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Best Never

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One of the most popular chess debates, right after "best ever" and "how many GMs can dance on the head a pawn" is who was the strongest player never to become world champion. Discarding for convenience and tradition the recent spate of FIDE titlists, only 14 people have held the highest title.

What gets less attention is that the list of challengers is also very short. Before Petrosian successfully defended his title against Spassky in 1966, it hadn't been done since Alekhine beat Bogoljubow in 1934! Zukertort, Chigorin, Gunsberg, Marshall, Tarrasch, Janowski, Schlechter, Bogoljubow, Bronstein, Korchnoi, Short, Anand, and Leko. That's 13 failed challengers vs 14 champions, amazing. I consider this a good argument for the "champ as #1" principle. Anand and Leko still have legit chances to make this list even shorter. (I'm tempted to include Kamsky because even if Karpov's title wasn't legit, the cycle Kamsky won was just as tough.)

Kasparov is currently working on the Korchnoi section of Volume 5 of his My Great Predecessors book series. It is by far the largest section of any non-champion. When it comes to the eternal question of best non-champ, Kasparov has several rationales. If longevity at the top is factored in, Korchnoi wins hands down. But he was never the strongest player on the planet, something Kasparov says could be said of Keres at the end of the 30's. Rubinstein is the other member of this hallowed-if-frustrated trio.


Some of the strongest players never to become World Champion: Ruben Fine, Reshesvski, Keres, Bronstein, Korchnoi, Paul Morphy, Rubinstein and Andre The Giant.

My Ranking would be

1) Korchonoi
2) Anand
3) Keres
4) Leko
5) Bronstein

Spelling Fine's first name correctly makes an even stronger agrument.

I would agree with ss' list only I'd replace Bronstein with Rubinstein and add Reshevsky and Fine at #6, and #7.

Didn't Anand win the original/FIDE title in 2000?

On an unrelated note, can someone remind me how Kasparov, having lost or withdrawn in both cycles, has earned the right to play a "reunification" match?!

Best players denied the chance to play for the title is a more interesting question. Bronstein, Korchnoi, and Leko had their chances and did very well, but couldn't take home the title. (I think Leko may have another chance someday).

1. Reuben Fine (world #1 from 1939 to 1945, didn't get to play because the war was on and the incumbent champion was a Nazi)

2. Paul Keres (world #1 when Fine retired after the war and best or second best in the world into the 1950s. Prevented from playing for the title by Soviet threats against his life and family.)

3. Sammy Reshevsky (best in the world in the late 40's and early 50's, prevented from playing for the title by Soviet pressure on Keres and others to fix tournaments to stop Reshevsky and throw games to or play easy draws with Botvinnik and Smyslov)

4. Akiba Rubenstein (won five major tournaments in a row in 1912, but couldn't raise enough money to persuade Lasker to play that year, and soon the breakout of WWI squelched his chance for good)

Most of those on the list were stymied by WWII and the immediate postwar Soviet power grab. Considering the costs of war and Communist expansionism on the rest of the world, that is only trivial fallout, but tragic for chess.

Let's not forget the eras where champions unapologetically handpicked their challengers (1800s-1948 and 1993-present) breed bad challenges and unfair practices (Alekhine hiding from Capa, Kramnik hiding from Kasparov), too. Just because Capa and Kasparov have held the title doesn't make it much less awful for the chess world, even if Kasparov did make his own bed.

And it's also too bad that Karpov never had a chance to play Fischer.

(note: Godwin's law does not apply if the subject actually wrote antisemetic articles in actual 1940's Nazi magazines and played in actual Nazi tournaments.)

I have to give this one to Keres--ultimately Korchnoi had an attempt to claim the title and never got it--psychological toughness just wasn't there. Whereas Keres was made to lose to Bot.

I also have to put in my vote for Keres and include him in the list too...but that is just my patzer opinion based on rereading old chess magazine articles, looking at his scores, and not actually looking at his games (which I'm not strong enough to evaluate properly anyway).

No one seems to have mentioned Karl Schlechter, who almost won a World Championship match with Lasker and who might well have been World Champion if he had been more ambitious.

