Ageless Wonders

by admin on October 2, 2020

Chessbase had an interesting column yesterday about the ten highest-rated players of all time, in which they tracked down the exact games where they hit their rating peaks. It’s an interesting list, and I’ll give you the condensed version here (without the games).

Player Peak Rating Achieved Against Year
1. Carlsen 2889 Nakamura 2014
2. Kasparov 2857 Anand 2000
3. Caruana 2851 Svidler 2014
4. Aronian 2836 Nakamura 2014
5. Topalov 2827 Nakamura 2015
6. Mamedyarov 2826 Navara 2018
7. So 2825 Onischuk 2017
8. Anand 2821 Shirov 2011
9. Vachier-Lagrave 2819 Svidler 2016
10. Nakamura 2819 Anand 2015

The first interesting thing about this list is that Hikaru Nakamura appears four times — three times as the victim! Chessbase speculates that this is because of his “fighting spirit.” That’s probably a nice way of saying, “unsound chess.” But also Viswanathan Anand was twice a victim, as well as Peter Svidler.

My wife asked me, what if you take age into account? When do world-class chess players hit their peaks? And who was the oldest when they reached their peak?

Here is the list of the only twelve players in history who have hit a peak rating of 2700 or above, and done it at age 40 or later. I’ll go from bottom to top, in countdown style, in case you want to make any guesses about who is at the top of the list.

Fine print: I worked out the ages in years and months, in order to break the ties. However, #3 and #4 are tied even when you go to months, and I did not want to bother figuring out the days. So I rather arbitrarily decided that former world champions should rank higher.

Player Age at Peak
12. Evgeniy Najer 40
11. Veselin Topalov 40
10. Victor Bologan 40
9. Viswanathan Anand 41
8. Vladimir Kramnik 41
7. Michael Adams 41
6. Alexey Dreev 42
5. Mikhail Tal 43
4. Zurab Azmaiparashvili 43
3. Anatoly Karpov 43
2. Alexander Beliavsky 43
1. Boris Gelfand 45

One thing that jumps out at me is the number of world champions: Anand, Kramnik, Tal, Karpov, and arguably Topalov. This was far from obvious to me. None of them except for Anand was a particularly “old” world champion. Tal, especially, was famous for his wins when he was young, so I am stunned that he hit his rating peak at age 43.

Here’s another way to look at it: Tal hit his rating peak eighteen years after he lost the world championship. Karpov hit his peak nine years after he lost the world championship to Kasparov (although he was the quasi-world champion, also known as FIDE world champion, when he hit his rating peak in 1994). Vladimir Kramnik hit his rating peak nine years after he lost the world championship to Anand. And Topalov hit his peak eight years after he lost his quasi-world champion title to Kramnik. Of these five “ageless wonders,” only Anand hit his peak rating while he was undisputed world champion! That is absolutely mind-blowing to me.

The second interesting thing about this list is, of course, the true heroes — the journeymen whose names never appear on a list of greatest players. Bologan? Najer? Adams? Dreev? Azmaiparashvili? We have to salute them for their tireless dedication to improvement.

Finally, of course, we really have to salute the top two, who were both close to world-champion caliber but never quite made it. Beliavsky was world junior champion four years after Karpov, and I’m sure that some people believed he might follow Karpov as world champion. But in his only Candidates match he had the misfortune to go up against a young whippersnapper named Garry Kasparov, and well, you know the rest of that story. But he remained extremely active and reached his top rating fourteen years later.

The number one hero of old folks, Boris Gelfand, knocked on the door of a world championship for years before finally qualifying to play a match against Viswanathan Anand in 2012. You could argue that he came closer to winning than anyone since David Bronstein. Unlike the other ageless wonders on our list, he timed his rating peak to almost coincide with his world championship match; he hit his peak just a year later, in 2013.

Hope you enjoyed this somewhat different take on chess history. Next time, I’ll go back to my fifty years of chess saga, with the first of two installments for year 7 (1978).

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Mike Splane October 2, 2020 at 7:18 pm

IMHO all this data shows us that ratings are getting more and more inflated. You’ll never convince that 9 of the top ten players EVER were active in the last decade.


admin October 3, 2020 at 4:08 pm

Old folks like us are always saying things like that. I have a book called “The Golden Dozen,” written by Irving Chernev and published in 1976, in which he rates the top twelve players of all time. Chernev was 76 years old at the time. He rated Capablanca #1, Alekhine #2, and Lasker #3. Fischer, who was the current world champion, came in at #4. Of course I was scandalized to think that anyone could think that Fischer was not the best ever.


Roman Parparov October 3, 2020 at 6:14 am

Dana, have you heard about the grand scandal that the PRO Chess League has ended with?
I read about it today on an Armenian website.


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