Is Magnus Carlsen the greatest chess player of all time?
His recent success in the FTX Crypto Cup is the latest in a very long line of tournament victories.
Is he the greatest of all time? The (if you will pardon the overused acronym) GOAT? That is quite a question – and, despite his many record-breaking achievements, the answer is not so simple.
Let us start some of the World Champion’s career highlights.
Magnus Carlsen became a Grandmaster of chess at the age of 13 years and four months.
Carlsen became the World Champion in 2013, when he convincingly beat Vishy Anand, 6.5-3.5 (three wins, seven draws and no losses).
Since then, he has successfully defended his title against Anand (2014), Sergey Karjakin (2016) and Fabiano Caruana (2018).
Later this year, he will face a new challenger, Ian Nepomniachtchi. The chess world is expecting a close match, citing the challenger’s lack of fear. However, the matches against Karjakin and Caruana were very tough and Carlsen needed Rapidplay tie-break games to force a victory win both cases. Therefore, the ‘lack of fear’ in a challenger is nothing new.
He also holds the titles of World Rapid Chess Champion and World Blitz Chess Champion; an unparalleled haul.
Carlsen’s peak Elo rating of 2882 – achieved in May, 2014 – is the highest to date, for any player.
He first topped the World Rankings in 2010 – three years before becoming World Champion.
Between August 2018 – October 2020 Carlsen played 125 without a single loss. This is the record run of games without a single loss. There were 42 wins and 83 draws.
Style of Play
It is interesting to examine the styles of the world champions, especially as they set the fashion for people to follow.
There are plenty of well-known examples of world champions displaying such a memorable style of play. Mikhail Tal dazzled the world with his extraordinary sacrifices. Bobby Fischer conquered the 64-squared world with his ruthless efficiency (successive 6-0 victories against Mark Taimanov and Bent Larsen in the Candidates matches set a standard which is unlikely to be matched and can never be bettered). Anatoly Karpov’s extraordinary intuition allowed him to outplay his opponent’s in a quiet but deadly fashion. Garry Kasparov’s legendary level of preparation was so deep he won numerous games ‘at home.’
How can we describe the style of Magnus Carlsen?
Just when the future of top-level chess seemed to have been set on the trajectory of deep, computer-assisted preparation, as influenced by Garry Kasparov, Carlsen changed the path completely.
We don’t often see game-changing theoretical novelties deep into the Sicilian Defense any more. They still happen occasionally, but they are by no means as common as in Kasparov’s time. Experts scratch their heads and call Carlsen’s style ‘universal’, but this doesn’t convey the message at all. Boris Spassky is the best example of world champion with a universal style of play and it is hard to find comparisons between the two players.
It is not an easy task to describe Carlsen’s style. Commentators expecting a smooth victory every time are going to be disappointed and are probably missing the point.
His opening choices and pragmatism are reminiscent of Emanuel Lasker. There is no doubt that both of the great champions wanted to play chess rather than regurgitate long streams of chess theory. There is also the killer instinct of Alexander Alekhine, the will to win of Anatoly Karpov in his prime and the endgame virtuosity of Vasily Smyslov.
It is not that Carlsen never finishes off games with sacrifices. Of course he does – even at the highest level. This famous queen sacrifice helped him retain his title in 2016.
Carlsen – Karjakin
World Chess Championship Match, 2016
Final Rapidplay Tie-breaker Game
White to play
50 Qh6+!! Karjakin resigned (1-0) due to 50 …gxh6 51 Rxf7 checkmate and 50 …Kxh6 51 Rh8 checkmate.
We associate Carlsen with long endgames, in which he appears to have only a microscopic edge. However, somehow he manages to convert the small advantage to a full point.
It is hard to imagine many other players managing to squeeze out a win from this position, for example – especially against an opponent of such a high calibre.
Anand – Carlsen
Game 6, World Chess Championship Match, 2013
Black to play
Yet Carlsen did exactly that, winning the game in 61 moves. Incidentally, the interested reader can find the full game – with expert analysis – in our course, The Magnus Touch: Free Endgame Lesson.
Carlsen has a phenomenal memory, which enable him to have superior powers of pattern-recognition. This video, showing his memory in action, attracted considerable attention, although the positions presented to him were not as challenging as they could have been.
Which other champions spring to mind when one ponders the question: Is Magnus Carlsen the greatest chess player of all time?
In terms of tenure of title, it has to be Emanuel Lasker, who was World Champion for 27 years. Carlsen, champion since 2013, clearly has some way to go match that particular record.
Carlsen has been the World Number One on the rating list since January 2010. Only Garry Kasparov remained at the top of the list for longer.
Bobby Fischer stood head and shoulders above his rivals when he won the title in 1972. Anatoly Karpov won more tournaments than anyone else. We can also add the names of José Raúl Capablanca and Mikhail Botvinnik to the list. They have their fans; they all have their individual claims to be the greatest of all time.
The problem, of course, is that we cannot successfully compare players from different eras with each other.
For example, Lasker’s record-breaking spell on the throne came before FIDE regulated the world championship cycle. Back then, the champion could decide who he would play; there was no formal qualification procedure.
We cannot prove anything with head-to-head contests without the power of time travel. It is even incredibly rare to name any title matches featuring two players at their peak (have a go!). One of the two players is usually at least a little past their best and the other usually just about to reach their peak.
For a statement such as ‘the greatest of all time’ to stand up to scrutiny, the golden rule is to compare like with like. Therefore, we can state with confidence that Magnus Carlsen is the greatest player of his generation but to beyond that to embrace ‘all time’ is impossible. Surely ‘all time’ relates to the future too, which makes the statement meaningless.
What do you think, dear readers? Let us know, in all of the usual social media places.
Conclusion: The Greatest…
In conclusion, we can name Magnus Carlsen as the greatest player of his generation and we await, with great interest, the forthcoming 2021 FIDE World Chess Championship match.
If you are feeling inspired and would like to examine the games of Magnus Carlsen then head for our selection of Chessable courses on the great champion.