A brief history of the World Championship of Chess.
Yes, I’m writing this article. Recently, the World Championship of Chess 2021 concluded, so I thought that this might be the correct time to write this article. There are four reasons why I’m writing this article.
First, I like Chess. Second, I planned to write this article long before the thought of starting a blog ever came to my mind. Third, people are often surprised that Chess has a World Championship. Mostly because they don’t consider it a sport.
Right. A game which can wreck you mentally if you play seriously in under an hour, while the championship matches go on for close to five or six hours, while the champion has to face the players who are the top five in the world… to me, it is a sport alright.
Fourth, I wanted to write an article for which I might need to do research, and write in a professional manner, so I can show that off to someone. Whether I succeed in this or not, I leave that for you to decide.
So, without further ado, let’s begin!
The idea for the World Champion for Chess goes back hundreds of years, at least late 16th century, where players like Ruy López de Segura, Paolo Boi, and Leonardo da Cutri were considered to be the champions of their time. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, French players dominated, with players like Legall de Kermeur, François-André Danican Philidor, Alexandre Deschapelles, Louis-Charles Mahé de La Bourdonnais, were considered to be the champions, as well as the strongest players of their time.
While these players might be considered “Champions,” they didn’t have a formalized title. However, they were all very strong players, very influential in their own time. Ruy López in particular, since he created the opening which bears his name, and it is still used at the highest levels of chess to this day.
But around 1840, the players started to be called champions, as one columnist in Fraser’s Magazine wrote.
“Will Gaul continue the dynasty by placing a fourth Frenchman on the throne of the world? — the three last Chess chiefs having been successively Philidor, Deschapelles, and De La Bourdonnais.”
After La Bourdonnais died in the year 1840, an English player, Howard Staunton was considered to be the world’s strongest player. This happened after he defeated another French player Pierre Charles Fournier de Saint-Amant. Again, an article used the term “Champion” while describing Howard.
“The Chess Champion of England, or … the Champion of the World”.
Not very humble as we can all see. But given it was the era of empires, what can you say really?
Later, in 1851, Staunton organized a tournament in London. It was the first international Chess tournament, which was won by the German player Adolf Anderssen, making him the strongest player in the world at that time. But despite that, he wasn’t called a World Champion. Although Henry Bird called him a retrospective champion in 1893.
However, in The United States, there was a prodigy. Paul Morphy faced Anderssen in a match in 1858, and beat him. He faced several strong players of that time, and he defeated them all. As a result, he was called the World Champion of that time.
He then retired in the year 1859, at his peak. As a result, he was dubbed as the “The Pride and sorrow of Chess.” Due to this early retirement. He was considered to be the World Champion until his death in 1884.
During this time, Johannes Zukertort and Wilhelm Steinitz established themselves as the strongest players, and after Morphy died, they agreed for the World Championship match.
However, there was some hostility between these two, so match arrangements took a lot of time. Which was resolved when Steinitz finally persuaded Zukertort to accept the United States, his new place of residence, over London. Mostly because the Americans were offering better conditions to the players.
Zukertort was given the princely sum of $750 to make the trip across the Atlantic, and the winner of the match was promised a quarter of the proceeds from the betting syndication. A demonstration board measuring approximately one meter squared was created, so the spectators can watch the games while seated.
The conditions were simple. (At least they appear to be for me.) whoever wins 10 games, (Draws not counting,) will be the winner, and in the case of 9 wins each, neither of the players would become a champion. Steinitz won, and as a result, he became the first ever Chess World Champion in the year 1886.
Champions before FIDE:
Steinitz was the new World Champion. By this point, if a player wanted to play against the World Champion, they would raise a purse, and then challenge the champion. If he wins, he will be the new World Champion. All the champions continued to defend their titles in this fashion until 1946, apart from that one experiment tried in 1887 by American Congress to regulate World Championship matches, which wasn’t tried after its first attempt.
