnik as a company to Petrosian ...
maxharmonist maxharmonist 6/21/2021 02:04
"So, it is all a matter of opinion"

Well, it is a matter of opinion if Bach is better than Mozart, but not if Carlsen is better than Radjabov or Lasker was better than Janowski.
Jack Nayer Jack Nayer 6/21/2021 11:54
Who is the greatest composer of all times? Who is the greatest scientist of all times? What is the best wine in the world? Who is the best pianist of all times? The strongest racehorse? None of these questions can be answered. There is no methodology. Elo is useless and was never meant to express historical ratings. So, it is all a matter of opinion. I think that if you would have asked Lasker who was the strongest player ever, he would have found it uninteresting. But this is the world we live in now. To measure or not measure is the question. It is a disease.
Gerald C Gerald C 6/21/2021 07:30
1. G. Kasparov, power in action. 2. A. Karpov, art of positional play. 3. J-R. Capablanca, clarity and simplicity. 4 A. Alekhine, combinatory vision. 5. R. Fischer, pragmatism. 6. M. Carlsen, strategical depth.
adbennet adbennet 6/21/2021 07:03
ThachWeave wrote - "Fischer with today's technology and his work ethic would be rated close to 2900."

Or, Fischer with today's social media would disappear down the rabbit hole, never to play chess again.
ThachWeave ThachWeave 6/21/2021 06:58
CHESS UNITED: Kit Colors: white & black

Strikers: Tal, Kasparov, Alekhine

Midfielders: Anand, Fischer, Carlsen, Spassky

Defenders: Kramnik, Karpov, Capablanca

Keeper: Petrosian
ThachWeave ThachWeave 6/21/2021 06:15
Sorry, one more comment: I'm not sure what to make of Morphy, but he sure made it look easy, coasting on his innate ability.
Vidmar Vidmar 6/21/2021 06:15
Carlson seems more like Botvinnik, primus inter pares, whom no one includes on the all time list; even though he was World Champion for almost 15 years. Fischer not only decisively beat all his peers, he defeated the entire Soviet machine! Alekhine was probably the most universal player. I'd also recognize magnificent players who, for one reason or another, didn't become world champion...Keres. Bronstein, Fine, Marshall. Nimzovich, Rubinstein. It's fun to speculate but impossible to know how they'd fare vrs So, Fabi, Hikaru, Ian, etc.
ThachWeave ThachWeave 6/21/2021 05:57
Fischer with today's technology and his work ethic would be rated close to 2900.

The amazing Capablanca deserves mention in this conversation. But then so too does the man who defeated him, the dynamic Dr. Alekhine.

Karpov also merits inclusion in this discussion. This is irrelevant of course but I'd rather play like him than like his great rival.

My final opinions are that Kramnik is underrated and Lasker is overrated.
lute lute 6/21/2021 05:33
I think any of the players who rates a Master Class Fritz Trainer DVD about them are legitimate candidates. But if I had to pick the top five, it would be (1) Garry Kasparov; (2) Jose Raul Capablanca; (3) Robert Fischer; (4) Emanuel Lasker; and (5) Magnus Carlsen.
tomohawk52 tomohawk52 6/21/2021 05:16
I agree with Ajeeb007. For example, take a look at this game: https://www.chessgames.com/perl/chessgame?gid=1257921

