I have enjoyed the recent (Relatively) Strongest Player poll and analysis of the players (and here are my older posts on the "The Greatest" and Top Ten players). Below is a stimulating view from a slightly different perspective by the great chess historian Edward Winter of Chess Notes fame:
Chess: The Greatest
The first paragraphs:
In discussions of that hoary question ‘Who is the greatest player of all time?’ assumptions tend to be made about the historical progression of playing strength which are by no means favourable to the old-timers. The view that chess is forever moving forward forces the conclusion that Morphy would have plenty to learn from the moderns, and one thus reads condescending speculation about how the American would fare today if he was generously granted six months or a year to ‘absorb all the new chess knowledge’ that has come into being since his time. His inferiority is further demonstrated by those deceptive ‘historical ratings’ and other mathematical sideshows. They have much to answer for, since it is only in the small print that we learn that if an Elo rating of, say, 2500 is a) earned by a modern player and b) dumped on a dead master that does not mean that the two are of comparable strength. The late Professor Arpad Elo confirmed this in a letter to us dated 18 November 1988.
With recourse to reason and logic, can a case be constructed for actually believing that some of the oldsters would be capable of unhorsing today’s leading exponents without any additional schooling? Objectivity is certainly needed here too, for the glamour attached to such names as Anderssen and Spielmann may misdirect a commentator who is by temperament a laudator temporis acti. In many respects the overall level of chess play, in terms of quantity and quality, has progressed immeasurably in recent decades, but it is noticeable that however large the mass of ordinary club players and ordinary masters the number of outstanding exponents at any one time remains relatively small. It is with that élite that we are concerned here. It can be argued that almost every chess title, including that of world champion, has been cheapened in recent years. ‘Grandmasters’ are so plentiful that it is quaint to recall how, even in 1953, their proliferation was being criticized. In that year’s May issue of Chess Review (page 129) a correspondent, W.N. Wilson, complained about the ‘loose use of the term’, and the magazine agreed that ‘there is something in Mr Wilson’s contention that there ought to be a distinctive title for those who tower head and shoulders above all others in their generation. With a couple of dozen grandmasters around now, we ought to have a grade designated between the bulk of these and the world champion’.
Take a few minutes to read the whole thing then come on back...
Winter wrote this in 1997, before the advent of really close "cooperation" between the top players and computers. I believe that in the intervening 15 years that grandmasters have indeed benefited from using computers for study, practice and especially to expand the range of chess ideas. Computers' ability to snatch material and weather the attack to victory and to find moves that are "ugly" but good have produced real advances, in my view. See for more of my opinions see this post, especially item 6.
Winter didn't minimze the progress in chess "strength" at the very top but as he concludes:
Do even today’s masters believe in their own superiority? Interviews indicate a mixture of views, but very few masters venture to claim that the ten strongest players of all time are all alive today. Personal ‘top ten’ lists almost invariably include a profuse sprinkling of old names, such as Capablanca. One can understand why he appears on almost everybody’s list: innumerable games were played by him in perfect style as far as anyone has been able to judge either then or now.
I don't think that has changed, if it is accurate. Maybe some of us should look into that claim, as a close examination of Capablanca's games could only make our own play stronger.