By this point, Steinitz was getting old, and new young players were taking the stage. Two of them were thought to be contenders for the World Championship, one of which was Siegbert Tarrasch, and the other was Emanuel Lasker. Even though Tarrasch had better results in the tournaments, Emanuel was the one who was able to raise enough money for the match, and won the title from Steinitz in 1894.
Lasker held the title for 27 years, from 1894 to 1921, the longest reign in the history of the championship, which is still unbroken to the time of this writing. During this time, he defended his title six times, finally losing it to José Raúl Capablanca in 1921.
However, there are few things of note during his reign. First, some of his conditions don’t make sense. Second, he refused to play against any player who failed to raise sufficient purse, after seeing how Steinitz died in poverty. As a result, some players were not able to play against him for the championship, the most notable being Akiba Rubinstein.
However, when Capablanca won the championship from Lasker in 1921, there was controversy regarding his title. So, he proposed a set of rules called London rules:
the first player to win six games would win the match; playing sessions would be limited to 5 hours; the time limit would be 40 moves in 2½ hours; the champion must defend his title within one year of receiving a challenge from a recognized master; the champion would decide the date of the match; the champion was not obliged to accept a challenge for a purse of less than US$10,000 (about $150,000 in current terms); 20% of the purse was to be paid to the title holder, and the remainder being divided, 60% going to the winner of the match, and 40% to the loser; the highest purse bid must be accepted.
Almost all the strong players of the 1920’s agreed to these rules, but only one match took place under these rules, which took place in 1927, against Alekhine. He was the only one who was able to raise the purse of $10,000.
Alekhine defeated Capablanca in 1927, even though people didn’t give him any chances against Capablanca. After winning the championship, Alekhine agreed to the rematch against Capablanca under London rules.
Alekhine’s reign continued until he was defeated in 1935 by Max Euwe, an amateur chess player, and a math teacher. Nowadays, this sort of thing is unthinkable.
Alekhine won their rematch in 1937. And then, the Second World War disrupted the championship. Alekhine remained the World Champion until his death in 1946. The only champion so far who died while holding the title.
FIDE title: 1948 to 1993.
Let’s talk about the formation of FIDE, and their early attempts to involve itself in the management of the World Championship. Chess is an ancient game. And while the World Championship was created in the late 19th century, it didn’t have a governing body until the creation of FIDE. Attempts were made in the mid-1910’s and 1920s, However, the players in the year 1924 agreed to form a union of players called FIDE, which is a French acronym. It didn’t used to have control over the World Championship at first, but it expressed its wishes to involve itself in the management of the World Championship. FIDE was happy with the London rules, but the union felt that the purse of $10,000 was unreasonable.
The union created a FIDE championship in 1926, and in 1928, adapted the forthcoming match between Bogoljubow–Euwe (won by Bogoljubow) as being for the “FIDE championship”.
Alekhine agreed to place future matches for the world title under the auspices of FIDE, except that he would only play Capablanca under the same conditions that governed their match in 1927. Although FIDE wished to set up a match between Alekhine and Bogoljubow, it made little progress and the title “Champion of FIDE” quietly vanished after Alekhine won the 1929 World Championship match that he and Bogoljubow themselves arranged.
While FIDE and the World Champions Max and Alekhine debated about the rules to manage the championship, World War II broke out, and it disrupted the entire process. The fact that Alekhine died as a champion didn’t make matters any easier, since everyone was offering their own suggestions.
The fact that USSR refused to join FIDE so far didn’t help any, as half the contenders were Soviet citizens. This went on until 1947, after which they apologized in a telegram, and asked that the USSR be represented in future FIDE committees.
After participating in a round-robin tournament, Mikhail Botvinnik became the first World Champion under FIDE, bringing the question of championship to a close in 1948. He went on to keep the title for the next 15 years, aside from two interruptions.
In 1957, he lost the title to Vasily Smyslov, but regained the championship in a rematch the next year.
He then lost his title in the year 1960 against Mikhail Tal, who visited him during his vacation when he was 11 years old, hoping to play a game against him. Again, he regained the title by the next year.
