Chess is not only a sport, but also a science and an art. Over the centuries, there have been many great chess players who have left their mark on the royal game. However, among these elite players there are some legends who, with their innovative ideas and original technique, managed to change the very course of contemporary chess thinking, despite never having won the title of “World Champion”.
This article is an attempt to list 10 such chess players, who, despite never winning the world championship, were some of the greatest minds the chess world has ever encountered. A player’s lower position on the list does not mean that he would lose to higher-listed players in head-to-head matches, but is just a subjective marker for the player’s place in chess history. The players’ positions on the list is based on several factors such as their contribution to the game, dominance over other players of the time, how long they were among the chess elite, and so on. The list is based on the objective ratings of the players from sites like chessmetrics, as well as subjective opinions of many chess critics.
So, here we list the top 10 players who never won the World Chess Championships ever.
10. Akiba Rubinstein (1882-1961)
Akiba Rubinstein was a Polish chess grandmaster, and one of the leading players around the beginning of the 20th century. During his illustrious chess career, he won several major tournaments, and defeated many famous players like Caplablanca and Schlecter. He was all set to challenge Emmanuel Lasker for the World Championship in 1914. However, the match did not happen because of World War I.
He remained a leading player for many years, but was never able to challenge the World Champion again. He retired in 1932 and later suffered from mental illness for the last 30 years of his life. Nevertheless, his accomplishments have secured him a solid place in chess history.
9. Harry Nelson Pillsbury (1872-1906)
Pillsbury was an American chess player who went on to win one of the strongest tournaments of his time, the Hastings tournament in 1895, when he was just 22 years old. He also won the US Championship in 1897, a title he held until his death. He was an extremely talented player who dominated his contemporaries, and was believed to be the strongest player in the world by many. Despite this, he never got a chance to challenge the reigning world champion Emmanuel Lasker for a World Championship match. This was mostly because of his health issues. He had contracted syphilis, which had an adverse effect on his physical and mental health. This prevented him from reaching his peak.
One of the great highlights of his career is his even score against Emmanuel Lasker (+5-5=4). He was also a superb blindfold player, who once took on 22 chess players in a blindfold simultaneous display. His games are studied by students of chess even today. His short career is one of the greatest “what-ifs” in the history of chess. He died in Philadelphia in 1906.
8. Miguel Najdorf (1910-1997)
The Najdorf variation of the Sicilian defense is an extremely dynamic and deeply studied opening variation, which is used very often at all levels of play. It was named after the Argentine grandmaster Miguel Najdorf, who was one of the world’s best players in the 1940s. Born in Poland, Najdorf’s early career saw him secure good ranks in many strong tournaments within the country. He represented Poland in the Chess Olympiads. He went on to become one of the best chess players in the world and won many top-notch events.
Unfortunately, despite his great success in tournaments, he was not invited to the Candidates’ Tournament in 1948, which prevented him from getting a chance to challenge the World Champion. His greatest contribution is to chess opening theory, and the Sicilian Najdorf is an opening variation that every serious chess fan has played at least once in their chess journey. So, it is fair to say that his contributions to chess have been immortalized.
7. Samuel Reshevsky (1911-1992)
Reshevsky was an American grandmaster who was widely celebrated as a chess prodigy before he was even 10 years old. He was already giving simultaneous exhibitions at the age of six! He went on to win seven US Championships and had a stellar chess career – remaining among the world’s elite during most of it. He tied for third in the 1948 Candidates’ Tournament, and tied for second in 1953. However, it was later revealed by Bronstein that Soviet chess officials had fixed the match to prevent Reshevsky from challenging the champion Mikhail Botvinnik.
Reshevsky did prove himself to be one of the best chess players in the world by beating Botvinnik in a four-game match in the USA vs. USSR team games. Reshevsky was an outstanding match player who also won many elite tournaments during his career. His chess intuition was extremely strong. With his accomplishments, Reshevsky has definitely secured a unique place in chess history.
6. Mikhail Chigorin (1850-1908)
Chigorin was one of the last players of the Romantic Chess Era, which had a culture of daring attacks and brilliant tactics. He was a Russian chess master who had a great influence in the formation of the Soviet Chess School, which went on to dominate the game of chess for many years to come.
He played two matches against Steinitz for the world championship, but lost both of them. Despite this, his overall score against Steinitz was very close (+24-27=8). He also managed to draw Tarrasch in 1893, in a match that can be considered the Candidates’ tournament of the time. Chigorin relied heavily on spectacular combinations and daring gambits. This has made his games extremely important to chess literature, because they represent the shift from pure tactical play to strategic thinking.
