Who was the best player never to become World Champion?

Last week’s poll question was about football/soccer – ‘Who will win Euro 2016?’ Germany dominated the early voting and held the lead to the finish, despite a late surge for ‘Other’. It seems many of you believe in the Gary Lineker quote: ‘Football is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.’ But which ‘other’ team are those voters betting on? Croatia? Austria? Surely not Wales?


This week’s poll question was suggested by Vassilis. Who was the best player never to become World Champion? A few of the likely candidates are Rubinstein, Nimzowitsch, Pillsbury, Tarrasch, Keres, Bronstein and Korchnoi. I suggest excluding all players who are still active. For example, Caruana might be a clever answer, but he still has a chance to win it, so let’s not count him. Also, let’s exclude the pre-Steinitz era, as the likes of Philidor and Morphy could not win a title that did not officially exist yet.

46 thoughts on “Who was the best player never to become World Champion?”

  1. The best player in terms of strength should be the last one to play, because chess evolves, and Ivanchuk (still active) comes to mind the first, and Korchnoi has to be the one in that list.

    But for me the question has to be viewed as: who was the strongest player relative to his contemporaries never to become WC. In that case:

    * Rubinstein: Is a strong candidate, he may have been the best player in the world for some years.
    * Nimzowitch: I do not think he was ever the strongest player, not even close.
    * Phillsbury: No idea what he won, so I have to assume he was never the best.
    * Tarrasch: Same as with Nimzowitch, never the strongest player.
    * Keres: Another strong candidate. I would rate him lower than Bronstein because I know less about him, but traditionally it has been said that he was the king without crown.
    * Bronstein: Tied for the WC match, but so did Gelfand and Leko (and I guess many more never to become WC). I would rank them forth of the list, behind Rubinstein, Keres and Korchnoi.
    * Korchnoi: 2 WC finals (neither tied) and a long and successful chess life, but I do not think he was ever better than Karpov, hence I would put him behind Bronstein and Keres.

  2. While I don’t think he was the best player never to be world champion, Tarrasch would have had a decent shot against Lasker, but no such match happened.

  3. @ Gollum

    So if I understand you correctly you put Bronstein behind Korchnoi and Korchnoi behind Bronstein. That seems like a tie to me 🙂

  4. Morphy was unbeatable for a very few magic years and I think his dominance over all the european masters was one of the motivating factors in his giving up the game- he was just streaks ahead of anyone else

  5. As for modern players I think Chucky is the ‘strongest’ but still think his nerves would have let him down if he had ever got to the final and played some of the others on the shortlist. Put him in a tournament with the others without the WC label and he’d come out top.

  6. Rubinstein would have been a heavy favorite over Lasker almost anytime in the 1910s. World events just didn’t allow.
    Korchnoi had his chance. 3 in fact. Yes, he was under heavy psychological pressure but he did still get to sit at the board for the title, and did not win.
    Keres was unfortunately not favored in the Soviet system so never really had his chance. While he did die young, he was past his absolute prime at the time.
    Wait just a few more years and Aronian might need to be on the list. He was #2 for a few years and never even had a sniff of a title match.

  7. I voted for Korchnoi . He not only played two world Championship Matches but he also qualified for them from strong Interzonals and tough matches against the best Players of the world. Keres was very strong, but he missed to Qualify.
    Tarrasch and Rubinstein were both at some Point stronger then Lasker, but never dominated

  8. I was one of the few guys who voted for Pillsbury, because he was the boss of the Ne5, f4 maneuver. To have an opening named after you is pretty cool and all, but to have a middlegame maneuver named after you is bad-ass. Not to mention he also has a checkmating pattern named after him.

  9. @ J.A. Topfke

    Not to mention he was American, just as Morphy (who, by the way, doesn’s qualify because he was pre-Steinitz), which always helps 🙂 . I do think however that having a middlegame maneuver named after you isn’t sufficient to qualify as best player never to become World Champion. Could be another poll question though: which middle game maneuver, named after a chess player, you like most?

  10. Ray :
    @ Gollum
    So if I understand you correctly you put Bronstein behind Korchnoi and Korchnoi behind Bronstein. That seems like a tie to me

    My fault. My order from the list is: Rubinstein, Keres, Korchnoi and Bronstein. Anyways yes, it should be close between Bronstein and Korchnoi.

