Underrated chess players in history: time to know them

There are many giants in chess history that a lot of people have recognized due to their outstanding achievements, but there are those who deserve just as much that gets overlooked.

These are the so-called underrated players that have a lot on their belt yet are rarely discussed by those who like studying chess. 

So I am here to pay tribute to these valuable competitors that deserve the attention, here are the best underrated chess players in history:

In my opinion, the best underrated chess players in history were Paul Keres, Akiba Rubinstein, Mir Sultan Khan, Mikhail Tal, Rashid Nezhmetdinov, Tigran Petrosian, Wilhelm Steinitz, Emanuel Lasker, Boris Spassky, Max Uewe, and Vladimir Kramnik. 

I think this is an important conversation to have if we are truly seeking to appreciate the competition in chess, we could after all also learn from these individuals. Some starting players after all might have the urge to study a particular person yet might be led away from these amazing players due to their unpopular reputation.

Which chess players in history have gone underrated?

#1 Paul Keres

Here are the achievements of Paul Keres:

  • Three times chess champion of the U.S.S.R. (where most elite chess players reside at the time).
  • Keres won more than a score of international tournaments after World War II defeating among others, Mikhail Botvinnik, Tigran Petrosian, Tal, and Boris Spassky all of whom were world champions.
  • Often nicknamed as an uncrowned world champion or a champion killer due to his favorable score against titled world champions.

Paul Keres is a three times chess champion of the Soviet Union (U.S.S.R) at the time where they are dominating the rest of the world, in other words, the competition is there.

Other incredibly strong players like Mikhail Botvinnik, Mikhail Tal, Vasily Smyslov, etc. are the opponents that get in the way of achieving such a feature which is pretty impressive.

After World War 2 where most competitors in the world have taken all the rest and are at the top form (since there are no chess competitions during the war) Paul Keres has won many tournaments ahead of more favorable contenders.

Players like Mikhail Botvinnik, Tigran Petrosian, Tal, and Boris Spassky (which are all world champions) have been dominated by this player usually in a smooth fashion, not a lot of participants at the time can accomplish the same thing.

A lot of people spectating tournaments (both casual and competitors) have nicknamed him the uncrowned world champion after his reign due to his potential that has never been realized.

He is definitely a champion material that would have made the books only if he hadn’t fallen short of the candidates which is arguably the most important tournament in a chess player’s career.

#2 Akiba Rubinstein

  •  In 1912 he had a record string of wins, finishing first in five consecutive major tournaments: San Sebastián, Pöstyén, Breslau, Warsaw, and Vilna (All-Russian Masters’ tournament), although none of these events included Lasker or Capablanca. Some sources believe that he was stronger than World Champion Emanuel Lasker at this time. Ratings from Chessmetrics support this conclusion, placing him as world No. 1 between mid-1912 and mid-1914.
  • In his youth, he defeated top players such as José Raúl Capablanca and Carl Schlechter and was scheduled to play a match with Emanuel Lasker for the World Chess Championship in 1914, but it was canceled due to the outbreak of World War I.
  • He was exceptionally talented in the endgame, particularly in rook endings, where he broke new ground in knowledge. Jeremy Silman ranked him as one of the five best endgame players of all time, and a master of rook endgames.

Akiba Rubinstein is a dangerous competitor during his time if we are excluding all the other geniuses of his era (Lasker, Capablanca, Alekhine, etc.) he is the utmost favorite in competitions where other world champion class players are not present.

During his time Emanuel Lasker is the current champion and a lot of speculation is thrown around that he is very likely to be the next world champion, ratings from chess metrics support this.

When he was young he was even capable of defeating Jose Raul Capablanca which some consider to be one of the greatest of all-time, and Carl Schlechter which is also a contender to the throne.

In fact, he is so capable that he managed to convince Emanuel Lasker to uphold a world chess championship match against him only for World War One to begin, canceling it.

After the war where there is a long break (chess tournaments are canceled during the war) and he is no longer at his prime, he has not been the same being unable to recover his previous form.

His main trademark of play is his finesse in the endgame, he has defeated Capablanca in endgames (Capablanca’s expertise are endgames) where other strong competitors are struggling to beat him. 

A lot of modern theoretical ideas have been attributed to him due to the things that he has achieved in the game.

“Most of the modern openings are based on Rubinstein.”-Boris Gelfand (elite player)

#3 Mir Sultan Khan

  • A player who came out of nowhere to win the British Championship three times in four tries, and had tournament results that placed him among the top ten players in the world.
  • The first half of 1931 was probably the best period for him: he defeated Capablanca at Hastings (although he only came 3rd after throwing away a game against Euwe).
  • Won against great players like Tartakower, Flohr, and many others.
  • Is a devoted servant of a Muslim landlord that forced him to give up chess later down the road

This one is a very tragic career of the person named Mir Sultan Khan who has the potential to be one of the greatest of all time yet has been held back by his personal circumstances.

He basically is a slave (utmost servitude) to a landlord where he started playing chess and eventually participated in competitions where he just dominated (British Championship three times in four tries).

