The number of chess moves made in the history of the royal game is incalculable. Data taken from the study of the 2015 MegaBase (a database that contains over 4.5 million games) indicates that the average number of moves per game is roughly 38. In this one database alone are over 170 million moves.
There are many databases of chess games, and most of these are solely for tournament play—so they inherently and purposefully do not include the overwhelming majority of online games, much less friendly or casual games. So, how do you select the 10 best chess moves of all time?
We began in a similar fashion to how a player selects a chess move: The Chess.com staff created a long list of candidate moves. Our original list was created by scouring books, articles, and multiple expert lists. We added moves from newer games, and we researched the overlaps. Next we started cutting down the long list—again and again. Eventually, we created a strong list of candidate moves, and then the Chess.com Content team voted.
Here are the results—the 10 best chess moves of all time:
Coming in at number 10 is the move voted as the best of all time by ChessKid’s Chief Chess Officer, FM Mike Klein (a.k.a. FunMasterMike). In the 1964 USSR Championship, GM Ratmir Kholmov had a tough-looking position against the legendary GM David Bronstein. Even Stockfish does not see a move that gives White the advantage after Bronstein’s 17…Qe7:
With the knight on c3 attacked and Black one move away from consolidation with 18…Bb7, Kholmov needed to find something quickly. Luckily for the chess world, he found an amazing combination!
The first endgame position on this list is seen in the game between Martin Ortueta Estaban and Jose Sanz Aguado played at Madrid in 1933. Black is winning in the following position, but the path forward is unclear. Black’s bishop is a tall pawn, at the moment, and Black’s pawn structure is more than shattered.
In this position, Sanz uncorked an amazing rook sacrifice with 31…Rxb2!! It takes Stockfish extra time to realize that this amazing move is completely winning for Black—the passed pawns on the c-file cannot be stopped!
IM Edward Lasker (a five-time U.S. Open Champion and friend/distant relative of former world champion Emanuel Lasker) played a famous game against George Alan Thomas in London in 1912. The legendary king hunt begins after Thomas’ blunder with 10…Qe7:
Lasker has a lead in development, his minor pieces dominate the center, and Black’s kingside has been weakened. In this position, Lasker found a wonderful queen sacrifice that forces checkmate in seven moves.
This bishop endgame is unique on this list as it is the only study—the position is not from a game played by two players but was composed by a problemist. According to the Harold van der Heijden Endgame Study Database IV, this study was composed by P. Heuacker in 1930 and published in Neue Freie Presse #44.
So, how did this 90-year-old study make the list for the 10 best moves of all time? Let’s take a look.
At first glance, this looks like a boring and dead-equal bishop ending. It feels like Black can just move their e-pawn and forever control the queening square for White’s h-pawn with their dark-squared bishop on d4. If you show this position to Stockfish, it initially agrees and shows an evaluation of all zeros (0.00).
However, it is really White to move and win. The first move isn’t terribly difficult to find, but it is the fourth move that blows my mind.
A truly beautiful endgame idea that displays that there is life in even the dullest-looking positions. The simultaneous simplicity and complexity make this my favorite study—I consider it icing on the cake that it still confuses powerful engines.
Bura had the white pieces against Paric in their game played in Yugoslavia in 1982. Bura was down two pawns, and his queen and rook were both hanging:
Trading queens with 1.Rxa1 Nxd4 looks unpleasant, but what else is there? Bura shows us!
It is rare that a desperado queen sacrifice occurs on an empty square—it is even rarer when it wins!
Kicking off the top five we have a favorite move of Chess.com’s Chief Chess Officer, IM Danny Rensch. In the 1949 USSR Championships, GM Efim Geller had Black against GM Salo Flohr, and they reached the following rook and pawn endgame:
Geller is up a pawn, but his rook is attacked. If he allows White to take the e5-pawn with check, then his extra pawn on a4 could fall. What spectacular move did Geller play?
GM Evgeny Vladimirov, a world-class player at his peak, was on GM Garry Kasparov‘s team in the 1986 world championship match against GM Anatoly Karpov. However, he should be best known for the move he played against GM Vladimir Epishin in 1987, which reached the following position after Epishin’s 25.Qxb3:
Recapturing the queen seems more than logical and would be the likely move by more than 99.99999% of chess players. Stockfish gives 26.cxb3 as roughly equal, while 26.axb3 gives a nice advantage to White. However, Vladimirov had other plans, and he found the only move that wins on the spot.
It takes a lot more than guts and calculations to find and play a move like 26.Bh6!! It requires creativity and vision beyond a measurable scope. Moves like this one are why some people play chess.
Frank Marshall was known for his brilliant attacks and tactics, and the move he played in this game is definitely the best move he ever played. Marshall had Black against Stefan Levitsky at the 1912 Breslau tournament, and the following position was reached after Levitsky’s 23.Rc5:
Black is winning and has several moves that can maintain the advantage—but one move is outstanding in this position for Black. Can you find it?
Marshall’s 23…Qg3!! is one of those moves that gets burned into people’s memories quickly. To put a queen on a square where it can be captured so many times and still win so emphatically is unforgettable.
At the number-two spot, we have the first of two unanimous picks—that’s right, the entire Chess.com Content team picked this incredible move. Meier was White against Muller in 1994 and achieved the following winning position:
Many moves keep White’s advantage here, and more than one increases the advantage. However, the move played in the game is by far the most spectacular. Can you find it?
This move looks like an upgraded version of Marshall’s legendary move for a few reasons:
- There are more pieces on the board, which makes the move even more difficult to find.
- The forced checkmates require longer calculations.
- Stockfish doesn’t even suggest this move (it finds Marshall’s move instantly).
The top move on the list will come as little surprise to those who have followed chess for a long time or have seen this move before—it is widely accepted as the single best move of all time.
This move was the second unanimous vote by the Chess.com Content team and was voted as the best move by several Chess.com content team members, including Chess.com’s Director of News, Peter Doggers; Chess.com’s Curriculum Director, NM Jeremy Kane; and Director of Chess.com India, IM Rakesh Kulkarni.
Those who haven’t seen this move before may be surprised that the sacrifice comes in an endgame, as GM Alexei Shirov is known as one of the greatest attacking players of all time. Although GMs Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana are ranked numbers one and two in the world (as of September 2020), Shirov still has the best move of all time.
Shirov produced his brilliancy as Black against GM Veselin Topalov at Linares in 1998, and the following opposite-colored bishop endgame was reached after Topalov’s 47.Kg1:
Opposite-colored bishop endgames are known to be notoriously drawish. Despite being up two pawns, Black’s path to victory is not clear. If White can get their king to the center (to e3 or d4), there will be no way through. What makes this move even more amazing is that Shirov finds the only way to actually win this position.
The move Shirov played is still not considered by Stockfish, which makes it that much more delicious—OK, that’s enough buttering you up. Here is Shirov’s mind-bending move with annotations by GM Daniel Naroditsky:
So there you have it—Chess.com’s top-10 best moves of all time. I hope you enjoyed taking a look at these remarkable moves. In the comments, let us know your favorite of these moves or another one if not mentioned in this list.