The Lineal World Championship is one of the coolest parts of competitive chess. To become the world champion, you have to beat the holder in a grueling match. So how do they all stack up across the ages? Judging them by playing level would be a waste of time since they all had access to very different levels of tools. Comparing them to their contemporaries also doesn’t tell the full picture.
Let’s take a holistic and subjective approach instead: their role in chess history, development, personality, and play.
The disputed FIDE champions (Khalifman, Ponomariov, Kasimdzhanov, Topalov)
Yes, they are all elite players: no, winning a knockout event while a guy called Kasparov was away doing his own thing doesn’t make you a relevant or meaningful god in the pantheon of chess world champions. They are the characters worshiped by odd little cults with four members in a parent’s basement. At least Anand, Karpov, and Kramnik (the other people with titles during the chess schism) proved themselves in match format and elite play across the years.
A two-year reign, beating a greatly diminished Alekhine, and that’s that? Getting so comprehensively crushed in the rematch that you are remembered more for your FIDE presidency than your time atop the chess summit? The equivalent of a resounding meh, he has to rank among the least impressive champions.
Fantastic player, awful world champion. One title match, an epic marred with controversies, then the equivalent of a hissy-fit when FIDE wouldn’t sanction all of his requests that would have heavily tilted the match in his favor.
The only person so far to willingly abdicate his title, basically never to be seen again in the chess world. Also, a raging anti-Semite and general bad person. Good riddance.
The one who started it all. It’s a shame, though understandable, that his games have aged poorly in the era of Stockfish, but there can be no doubt that he was a foundational chess genius. It’s just that those who have followed him were all progressively better—as they should be. The relative rarity of competitive chess opportunities also makes it difficult to stack his accomplishments up against that of his modern peers.
Just like many other entrants on this list, Smyslov was an elite chess player, one with incredible longevity at the highest levels of play. His world championship tenure, though, is a mere footnote in the era of the juggernaut that was Botvinnik.
A gentleman and a scholar, a nonconformist in the rigid Soviet era. Woefully unfit to deal with the sociopath that was Fischer. With no successful title defense and a relatively short reign, you could make a good argument for swapping him around with Smyslov and the next entrant on this list: the differences are fairly small, and at least he didn’t lose his title to his predecessor .
No one managed to get far with as crazy a playstyle as Tal did, even though he was also crushed by the Botvinnik machine in the rematch as his health issues began to take their toll. A hypnotist of a chess player, an incredible attacker: the sort of player that’s destined to become a brightly burning star that quickly fades away—at least as far as the world championship title was concerned.
Jose Raul Capablanca
Most world champions are a cut above their contemporaries, and Capablanca is no exception. It’s just so odd to see how the master of endgames and the nearly-undefeated maestro has so many games that fall apart under strict modern analysis. His manner of defeat to Alekhine (and subsequent attempts to organize a rematch) is also a bit of a blemish on an otherwise excellent chess career.
More of a snake than a tiger—a boa constrictor, to be precise—Petrosian’s cold and surgical style caused many elite chess players to fall apart as he slowly kept improving his position. With Botvinnik finally out of the picture, he held on to the crown for six years, even dispatching his successor at his first attempt to claim the throne.
A 27-year reign is not something to scoff at, even if it came in a very different chess era. The second world chess champion still holds many records because of his incredible longevity, and this fact makes him stand out among his peers. To be fair, there was a world war to complicate matters, but you can’t subtract enough of the incredible numbers to make him anything less than a standout world champion, regardless of how different an era it was during his reign.
Also known as The Man Who Dethroned Kasparov, Kramnik has a different kind of longevity to claim a spot in the upper echelons in this list, staying relevant across multiple decades, greatly reinventing his style from a positional squeezer to an all-out aggressor in his later years. A perennial candidate and multiple-time world champion under both auspices, Kramnik is one of the best players to ever play chess.
There is Tal and then there is Alekhine. An incredible innovator and a calculating machine, he is in many ways unlike any of the other world champions in the history of chess. He was his own biggest enemy, facing the demons of drinking and having to find the inner steel to come back after his defeat to Euwe.
To date, he is the only person to die while holding the world championship. Even though the chess world has changed a lot since then, this remains a remarkable achievement.
What is there to be said about Botvinnik that hasn’t been said already? Incredible longevity, the father of Soviet chess, an early pioneer and explorer of computer technology. He was playing in an era where world champions no longer had the privilege of selecting their own challenger, and though he still had significant influence on the way the matches were arranged, there is no denying his long-term elite presence in the chess world. His teachings and style still remain influential to this day.
Botvinnik 2.0? Wouldn’t be that much of a stretch. It took a while for the chess world to be convinced that Karpov is a worthy champion, considering how he won the title without a match after Fischer’s forfeiture. However, his incredible performance in elite events, his sheer longevity, his level of play, and his monstrous bouts with Kortchnoi and Kasparov clearly make him one of the best players to ever play the game. It’s a sad turn of history that Karpov is now a sanctioned man, a member of the Russian parliament, and one of those who voted for the war in Ukraine, an abdication of ambassadorial and human duties alike.
The Tiger of Madras is one of the most versatile players in the history of modern chess. He won titles in match, knockout, and round-robin formats, in multiple time controls, across various eras, and against different opponents. Six years as the undisputed world chess champion and eight in total, Anand’s reign is essentially sandwiched between two of the best players to ever play chess in the form of Kasparov and Carlsen. A gentleman, an elder statesman, and a trailblazer, he is single-handedly responsible for the emergence of elite-level modern Indian chess. Even now, he can throw down with the best players in the world, and he’s returned to the top ten of the world rankings in 2022 after what was mostly a pandemic-enforce absence.
Contemporary chess fans just won’t understand the brutality of facing a top-form Kasparov. His brilliant ideas and incredible calculating ability are well-known, but the feeling of seeing the man play 1. e4 and knowing that you’re already behind because of his incredible preparation is just unimaginable today in the era of computer chess. Indeed, the dawn of that era came with his defeat to Deep Blue in 1997. His battle in chess politics is a minor blemish, blowing up the lineal chess championship timeline and founding his own organization that never really lived up to expectations, such is his surprise early retirement in 2005 when he was still in full control of his chess powers.
It’s now almost ten years since the Norwegian became the world champion and there has never really been any doubt about his dominance in the sport. He is by far and away the best individual player to ever play the game, a great ambassador and businessman too, the first player to fully come of age in the supercomputer era. He also deftly navigates the politics of the sport and has a clear winning record against al contemporaries.
If he does decide to defend his title again (and is successful in doing so), he could reach Lasker’s record of six successful matches on the throne.
At this point, really no one can stand in his way.