He defeated Jose Raul Capablanca at Hastings as a player who does chess part-time! He of course also studied chess a lot but not as much as the professionals in the tournament.

He won against great players like Tartakower, Flohr, and many others despite only being allowed to play in chess competitions in a very short time frame (by his landlord).

His landlord has decided to make him abandon chess altogether when they are leaving back to his homeland where he has served for life without reaching his potential prime.

#4 Mikhail Tal

  • In 1960, when he won the World Chess Championship, he became the youngest-ever world champion. He was 23 at that time. His record was later broken by Garry Kasparov.
  • Nicknamed the magician of Riga known for complicated schemes and unexpected sacrifices that let him reach the top, he is the only pure tactical player who has become the world champion.
  • He holds the record of playing 95 consecutive games without a loss—the longest unbeaten streak at the time (it was eventually bested by elite modern players)

Now a lot of people do recognize the legacy of Mikhail Tal and his style of unrelenting attacks, but only a few really consider him as a legitimate competitor in being one of the best.

He has become the world champion at the young age of 23 which no other previous world champion has able to accomplish at the time, not to mention his style of play. 

His play is purely tactical and rarely positional, meaning he takes a lot of risks that would have made some losing result (and something he was able to overcome anyway even becoming the world champion).

His nickname magician of Riga is something that he has earned from turning relatively bland positions into a complicated series of attacks/sacrifices that turned out to be beautiful schemes.

He managed to acquire a winning streak of 95 which is a world record even when competing against the elite players at the time, something only the special people accomplish in today’s world.

#5 Rashid Nezhmetdinov

  • A great tactician often compared to Mikhail Tal, with the signature of absurd sacrifices yet eventually winning in the end.
  • Nezhmetdinov won a number of games against world champions such as Tal, against whom he had a lifetime plus score, and Spassky.
  • He also had success against other world-class grandmasters such as Bronstein, Polugaevsky, and Geller.
  • He achieved a plus score in the 20 games he contested against World Champions.

Rashid’s style of play is eerily similar to Mikhail Tal only with the difference that he hasn’t reached the same heights of credentials as Tal did, no one has talked about him since.

Commonly known to lose 7 games out of 10, but having three of those won games to be the most beautiful chess their opponents have ever seen, a lot of competitors are impressed by playing against him.

He even has a winning score against Tal himself (world champion) that only a few competitors can accomplish at the time, it is always a treat when two magicians play on the board.

He has dominated other prolific elites in the names of Bronstein, Polugaevsky, and Geller which are very well-respected players by their colleagues at the top.

He has played a total of 20 games against different world champions and managed to earn a positive score, he may not be the best out there but he is definitely underrated.

#6 Tigran Petrosian

  • He was nicknamed “Iron Tigran” due to his almost impenetrable defensive playing style, which emphasized safety above all else.
  • He won the Soviet Championship four times (1959, 1961, 1969, and 1975).
  • Petrosian was a Candidate for the World Chess Championship on eight occasions (1953, 1956, 1959, 1962, 1971, 1974, 1977, and 1980).
  • He won the World Championship in 1963 (against Mikhail Botvinnik), successfully defended it in 1966 (against Boris Spassky), and lost it to Spassky in 1969.

Tigran has a very boring reputation due to his style of play that is considered dull (defensive) but anyone who knows chess can appreciate the positional menace Petrosian is. He was nicknamed the Iron Tigran due to his moves that don’t seem to do that much on the surface but become elaborate when studied in detail.

He managed to win the Soviet championship four times which is among the highest number of wins in the same tournament for any player. Remember he is playing in one of the most competitive championships in the world (Soviet championship) and managed to win four times, that is indeed amazing.

He was a candidate for the world chess championship on eight different occasions, further proving his credentials in having the potential to be the world champion. 

And he did in fact became the world champion after defeating Mikhail Botvinnik and even defending it once against Spassky, becoming the world champion in a total of six years (which not a lot of strong players could not do).

#7 Wilhelm Steinitz

  • The first official World Chess Champion in history from 1886 to 1894. 
  • He became “world number one” by beating Adolf Anderssen in 1866 and confirmed his position by beating Zukertort in 1872 and winning the 1872 London International tournament (Zukertort had claimed the rank of number two by beating Anderssen in 1871).
  • In 1873 however Steinitz’s play suddenly changed, giving priority to what is now called the positional elements in chess: pawn structure, space, outposts for knights, the advantage of the two bishops, etc. 
  • Steinitz was unbeaten in match play for 32 years, from 1862 to 1894.

Wilhelm Steinitz is the first world champion in chess but I doubt many players will consider him to be a good player, there’s just not that much reputation in his name.

He has been nicknamed as the one who killed romantic chess due to his boring play in an era where everybody tries to play beautifully and tactically (perhaps this is even the reason why he excelled).

He has been claimed as the first world champion by beating Adolf Anderssen who is anonymously considered to be the best in the world at the time, and he further solidifies this by beating Zukertort (who is a strong player).