He then lost his title to Tigran Petrosian, in 1963, and didn’t get a rematch this time.
Botvinnik’s win began the Soviet domination which would last for the rest of the 20th century, while only getting disrupted in the early 70’s by Fischer. During this time, almost all the champions were from the Soviet Union, or when it collapsed, were former Soviet players.
After the 1962 Candidate’s tournament, Bobby Fischer publicly alleged that the Soviets had colluded to prevent any non-Soviet – specifically him – from winning. He claimed that Petrosian, Efim Geller and Paul Keres had prearranged to draw all their games, and that Viktor Korchnoi had been instructed to lose to them. Yuri Averbakh, who was head of the Soviet team, confirmed in 2002 that Petrosian, Geller and Keres had arranged to draw all their games in order to save their energy for games against non-Soviet players.
Korchnoi, who defected from the USSR in 1976, has never confirmed that he was forced to throw games. As a result, FIDE changed the process to select the challenger for the World Champion.
Despite the changes, Fischer refused to participate in the 1966 cycle of the Candidate’s tournament, and dropped out of the 1969 cycle after a controversy at the 1967 Interzonal in Sousse. Both of these Candidate’s cycles were won by Boris Spassky, who lost to Petrosian in 1966, but won, and became the champion in 1969.
In the 1969–1972 cycle, Fischer caused two more crises. He refused to play in the 1969 US Championship, which was a Zonal Tournament. This would have eliminated him from the 1969–1972 cycle, but Benko was persuaded to concede his place in the Interzonal to Fischer. FIDE President Max Euwe accepted this maneuver and interpreted the rules very flexibly to enable Fischer to play, as he thought it important for the health and reputation of the game that Fischer should have the opportunity to challenge for the title as soon as possible. Fischer crushed all opposition and won the right to challenge reigning champion Boris Spassky.
Initially, Yugoslavia was chosen for the match. But after a series of objections raised by Fischer, Iceland was chosen instead. Even then, he caused difficulties, regarding money. It took a phone call from Henry Kissinger, who was the United States Secretary of State at that time, and the doubling of the prize money by Jim Slater, who was financing the match, to persuade him to play. After a few traumatic moments, Fischer won the championship, becoming the first American World Champion, (And the only one still to this day,) and disrupted the Soviet domination of chess in the process.
While the line of champions remained unbroken since 1948, with each champion gaining the title by beating the former champion, this came to an end in 1975, when Anatoly Karpov became the challenger for Fischer’s title.
Fischer objected to the “best of 24 games” championship match format that had been used from 1951 onwards, claiming that it would encourage whoever got an early lead to play for draws. Instead, he demanded that the match should be won by whoever first won 10 games, except that if the score reached 9–9 he should remain champion. (The same rules were used for the first World Championship match) He argued that this was more advantageous to the challenger than the champion’s advantage. Under the existing system, where the champion retained the title if the match was tied at 12–12, including draws. But FIDE stripped the title off Fischer, and crowned Karpov as champion. While Karpov dominated the Chess for the next 20 years or so, this proved to be one of the things which still follows him to this day, as he became the champion without beating Fischer.
Two special K’s: Karpov and Kasparov.
To show his worthiness for the title, Karpov participated in various tournaments, and won them all. He defended his title twice against x-Soviet player Viktor Korchnoi, first in 1978, which was a rather explosive championship match, and again in 1981. (You can watch the recap of that match here, generously provided by Gotham Chess.)
Karpov eventually lost his title to Garry Kasparov in 1985. Kasparov was aggressive and tactical as opposed to Karpov, who was quiet and positional. Both of them differed in their personality as well. While Karpov was quiet and unassuming, and was very loyal to Soviet Union, Kasparov was outspoken against the state. He even publicly rebelled against the Union when they canceled the championship match in mid-1984.
Garry won the title in 1985, and went on to defend it against Karpov in three close matches from 1986 to 1990.
