The 10 Best Positional Chess Players of All Time
The term “positional” is being used so much in the chess world that it is almost broken. People glorify positional play and it is rightfully so, after all, the computers that we have almost always mind non-obvious moves first before aggressive ones.
People still love attacking chess generally, but there is more appreciation on positional play more than any other time in history.
The players that would be considered boring in the past are being commended today, I think this is interesting, people are starting to appreciate the strategic approach.
And what better article to write than the top 10 positional chess players of all time? I think this is a great tribute for those who practiced this way of chess, let’s get started.
What is the positional playing style in chess?
When playing positionally, a player takes advantage of the features of the game that determine the relative worth of the different pieces.
That is to say, factors such as territory, pawn organization, king protection, mobility, or complexity of squares have the potential to make certain knights superior to other knights for example. Basically it is a defensive style of playing chess.
To differentiate, positional competitors are those that place their pieces on critical spaces to get a positional edge in order to restrict what the enemy can do, while tactical competitors are those who strike and surrender pieces in search of better conditions for themselves.
The top 10 positional players in chess history (in particular order)
1.) Magnus Carlsen
Magnus Carlsen is the best positional player of all time.
He is of course pretty much good at everything else (especially the endgame) but his positional play is the one that stands out. The features that he had achieved in the endgame was also attributed to his phenomenal positional understanding.
According to Simen Agdestein, Carlsen’s conduct as a kid was defined by “a daring desire to supply material for action.” Carlsen’s offensive approach to the game as a child was marked by “a reckless willingness to provide material for activity,”
Carlsen discovered as he grew older that his hazardous way of playing was not as well adapted to compete against the best players in the world when it came to chess.
When he first began competing in the most prestigious competitions, he had a lot of difficulties getting anything out of the opening.
Carlsen’s approach evolved over time to become more versatile and adaptable, allowing him to perform admirably in a wide variety of circumstances. This is his biggest step to become the best in the world.
Magnus plays positional chess reminiscent of a strong chess engine, he is great at finding small imbalances and taking advantage of those.
I don’t think any positional player from the past or the present can compete with Magnus Carlsen, in terms of strength and greatness he is the best positionally.
Related: Can you Lose a Chess Game Even Without Making a Mistake?
2.) Fabiano Caruana
Fabiano Caruana is probably the only one who rivals Carlsen in positional strength (not greatness). When it comes to raw positional play, Fabiano Caruana himself plays like an engine that has been set several depths deep.
His precision on positions that appear bland is amazing, positionally he is also on a league of his own.
Caruana is recognized as a player that puts in a lot of effort, and he previously said: “Every day, people all around the globe participate in literally countless different games, many of which have significant cultural or historical significance.
You may see any and all of them digitally, but doing so will require a significant investment of effort on your part.
And you need to investigate, discover new patterns, and constantly try to uncover new concepts that you can employ against certain adversaries.”
Caruana made a remark that suggested his extensive understanding of the opponent’s strong points and weak points as he was discussing Magnus Carlsen’s play:
“There are certain roles in which you just cannot match with him. In some pawn configurations, he plays them as mechanically as can.
There are certain beginnings at which I draw the line and say, “I simply can’t do that.” However, there are other postures in which he does not feel as at ease. He can play insecurely like any other player, just like any other player.”
3.) Bobby Fischer
Bobby Fischer is pretty much similar to Carlsen, they are both good at everything but have a certain affinity to the endgame.
Bobby Fischer is probably one of the greatest positional chess players of all time. His iconic world championship run featured a lot of positional antics that made the board difficult to play for his opponents.
During his prime years (1967–1972), he had, in my judgment, evolved a style of strategies and planning that was very close to being flawless. The latter was used only after he had achieved success in the other.
His manner in my opinion was an improved version of the manner used in Capablanca.
The latter player would gladly accept draws as black even while playing against his most deadly adversaries.
Fischer’s mentality was that “he was indeed the strongest,” and as a result, he would fight for a victory even when he had black against his rivals who posed the greatest threat to his victory.
4.) Anatoly Karpov
When it comes to pure positional chess there are probably two names that will come up, Tigran Petrosian and Anatoly Karpov.
The only reason why they are not higher in the list is because they are inferior in overall strength with the players above (which is why I felt that Karpov is only number 4).
The fact that I am trying to justify why Karpov is only number 4 tells you something. His playstyle is sometimes referred to as a “boa” suffocating his opponents positionally until delivering the decisive winning blow.
Anatoly Karpov was a fantastic positional player who enjoyed choking and suffocating his competitors. He was known for this style of play.
A lot of the time, he was preventing them from coming up with plans and concepts, and it got to the point where they couldn’t come up with any solid moves.
He was a master of the art of planning and prophylaxis, and he understood exactly what his adversaries were striving at and how to block their plans from being implemented.
He adopted such a strategy, which made him a very difficult opponent to compete against and led to wide great outcomes.
5.) Mikhail Botvinnik
Mikhail Botvinnik is known as the long-standing world champion, he has been the world champion for multiple decades, he also reclaimed the world title whenever he had lost the championship previously.
He is known as a positional savvy employing strategic ideas wherever he goes.
My best memory of him is when he played against Mikhail Tal with the caro-kann almost exclusively, this transposes the positions they played into something more positional.
Botvinnik made a number of important advances to the knowledge of chess, one of which was his strategy for doubled pawns.
