Sunday, 30 September 2007

1886 And All That

The World Chess Championship - Essential Knowledge

It’s a confusing thing these days, the World Chess Championship. All this talk of being ‘undisputed champion’ makes the whole situation sound as fractious as the boxing world. Indeed, people are always stopping me in the supermarket and politely asking me, ‘Who is the real world chess champion?’ I thought it would be a good idea to break the history down into easily digestible chunks and post it here as a handy reference, thus saving me valuable time to spend browsing the flapjack and dried fruit sections instead of standing for ages discussing the finer points of FIDE, the PCA and the London Rules.

The first official World Chess Championship match was won by Wilhelm Steinitz in 1886. He defeated Johannes Zukertort. Steinitz went on to successfully defend his title against Chigorin (twice) and Gunsberg. An ageing Steinitz finally met his match against young Emanuel Lasker in 1894. A return match (1896/7) was won by Lasker too.

Lasker defending his title against Marshall, Tarrasch, Janowski and Schlecter.

J.R. Capablanca emerged as the strongest player in the world and there was great public expectation of an exciting match with Lasker. The champion wasn’t keen on playing but eventually relented, although he placed himself in the role of challenger, as if to admit that he recognised Capablanca as the true best player in the world. Capablanca won the match easily, in 1921.

Six years were to pass before Capablanca first tried to defended his title. When he did so he suffered a defeat at the hands of chess-obsessed Alexander Alekhine.

Alekhine never gave Capablanca the chance for a return match - one of the great missing pieces of chess history. Instead, he crushed Bogoljubov in two straight forward title matches, before very surprisingly losing to Max Euwe in 1935. A return match, two years later, was won by Alekhine - thus he became the first player to win the title twice. Unfortunately Alekhine died in 1946 without defending his title again.

First Summing Up

Steintz (1886-94)
Lasker (1894-1921)
Capablanca (1921-27)
Alekhine (1927-35)
Euwe (1935-7)
Alekhine (1937-46)

Up until Alekhine’s death, the World Championship title was very much the property of the champion. If he didn’t want to play, nobody could force him and there was no way the title could be taken away. The world chess association, FIDE, now stepped in to impose their authority on matters. A five-player tournament took place in 1948. The winner - Mikhail Botvinnik - was awarded the title.

FIDE’s regulations ensured that a title match would take place once every three years (or more often if a defeated champion claimed his right to a rematch). A whole cycle of qualification was introduced too. This eventually expanded into Zonal and Interzonal Tournaments plus Candidates’ Matches. History flowed smoothly for the next couple of decades, although Botvinnik had a narrow escape, drawing a match with Bronstein in his first title defence in 1951 (and thus keeping the crown).

Second Summing Up

Botvinnik (1948-57)
Smyslov (1957-8)
Botvinnik (1958-60)
Tal (1960-1)
Botvinnik (1961-3)
Petrosian (1963-9)
Spassky (1969-72)
Fischer (1972-5)

Bobby Fischer became the first non-Russian since Euwe to take the ultimate title. Unfortunately he retired from chess shortly after doing so. The winner of the next Candidates’ series, Anatoly Karpov, became the new champion after Fischer defaulted the title match. Karpov dominated the top of the world (and defeated Korchnoy in two title matches) until the Garry Kasparov came along and beat him in 1985. All title matches were Kasparov - Karpov battles until 1993, when Nigel Short qualified for the final (famously eliminating Karpov in the Candidates’ cycle).

The chess world then entered a period of chaos when Kasparov and Short played their match outside of the auspices of FIDE. Kasparov retained ‘his’ title. Meanwhile, a hastily arranged FIDE final was won by Karpov. For the first time the world had two champions.

Third Summing Up
Before the split:
Karpov (1975-85)
Kasparov (1985-2000)

After the split:
Kasparov (1985-2000) & Karpov (1993-1999)

Kasparov went on to defend his title against Anand in 1995 but a number of other proposed matches fell through. Eventually he lost to Vladimir Kramnik in 2000, never got to play a rematch and is currently in chess retirement. Kramnik had a tough - but ultimately successful - title bout with Leko in 2004.

Meanwhile, Karpov defeated Kamsky (1996) in the defence of the FIDE title. FIDE then changed the format, controversially, to a KO Tournament. Karpov was seeded all the way to the final, in which he beat Anand (1998). However, there was no such seeding in 1999 and Karpov declined to play.

FIDE then started stockpiling World Champions thanks to their regular KO events. Then they changed the format and brought together most of the best players in the world to play in a tournament to decide the FIDE title. Veselin Topalov won in style.

Fourth Summing Up
(KO) Champions:
Anatoly Karpov (1993–9)
Alexander Khalifman (1999–2000)
Viswanathan Anand (2000–02)
Ruslan Ponomariov (2002–04)
Rustam Kasimdzhanov (2004–05)
Veselin Topalov (2005–2006)

The two versions of the World Championship were finally unified in 2006 when Topalov met Kramnik in a match often remembered for the wrong reasons (the infamous toilet episodes).
Kramnik became the first undisputed champion since 1993. To tidy up some more loose ends he was required to play in the recently-concluded World Championship in Mexico. Unfortunately for him, Anand was on the best form and won the tournament - and the title - with a point to spare. To (hopefully) completely tie up all loose ends, Anand must now play Kramnik in a match in 2008.

Fifth Summing Up
Reigning, Undisputed World Chess Champion, as of 29/9/2007:
Viswanathan Anand
Let's see what next year brings!

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