In 1993, Nigel Short (An English player) finally broke the domination of Kasparov and Karpov by qualifying in the Candidate’s tournament, first defeating Karpov in semi-finals, and then beating Jan Timman in finals. and becoming the challenger for Kasparov’s title. As far as I’ve looked, he is the only challenger from England to this day, at the time of this writing.
However, before the match could even take place, Kasparov and Nigel both complained about the lack of professionalism and corruption in FIDE, and split from the organization. They setup the new organization, called Professional Chess Association (PCA) Kasparov successfully defended his title under this organization.
In response, FIDE stripped Kasparov of his title, and held a championship match between Karpov and Timman. As a result, from this point onward, there were two World Champions in Chess. One being Garry Kasparov, and other one being Anatoly Karpov under FIDE.
During the period from 1993 to 1996, players participated in championship matches for both titles, competing for either FIDE championship, or Kasparov’s championship. However, none of them managed to beat these two.
After this cycle was over, negotiations were held for the reunification match between Kasparov and Karpov, but nothing ever came of them, and the titles remained separate.
After his 1995 defense against Anand, the PCA folded. Kasparov formed World Chess Council to organize a Candidate’s tournament, which was won by Alexei Shirov. But negotiations for a Kasparov – Shirov match broke down, and he then was omitted from the negotiations, much to his annoyance. There were plans to hold a match between Anand and Kasparov in either 1999 (Incidentally, my birth year), or 2000, but again, the negotiations broke down. As a result, Kasparov organized a match with Kramnik in late 2000.
In a major upset, Kramnik defeated Garry Kasparov, becoming the new classical World Champion, as Kramnik would call himself later.
Meanwhile, FIDE had decided to scrap the Interzonal and Candidates system, instead having a large knockout event in which a large number of players contested short matches against each other over just a few weeks (see FIDE World Chess Championship 1998). Rapid and blitz games were used to resolve ties at the end of each round, a format which some felt did not necessarily recognize the highest quality play: Kasparov refused to participate in these events, as did Kramnik after he won the Classical title in 2000. In the first of these events, in 1998, champion Karpov was seeded directly into the final, but he later had to qualify alongside the other players. Karpov defended his title in the first of these championships in 1998, but resigned his title in protest at the new rules in 1999. Alexander Khalifman won the FIDE World Championship in 1999, Anand in 2000, Ruslan Ponomariov in 2002, and Rustam Kasimdzhanov in 2004.
By 2002, not only were there two World Champions, but Kasparov’s strong performance within various tournaments, as well as his rank of number 1 created a lot of confusion regarding who was the real champion.
American grandmaster Yasser Seirawan led the organization of the so-called “Prague Agreement” to reunite the World Championship. Kramnik had organized a Candidate’s tournament (won later in 2002 by Peter Leko) to choose his challenger. It was agreed that Kasparov would play the FIDE champion (Ponomariov) for the FIDE title, and the winner of that match would face the winner of the Kramnik–Leko match for the unified title. However, the matches proved difficult to finance and organize. The Kramnik–Leko match did not take place until late 2004 (it was drawn, so Kramnik retained his title). Meanwhile, FIDE never managed to organize a Kasparov match, either with 2002 FIDE champion Ponomariov, or 2004 FIDE champion Kasimdzhanov. Partly due to his frustration at the situation, Kasparov retired from chess in 2005, still ranked No. 1 in the world.
Soon after, FIDE dropped the short knockout tournament format for the World Championship, and announced a double round-robin tournament for the championship in 2005. It was held in San Luis, Argentina.
Kramnik however, insisted that his championship be decided in a match, and did not participate in the tournament. It was won by Bulgarian grandmaster Veselin Topalov. After this, negotiations began for the Kramnik – Topalov match, for unifying the titles.
Reunified title 2006 to present:
The reunification match between Kramnik and Topalov took place in late 2006 (A miserable year for me personally, as I was suffering in a boarding school,) and after a lot of controversy, (you should be used to it by this point.) Kramnik won the match, and became the undisputed World Champion of Chess.
After this point onwards, all championship matches are administered by FIDE.
