The battle of the 64 squares over the years
October 19, 2013 23:25 IST

Rakesh Rao

After witnessing several turbulent years, the World chess championship has turned to a traditional course: a battle-ready challenger taking on the World champion. A closer look at the past masters reveals that despite their longevity, new champions emerged significantly due to the continuous and rapid development of the game itself.

History records William Steinitz as the first official champion following his triumph over Johannes Zekertrot in 1886. The Austrian, acknowledged for revolutionising the game with a theory of positional play and plotting opening moves on scientific lines, defended the title thrice before Emanual Lasker (Germany) dethroned him in 1894 and kept him at bay in 1896-97.

Lasker held the title through World War I after five successful title-defences until Cuba’s Jose Raul Capablanca ended his 27-year reign — the longest in history.

In 1927, Alexander Alekhine (USSR) dethroned Capablanca, defended the title twice against Efim Bogoljubov before surrendering it to Dutchman Max Euwe in 1935. Two years later, Alekhine avenged the loss. However, like Lasker and Capablanca, he could not survive World War II.

Soviet domination

With the chess world without a champion, Soviet Union overcame its initial reluctance to join the World Chess Federation (FIDE).

A five-player event, scaled down from eight, was planned to find Alekhine’s successor. Mikhail Botvinnik won the Championship Tournament in 1948, and with it started an era of Soviet domination.

Botvinnik, credited with creating an opening system with black playing for initiative in the early moves, won four more times, but could not make a comeback following his third runner-up finish in 1963.

The Soviet monopoly continued with Tigran Petrosian and Boris Spassky taking the title until the arrival of an irrepressible American snapped the sequence.

The Bobby Fischer-Spassky duel in 1972, with Presidential crisis in the USA and the Cold War at a crucial juncture, attracted global attention. For two months, the match, held in the backdrop of super power politics with reports of psychological warfare, produced unprecedented drama at Reykjavik, Iceland.

Finally, the temperamental American prevailed.

However, in 1972, Fischer forfeited the match to Anatoly Karpov, handing back the reins to the Soviets. Karpov went on to outwit Victor Korchnoi twice to keep the title.

In 1984, Garry Kasparov challenged Karpov in a race to six games. Karpov won four games out of the first nine and made it 5-0 by claiming the 27th.

Kasparov won the 32nd, 47th and 48th games before the match was dramatically aborted.

Kasparov claimed FIDE was trying to save an exhausted Karpov from being dethroned.

The rematch in 1985 saw a determined Kasparov win five against three losses in a match limited to 24 games. He retained the title against Karpov in 1987 and 1990.


In 1993, the chess world was in turmoil when Kasparov broke away from FIDE to form a rival Professional Chess Association (PCA) that folded up in 1996. Between 1993 and 2006, four ‘unofficial’ championships were held, with Kasparov beating Nigel Short (1993) and Viswanathan Anand (1995) before Vladimir Kramnik dethroned him in 2000 and kept the title from Peter Leko (2004).

Meanwhile, FIDE carried on with its championship cycle. Karpov won title-bouts against Jan Timman (1993), Gata Kamsky (1996) and Anand (1998). This, however, did not impact Kasparov’s status as the strongest in the game.

Thereafter, the knockout format produced World champions like Alexander Khalifman (1999), Anand (2000), Ruslan Ponomariov (2002) and Rustam Kasimzhanov (2004). But these ‘World championships,’ widely lacked credibility among the chess fraternity.

In 2005, Veselin Topalov won an eight-player contest for the world title, and the following year, lost to Kramnik in a 12-game controversy-ridden match.

Kramnik, who prefixed the term ‘classical’ to his world title since he won in a traditional match-format, held a one-time right to challenge the 2007 World champion Anand after finishing runner-up in an eight-player field. In 2008, Anand’s triumph over a previously-unbeaten Kramnik in a thriller gave chess a truly undisputed champion. He went on to retain the title against Topalov (2010) and Boris Gelfand (2012).

Next month, Chennai stages a face-off involving the World champion and highest rated player ever.

Irrespective of the outcome, Anand and Carlsen promise to add another glorious chapter to the history of this royal game. 


Chess Daily News from Susan Polgar
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