History of the World Chess Championship

History Chess

Introduction

The title of the World Chess Champion is the highest accolade a chess player can achieve. A number of chess players in the history have been able to climb the chess summit and write their name in the chess history books forever.

Since World Chess Championship’s tradition reaches almost 150 years in the past, its history has become quite rich, vast and hard to remember. The fact that there were two parallel World Championships running in the 1993-2006 period merely adds to the confusion.

The intention of this page is to make an overview of the history of the World Chess Championship. The index of all World Championship matches, their winners, together with the years and the venues they were held at, are given below. Those lists serve as an index of World Championship Matches; links with more details on every single match will be added until the whole list is complete.

Together with the Best Chess Games of the World Champions Series, this list will hopefully give the reader a brief idea of the influence and importance of the World Chess Championship title and its holders.

Pre-Steinitz Era

Until the second half of the 19th century, there was no such a thing as a World Chess Championship title. In the early stages of the chess development, there were many players who would become famous many centuries later, such as Gioachino Greco, Sire Kermur de Legal or Francois Andre Philidor.

Although they were unofficially recognized as the strongest players in the World, there was no formal confirmation of this claim. Many of them became famous for discovering the basic attacking and strategical principles (who doesn’t know about Greco’s sacrifice, Legal’s trap or Philidor’s immortal quote, “Pawns are the soul of chess”).

Only in the 19th century, the question about the strongest player on the Earth started to be solved in a concrete way. Starting from 1834, regular chess matches have been organized between the strongest players on the planet. the following matches were played in the first half of the 19th century:

– La Bourdonnais – McDonnell match in 1834

– Saint-Amant – Staunton match in 1843

– Staunton – Saint-Amant rematch in 1843

– Staunton – Horwitz match in 1846

In the 1850s, the hurricane under the name of Paul Morphy arrived. Morphy first gained recognition in the United States and profiled himself as the strongest American master. In 1858, he set sail across the Atlantic and played a series of matches against strongest European players. He won every match by a huge margin, including one against Adolf Anderssen, who was regarded as THE strongest European player at a time.

However, in 1962, Morphy returned back to the States and essentially retired from professional chess. Thus, the question about the strongest player on Earth was once again reopened. International tournaments in Vienna 1961 and London 1962 produced a surprising winner. A new face on the chess scene appeared, Bohemian Master Wilhelm Steinitz. After his tournament victories, he could legitimately claim that he is the strongest player on Earth. This claim was reinforced by match victories against Adolf Anderssen in 1866, Johannes Zukertort in 1872 and James Henry Blackburne in 1876 and by tournament victories in London in 1866 and 1872 and Vienna in 1873.

Still, after Johannes Zukertort won the London tournament in 1883, the debate was once again reinitiated.  Negotiations regarding another Steinitz – Zukertort match ensued. After three long years, the players agreed to play the match in the United States in 1886. The match contract stated that players “agreed to play a match for the World Championship”.  Thus, Steinitz – Zukertort match marked the beginning of the official World Championship era.

Era of the Classical Chess Champions

Between the official introduction title of the World Chess Champion in 1886 and the end of the World War II, a number of matches for the title were held. This period produced a total of five World Champions and is often referred to as the era of the Classical Chess Champions.

The term Classical stems from the character of the play typical for that era. Those giants employed only a handful of openings and they navigated under clear strategical guidelines. They are often called ‘the masters of the Queen’s Gambit’; only after Reti and Nimzowitsch introduced hypermodern ideas did chess thinking start to change. The culmination of the era is definitely Alekhine – Capablanca 1927 match.

Slikovni rezultat za alekhine capablanca

Although International Chess Federation was found back in 1924, it had no influence on the organization of the match whatsoever. The right to choose the challenger remained in the hands of the Champion. This power was often abused to avoid the most unpleasant challenger. The champion could basically dictate the conditions of the match; the monetary side often became the stumbling block for pretenders on the throne. For instance, on the basis of the so-called ‘golden wall’, Alekhine never granted Capablanca the opportunity for a rematch and kept playing Bogoljubow instead.

However, the era of the Classical Chess Champions was abruptly interrupted by historical circumstances. World War II intervened. Alexander Alekhine found himself stuck in Nazi Germany; it was impossible to organize a World Championship match in those conditions. He even offered Paul Keres an opportunity to challenge him, but Keres, realizing that match organized in Nazi Germany would be highly compromising, refused. 

Thus, it turned out that the return match with Euwe in 1937 would be the last match for the World title of Alekhine’s life. Shortly after the end of the war, in 1946, he passed away, leaving a considerable power vacuum behind.

The ‘Soviet School of Chess’  Era

After Alekhine’s death, the natural question of determining the next World Champion arose. Many believed that Max Euwe, as the last man to beat Alekhine in a match, should be proclaimed as the new/old world champion.

