3. Paul Keres (1916-1975)
Paul Keres was an Estonian grandmaster who is possibly the only chess player whose face has been portrayed on the official currency of a whole nation! Although he never got a chance to play a match for the World Chess Championship, he remained an extremely strong player throughout his career. He was all set to challenge Alekhine for the World Championship title, but World War II disrupted his plans. He was the runner-up in four consecutive Candidates’ Tournaments.
His greatest tournament victory was probably the AVRO in 1938, where he finished ahead of chess legends like Alkhine, Capablanca, Euwe, and Botvinnik, who were all world champions at one point or another. Keres was a fine attacking player and an endgame specialist. Some of his games are considered to be classics of chess literature.
2. Victor Korchnoi (1931- )
There are very few chess grandmasters who can boast of a chess career spanning 50 years. When you combine his 5 decade long career with his incredible success, it becomes clear why Victor Korchnoi is so high on our list. During most of his chess journey, Korchnoi was among the chess elite of the world.
Besides being a four-time USSR champion and member of several Soviet teams that won many European Championships and Chess Olympiads, he played in as many as ten candidates’ tournaments for the World Championship. He won two of these tournaments and got the chance to fight for the World Championship twice, in 1978 and 1981. Korchnoi’s match against Karpov in 1978 is remembered by chess fans as the most closely-contested world championship match ever. Korchnoi lost this match to Karpov by a very small margin. He got another chance to fight for the crown in 1981, but was defeated again.
Even though he was unable to win the world championship, Korchnoi is widely regarded as one of the best defensive and counter-attacking chess players of all time. He was one of very few masters who were able to defend against the legendary Mikhail Tal’s tactical onslaught even during the peak of Tal’s career. Korchnoi has won several elite tournaments during his career, and continues to play chess even today at the age of 82! His contributions to the game will never be forgotten.
1. Paul Morphy (1837-1884)
Paul Morphy was, according to chess legend Bobby Fischer, the greatest chess player who ever lived. Born into an affluent family in New Orleans in the year 1837, Morphy learnt to play chess by watching his father play. Legend has it that once after his father and uncle drew a game, Morphy reset the pieces and showed his father how he could have won. It was particularly surprising to them because they had no idea that Morphy knew the rules of chess, let alone advanced chess strategy!
Recognizing Morphy’s enormous talent for the game, his family encouraged him to play chess at various gatherings and events. He was the strongest chess player in New Orleans by the age of nine. When he was 12, Morphy defeated a strong master by the name of Johann Lowenthal in a series of 3 games. It was clear, even at this early stage, that Morphy was destined for greatness.
During his brief but stellar chess career, Morphy won many strong tournaments such as the First American Chess Congress. Already considered the greatest chess player in the United States, the next step in his chess journey took him to Europe where he played against and defeated most of the leading contemporary European masters. Although he never got to play a match against Staunton, who was hailed as Europe’s strongest player, Morphy was nevertheless considered the strongest player in the world even by Europeans themselves.
Morphy retired from the game in 1859 to pursue an unsuccessful law career. He died from a stroke in 1884 at the age of forty-seven. The official world chess championship matches did not start until 1886, which meant Morphy never got to be the official world champion, even though he was the strongest player of his time. Since he was the first chess player to demonstrate the art of positioning one’s pieces properly before starting brilliant tactical maneuvers, his games are considered legendary by players even today.
Of course people have different opinions about the position of certain players on the list, but the players listed here have universally been acknowledged to be among the greatest players the chess world has seen, despite never having won the world championship. We have deliberately focused on players whose chess careers are already over, which means that current players, who might still have a chance of becoming the world champion, have not been included. This is in no way an attempt to belittle their accomplishments, but is simply an indication that their chess journey is still going on.