For an interesting discussion of Schlechter, and a lovely poem about him by Sheenagh Pugh, try the following link:


I agree that the real question should be those players that never got the chance to play the incumbent. Korchnoi had 3 tries (if he had become the official challenger in 1974 Bobby would have defaulted the title to him instead of Karpov) and 2 official matches to wrest the title (even though the outside issues of his family certainly contributed to his losing).
May I put in a vote for the only player to have an even score in games against the great Lasker--
our own home-grown genius Harry Pillsbury?
Pillsbury (before his tragic illness) defeated Lasker in the 4 game mini-match in St.Petersburg, 1896. Not only did he play Lasker on even terms, but the quality of his games vs Lasker were top-notch in every phase-- even his endgame, an phase in which Lasker excelled. It is a great pity that they never played a match, but Pillsbury left the St.Pete tourney with the seeds of his illness already planted. He would be dead within a few years. He belongs on any list of strongest players that never became world champs!

Anand has been World champion

There still is the chessmetrics site at www.chessmetrics.com which has a lot of data relevant to discussions like this.

Geller: I think in this forum most people rightly remember Paul Keres but we have not to forget the name of Efim Geller. If I correctly remember Keres and Geller were stronger than Botvinnik Smyslov Petrosjan and Spasskij in tournament results but weaker in long matches.
Beside is difficult to find the right names in the era of Morphy Steinitz Lasker Capa and Alekhine...the chess world was too different from our days and the tournaments too few for a right strenght ranking .

Surely it's 15 challengers who were never the champion.

Keres and Reshevsky competed for the World Championship in 1948.

This was in the Match Tournament held after Alekhine's death. All the players (the other 3 competing were Euwe, Botvinnik, Smyslov) were "challengers" for the title.

Including the match tournament, which was exceptional, seems beside the point. The players were selected and it could have been a dozen instead of five. It would be nice to have Keres and Reshevksy on the list, and there's no strong reason not to do so, but it should be for 1938, not 1948!

I would like to submit Tarrasch who, though he played in a World Championship match, could have possibly toppled an aging Steinitz or a young Lasker in the late 1800s.

discarding all FIDE titlists doesnt seem right. I am not sure we can mass lump Tripoli with Groningen, Vegas and NewDelhi / Iran. In the former 7 of the top 10 didnt play. In the latter every top player other than Kasparov has played.

gansy, this has become a fashion in most of these message boards, to ignore FIDE champions.In any sport you will have an umbrella organization which will conduct,monitor,organize the events.The organization should be the only authority to be recognised by every sub-ordinate organizations at regional level.In chess it is FIDE which do all this.It gives retings,tittles(GM,IGM,IM etc),co-ordinate with other official chess organizations accross the world and above all offers world championship tittles.These are recognised by every other organization, olympic comittee etc.Yes, FIDE screwed up many things, managed by thugs.yet it is an unfortunate truth that it the one and only organization with long standing authority and universally recognisable face.Any tittles offered by some private organizations involving even greatest of all players will not have same legality the way FIDE
does.This fact alone summarily eleminates any chance of having an official/legitimate world champion outside FIDE.Well individual opinion differs.That is essentially some thing to do with how FIDE has messed up things.Now the current FIDE champion will not have same clout, following , public support like Anand or Kasparov or Karpov(when they were the champions through FIDE).But that noway legitimize any world championship of any kind outside FIDE.This has been and is the fact for now.This will only change only if we have another organization which is declared official by all national organizations, Olympic comittee etc..
Neither Kramnik nor Kasparov(after 1993) should never never be considered legitimate, no matter how strong,deserving they are.
I am not revealing anything new here.This is how it happens in any sport currently.

Right, so if FIDE is taken over by someone who decides to make the FIDE world championship a 10-player blitz tournament, we should all bow down a worship the winner of this title? No thanks. The chess title existed long before FIDE and has survived despite FIDE, not because of it. Khalifman and Kasimdzhanov have nothing at all to do with Steinitz and Fischer.