However, Soviet delegation, led by Mikhail Botvinnik, was firmly opposed to such a decision. Instead, they proposed the World Champion to be determined by a match tournament between strongest players on Earth.

In the end, mainly on the basis on the Groningen tournament 1946, which Botvinnik won half a point ahead of Euwe, FIDE decided to give in to Botvinnik’s wishes and decided to organize a World Championship tournament. The decision was declared in the assembly in 1947 and was rather controversial:

After the death of Alexander Alekhine in 1946, the World Chess Federation, FIDE, assembled in 1947 and the delegates decided the Euwe should become world champion pending the next championship match.

The Soviet delegates, arriving late the next day, had the decision annulled, and the title should be vacant until a match or tournament was played to decide a new world chess champion. (Source: Members Tripod: Max Euwe)

The world championship match-tournament held at The Hague and Moscow in 1948 was won by Mikhail Botvinnik, who became the 6th world champion. Max Euwe took the last place among Botvinnik, Smyslov, Keres, Reshevsky, and himself. He scored only 1 win, 6 draws, and 13 losses in this event.

Slikovni rezultat za mikhail botvinnik

Thus, the year of 1948 marked a beginning of the new era – the so-called Soviet School of Chess Era. Starting with Mikhail Botvinnik, the title of the World Chess Champion would remain firmly in the hands of the Soviet players for the next half of a century. The only exception would be the American sensation Robert James Fischer, who captured the title in 1972 and held it for three years before vanishing from the chess scene forever.

Although the organization of the World Chess Championship resided in hands of the FIDE, World Champions still enjoyed multiple benefits. From 1948 onward, World Chess Championship has been tightly connected to the political circumstances and communist regime. Champions who were considered as model Soviets, such as Botvinnik and later Karpov would always enjoy special treatment compared to their opponents. In the later stages of the Cold War, during Brezhnev’s tenure, the tensions were particularly high. Karpov’s battles against Korchnoi the defector were particularly controversial; as were his battles against the ‘problematic’ Kasparov in the 80s.

Nevertheless, such a situation lasted until the beginning of the 90s. Then history once again had it say; the fall of the USSR had major consequences on the chess world as well. The disappearance of the Iron Curtain removed the gap between the West and the East and the era of the chess professionalism had arrived.

PCA and Split of the Title

Regardless of the fall of the USSR, FIDE continued to organize its World Championship Matches in three -year cycles. Thus, after the fifth Kasparov – Karpov match, held in 1990, a surprising challenger emerged – the English prodigy Nigel Short. The beginning of the match was set in 1993.

However, discontent with the FIDE treatment of the players and the distribution of the match prize fund, Short and Kasparov decided to make a move with grave consequences. Before the match, they announced a historic decision to hold a World Championship match outside FIDE’s jurisdiction. A new organization, Professional Chess Association (PCA) was formed. The match was indeed played and Kasparov retained his title.

Slikovni rezultat za kasparov short

In response, FIDE decided to strip Short and Kasparov of the Challenger and Champion titles. Instead, they organized a match between the losers of the Candidates cycle, Timman and Karpov, for the title of the FIDE World Chess Champion. Thus, a unique situation in the chess world arose. Two world champions reigned simultaneously. And although the chess world regarded Kasparov as the true champion, FIDE continued to organize its World Championship Cycles separately.

This confusing situation would last over a decade and would be finally resolved only in the second half of the first decade of 21st century.

Unification of the Title

After Kramnik took the World Championship Title from Kasparov in 2000, the question of the unification of the chess title was opened.  In 2002 the infamous Prague Agreement was signed, which envisioned the unification of the chess title. However throughout the years every negotiation about the unification match somehow failed and the status quo remained.

It all changed in the year 2005 when FIDE decided to organize the 2005 World Chess Championship Tournament. Initially, their intention was to declare the winner the unified World Champion. However, Kramnik refused to participate in the tournament. Luckily, instead of deepening the rift in the chess world, he agreed to play the „unification“ match for the World title with the winner of that tournament.

After Topalov’s dominant performance in the 2005 World Chess Championship, the stage was set for the Kramnik – Topalov 2006 match, which would result in chess world finally having an undisputed World Champion after 13 years.

Slikovni rezultat za topalov kramnik
And Topalov and Kramnik not talking, calling each other names and refusing to shake hands. But more details about that in a separate article regarding their World Championship match, commonly known as the “Toiletgate in Elista”

FIDE would continue to organize the unified World Championship ever since. And although there has been some controversy, the cycle was never really interrupted, and the threat of the split of the title never reappeared.

In the remainder of the post, a list containing an index of all World Championship Matches, Rematches and Tournaments is given.

