The World Chess Championship is, among all sports, one of the competitions with highest requirements of technique, logic and strategic thinking. It took place for the first time in 1886 and crowned the Austrian Wilhelm Steinitz as the first official World Chess Champion (1886-1894). Since 2013, the Norwegian Magnus Carlsen is the current title holder. Between the first and the current champion, several brilliant minds have been battling for the highest recognition in chess. Get to know a bit of the history of the World Chess Champions!
Wilhelm Steinitz (1886-1894)
Besides being officially recognized as the first World Chess Champion, Steinitz laid the groundwork for the development of the scientific approach to strategy and technique. His foundations have been a key milestone for all generations of chess players to come.
Emanuel Lasker (1894-1921)
Lasker was a brilliant chess player as well as a reputed philosopher and mathematician in Germany. He was even friends with Albert Einstein! Lasker managed to beat Steinitz in their match for the World Championship, thus becoming the second World Chess Champion and the one to keep the title for the longest: an unbelievable 27 years! He became well-known for using psychology to find the most annoying moves for his opponents.
José Raúl Capablanca (1921-1927)
Capablanca is considered one of the most brilliant players in history. His logic and strategic understanding date back from when as a four-year-old he learnt to play chess just by watching his father. He managed to beat the Cuban champion at twelve. By beating Lasker, he managed the feat of winning a World Championship match without conceding a single defeat, which was not repeated until Kramnik took over in 2000.
Alexander Alekhine (1927-1935 and 1937-1946)
The Russian Alexander Alekhine is so far the only World Champion to keep his title to his death, in 1946. He has been related to espionage and Nazism controversy, as well as to alcohol abuse, which was for many the key factor in his World Championship loss to Max Euwe in 1935, from whom he managed to win the title back two years later.
Max Euwe (1935-1937)
The Amsterdam-born champion was also a brilliant mathematics professor. Euwe was the only World Champion who was not considered a professional athlete. His name was involved in one of the historic controversies in chess: after Alekhine’s death, the Dutchman relinquished the title – which in the opinion of many belonged to him – in order to play for it with other five players, but eventually ended the tournament in last place.
Mikhail Botvinnik (1948-1957, 1958-1960 and 1961-1963)
Botvinnik marked the Soviet Union’s entry into World Chess competitions and became a legend by defeating Capablanca in a simultaneous exhibition at only 14 years of age. He held the title through three different periods with extensive use of technical opening preparation rather than riskier intuitive moves. He pioneered “laboratory chess” and stood as the patriarch of the Soviet School of chess training.
Vasily Smyslov (1957-1958)
The soviet chess champion differed from others in one peculiar personal fact: he was also an opera star. This ended up influencing his participation in the World Chess Championship, as he was rejected by the Bolshoi. In 1984 he became the oldest finalist in the World Championship Candidates cycle but was defeated by Kasparov. His chess games always stood out for the harmony in his play.
Mikhail Tal (1960-1961)
Tal is considered one of the best attacking players in history, which matches with his aggressive style. He became the youngest World Champion in history when he defeated the current champion at 24 years of age, a record which was only beaten by 22-year-old Kasparov in 1985. Up to his death, in 1992, he managed the feat of keeping within the top 15 players in the world. Even though he could not hold the title for long, “Misha” is one of the most acclaimed chess players in history.
Tigran Petrosian (1963-1969)
The Armenian Tigran Petrosian was well-known for his solid and positional style, which served him well in becoming the only player to defeat Bobby Fischer in the Candidates cycle of 1971, thus breaking a streak of 19 victories. Petrosian left two of his trademarks to the chess world: the development of prophylaxis (anticipating to the opponent’s ideas) and the positional exchange sacrifice.
Boris Spassky (1969-1972)
The Russian Boris Spassky started playing chess as a 5-year-old. Eventually, he became a young grandmaster and, years later, managed to became World Champion. His style became legendary for his ability of adapting his play to the strategies implemented by his opponents. His most relevant victories were achieved against Tal and Petrosian, whereas he was later on famously defeated by the American star Bobby Fischer. In the framework of the Cold War, the match between the Russian champion and the American candidate stood out as a symbol of the confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States.
Bobby Fischer (1972-1975)
Fischer is considered by many the best chess player of all time, and he is widely known even today, more than fifteen years after his death at the age of 64. He confronted the entire Soviet School on his own and eventually managed to defeat them. He was believed to possess an IQ comparable to Einstein’s, which added up to his unique passion for chess. Unfortunately, he refused to defend his title against Karpov and virtually quitted chess right after becoming World Champion. His life was full of controversy and his mental health experienced a progressive degradation until the day he died. Nevertheless, his chess career produced some of the most incredible feats even by today’s standards. Bobby Fischer is GM Rafael Leitão’s favourite chess player.
Anatoly Karpov (1975-1985 and 1993-1999)
Karpov is known as one of the best chess players of the twentieth century an also the first one to become World Champion without playing the current champion, after Fischer decided not to take part due to a number of confrontations with FIDE. After a series of victories for ten years, Karpov lost the title – as well as another three re-matches in 1986, 1987 and 1990 – to Garry Kasparov. He only managed to win back the title once Kasparov decided to abandon FIDE. His subtle positional style has a singular beauty.
Garry Kasparov (1985-1992 and 1993-2000 for the PCA)
Together with his 1993 challenger Nigel Short, Garry Kasparov was the main responsible for the creation of the Professional Chess Association (PCA), as he broke all relations with the International Chess Federation (FIDE). That same year, Kasparov took the first PCA World Chess Championship, leading to a singular fact in chess history: for the first time there were two reigning World Chess Champions. Anatoly Karpov had been crowned as the FIDE World Champion. Kasparov is widely accepted as the best chess player in history.
Vladimir Kramnik (2000-2006 for the PCA and 2006-2007)
The Russian chess champion, who has recently retired, learnt the basics of chess as a 5-year-old kid. In 2000 he defeated Garry Kasparov in a controversial match which he even had not qualified for. Despite being the underdog, he defeated his legendary opponent by winning two games and drawing the rest in a match which will be remembered by the rise of the Berlin Defense. In 2006 he defeated Veselin Topalov as the FIDE World Champion and managed to unify both World Chess Champion titles.
Viswanathan Anand (2007-2013)
An absolute celebrity in his home country India, Anand has often been referred as the Indian sportsman of the millennium and is held responsible for the chess education of millions of Indian youngsters. Anand is an active participant of the world’s best chess tournaments and has managed to stay within the top 5 chess players in the world for over a decade. He is unanimously considered one of the greatest geniuses in chess history.
Magnus Carlsen (since 2013)
The Norwegian chess champion has been usually referred as the “Mozart of chess” according to his precocious talent. He holds the World Championship title ever since he defeated Anand in 2013 by a score of 6.5 to 3.5. Carlsen holds the record for the highest rating in chess history and currently seems to consistently stay one step or two above his competition.
Did you know all of these World Chess Champions? Many also consider Veselin Topalov as a true World Chess Champion, once he managed to win the FIDE Championship in 2005. What is your opinion? Share your views in the comments!