5. Siegbert Tarrasch (1864-1934)
Tarrasch was a prolific chess author, and an elite chess player for the first two decades of the 20th century. He was among the best chess players of his time, and was considered by many to be even stronger than the reigning world champion Wilhelm Steinitz, against whom he had a heavy positive score. He won several strong tournaments and proved himself to be a worthy challenger for the chess crown. Despite this, he was never actually able to arrange a match for the World Championship with Steinitz, primarily because of the demands of his medical profession. After the old Steinitz lost his crown to the young Lasker, Tarrasch was one of the first challengers to play against the new champion. He lost to Lasker, and was hence never able to win the World Championship.
He went on to become an influential chess teacher and the author of “The Game of Chess”, an extremely popular didactic chess book. His games and books are immortalized in chess history.
4. David Bronstein (1924-2006)
David Bronstein never won the World Championship, but he came as close to winning it as is humanly possible! In 1951, after leading the world championship match against the reigning champion Mikhail Botvinnik by a margin of 11.5 to 10.5, with only 2 games remaining, he lost one game and drew the other, thereby drawing the whole match 12-12. This allowed Botvinnik to retain the title of World Champion.
There are many rumors about Soviet officials “convincing” Bronstein to drop the match, so that Botvinnik could remain the champion. One thing is for sure: Bronstein was an extremely strong chess player who has secured his place in chess history because of his chess strength and accomplishments.
3. Paul Keres (1916-1975)
Paul Keres was an Estonian grandmaster who is possibly the only chess player whose face has been portrayed on the official currency of a whole nation! Although he never got a chance to play a match for the World Chess Championship, he remained an extremely strong player throughout his career. He was all set to challenge Alekhine for the World Championship title, but World War II disrupted his plans. He was the runner-up in four consecutive Candidates’ Tournaments.
His greatest tournament victory was probably the AVRO in 1938, where he finished ahead of chess legends like Alkhine, Capablanca, Euwe, and Botvinnik, who were all world champions at one point or another. Keres was a fine attacking player and an endgame specialist. Some of his games are considered to be classics of chess literature.
2. Victor Korchnoi (1931- )
There are very few chess grandmasters who can boast of a chess career spanning 50 years. When you combine his 5 decade long career with his incredible success, it becomes clear why Victor Korchnoi is so high on our list. During most of his chess journey, Korchnoi was among the chess elite of the world.
Besides being a four-time USSR champion and member of several Soviet teams that won many European Championships and Chess Olympiads, he played in as many as ten candidates’ tournaments for the World Championship. He won two of these tournaments and got the chance to fight for the World Championship twice, in 1978 and 1981. Korchnoi’s match against Karpov in 1978 is remembered by chess fans as the most closely-contested world championship match ever. Korchnoi lost this match to Karpov by a very small margin. He got another chance to fight for the crown in 1981, but was defeated again.
Even though he was unable to win the world championship, Korchnoi is widely regarded as one of the best defensive and counter-attacking chess players of all time. He was one of very few masters who were able to defend against the legendary Mikhail Tal’s tactical onslaught even during the peak of Tal’s career. Korchnoi has won several elite tournaments during his career, and continues to play chess even today at the age of 82! His contributions to the game will never be forgotten.
1. Paul Morphy (1837-1884)
Paul Morphy was, according to chess legend Bobby Fischer, the greatest chess player who ever lived. Born into an affluent family in New Orleans in the year 1837, Morphy learnt to play chess by watching his father play. Legend has it that once after his father and uncle drew a game, Morphy reset the pieces and showed his father how he could have won. It was particularly surprising to them because they had no idea that Morphy knew the rules of chess, let alone advanced chess strategy!
Recognizing Morphy’s enormous talent for the game, his family encouraged him to play chess at various gatherings and events. He was the strongest chess player in New Orleans by the age of nine. When he was 12, Morphy defeated a strong master by the name of Johann Lowenthal in a series of 3 games. It was clear, even at this early stage, that Morphy was destined for greatness.
During his brief but stellar chess career, Morphy won many strong tournaments such as the First American Chess Congress. Already considered the greatest chess player in the United States, the next step in his chess journey took him to Europe where he played against and defeated most of the leading contemporary European masters. Although he never got to play a match against Staunton, who was hailed as Europe’s strongest player, Morphy was nevertheless considered the strongest player in the world even by Europeans themselves.
Morphy retired from the game in 1859 to pursue an unsuccessful law career. He died from a stroke in 1884 at the age of forty-seven. The official world chess championship matches did not start until 1886, which meant Morphy never got to be the official world champion, even though he was the strongest player of his time. Since he was the first chess player to demonstrate the art of positioning one’s pieces properly before starting brilliant tactical maneuvers, his games are considered legendary by players even today.
Of course people have different opinions about the position of certain players on the list, but the players listed here have universally been acknowledged to be among the greatest players the chess world has seen, despite never having won the world championship. We have deliberately focused on players whose chess careers are already over, which means that current players, who might still have a chance of becoming the world champion, have not been included. This is in no way an attempt to belittle their accomplishments, but is simply an indication that their chess journey is still going on.