Then what is so called unification dear Mig?
And by the same tone if I win a lottery and ready to spend part of it by making Kramnik to play with lets Say Adams, and offer the winner the world championship tittle, you call that legitimate.It is one thing to hate FIDE(I dont differ much here) and another thing calling its champions not legitimate.There should be a proper channel and proper way before FIDE is thrown out.You are , I believe confusing here.If FIDE conducts a 10-game blitz for world championship and every top player shamelessly participate in it and there is no official denial from any national level organizations, then there is no way but to accept the fact.FIDE was formed, because there was a need for it.Let it be dismanttled first, if you believe it is no longer needed.
And you should not deny Ksparov is just as much responsible for this mess as is FIDE.

That's not true (Kramnik played in only one, for example), and anyway that's not why I'm not including them. You could make a better case for Linares or Wijk aan Zee producing a "best in the world" candidate. Just because FIDE slaps their title on it doesn't mean it should be part of the classical title line.

Unification is bringing the classical title together with the international chess federation. I'm not throwing out FIDE, tempting as it is. I'm throwing out the KO. If FIDE had continued to hold rigorous qualification cycles and matches to find a champion things would be quite different today.

I don't have to accept anything. I am entitled to my own views on what "world champion" means and what is best for the chess world. If Kasparov, Kramnik, and FIDE all decided together that a blitz match would be great, I still wouldn't agree. Luckily, so far I'm not so alone. It doesn't have to be abolish FIDE or keep your mouth shut. Reform is possible.

When did Kasparov come into this? When have I denied Kasparov's responsibility for the schism? When has he? What does the discussion of FIDE's current legitimacy and the validity of the KO format have to do with Kasparov? Why do so many people avoid their own weak arguments by trying distraction tactics?

Your point is that we should discard the tradition that started in 1886 whenever the person in charge of FIDE says so. You say that however Ilyumzhinov decides to determine the world champion is law.

I say that the KO is a failed experiment that should be forgotten as quickly as possible. It's a fun event and it would be nice to keep it around, but much of the fame chess has in the world stems from its tradition of having a clear and dominant world champion and from putting that title on a pedastal. Trivializing it with KO's and fast time controls has failed to generate sponsorship or media attention. (The entire point.) Nice try, let's stop banging our head into that particular wall.

10. Viktor Korchnoi
9. Mikhail Tal
8. Tigran Petrosian
7. Anatoly Karpov
6. Dr. Mikhail Botvinnik
5. Dr. Alexander Alekhine
4. Garry Kasparov
3. Robert J. Fischer
2. Dr. Emanuel Lasker
1. Jose R. Capablanca

This is my list of the greatest players of all time. Korchnoi is the only one who was never champion, and his quality of positional play is ten times Keres's. Anand might someday edge him out for Tenth Place, but I doubt it; Korchnoi's style is more entertaining, more universal, more uniformly sound than Anand's, and if they had been able to play each other in their primes, it would have been a match for the annals. Keres's style was certainly positional or he would never have gotten to the top, but it's vicious, violent attacking, ugly to look at, and if he and Korchnoi had played a match, Korchnoi would have won by a few points.
I've considered everything that I think is a legitimate factor concerning who is better than whom: universality of style, positional play, attacking play, impression upon history, significance for chess evolution; and this is a list of who would beat whom.

PLEASE don't turn this into a "best ever" thread. One flamewar at a time, always one at a time...

Sticking with Keres and Korchnoi, Keres' style evolved tremendously over time. Trying to play "who would win" with players of different eras is unfair to both in most cases. That goes much more for Capa and Lasker vs Kasparov and Karpov, but that's another day.

Impression on history has little to do with who would beat whom and you could say the same for style. Tal's style wasn't universal but he sure as heck smashed up Botvinnik in their first match. Etc.


Trivializing it with KO's and fast time controls has failed to generate sponsorship or media attention. (The entire point.)

This is the kind of lumping that I am talking about. Not all KOs had faster time controls. When Anand and Khalifman won it, it was under regular time controls. Lets us not change history by slapping Tripoli on everything before.

I remember Kasparov's comment on the Groningen KO: "the only point of the KO is to find a worthy challenger to me" (since he as the undisputed champion was not playing in it). From there he moved to criticizing the KO and has now come a full circle to accepting a match with the Tripoli winner for the title of FIDE Champion.

Khalifman and Anand are genuine champions, albeit not undisputed. I would include Pono too, but for the faster time controls. Tripoli of course is a sham because of the faster controls and more importantly not having the top players play in it.