    Remco G :
    @Steve: and I would have said that Topalov did become World Champion.

    Thinking about that, as I do not consider the FIDE branch a legitimate one, Topalov has never become WC in my eyes and is a very strong candidate when he retires.

    Another poll questions which would be interesting are:

    * Which things would you consider when thinking about the best chess player of all time? (multiple selection)
    – Pure chess strength (heavily favours modern players).
    – Difference of chess strength with his contemporaries (so Morphy has a very big shot at it).
    – Time being the best player (so Kasparov being the best for 20 years).
    – Tittles won or domination level (so Karpov winning almost everything that was when he got the WC).

    * Who has been the best player of all time (based on the requirements from the previous poll).

  11. @Ray
    Hi, Ray,

    Maybe having a middlegame maneuver named after you isn’t sufficient, but having an equal score against the World Champion (Lasker) certainly helps. Also, according to the Sonas Chessmetrics site, Pillsbury had the 10th best record over a 5 year period, the best of any non-champion.

    Go, Team Pillsbury!

  12. An equal Score against Lasker? Not bad. But…

    Efim Geller had a plus score against Botvinnik, Fischer, Petrosian and Smyslov.

  13. For me Rubinstein deserve it, becase he played the best chess in the world for sometime.
    Keres is known as the king without crown (as gollum said), but I’m not sure if he was the best at any point. Maybe he has this “tittle” becase he was second in candidates several times.
    Pillsbury carreer was short and probably he was not clearly the best to say he deserve it.
    All other, I think don’t deserve the title.

    Morphy and Phlidor was really the best with a clear advantage of other competitors and would be in my list if pre-steiniz era were included.

  14. There is a nice Youtube-Video with historical ELO ratings:

    According to those historical ratings Korchnoi was the only one from the list reaching a 2800 rating. And he dominated his non-WC-temporaries for quite a while… Morphy was an amazing giant reaching the 2800 mark and dominating his peers for about 15 years, sometimes with being more than 150 points ahead of the crowd.

  15. Keres or Rubinstein are the strongest I think. I long thought it had to be Keres, but Rubinstein should have had at least a match also. I know Korchnoi was very strong, he also had better chances than either Rubinstein or Keres. Nimzo I admire greatly, but I don’t think he could have won a match against Lasker, Capa, or Alekhine. Like Pillsbury, Nimzo was very strong for a short period, but not for long enough. Tarrasch and Bronstein had their chances.


    I voted other, meaning Ivanchuk — and this was before I looked at the other comments. The competition just keeps getting stronger and denser. Ivanchuk had the misfortune of sharing his prime years with the prime years of Kasparov, Anand, and Kramnik, and I’m not sure his chess knowledge and ability were inferior to any of those three. He just never quite made it to the top. Even now, he’s capable of beating both Carlsen and Kramnik in a tournament in which he was otherwise struggling (and they were fighting for first place).

  17. Steven Carr :
    While I don’t think he was the best player never to be world champion, Tarrasch would have had a decent shot against Lasker, but no such match happened.

    In 1908 there was such a match. Lasker 8, Tarrasch 3, draw 5. There’s a book of Tarrasch about this match.

    Generally I feel to be too weak a player for answering such a question.

  18. Man, this is certainly a tough one! At least it’s going to stir some debate.
    After a bit of thought I find it hard to go past Bronstein. On paper he was the equal of the World champion of his time (1951 was 12-12) but looking at how beautiful his wins were over Botvinnik, the quality of his play feels higher to me. Add in the question marks as to weather he threw game 23 (soviet pressure?/personal choice?) and I feel he was the equal in status to the world champion of his time. That’s not a statement I can make for the others on the list.
    But I know others will disagree!

  19. I went for Rubinstein.
    He was probably the strongest player for some time and just didn’t get a chance.

    Bronstein, Schlechter, Leko, all very strong, but their drawn matches and overall career looks more like a relatively brief stint close to the top to me. Not quite as impressive as Rubinstein or Kortschnoi or Keres.