Having doubled pawns was typically considered to be a positional inferiority; nevertheless, Botvinnik realized that possessing doubled pawns frequently indicated that you had open files, open diagonals, and strongholds for your pieces.
The strategic possibilities and active participation of pieces in such situations more than made up for the deficit. In these kinds of situations, it is impossible to differentiate between what is positional and what is tactical since the two are inextricably linked.
6.) Tigran Petrosian
Tigran Petrosian is probably one of the most pure positional players other than Anatoly Karpov. He is known to play chess that is linked to an impregnable defense, he excels in positional nuances.
The only reason why he is number 6 is because of his lack of overall achievements (winning the world championship title once and immediately losing it after).
But if we are talking about pure positional finesse, it is hard to argue that Petrosian wouldn’t be at least top 10.
Petrosian was a prudent, safety-minded, and very protective chess competitor who was profoundly impacted by Aron Nimzowitsch’s concept of prophylaxis.
He put out far more energy to thwart the offensive powers of his rival than he did to make the most of his own attacking potential.
The only time he went on the attack was when he was absolutely certain that his positioning was unassailable. In most cases, he was victorious as a result of his constant play up to the point when his ambitious adversary made an error.
He then secured the victory by seizing on this error without showing any flaws in his own game.
Related: Is it Better to Play Aggressive or Defensive in Chess?
7.) Jose Raul Capablanca
Jose Raul Capablanca is another chess genius that could be compared to that of Magnus or Fischer. Capablanca was pretty much good at everything in chess but mostly excels in the endgame.
His achievements and dominance however is not as great as with Carlsen and Fischer.
Nevertheless he is a great positional player that has created many positional studies for our generation to learn. He is one of the original pioneers of positional chess.
It is one point to have a gut feeling that a certain strategy would work, but it is an entirely other challenge to put that strategy into action with the utmost accuracy and productivity.
The depth of Capablanca’s mastery of positional chess concepts, along with the dedication and accuracy with which he applied those concepts, transformed him into an unstoppable force.
He truly is one of the greatest positional players of all time.
8.) Vladimir Kramnik
Vladimir Kramnik has an interesting rise to the world championship. He had a mini-run when Kasparov was still a champion which earned him the nickname “positional machine” (during this time strong chess computers are still on the rise).
In the later half of the 1990s, Kramnik developed into a positional specialist and became an expert in the game.
When he overcame Kasparov in the historic encounter that took place in London in the year 2000, it was due to his calm resistance and cunning positional maneuvering.
The method in which he handled the Berlin Defense in that encounter has had a significant impact on the way that the expansive game is played at the highest level.
His clash with Kasparov is a head to head battle between contrasting playing styles. Kasparov with his unrelenting attacks and Kramnik with his positional finesse. In the end Kramnik stole the world championship title from the great Garry Kasparov in style.
9.) Emanuel Lasker
Emanuel Lasker is overlooked in the books since he is one of those world champions when theory is still being developed. Naturally he, along with his colleagues, would not look good in front of our advanced computers.
However if you pause the criticisms and look at him relatively, you can see that he is far ahead positionally than most of his competitors.
He introduced a lot of positional theory during his time as the world champion, he definitely deserves to be in the all-time positional list.
Lasker’s approach was ubiquitous. He is the first chess player to have achieved all there is to learn in the game.
Capablanca, who was considered a virtuoso of the endgame, remarked that Lasker remained unrivaled for a long time as an endgame specialist.
Former global chess champion Alekhine, who like Capablanca was also a world champion in his own right, said that Lasker’s endgame dominance was untouchable for at least twenty years.
Positionally he is not a slack either, potentially one of the greatest of all time (which is why he made this list).
10.) Wilhelm Steinitz
Wilhelm Steinitz is the very first holder of positional playing style, he is even attributed as the father of positional chess.
Many are unsatisfied with Steinitz as he is deemed to be the one who killed romantic chess. As soon as he became the world champion, the “boring” playing style became more widespread.
Steinitz had a significant impact on the development of chess, but his most important contribution was perhaps the discovery that positional considerations are very important to the outcome of a game.
Article of interest: Can You Play Well in Chess Even if You Don’t Castle?
It was in the 1870s that he developed his diverse strategy, which was the positional way of playing. He demonstrated that this way of playing chess was better to the offensive approach that was prevalent at the time in the game.
During that era, Steinitz’s concepts were at first criticized for being “spineless” and sparked heated disputes until they were finally given the respect they deserved, acknowledged, and put into practice by influential people.
We know that the positional approach is the best way to play chess, our strongest supercomputers are all positional-first calculators.
Steinitz deserves top 10, I wouldn’t put him past this since he is obviously inferior to the rest both on strength and on achievements.
There were many great positional chess players throughout history, and among all of them few have stood higher than everyone else.
The top 5 best positional players in history is undeniably Magnus Carlsen, Fabiano Caruana, Bobby Fischer, Anatoly Karpov, and Mikhail Bitvinnik. Tigran Petrosian is top 6 in this list.
I think this order is accurate for the most part and even if one were to disagree it is probably about the placements.
I genuinely think that these players were the only contenders for the top 10, the only other players that are close would be Max Euwe, Vasily Smyslov, and Boris Spassky.
Nevertheless I think all of the spots are deserving. That is all, thank you for reading.