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Who was the best chess player to ever live?

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Ah, yes, that old question. What was your first response when you read the title? Oh, no, not again, maybe. Or: Well, of course it was Player X——let’s see who this joker thinks it was. It’s a crazy question and topic, and the fact is, it isn’t going anywhere any time soon. People love to talk about who they feel was or is best.

When this question arises in clubs, at tourneys, or on the internet, a few players always come to the mention: Morphy, Alekhine, Fischer, Tal, Kasparov and, recently, Magnus Carlsen. Some players, of course, mention other, lesser known names, but one thing is clear: Just about everyone has an opinion on the matter.

First, I’ll get it out of the way: My favorite players are Alekhine and Fischer. Do I think one was better than the other? Oh, surely. Which one, you ask? Well, I can’t say, because the world will never, ever know, and that’s the point of this article.

Without a physical match (or several) between two or more of the all-time best chess players, we’ll never know who was top dog. Many believe Fischer would have killed Alekhine, mostly because of advanced theory, but feel that if both were caught up it’d been an epic battle. I agree. In fact, I love both those players so much, I almost don’t want to know who was better, seriously. Each of them was one of the best.

What about Kaspy vs. Carlsen? Heh, we’ll never know that one, either, and even if they played a match today, it wouldn’t be quite straight up because Kasparov retired already and is much older than Magnus Carlsen. But what if each one were in their prime? All we can ever do is speculate.

What if Morphy squared off against Alekhine? That would be something to see! But we’ll never see it, and so again, all we can do is conjure up educated guesses and theories. It’s a fun topic, but one that’s ultimately unsolvable.

In fact, a ton of chess fans still believe Capablanca, for instance, was the best player ever, even though he clearly got beaten down by Alekhine. Even a proving match that was won by the other guy isn’t enough to sway opinions, a phenomenon that is both interesting and romantic. We like who we like, and that’s that; in our minds, our chess heroes can’t be reckoned with, and that’s the rub.

In closing, I’d like to say this: No matter who you feel was or is the best chess player to ever live, there’s a good chance he or she actually was or is currently. And if even they weren’t/aren’t, for objective reasons, they still can be in your mind. Now, go open up a database of your hero’s games and appreciate each and every move.

Until next time, check and mate.


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