The Norwegian Bishops’ new wood

by Jonathan Speelman
7/18/2021 – In his third column examining who is the best chess player in history — and his 150th overall — Jon Speelman fast forwards to the present champion, Magnus Carlsen. Speelman considers that Carlsen’s greatest strength is in the endgame, and dares to call him the best ever for this stage of the game. | Photo: Anastasiia Korolkova / FIDE World Cup

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A universal player

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

In the previous two columns, my “mirror” examined games by Bobby Fischer, Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov in the hunt for the “best of them all”. Today we fast-forward to the present champion, Magnus Carlsen.

Magnus CarlsenIt’s always difficult to evaluate a champion at the time, and possible that we tend to overestimate them until they are supplanted, but Calrsen is surely one of the top five players in history. In the list that Yasser Seirawan sent in comments to the previous columns he put him fourth behind Kasparov, Karpov and Fischer. And when I (inadvertently but serendipitously) sparked off this line of enquiry by suggesting that he is arguably the strongest ever, I don’t think it was totally unreasonable.

One thing you can say is that while Magnus has won and then kept the world title for eight years now, he hasn’t been utterly convincing, at least at classical chess. In an uninterrupted run of over ten years as the world’s top-rated player, he became champion by defeating Viswanathan Anand in 2013 [celebration pictured], and has since then defended his title against Anand himself, Sergey Karjakin and Fabiano Caruana. The latter two were drawn at classical chess, but Carlsen always had the rapidplay in reserve and batted off both opponents relatively easily.

People make the point that whatever you think about his reign, Bobby Fischer held much more dominance over his rivals than today’s champions — this moreover at a time when he didn’t have the technological aids that modern players do.

Indeed, Carlsen has the use of fantastic computer engines on cutting-edge hardware. But his rivals have  tremendous facilities too and this makes it much harder, for example, to establish an advantage in the opening unless you can catch the opponent out.

In addition (depending on your definition — would rated at some stage more than 2725 do?), there are more top class players than ever before, partly because with the explosion of information available over, the internet players develop so much faster. I didn’t become a grandmaster till I was 24. In the modern era, anybody who hasn’t gained the title by his or her late teens is already liable to be considered a late developer.

Carlsen is a universal player who shines in different types of position and at very different time limits. The dominant force in the middle of the last century, Mikhail Botvinnik (world champion on and off from 1948-63), famously disapproved of blitz. Carlsen is superb at 3 minute (and indeed the deadly “slow” 5 minute) chess and recently won his first 30(!) games straight in an online 3-minute arena. But he seems to find this all a bit slow and plays more bullet online, standing supreme among the small coterie of people — I suppose there are a few hundred in the world — who play bullet so well that it looks not like a video game, but well ...chess.

Magnus Carlsen

Carlsen during round 2 of this year’s FIDE World Cup | Photo: Eric Rosen

Carlsen is a great tactician, and in a fortnight we’ll examine some “blood pudding” (which is really a type of sausage) to follow this week's main course. But his greatest strength of all is in the endgame, at which he is probably the best ever (I await fury from Capablanca fans, but the great Cuban’s opponents were generally a lot weaker).

He especially likes playing with the two bishops, and I’ve got three examples here this time. One of the advantages of bishops is that it’s normally not hard to arrange BxN if necessary, but bishops can hide from NxB. Carlsen is fantastically adept at this, so much so that you sometimes feel that he is creating extra squares on the board for his prelates. And on a traditional wooden board, you might just about stretch this project to encompass the title above.


Select an entry from the list to switch between games

Master Class Vol.8: Magnus Carlsen

Scarcely any world champion has managed to captivate chess lovers to the extent Carlsen has. The enormously talented Norwegian hasn't been systematically trained within the structures of a major chess-playing nation such as Russia, the Ukraine or China.


