Some of best performances in history, from some of the best players, did not take first place. Worldchess’s columnist looks at some examples.

Last week’s column looked at the 1999 edition of the annual super-tournament in Wijk aan Zee, the Netherlands, and recounted the great triumph of Garry Kasparov of Russia, who was World Champion at the time.

It was noted that Viswanathan Anand of India also had a great tournament, finishing just half a point behind Kasparov. Anand was undefeated and scored plus 6 over the 13 rounds. Moreover, he played really well, as Kasparov wrote in 2014, “He played very creatively in the tournament and posted virtually the best result of his career.”

That may be a bit much – Anand’s performance rating in the 2014 Candidates tournament was around 165 points higher, according to Ken Regan, an international master and computer science professor at the University of Buffalo who has developed software and algorithms for measuring performance – but it was certainly one of the best tournament performances in Anand’s great career. In his autobiography, Anand wrote about his wins over the Dutch grandmasters Dimitri Reinderman and Jeroen Piket from Rounds 1 and 2, but doesn’t offer what was, in my opinion (and also in the “opinion” of the computer), his best game of all from that tournament, his victory over Rustam Kasimdzhanov of Uzbekistan:

So leaving aside the 2014 Candidates’, it’s at least arguable that the greatest tournament performance of Anand’s career was one in which he finished in second-place. Considering that Anand is one of the all-time greats (he was World Champion for six years, from 2007 to 2013, and eight if the period from 2000 to 2002, when he held the FIDE title, is included), this is surprising. But people tend to overlook and undervalue runners-up. As the American football coach Vince Lombardi famously proclaimed, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”

This year, and this month, marks the centenary of the birth of Paul Keres of Estonia, a player who, unlike Anand, has a bit of an undeserved reputation for a having a career as a runner-up. Why? The reason is that while he had a career that was enviable in every other respect, he never became World Champion.

Year after year, decade after decade, he was in the hunt. In the 1930s he was already an elite player, and in 1948 he took part in the tournament to select a new World Champion following the death of Alexander Alekhine. (He finished in a tie for third.)

In the 1950s and 1960s, Keres came close to becoming the challenger for the crown in one Candidates’ tournament after another, finishing second in four straight events (in 1953, 1956, 1959, and 1962). Keres would often falter at or near the end of these tournaments, most famously (and painfully) in 1962, when he lost to Pal Benko of the United States in the penultimate round and finished half a point behind the tournament’s winner, Tigran Petrosian of Armenia, which was then part of the Soviet Union. (Petrosian went on to defeat Mikhail Botvinnik of Russia in 1963 to become the new World Champion.) Keres had beaten Benko in seven consecutive games prior to his loss in the Candidates, and he beat him the next two times they played.

Despite never making it to the absolute top, Keres was clearly among the greatest players of the 20th century, he was a brilliant analyst and a fine writer on the game, and he was liked and respected by all his colleagues. And when he was in form, as in the following game against Benko in an earlier part of the 1962 Candidates tournament, no one could stand up to him


Dennis Monokroussos is a FIDE master who has written about chess on his blog “The Chess Mind,” since 2005. He has been teaching chess for almost 20 years and for the last 10 years has been making instructional chess videos, which can be found at Between 1995 and 2006, he taught philosophy, including a four-year stint at the University of Notre Dame.