And talking about sponsorship, do we have a lot for Kasparov-Kasimdzhanov?

Last night I did some analysis on this topic, using my latest unpublished Chessmetrics ratings, calculated monthly back to 1843. My conclusion? Probably the answer is either Anand or Zukertort. Certainly Korchnoi too if you're talking about overall career accomplishment. But Ivanchuk and Maroczy definitely deserve to be at least mentioned in this topic. Some details:

(1) Anand has the highest rating ever (adjusted for inflation) among players who never became champion, with Ivanchuk and Korchnoi also in the top three.

(2) Zukertort is the only never-champion to hold the #1 ranking for three straight years (all 36 months), although it was while Steinitz was semi-retired and off the list due to inactivity between 1876 and 1882. Zukertort is also at the top of the list for average world rank across 5-year and 10-year spans. I excluded pre-1870 players like Staunton because they are generally considered to be champions of their time.

(3) Among never-champions who didn't ever get a title shot, Maroczy had the best sustained world rankings, with Rubinstein pretty close behind. Again that's post-1870.

(4) Keres had the best single tournament performance rating among never-champions, in a tournament he didn't even win (the Candidates final in 1959, won by Tal). Ivanchuk has both the #2 and #3 spots (Linares both times, I think it was 1991 and 1995) plus two others in the top ten. That's from a new TPR formula I have invented, which rewards you for longer events or stronger opposition.

Thanks Jeff!

When do you find the time to conjure up all these numbers?!

If, as in golf or NASCAR (I think) each chess rating year started fresh, what would the top five look like since 2000?

Jeff Sonas: I am thankful for the statistical analysis you are doing, but I think the chessmetrics ratings are flawed in many. Modern players seem to get too much credit under chessmetrics.

Anyway, I agree that Maroczy and especially Zukertort have to be considered among the best.
I think Keres is overrated. A lot of people say that he was probably the best during WW2, but then again the same is being claimed about several other players - namely, Botvinnik, Fine, Reshevsky, etc. Since no chess was played during ww2, I think we can't just assume that Keres was the best. And after the war, Keres wasn't as good as Botvinnik and Smyslov. so I don't know if he can be considered the best non-champion ever because he was only the 3rd best player of his era, while we have some non-champions who were second best.

Also, I would like to mention Tarrasch, who was dodged by Lasker for a long time and who only got to play in a WC when he was way past the prime.

If I were to rank the best people who were never the world champions, I would do something like this:


Mig, what do you mean by bringing classical title together with the international chess federation.If that is what all is needed what stopped Kramnik palying Ponomariov in 2002 itself or in 2000 itself when Anand was the champion.The truth is unification is more than that--no matter what one say it was clearly understood by everybody there was no champion arround who can be called the real champion.And no matter whatever the tradition says Kramnik pretty much knew that his title is neither undisputed nor the only one arround nor he can be able to either sit on the tittle forever or conduct his candidate cycle alone.He needs FIDE as much as FIDE needs ---behold Kasparov(Here FIDE means Kirsan) not Kramnik.This explains the whole story behind the so called unification.
Coming to tradition--which tradition you are talking about..
Tradition of blocking the strongest from playing or
tradition of handpicking the opponents or
tradition of blackmailing the palyers or someother tradition .We have examples from this and other threads here for those traditions mentioned above.
When I said "you should not deny the Kasparov's responsibility"...you doesn't mean , you the mig.I was just emphasizing the fact that his parting ,bedding,courting phases with FIDE has a lot do with having new champions, more champions and differnr kind of champions.
You are saying KO is a failed experiment, ignoring the fact when played under classical controls and with all top players playing in it(save one or two)...it produced Anand twice out of 3 KO he participated.(I am saying KO's I know he lost to Karpov ,outside this KO phase, in finals).I don't think so.Well, it doesn't hurt if the format is reformed.let all the top players participate in classical controls (Like in 1997,1999,2000) and then say KO's are bad.
You are unnecessarily looking at 2004 KO where time controls are fast and denied entry to some players and not many top players have participated AND as gansy said clubbing this with previous ones only to support your arguement.I call yours a weak arguement.