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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naisortep naisortep 7/21/2021 03:13
Dumkof, if you are measuring the goat by absolute strength, the most recent world champion will nearly always win. That is a boring question. The more interesting crieria is by how the goat candidate perfomed vs his contemporaries.
EverybodyLovesRaymond EverybodyLovesRaymond 7/21/2021 09:58
The wilful and persistent omission of Raymond Keene from these lists, and from the debates that ensue, speaks volumes about the man's claims to true greatness, in a way that words - even English words - could not.
dumkof dumkof 7/20/2021 02:55
@fgkdjlkag, I'm not taking anything away from Fischer. An objective ranking must include computer analysis, otherwise everyone could write his own list here, leading to an endless debate with no result. If you say CAPS makes no sense, I would expect you to make a better suggestion, for a fair ranking.
fgkdjlkag fgkdjlkag 7/20/2021 12:06
@dumkof, that kind of analysis makes no sense. Computers were basically not around during Fischer's time, so of course CAPS scores should be higher for present players. The fact that Fischer has a very high CAPS score is evidence of how great he was, but is an exception. In general, the current world champion will always play the best in absolute terms.
dumkof dumkof 7/19/2021 07:22
According to science, Carlsen plays chess better than anyone else in history. Carlsen has the highest Computer Aggregated Precision Score among all players, dead or alive. Kramnik, Kasparov and Fischer are closely behind Carlsen. Steinitz, the first official chess world champion, has a relatively low CAPS.

Comparing Elos from different eras can be misleading, so let's put ELO comparison aside. CAPS instead, measures the correlation between human moves and computer suggestions. Since best engines are close/closer to perfection, higher correlation would mean better human chess.

But, as some chess friends here perfectly explained, to be the GOAT, you also need longevity. Kasparov still has the best CAPS - time graph, in my opinion. Carlsen, with the highest CAPS, still has to improve his domination time, to surpass Kasparov, in my opinion.

Fischer has a very high CAPS, much respect, but his domination time is short, therefore he should NOT be considered the GOAT. And furthermore, he refused any challenges and preferred to sit on his trophy instead. That's not great either.
tom_70 tom_70 7/19/2021 04:36
My top 5 list would be, 1. Carlsen 2. Kasparov 3. Fischer 4. Capablanca 5. Karpov
lajosarpad lajosarpad 7/19/2021 03:16
@Green22 "For all we know if Fischer played on he could have kept the title for 20 years, thats how great he was..." It might be the case, I do not know. What I do know is that it was easier and less risky to stop playing.
nirvana1963 nirvana1963 7/19/2021 02:29
Kasparov spent 20 years on the top (1985-2005), was a World Champion from 1985-2000 and won countless tournaments (many of which were very strong tournaments). To me my top 5 best chess players ever would be: 1.Kasparov; 2.Carlsen; 3.Karpov; 4.Fischer; 5.Lasker.
AgainAgain AgainAgain 7/19/2021 12:57
@green22 - to be the GOAT is about the peak and about the time spent at the peak. Fischer's peak was very high, but he spent a very short time there. I agree that he could have been the best ever (if he continued playing), but he quit, so he is very far from being the best.
Karpov/Kasparov/Carlssen each spent a decade on the top and defended their titles several time. Fischer didn't...
Fischer was great, but very far from being the GOAT. His domination was way too short. What could have been DOES NOT COUNT!
adbennet adbennet 7/19/2021 04:34
Well I think people should be a little more restrained in their opinions about all these great players. If you are going to trash talk about a world champion then you better have game yourself. Otherwise, know your place, show some respect. At least Seirawan has played on a high level against different world champions, second to Korchnoi, analyzed with Fischer at Sveti Stefan, etc. His opinion cannot therefore be absurd. Notice that Speelman and Seirawan are properly restrained and respectful when offering their opinions. It would be well to emulate these strong players.
Green22 Green22 7/19/2021 03:20
@AgainAgain -- again these are comments are so idiotic. Fischer quit in his prime absolute prime so we'll never know what he could have accomplished, but what we do know he was the greatest of his time. "Karpov/Kasparov/Kramnik/Anand/Carlssen are/were way better than Fischer" -- You clearly have no clue what-so-ever. Have you studied any of Fischer's games? Have you seen his scores? Records? His absolute domination? You're comparing apples and oranges here.