Of course not as refined as say this game: https://www.chessbomb.com/arena/2021-grand-chess-tour-paris-rapid-and-blitz/01-Firouzja_Alireza-So_Wesley but they are rather similar. Pretty impressive considering it was played 231 years ago.
ChessTalk ChessTalk 6/21/2021 05:10
Fischer was number one drama. But Carlsen, Kasparov and Karpov gave us satisfaction--they play/played a lot. Would be hard to say how brilliant they were, they just are/were. Hope Carlsen can keep it going but I want it close though...more drama ;)
philidorchess philidorchess 6/21/2021 03:06
Capablanca Alekhine Fischer Karpov Kasparov Carlsen -Best of the Best.
zoranp zoranp 6/21/2021 01:10
We should mention Emanuel Lasker who was the world champion for 27 years. During this period he was arguably the best player and he had beaten a few generations of players (old generation: Steinitz, Chigorin, Tarrasch, in his generation he simply was the best, and then younger generation from Rubinstein to Capablanca and Alekhine).
Ajeeb007 Ajeeb007 6/21/2021 12:24
The best player in history is the one who achieved the most with the resources at hand. The player who dominated his peers by the greatest margin was Philidor. He was the world's best player for approximately 50 years and his chess understanding was over 100 years ahead of his time. Karpov, Fischer,Kasparov, etc. all had the advantage of hundreds of years of chess knowledge and development to draw upon. Philidor was much more creative and insightful and he managed to come up with a whole new understanding of chess and he used it to beat everyone for decades. So far advanced were his ideas that none of his peers were able to understand his play or compete successfully with him. As for Carlsen, well, the current world champion almost always gets a lot of nods for being the best ever, until he gets beaten and loses his title.
sokaspkarpov sokaspkarpov 6/20/2021 10:57
One tournament tells it all!!

LINARES 1994!! Anatoly Karpov : 11/​13 (+9 =4 -0)
adbennet adbennet 6/20/2021 10:44
Best all time? This question is so unfair to all the great players of all times! I hate it. I don't see why "El Greco" isn't as good an answer as "Carlsen". Maybe some early Persian should also be considered?! Just enjoying all their games and struggling to make good moves myself. The first part remains easy, but the second part becomes more difficult every year.
amarpan amarpan 6/20/2021 09:34
we have to recognize that there were players who were groomed by the Soviet macininary and those that came up without such a backing. Karpov, Kasparov and Kramnik belong to the former category and Fischer and Anand belong to the latter. Carlsen belongs to the post Soviet era and who had access to computers and databases during his formative years, as did all his contemporaries. In this respect, I think Fischer and Anand were extraordinary.
hansj hansj 6/20/2021 08:40
It is hard to argue against these brute facts:
Fischer-Taimanov: 6-0
Fischer - Larsen: 6-0
Fischer-Petrosian: 6½-2½
Fischer-Spasski: 12½-8½
Yasser Seirawan Yasser Seirawan 6/20/2021 08:37
Dear Jonathan, I'll take you up on the challenge and give my top five: Kasparov, Karpov, Fischer, Carlsen and Anand. In that order. For now. Remarkable that all of them are so recent... Think about the great Lajos Portisch for a moment. A fantastic career but imagine how he felt during his best periods ... A top Candidate player for decades, Lajos saw the metoric rise of Tal ... What the hell? To be replaced by Petrosian. Now we play like this? To the natural all round play of Spassky. At last, someone i can beat! Fischer comes along. Seriously? He quits. Great! My turn! Karpov. Who? Kasparov. Oh dear. The Good Lord was being heartless to Lajos ... Maybe to Ivanchuk as well. Fist bumps, Yasser
MeisterZinger MeisterZinger 6/20/2021 08:25
I forgot to add: Karpov also gets credit as the first world champion in a long time who was willing, while he had the title, to put its prestige on the line and play in (and win) lots of tournaments, in the process taking the chance of losing. Spassky got somewhat peaceful as champion, and many of the others just didn't play much at all.

Kasparov would then take this willingness to fight while WC up to eleven -- has any other reigning champion produced anything like his games against Topalov and Nikolic? And to their credit, pretty much all the top champions since then have done the same. It's easy to forget that it wasn't always so.
MeisterZinger MeisterZinger 6/20/2021 08:12
Kasparov, and a couple of words: "calculated ferocity." Fischer not far behind, and dark horse Capablanca not far behind those two. Karpov would rank high, alongside Lasker, when it comes to sustained excellence over a very long careeer,

As for a great Spassky game, I'd go with game 5 of his 1969 match with Petrosian: https://www.chessgames.com/perl/chessgame?gid=1106849
Justjeff Justjeff 6/20/2021 06:55
Thanks for the entertaining column! I'll check back from time to time for the absurdity of class players arguing over whether Fischer or Karpov was better.
Magic_Knight Magic_Knight 6/20/2021 06:54
I agree Fischer is the best of all time. But I don't think he is "easily" the best....there are many close seconds, like Morphy, Capablanca, Kasparov, Carlsen, etc. But they are still all second to Fischer, in my opinion.