I think Koichnoi most be the best player never to become a world champion because he held such a high level in so many years. Noone ever hold such a high level in such a high age as Koichnoi.

I'm surprised nobody mentioned TIMMAN so far.

Maybe he was not THE best, but I think the Dutchman deserves to be mentioned more than some of those who have been mentioned, such as Leko.

I would have to agree with Mig on his views here. The reason why the knockouts and fast time control events held by FIDE are not as legitimate as the older line is the quality of the chess. It is a fact that 7 hour Classical games produce better chess, less blunders, deeper combinations, and much better endgame play than the fast FIDE control. In fact, if it wasn't for computers, I would even vote to bring back adjournments, which of course is impossible now. And in addition, the classical line of champions had to play gruelling qualification tournaments, and matchs, followed by a World Championship match of 16, 20, 24 games or longer! How can you seriously determine a legit champion with 2 game minimatchs followed by blitz chess! The KO is definately exciting, and a great paycheck for grandmasters, but I cannot seriously look at Kasimdzhanov as someone who has proven himself as worthy a champion as Spassky for example, who had to go through zonals, interzonals, multiple candidate matchs, and finally a 24 game World Championship match. And even if you look at the earlier KOs, where the timecontol was slower, it still doesn't compare. Are we going to be studying the games of the latest KO, and holding them in the same treasured group as the games from Zurich 1953 for example? The quality of the chess doesn't compare.

Well, enough blabbering here. Lets unify this title, fix our mistakes, and start again. Pride and egos aside, whats good for chess is what really matters.

G: I don't understand why computers make it impossible to have adjournments. It's not like they can solve the position and give the player the formula to win or draw (whatever the goal is) just like that. Yesterday there were seconds and endgame manuals, today there are computers, I don't see the big difference, at least not until computers are much stronger than today.

I would think Morphy would be at the top of all these lists unless he is already considered a WC.
What about Phillidor?

I also wonder why Pillsbury isn't on more lists.

We are discussing the FIDE KO and why no one considers the winner to be world champ on the message boards. You can buck the tide all you want but there is good reason why it has no credibility. Those reasons (just like possible justifications why Morphy should be included) are sort of beside the point of this article.

Fine and Reshevsky were very strong... for Americans. Which is kind of like saying Lassie was really smart... for a dog. I agree with the assessment that Korchnoi was the strongest, followed by Keres.

Anand and Leko are a bit of a different story. Either one would crush Korchnoi/Keres (even at the height of their powers), but that is a difference in date, not strength relative to the playes of the time. So it's really a different matter.


Okay, then who on the planet was stronger than Fine and Reshevsky at their peaks? Not more than one or two people, if anyone. Either would have had excellent chances against Alekhine in a match in the late 30s. I don't think Fine's tying for first at AVRO had much to do with his nationality.

Morphy predated the official title and is definitely considered a WC in retrospect. Anand is still at the top of his game, so it's not so relevant yet. But if he were to stop playing tomorrow he'd be on the short list.

I wonder how many ultra-talented russian players like Gulko and many totally unknown to us we could be speaking about right now, if they hadn`t been cut out right from the start of their careers because of political and ratial reasons.

I'm not sure whom I would nominate for the title of "Best Never". The obvious contenders like Keres, Korchnoi, Rubinstein, Reshevsky, Pillsbury all make strong arguments. I'll leave that one open.

However, I'd like to say that I (personally) agree with Mig. The current system is a sham and I am not very impressed with it. The romance and charm of the years from 1950-80 has certainly disappeared. We need to try and bring that back somehow, if that's possible.

I'm not sure whom I would nominate for the title of "Best Never". The obvious contenders like Keres, Korchnoi, Rubinstein, Reshevsky, Pillsbury all make strong arguments. I'll leave that one open.

However, I'd like to say that I (personally) agree with Mig. The current system is a sham and I am not very impressed with it. The romance and charm of the years from 1950-80 has certainly disappeared. We need to try and bring that back somehow, if that's possible.

There are many things should be taken into consideration, but you've made a good point here. Thanks a lot for that. I will follow your way soon.

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    This page contains a single entry by Mig published on December 21, 2004 4:51 PM.

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