@Ajeeb007 Don't blame Fischer for destroying his opponents because they were lower rated. Fischer was way ahead of his time as was Kasparov in his. Total domination. For all we know if Fischer played on he could have kept the title for 20 years, thats how great he was... Kasparov had a TEAM of GM's helping him as did Spassky -- Fischer sat in hotels room with a board, no team, no help and Chess books lol... gimme a break. One of the greatest if not greatest Chess players of all time and we these most idiotic comments here in broad daylight. .
Green22 Green22 7/19/2021 03:07
@Theochessman LOL.. what? overrated? what are you like under 18? and have no clue about Bobby Fischer? Your comment could be one of those ridiculous comments i've seen on Any Chess thread/forum... wow
Theochessman Theochessman 7/19/2021 01:51
As many already mentioned here, Fischer is seriously overrated.
Raymond Labelle Raymond Labelle 7/19/2021 01:20
Determining point raised in the article. All players are much better - the tools for developing are very accessible and very much spreaded - more difficult nowadays than before to dominate.
Ajeeb007 Ajeeb007 7/19/2021 12:07
Carlsen has won more super tournaments than Kasparov or Karpov, and all three have far outperformed Fischer, who generally played against much weaker opposition in the tournaments he won.
Quora: "Chessmatrics has 2 2820+ tournament performances for Fischer, and 17 2820+ tournament performances for Kasparov.
Garry dominated for 20 years, Fischer 2."
The current champion is often considered to be the strongest ever. Whoever succeeds Carlsen will probably pick up that title too, and so on...
Jack Nayer Jack Nayer 7/18/2021 08:31
This nonsense about Karpov not 'even winning the title legitimately' will never stop. Since Fischer was too afraid to play, Karpov won the title by default and according to the rules. Karpov dominated chess for over a decade. He was number one on the rating list for almost ten years. In terms of sheer innate talent and artistry, he is probably the number two of all time, behind Carlsen.
AgainAgain AgainAgain 7/18/2021 08:29
Fischer had zero longevity. He was great for a very short time. Karpov/Kasparov/Kramnik/Anand/Carlssen are/were way better than Fischer. And there are other world champions who are way more impressive than Fischer (i.e. Botvinnik, Tal)
excalibur2 excalibur2 7/18/2021 07:52
The only thing absurd is how Fischer is supposedly rated above Carlsen. I guess Seirewan was feeling a bit patriotic there putting his fellow American in the top 3.

Fischer has zero sensible arguments to be over Carlsen. In my previous post on the last article, regarding Bobby:

"Which peers did Fischer face? Some of his "peers" were old enough to be Fischer's dad.

And how long did he dominate them for? For 4 or 5 tournaments and matches from 1970-1972?

Which sport is a player the GOAT in which he dominated only older men and was on top for only 3 years?"
excalibur2 excalibur2 7/18/2021 07:49
@tom70 "Karpov didn't even win the world title legitimately." -
Whose fault is that since the so called Champion was too scared to be a man and actually face Karpov

I"in addition to that, he had the entire Soviet machine helping him whenever he played anyone like Korchnoi and Kasparov"

This is not true. In 4 out of the 5 matches between Karpov and Kasparov, you could make a case Kasparov had the stronger team helping him. Both were Soviet players and when Kasparov became Champion, the Soviets had no reason to favour Karpov any longer. Sure, Karpov had a lot of help with a strong team against Korchnoi but this was only because Korchnoi was a defector and the Soviet authorities wanted to make sure he wouldn't win the title.
But you make it seem Karpov needed such a strong team .

Just look at Korchnoi's record in non-World championship tournament games against Karpov. Karpov dominates by a landslide.

"Putting Carlsen behind Karpov is patently absurd."

And how is it patently absurd? Karpov dominated for a decade 1975-1985 , like Carlsen only now has 2011-2021, In addition to that, he won more tournaments, beat more grandmasters and played in more WC matches than any player in history. Kasparov , the number 1 player of all time showed very little superiority to a player that was 12 years older than him in 144 world championship games. Karpov is easily a top 3 player of all time.

Seirewan has him 2nd behind Kasparov as he pointed out in his post in the previous Speelman article. Its not a surprise players from that era rate Karpov so high. They actually understand how good he was.
tom_70 tom_70 7/18/2021 07:27
Putting Carlsen behind Karpov is patently absurd. Karpov didn't even win the world title legitimately. It was given to him through default. In addition to that, he had the entire Soviet machine helping him whenever he played anyone like Korchnoi and Kasparov. I'm not saying he wasn't a great player, he was, but certainly not the 3rd greatest player in the history of the game.