He was unbeaten in a chess game in a total of 32 years! But his actual reign is shorter than that since he only became a champion in 1886.

#8 Emanuel Lasker

  • Lasker was World Chess Champion for 27 years, from 1894 to 1921, the longest reign of any officially recognized World Chess Champion in history.
  • Considered to be the one who started developing modern theoretical openings (though theories exist back then only in a primitive form).
  • Used a “psychological” approach to the game, and even that he sometimes deliberately played inferior moves to confuse opponents. Recent analysis, however, indicates that he was ahead of his time and used a more flexible approach than his contemporaries, which mystified many of them.

With Emanuel Lasker I think some people do consider him to be a fairly competitive player, but do not fully realize the intensity of his reign in the game. He was the world champion in a total of 27 years! This is the longest reign of any world champion in history even taking into consideration the modern ones.

Now granted, something like this is much harder to accomplish today since the world champion is required to hold a world championship match in fewer amount of years (unlike back then where he can refuse) but this is still an amazing feature.

He started modernizing the theoretical openings and officially giving recommended moves in the said phase while popularizing recordings of them (openings).

#9 Boris Spassky

  • Spassky was a World Chess Championship candidate on seven occasions (1956, 1965, 1968, 1974, 1977, 1980, and 1985).
  • Spassky played three world championship matches: he lost to Tigran Petrosian in 1966; defeated Petrosian in 1969 to become world champion; then lost to Bobby Fischer in a famous match in 1972.
  • Has been described by many as a universal player. Never a true openings expert, at least when compared to contemporaries such as Geller and Fischer, he excelled in the middlegame and in tactics.

When I asked a few chess hobbyists what they know about Spassky the most common response says he is Bobby Fischer’s opponent when Bobby became a world champion, but he is more than that.

He has been a world championship candidate on a total of seven occasions,  which definitely proves that he is capable of competing in a world championship-caliber stage even for a long time.

And he did become a world champion after beating Tigran Petrosian in 1969 even if it was only for a brief period, this at least proves that he is capable of reaching the top.

The only reason why he is not as memorable is because of his style which is more of a generalist (being good at everything) not specializing in something unique, but this should not in any way taint his reputation.

#10 Max Uewe

  • Was initially a math teacher that discovered his talent for playing chess, he then proceeded to dominate most of his competitors until he reached the elite stage.
  • He was the fifth player to become World Chess Champion, a title he held from 1935 until 1937. 
  • Euwe was noted for his logical approach and for his knowledge of the openings, in which he made major contributions to chess theory.

Max Euwe was originally a Math teacher who has taken interest in playing at chess competitions, he is so good that he reaches the elite levels without training early.

He is so good that he was able to beat Alexander Alekhine (world champion) himself in a world chess championship match earning him the title of the fifth world chess champion in history.

His title was short-lived as he immediately accepted the rematch from Alexander Alekhine without the intention of retaining the title for long, Alexander Alekhine won that duel.

The score of the rematch seems like a landslide but it’s actually a pretty close call, Euwe was forced to take more risk near the end of the match in order to catch up with Alekhine and instead, has given up more points.

He later became the Fide president and made major contributions to theoretical knowledge.

#11 Vladimir Kramnik

  • He was the Classical World Chess Champion from 2000 to 2006, and the undisputed World Chess Champion from 2006 to 2007. 
  • In 2000, Kramnik defeated Garry Kasparov without Kasparov winning a single game, then becoming the Classical World Chess Champion. 
  • He defended his title in 2004 against Péter Lékó and defeated the reigning FIDE World Champion Veselin Topalov in a unification match in 2006.
  • He is one of the toughest opponents to defeat, losing only one game in over one hundred games leading up to his match with Kasparov, including eighty consecutive games without a loss.

I think Vladimir Kramnik is still underrated even though he is more popular than anyone on this list, the reason being that other people don’t recognize his accomplishments.

He was the classical chess champion from 2000 to 2006 (since there was a separation from Fide made by Kasparov) and is the one who defeated the legendary Kasparov without losing a single game.

The best thing about Kramnik’s win against Kasparov in their world chess championship match is Garry is actually at his prime at that point, it’s hard to imagine other competitors beating Kasparov other than him.

He also defeated Fide’s champion Veselin Topalov and in turn, unified the separated Fide champion and Kasparov’s champion. 

He has become the world champion for almost seven years and even only losing one game from his previous 100 before going against Kasparov (with an 80 game win-streak) it is incredible.

Do you now know which chess players have gone underrated?

The reputation of a competitor definitely played a role in how they are recognized even after they are long gone from the game, but it can be pretty subjective. There might be really amazing players out there that may have achieved incredible things yet weren’t on anyone’s list for their best.

I think that it is time to give some love to these people which I did by making this article, but more so to educate the audience. That there might be someone lurking out there that you can look for to see some beautiful games, possibly from one of the names I have mentioned here.

I have seen some of their games and it is indeed fantastic! This is paying tribute to them, sleep well and play chess.