World Chess Championship History

An Interesting History

To those who aren’t huge fans of the game, Chess can be quite an intimidating experience. Moreover, those who aren’t avidly following chess or have only become a fan of it in the past few years will think that to describe the history of the World Chess Championships would be to merely list a set of results dating back from the present to the distant past. This isn’t the case however. The World Chess Championships in fact have a rather rich and interesting history, with the fact that there has only been a unified, undisputed single champion status since 2007.  This article takes a quick look at the rather interesting and varied history of the World Chess Championships, from the unofficial titles of the middle ages to the unified FIDE championships that occur today.

Pre-Official Championships

Chess hasn’t always been the amply-sponsored affair that we would recognise it as today. If you look back at the origins of the championships, they are found in what are accepted to be informal champions of the game recognised during their respective times to be among the best players around. Names such as Luis Ramirez de Lucena (one of the earliest known “champions” in history, active around 1490), Pedro Damiano, Pauolo Boi, and Howard Staunton will be familiar to any chess historians out there. Lucena hailed from Spain whilst the successive people mentioned were from Portugal, Italy, and England respectively.

World Chess Championship History

One of the most notable players that completely dominated even the leading players at the time was Paul Morphy (an article on his dominance can be found at the Smithsonian website). Active between the years of 1858-1862, Morphy travelled from his home country of the United States to challenge leading players in Europe, taking apart even the world-renowned attacking power of Adolf Andersson. When Morphy retired in 1862, this made way for other talent such as Wilhelm Steinitz, an Austrian player that went on to rule the pre-Chess-Championship world for a number of decades.

Transition to Official Championships

It wasn’t until the 1870s that the game of chess started gaining popularity in the United Kingdom. This happened courtesy of Polish sensation Johannes Zukertort, whose skill – he was widely regarded to have exceeded the greatness of even Steinitz at this time – became widely regarded as the most impressive. Zukertort’s victory over Steinitz in an 1883 tournament held in London led to the question being asked: who was the better chess player? This was the question that led to what is widely regarded by historians as being the first “official” World Chess Championship.

Though not strictly official in any sense that would satisfy modern criteria, the match between Zukertort and Steinitz began a tradition that saw successive tournaments develop consistent properties including: the victor being determined by matches of sufficient length as to prove beyond doubt the dominance of one player over the other; the winner attains the highest chess title there is; it can only be possessed by a single player at any one time (essentially treating it like a tangible object); loss of the title occurs by either losing to a challenger, through death, or by retiring; an obligation to defend the title against the best challengers at the time.

World Chess Championship History

FIDE Championships

The death of a reigning chess champion in 1946 was the catalyst that encouraged the Fédération Internationale des Échecs – an organisation founded in 1924 but which had been active since 1939 – to intervene. This French organisation was the first iteration of what is today known as FIDE, or the World Chess Federation.

The result of this springing into action was the 1948 FIDE World Chess Championship Tournament – the first FIDE championship of its kind in history. From this championship onwards, a formal system of selecting candidates from across the world was introduced. This continued smoothly until 1993 when Garry Kasparov broke his allegiance with FIDE over disputes involving their handling of the prize money and location-selection process.

Kasparov and the Split Title

Garry Kasparov – a player who managed to bring Anatoly Karpov’s domination of the 1870s/80s period to an end – was one of the most aggressive and tactically gifted chess players of the period. He defeated Karpov in the 1985, 86, 87 (retaining the title even though the final match was a draw), and 1990. However, Kasparov’s willing participation in the FIDE championships was to come to an end in 1993 where he and fellow player Nigel Short vocalised concerns about a perceived lack of professionalism and even corruption within the FIDE organisation.

Kasparov went on to defend his title outside of FIDE’s authority, allying himself with a new organisation -  the Professional Chess Association (not to be confused with the Association of Chess Professionals) – and also getting his title stripped from him in the process. It was under the authority of the PCA that Kasparov and Short played their match, which was the first of many that took place outside the purview of FIDE. This resulted in a split title being created, with the PCA and FIDE championships running in parallel each year.

Garry Kasparov

Unfortunately for Kasparov, he would go on to have significant difficulty during the mediation between various players when organising matches, resulting in a number of talks breaking down. The FIDE championships were still running regularly as well, though the organisation made various changes to some of their systems including the Interzonal and Candidates system as well as dropping the short knockout format from their for the World Championship.

It wasn’t until 2006 that the title was finally unified once again, with a match being organised between Topalov and Kramnik. Kramnik was the victor in this tournament, making him the first player to hold the undisputed, now-unified World Championship title.