One thing that chess players love to debate is the identity of the greatest players in history. And one debate that will never die is that of Bobby Fischer versus Magnus Carlsen. Fischer is the most notorious player in history and his chess genius is undisputable. Carlsen, on the other hand, is dominating the modern game. How would they do if you put them head-to-head?
Who is the best ever: Bobby Fischer or Magnus Carlsen? Going by chess ratings, Carlsen is the best player ever because he has the highest rating ever achieved on a chess board. Moreover, Carlsen became world number 1 at age 19, while Fischer took a bit longer having reached it when he was 21.
Sadly, Fischer left the game long before Carlsen was born so they never competed. The truth is that Fischer and Carlsen are both extraordinary talents that perhaps shouldn’t be reduced to ratings and records. Let’s compare the masters a bit further.
How Good Was Bobby Fischer?
Bobby Fischer is often thought of as the most creative and energetic player ever to grace the game of chess. He was a child prodigy who came to global attention in the chess world at the age of just 13 when he played “The Game of The Century”.
In this game, Fischer made a masterful trade off, his queen for enough material advantage to bury his opponent whose queen remained trapped on the back row. That opponent was the chess master Donald Byrne.
He turned grandmaster at 15. Then became the only player in history to walk away with the US championship with a perfect score of 11/11. A record that still stands today.
The Road To World Number One
When he was ready to compete for the World Championship, he won both of his Candidate’s games 6-0. Bobby Fischer took no prisoners on the chess board and he was not afraid to stamp his authority on other players.
At this point in his career, he reached an ELO rating of 2785. His opponent in the World Championship finals, a year later, was Boris Spassky with an ELO rating of 2660. This is the biggest gap between world number one and world number two in chess history.
Fischer’s rating was also a world record and one that stood until 1990. Bobby Fischer was a titan of the game.
Fischer At The Top Of The World
He easily defeated Spassky when they met for the world title despite the incredible amount of pressure due to the press casting the game as the USA vs USSR in the middle of the Cold War.
Then, Bobby Fischer imploded. He refused to defend his title against Anatoly Karpov and simply walked away from the game when he fell out with FIDE over the rules. He would barely play again for the rest of his lifetime. His star had burned brighter than nearly any other player’s but it had burned all too briefly.
How Good Is Magnus Carlsen?
As the best player in the world, today, Magnus Carlsen is clearly very good. His highest ever rating on the ELO scale is 2882 (though it currently sits at 2862) which is far higher than that of Bobby Fischer. Though critics say that this is, in part, because the ELO scale suffers from grade inflation.
Like Fischer, Carlsen was a child prodigy and by the age of 18 he had passed the 2800 ELO rating mark. That’s 3 years before Fischer peaked at 2785. Again, critics point to grade inflation here.
Carlsen Gets There Faster
However, it’s impossible to dispute that Carlsen became de facto world number one at 19 not at 21 like Fischer. He would become world champion in 2013 and has been the World Rapid Chess Champion and World Blitz Chess Champion simultaneously to being World Chess Champion twice (in 2014 and 2019).
Also, unlike Fischer, Carlsen has had to defend his title and he beat Sergey Karjakin in 2016 and Fabiano Caruana in 2018. He also holds the record for the most consecutive games unbeaten as a top-rated player.
He is seen as less aggressive and creative than Bobby Fischer, but his game is far more analytical and well-rounded than Fischer’s was.
So Bobby Fischer Vs Magnus Carlsen: Who Is Really The Best Ever?
When asked who the greatest player in the history of chess was, Carlsen said; “Probably Bobby Fischer at his best. Because the precision and energy that he played with is just unmatched in the history of chess. So Bobby Fischer from 1970 to 1972.”
This suggests that Magnus Carlsen certainly has a healthy respect for Bobby Fischer’s game, but does that mean that Fischer is the best or is Magnus simply being too modest to say “me, of course!”
We don’t think this is an easy call to make. What is clearly true is that Bobby Fischer was a very different player to Magnus Carlsen.
Support Vs None
While Carlsen is the product of hard work and natural talent, he has also been able to access computer training, world class chess coaches, etc. and they have helped him take his talent and build on it in a very structured and successful manner.
Bobby Fischer had none of that. Though his opponents had the might of the Russian chess machine behind them with endless amounts of training, coaching and development (though no computers, they weren’t good enough back them), he did not.
Fischer grabbed a board, some books and played chess and that was his entire development plan. If you told somebody that a world champion, today, had followed this route to the top – they would laugh at you. It would be inconceivable that natural talent and self-motivation alone could carry you to the pinnacle of a sport.
In fact, no-one would believe that someone had even been allowed to try. If you showed the kind of talent that Fischer or Carlsen have for a sport, you will be picked out in your youth and resources will start to be showered upon you.
If you live up to your early promise, then more and more help will be made available to you – until the point that you are guaranteed to reach your full potential. Did Bobby Fischer reach his full potential or was he somehow stunted as a chess player because of this handicap? Who knows?
The Chessmetrics Argument
There is a scale that has been developed known as “Chessmetrics” which attempts to quantify a player’s all time ELO rating by assuming, correctly, that there has been some “grade inflation” of the FIDE rating scale (this is an inevitable consequence of the FIDE algorithm, the more players in the game, the easier it becomes to achieve a higher rating and the ratings at the top of the game follow this path too).
On that scale, they judge Bobby Fischer to have been the strongest player of all time over a single year and say his rating would have been 2881 in today’s terms. That’s higher than Magnus Carlsen’s current rating and Carlsen is very close to the 2900 mark himself.
The trouble with Chessmetrics’ approach is that this is a fairly arbitrary system and while it’s a nice idea that we can look back in time and change a player’s rating to fit in with today, it’s not a scientific discipline at all.
A Score Draw?
So, we are left with two of the world’s finest players in history separated by a hair’s breadth. Fischer fiery and uncontrolled with raw talent and ferocious creativity. Carlsen a more studied and well-rounded player with a calm reserve to draw on and the most adaptable of tactical and positional games.
Who is the best? It’s impossible to say for sure. Carlsen has the honor of the highest FIDE rating in history. Fischer of being the most legendary player. We wish that there could have been a chess match between the two to decide the outcome because for us, it’s too close to call.
If we take the raw data, Magnus Carlsen is clearly the best player ever to have graced the board. If you take the amended data, Bobby Fischer is (though he doesn’t have the consistency of Carlsen because Fischer walked away from the game after a year at the top).
In reality? It’s too close to call. We’re talking about two super heavyweights and the difference in punching power would be measured in milligrams at the most. So, while this cannot end conclusively, chess lovers should be delighted that the game has produced two such amazing talents in the last century. Both players are worth studying and emulating in your own games.