List of the Official  World Chess Championships

YearVenueMatchWinner
1886New York / Saint Louis / new OrleansSteinitz - Zukertort World Championship MatchWilhelm Steinitz
1889HavanaSteinitz - Chigorin World Championship Match Wilhelm Steinitz
1890New YorkSteinitz - Gunsberg World Chess Championship Match Wilhelm Steinitz
1892HavanaSteinitz - Chigorin World Chess Championship Rematch Wilhelm Steinitz
1894New York / Philadelphia / MontrealSteinitz - Lasker World Chess Championship MatchEmmanuel Lasker
1896MoscowSteinitz - Lasker World Chess Championship RematchEmmanuel Lasker
1907USA - variousLasker - Marshall World Chess Championship MatchEmmanuel Lasker
1908Düsseldorf / MünichLasker - Tarrasch World Chess Championship MatchEmmanuel Lasker
1910Vienna / BerlinLasker - Schlechter World Championship MatchEmmanuel Lasker
1910BerlinLasker - Janowski World Chess Championship MatchEmmanuel Lasker
1921HavanaLasker - Capablanca World Chess Championship Match Jose Raul Capablanca
1927Buenos AiresCapablanca - Alekhine World Chess Championship MatchAlexander Alekhine
1929Germany / NetherlandsAlekhine - Bogoljubow World Chess Championship MatchAlexander Alekhine
1934Germany - variousAlekhine - Bogoljubow World Chess Championship Rematch Alexander Alekhine
1935Netherlands - variousAlekhine - Euwe World Chess Championship MatchMax Euwe
1937Netherlands - variousAlekhine - Euwe World Chess Championship RematchAlexander Alekhine
1948The Hague / MoscowFIDE World Championship TournamentMikhail Botvinnik
1951MoscowBotvinnik - Bronstein World Chess Championship Match Mikhail Botvinnik
1954MoscowBotvinnik - Smyslov World Chess Championship MatchMikhail Botvinnik
1957MoscowBotvinnik - Smyslov World Chess Championship MatchVassily Smyslov
1958MoscowBotvinnik - Smyslov World Chess Championship RematchMikhail Botvinnik
1960MoscowTal - Botvinnik World Chess Championship MatchMikhail Tal
1961MoscowTal - Botvinnik World Chess Championship RematchMikhail Botvinnik
1963MoscowPetrosian - Botvinnik World Chess Championship MatchTigran Petrosian
1966MoscowPetrosian - Spassky World Chess Championship MatchTigran Petrosian
1969MoscowPetrosian - Spassky World Chess Championship MatchBoris Spassky
1972ReykjavikFischer - Spassky World Chess Championship MatchRobert Fischer
1975ManilaKarpov - Fischer World Chess Championship MatchAnatoly Karpov
1978Baguio CityKarpov - Korchnoi World Chess Championship MatchAnatoly Karpov
1981MeranoKarpov - Korchnoi World Chess Championship MatchAnatoly Karpov
1984MoscowKarpov - Kasparov World Chess Championship MatchMatch interrupted
1985MoscowKarpov - Kasparov World Chess Championship MatchGarry Kasparov
1986London / LeningradKarpov - Kasparov World Chess Championship RematchGarry Kasparov
1987SevilleKarpov - Kasparov World Chess Championship MatchGarry Kasparov
1990New York / LyonKarpov - Kasparov World Chess Championship MatchGarry Kasparov

List of Classical World Championships (1993 – 2005)

YearVenueMatchWinner
1993LondonKasparov - Short World Chess Championship MatchGarry Kasparov
1995New YorkKasparov - Anand World Chess Championship MatchGarry Kasparov
2000LondonKasparov - Kramnik World Chess Championship Match Vladimir Kramnik
2004BrissagoKramnik - Leko World Chess Championship Match Vladimir Kramnik

List of Fide World Championships (1993 – 2005)

YearVenueMatchWinner
1993Netherlands / IndonesiaKarpov - Timman FIDE World Chess Championship Match Anatoly Karpov
1996ElistaKarpov - Kamsky FIDE World Chess Championship Match Anatoly Karpov
1998Groningen / LausanneFIDE World Championship Anatoly Karpov
1999Las VegasFIDE World Championship Alexander Khalifman
2000New Delhi / TeheranFIDE World Championship Viswanathan Anand
2001MoscowFIDE World Championship Ruslan Ponomariov
2004Tripoli FIDE World Championship Rustam Kasimdzhanov
2005Argentina - variousFIDE World Championship Veselin Topalov

World Chess Championship after title unification

YearVenueMatchWinner
2006ElistaKramnik - Topalov World Chess Championship MatchVladimir Kramnik
2007Mexico CityFIDE World Championship Tournament Viswanathan Anand
2008BonnAnand - Kramnik World Chess Championship Match Viswanathan Anand
2010SofiaAnand - Topalov World Chess Championship MatchViswanathan Anand
2012MoscowAnand - Gelfand World Chess Championship Match Viswanathan Anand
2013ChennaiAnand - Carlsen World Chess Championship Match Magnus Carlsen
2014SochiCarlsen - Anand World Championship Match Magnus Carlsen
2016New YorkCarlsen - Karjakin World Championship MatchMagnus Carlsen