One of the world sports competitions that require the finest technique, strategic thinking and logical reasoning is the World Chess Championship. First played in 1886, that was when the sport met its first world champion: the Austrian Wilhelm Steinitz, who held the title until 1894. Since 2013, the owner of the throne is the Norwegian Magnus Carlsen. During these years, the sport had a select group of brilliant minds. Learn a bit about the history of some of the world chess champions!
Wilhelm Steinitz (1886-1894)
Besides being officially known as the first world chess champion, Steinitz is also a pioneer in the development of techniques and almost scientific strategies to the game which would influence all subsequent generations.
Emanuel Lasker (1894-1921)
Besides being a chess player, Lasker was a well-know German mathematician, philosopher and a friend of Albert Einstein’s. He was the first to defeat Steinitz in the World Championship, becoming the second world chess champion and the player to hold the title for the longest time: incredible 27 years. He became famous for using psychology in order to go for awkward moves towards his opponents.
José Raúl Capablanca (1921-1927)
Considered one of the brightest players in history, Capablanca defeated a Cuban champion at 12 years of age. His strategic knowledge and logical reasoning became evident by 4 years of age, when he learned to play just by watching his father. By defeating Lasker, he accomplished the feat of being crowned the only world chess champion any defeats in a match, which would only happen again in 2000, with Kramnik.
Alexander Alekhine (1927 to 1935, and 1937 to 1946)
This Russian player is known as the only world chess champion to retain the title until his death in 1946. His name is often linked to controversies of espionage and Nazism, as well as alcohol abuse, to which many credit his loss to Max Euwe (champion 1935-1937), from whom he would regain the world title some time later.
Max Euwe (1935-1937)
Born in Amsterdam, Euwe was a brilliant math teacher besides being a chess player. He was the only world champion who was not a professional athlete. His name was involved in another controversy within the world of chess: after the death of Alekhine, the Dutch player gave up his world title – which many believed should have beed his – in order to compete in the championship with five other players, but he ended up finishing the tournament in last place.
Mikhail Botvinnik (1948 to 1957, 1958 to 1960, and 1961 to 1963)
This chess player marked the entry of the Soviet Union in world competitions of chess, and he became a legend by defeating Capablanca in a simultaneous game at the age of only 14. He held the world champion title in three different periods using previously studied technical openings instead of more intuitive plays or moves that were too risky. He pioneered “laboratory” chess, and he is the patriarch of the Soviet training school.
Vasily Smyslov (1957-1958)
The Soviet chess player had a personal characteristic that set him apart from other champions: he was also an opera singer – a fact that ended up influencing his entry into the world chess championships shortly after he had been rejected by the Bolshoi. In 1984 he became the oldest finalist in cycle of candidates to the World Championship, when he was defeated by Kasparov. His game stood out for its harmony.
Mikhail Tal (1960-1961)
He is considered one of the best attacking players in history due to his aggressive but not very technical style. At age 24, Tal was the youngest world champion of his time, a record that was only broken in 1985 by Kasparov, at age 22. Until his death in 1992, he managed the feat of remaining in the list of the 15 best players in the world. Even having had a short reign, “Misha” is one of the most revered chess players in history.
Tigran Petrosian (1963-1969)
Known for his solid and positional chess, this Armenian also was the only player to defeat Bobby Fischer in the cycle of candidates in 1971, right after the American had achieved a historic sequence of 19 consecutive wins. Tigran left two important marks in positional chess: the development of prophylaxis (anticipate the opponent’s intentions) and a high-quality positional sacrifice.
Boris Spassky (1969-1972 champion)
The Russian chess player started playing when he was 5 years old until he became a young grandmaster. Years later, he won the world title. His playing style has become legendary for the flexibility of being able to adapt its tactics to the moves and strategies used by the opponents at the exact time of “kickoff”. His most notable victories were against Tal and Petrosian, and his most significant defeat was against American Bobby Fischer, at the top of the Cold War – which made the match a symbol of the dispute between the U.S. and the USSR.
Bobby Fischer (1972-1975)
Considered by many the best chess player of all time, Fischer is a recognized name to this day even after his death at the age of 64. He faced the whole Soviet school by himself, and managed to beat them all. Possessing an IQ comparable to Einstein’s and an unparalleled love for chess, Bobby unfortunately did not want to defend his title against Karpov, so he practically abandoned chess after becoming the world champion. His life was full of controversy, and he was slowly losing his sanity and discernment, but some of his achievements on the chessboard remain unparalleled until today. He is GM Rafael Leitão’s favorite chess player.
Anatoly Karpov (1975 to 1985 and 1993 to 1999)
Anatoly Karpov is known as one of the best chess players of the century. He was the first to win the world title without playing a final, due to Bobby Fischer’s withdrawal after a series of disagreements with FIDE. After a 10-year series of victories, he lost the championship and three other disputes to Kasparov in 1986, 1987 and 1990. He managed to regain the world champion title only after the departure of its biggest rival from FIDE. His positionally subtle style has singular beauty.
Garry Kasparov (1985 to 1992 and 1993 to 2000 for the PCA)
He was responsible for the creation of the PCA (Professional Chess Association) in partnership with fellow chess player and world finalist Nigel Short in 1993, after the break-up with the only chess federation of the time, the FIDE (World Chess Federation). In the same year, the duel between the competitors sealed the first world victory by Kasparov in the PCA, and it became known as a unique moment for chess: the first time in history that the sport had two world champions, as Anatoly Karpov had won the final competition of rival federation, FIDE. Kasparov is considered by critics the best chess player of all time.
Vladimir Kramnik (2000 champion and 2006 by the PCA and 2006-2007)
The Russian chess player, now at 40 years of age, learned the basics of chess at age five. In 2000 he defeated Kasparov in a match surrounded by controversy (he had not qualified to face him). Even being the underdog, he defeated his legendary opponent by winning two matches and getting draws in the others, in a confrontation that popularized the Berlin Defence. He defeated the FIDE World Champion (Topalov) in 2006 and unified the World Champion titles.
Viswanathan Anand (2007 to 2011)
Known as the “Indian sportsman of the millennium,” Anand is a celebrity in India, his birthplace, and he is responsible for teaching chess to millions of children in his country. He is always participating in the world’s biggest tournaments, being among the top five players in the world for over a decade. He is unanimously considered one of the greatest geniuses in the history of chess.
Magnus Carlsen (champion since 2013)
The 25-year-old Norwegian player is considered the “Mozart” of chess, thanks to his precocious talent. He has been the world champion since 2013, and he won the title after defeating Anand by 6.5 to 3.5. He is the chess player with the highest rating score in history and he currently seems to have no rivals to match.
Did you know some of these world chess champions? Many also feel that Bulgarian Veselin Topalov is a true world champion, since he won the FIDE Championship in 2005. What do you think? Tell us in the comments!
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