Quite A fascinating history

Published : Nov 16, 2013 00:00 IST

After Mikhail Botvinnik’s victory in the 1948 World Championship, a chess revolution began in Russia.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY
After Mikhail Botvinnik’s victory in the 1948 World Championship, a chess revolution began in Russia.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

After Mikhail Botvinnik’s victory in the 1948 World Championship, a chess revolution began in Russia.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Wilhem Steinitz, who is considered the father of modern chess, was the first ever World champion in 1886. Here, P. K. Ajith Kumar traces the history of World Championship.

Some 127 years ago, Wilhem Steinitz defeated Johan Zukertort to become the first World chess champion. The World chess championship has indeed a long history — not many games could boast a World championship that is well over a century old — and many fascinating tales to tell.

A spirited comeback was witnessed in the first ever World Championship, staged in 1886, in the American cities of New York, St. Luis and New Orleans, as Steinitz was trailing 1-4 before winning the 20-game match 12.5-7.5. The Austrian won 10 games, while his Polish born rival Zukertort won five. Steinitz was a worthy World champion and the first great systematic thinker of the game; he is considered the father of modern chess. He defended his title against Mikhail Tchigorin of Russia in 1889 and 1892 and against Hungarian Isidor Gunsburg in 1890.

In 1894 though, he lost the crown to Germany’s Emmanuel Lasker, (7-12) who became the second World champion; there were just four draws in the 19-game match. The German, who had a doctorate in mathematics, kept the title for 27 years, the longest period by any World champion.

After his successful title defences against Steinitz, Frank Marshall, Siegbert Tarrasch, Dawid Janowski and Carl Schlechter, Lasker finally met his match in Jose Raul Capablanca, the first superstar of chess. The handsome Cuban had a charisma that went beyond the chessboard. In 1921, he won the World title in his hometown of Havana, without losing a single game to Lasker, who conceded after 14 games, trailing at 5-9.

Alexander Alekhine became the next World champion when he shocked Capablanca 18.5-15.5 in 1927. One of the greatest of all World champions, the Russian defended his title against Efim Bogoljubov in 1929 and 1934, but a year later, he lost it, surprisingly, to Max Euwe, a mathematics teacher from Netherlands. In 1937, however, he regained the title from Euwe.

Battles of a more serious nature pushed chess off the priority list as the world went to war in 1939. By the time the Second World War had ended, Alekhine had died, in 1946, and a new way had to be found to decide the sixth World champion. The world chess governing body FIDE thus came up with a round-robin tournament in 1948 featuring five of the leading players then, Euwe, Samuel Reshevsky of the United States and three Russians, Mikhail Botvinnik, Vasily Smyslov and Paul Keres.

Botvinnik won the tournament convincingly, scoring three points more than his nearest rival Smyslov. Thus began the Russian revolution in chess.

For the first time, a proper system to identify the challenger was also put in place after the 1948 world championship. David Bronstein of the Soviet Union emerged as the contender for the 1951 World Championship match against compatriot Botvinnik, who retained his crown after the match ended 12-12 (the champion needed only to draw, while the challenger had to win).

It was a close shave for Botvinnik again, in 1954, when he was held 12-12 by Symslov. Three years later though, Symslov, who was also a talented opera singer, hummed a tune of revenge, beating Botvinnik 12.5-9.5 to become the seventh World champion. He could hold the crown only for a year though, as he lost to Botvinnik in 1958.

Mikhail Tal became the next champion and he still is one of the most loved legends of all time for his attacking game. He defeated Botvinnik 12.5-8.5 in 1960 and at 23, became the youngest World champion (a record that stood for 25 years). He lost the title the very next year though, to the resilient Botvinnik, of course.

Botvinnik’s reign finally ended in 1963. He went down to fellow-Russian Tigran Petrosian, who then defeated another Soviet, Boris Spassky, in the 1966 title match. Spassky however avenged that defeat in 1969 to set-up his epic battle with American Bobby Fischer in 1972.

That match, held in the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik, was a game-changer. Fischer, the greatest personality in world chess ever, won that Cold War, 12.5-8.5, and inspired people across the world to learn the game. He also brought an end to the 24-year domination of the Russians.

He, however, refused to defend the title in 1975, as Anatoly Karpov brought the crown back to the Soviet Union without playing a game. Karpov though made his title legitimate by beating Viktor Korchnoi, the Soviet who took up the Swiss citizenship, twice, in 1978 and 1981.

Karpov though was dethroned in 1985 by his 22-year-old compatriot, Garry Kasparov, who triumphed after 72 games, spread over two matches. Kasparov defended his crown against Karpov in 1986, 1987 and 1990 and proved that he was the strongest player of all time. He then broke away with FIDE and conducted — and won — his own World championships, against England’s Nigel Short (1993) and India’s Viswanathan Anand (1995). He, however, was shocked in 2000 by fellow-Russian Vladimir Kramnik, who retained that title by beating Hungary’s Peter Leko in 2004.

Meanwhile, FIDE had crowned Karpov in 1993, 1996 and 1998; the challengers, respectively, were Jan Timman (Netherlands), Gata Kamsky (US) and Anand. FIDE then switched its format to knock-out, in which Russia’s Alexander Khalifman (1999), Anand (2000), Ukraine’s Ruslan Ponomariov (2002) and Uzbekistan’s Rustam Kasimdzhanov (2004) triumphed. Bulgarian Veselin Topalov won the 2005 World Championship, an eight-player event. Kramnik beat him in 2006 in what was called the reunification match to find an undisputed champion.

Kramnik was dethroned by Anand in 2007 in an eight-player tournament. The Indian then successfully defended his crown against Kramnik in 2008, Topalov in 2010 and against Boris Gelfand of Israel in 2012.

The stage is now set for the 2013 World Championship, from November 9, which Anand will defend in his hometown of Chennai, against Magnus Carlsen of Norway.

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