Kramnik defended his title in a 2007 tournament in Mexico. (What’s up with championships in a tournament?) it was an eight-player double round-robin tournament. The same format was used for the championship in 2005. The winner of this tournament was Viswanathan Anand, and he was the new World Champion as a result.
Naturally, since he won the championship in a tournament, many people didn’t like that at all, and some of them even questioned the validity of Anand’s title.
Subsequent championship matches after this year returned to the one-on-one matches, where the champion defends his title against the challenger in a series of games called a match.
The following two championships had special clauses arising from the 2006 unification. Kramnik was given the right to challenge for the title he lost at a tournament in the World Chess Championship 2008, which Anand won. Then Topalov, who as the loser of the 2006 match was excluded from the 2007 championship, was seeded directly into the Candidate’s final of the World Chess Championship 2010. He won the Candidate’s (against Gata Kamsky). Anand again won the championship match.
The next World Championship in 2012 had short knockout matches. Many players didn’t like it, and Magnus Karlsen, then number-1 player at that time, withdrew from the tournament.
Boris Gelfand won the Candidates. Anand won the championship match again, in tie-breaking rapid games, once more defending his World Championship successfully.
From 2013 onwards, Candidate’s tournament has been an eight-man double round-robin tournament. The winner gets the match against the World Champion. The Norwegian Magnus Carlsen won the title from Anand in 2013, and has been champion since at the time of this writing.
Beginning with the 2014 Championship cycle, the World Championship has followed a 2-year cycle: qualification for the Candidates in the odd year, the Candidates tournament early in the even year, and the World Championship match later in the even year. This and the next two cycles resulted in Carlsen successfully defending his title: against Anand in 2014, against Sergey Karjakin in 2016, and against Fabiano Caruana in 2018. Both the 2016 and 2018 defenses were decided by tie-break in rapid games.
The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the 2020 Candidates Tournament, and caused the next match to be postponed from 2020 to 2021. Carlsen again successfully defended his title, defeating Ian Nepomniachtchi in the World Chess Championship 2021. The next championship will be held in early 2023.
Players who didn’t became champions:
As with all sports, for various reasons, there are always those players who despite being strong, never reach the title of a champion. In the early 20th century, one such player was Akiba Rubinstein, who despite being a strong player, never won, or challenged for the championship, since he was unable to raise the purse for the match.
Another player was Aron Nimzowitsch. He created and theorized various openings and defenses for chess, and was among the top five players of the 1920s. But he didn’t win the championship either.
David Bronstein was another player in the 1950s. Despite being considered one of the strongest players, he missed becoming a champion narrowly in 1951.
Viktor Korchnoi (He of the nasty temper,) is another example. At first, the politics of the Soviet Union got in his way. When he went against Karpov in the late 1970’s and early 80’s, he failed to beat him.
Defense of the title, or becoming World Champion each time:
You will notice that I did not state in this article that if a player manages to defend a title, they’ve become x times champions. For example, take Lasker.
Lasker won his championship match, and defended the title six times. And I just call him a champion, as opposed to calling him 7 times champion.
That is so, because it kind of strikes me odd that you can become an x-times champion, without even losing the title. No, when you lose the championship, and regain it, then you can be a multi-times champion. Otherwise, you are just defending your title.
Take Anand’s case, for example. He won the title twice, but defended it four times.
So yes, it can piss people off. But hey, you can write your own articles if you want. And as a nice gesture, I won’t even tell you how to do it in your comment’s section! Aren’t I nice?
So, there you have it, folks, a brief history of the World Championship of Chess. From the very beginning, to now. For most of my research for this article, the Wikipedia article on the championship helped a lot, as well as various internet Chess related forums, and some recaps of Gotham Chess, in particular, his recap of 1978 championship, and the video about Karpov and Kasparov’s rivalry, which is awesome enough that it can have an anime of its own. He also covered the 2006 World Championship between Kramnik and Topalov.
Another source for the Karpov and Kasparov’s rivalry was this documentary, which goes beyond chess, and features interviews from both players, and their associates.
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