    Tarrasch may have had a window of opportunity where he could have taken on Lasker, but he went for it too late. But that hard to know for sure, I went with chessmetrics which gives Rubinstein quite some time at the top and only second place as best placement for Tarrasch.

  20. Having gone thru a number of Pre-1950 historical works either partially (a couple of books I have on Capablanca and Morphy) or fully (My Great Predecessors Volume 1), and comparing it to the games of mid-century players like Korchnoi, Botvinnik, Stein, Spassky, Petrosian, along with the more modern players from the post-Fischer era, I have noticed a substantial jump in skill around 1960 or so. So that knocks out candidates like Rubinstein and Nimzovich.

    That said, I voted “Other”. I think Leonid Stein, during his prime, belongs at the top, but Korchnoi and Bronstein are both up there. I’d take any of those 3 long before the early 20th century guys.

    Now I know it says to exclude active players, but many active players are past their prime and won’t become world champion. If you were to include those, while you could argue she was technically “Women’s World Champion”, it’s not the same thing, just like how WGM and GM are not the same thing. Judit Polgar has been very high in the ranks amongst all players, not just women, and never won the “World Champion” title, and probably never will. When she retires, I wager she will probably surpass Stein!

  21. Judit Polgar was never women’s world champion. The main reason for this is that she never tried to be. She would have been had she ever bothered to play for it.
    And she has retired from active play.
    While she did top out in the top 10 and even played in the 2005 San Luis tournament, I don’t she was ever considered a serious threat to be world champion.

  22. @ Patrick

    I don’t think it’s fair to compare players from different eras. I’m sure Rubinstein (but also all the otehr greats of the past) would have been stronger in absolute terms if he had lived in a later era. It’s like saying Newton was a lesser scientist than Einstein just because he didn’t know of the Relativity Theory. Rubinstein not just was for a period the strongest player of his time, but he also made gigantic contributions to the development of opening theory (just to mention a few: he invented the Meran variation, 4.e3 against the Nimzo, g2-g3 against the Tarrasch), which are to this day main lines. Also, he was unsurpassed in the are of rook endings.

  23. @Thomas
    stoy: Remember that Korchnoi & Petrosian played four candidates matches: 1971, 1974, 1977, & 1980 with Korchnoi winning the last three. They were apparently on good terms before the 1971 match but not in 1974. The 1977 match was the “Match of Hate”. A wooden board was put between them to prevent kicking. Petrosian tried the same opening as in game 9 here with Korchnoi against Fischer in their candidates match: game 6 and Fischer was ready and crunched Tigran. Korchnoi’s lifetime score against Petrosian is positive according to this database. It is commonly known that Petrosian kicked opponents under the table at times perhaps lightly to distract them. On top of this Korch has talked repeatedly as had Bronstein on the Soviets using intimidation and persuasion and even rigging match ups to ensure their candidates to come out on top. You are free to believe otherwise comrade.

  24. @Hard Truther: Kramnik has in fact been world champion :-). But they said to limit it to non-active players to prevent precisely that clever answer.

  25. @Steven S.
    The thing with Petroian’s legs was a bit different: Tigran was very nervous and often began moving his legs, as some players do. That disturbed Kortschnoi so he kicked him under the table. And yes, there are many accusation on the Sovjets manipulating scores.

    But that has nothing to do with what you said of Kortschnoi throwing games. Especially not against Karpov.

  26. steven S. :
    Fair enough but the Soviets never wanted Keres, Rubinstein, Bronstein nor Korchnoi to win the biggest title. Hmmmmm

    What does Rubinstein have to do with the soviets? Rubinstein was maybe the strongest player in the world before WWI, before the soviet regime even existed. Moreover, before the WWII it was the WC who decided the challenger and it was him who had to find the prize money for the match against the WC.

  27. Another point for Rubinstein, Schlecter, among others is a little unpleasantry called the first World War didn’t help their careers. Of course you can say that WW2 didn’t help Keres’ world championship chances. It makes estimating how strong those fellows were harder.

  28. @Ray

    If it is not fair to compare from different eras, then the whole survey is bogus because Rubinstein and Korchnoi are both amongst the options even if you exclude the “other” option.

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