History of the World Championship
ALTHOUGH the game of chess has been traced
back as far as the sixth century A.D., the idea of an official
chess champion of the world is scarcely more than a century old.
In 1843 the English-man Howard Staunton (1810-1874) defeated the
Frenchman St. Amant, as a result of which he was considered the
strongest player around. But there was so little serious
competition among the top players that no one could really prove
anything. In addition to his over-the-board strength Staunton,
with his Hand-book of Chess, remained the leading authority on
the game for almost fifty years.
The first large-scale international
tournament ever held was at London 1851, in connection with the
international exhibition at the Crystal Palace. It was won by
Adolf Anderssen (1818-1879), a German mathematics teacher, ahead
of Staunton and virtually all the known champions of that day.
On the basis of this victory Anderssen was then considered by
many to be the best.
Anderssen was badly beaten by the young
American genius Paul Morphy (1837-1884) in 1858, who was also
most eager to play Staunton. However, the Englishman
side-stepped him, the first of several such incidents in the
history of the world title. Unfortunately Morphy withdrew from
chess after little more than a year, never again playing
seriously. In his later years he became mentally ill. He has
been called "the pride and the sorrow of chess."
With Wilhelm Steinitz (1836-1900) the real
era of modern chess begins. Morphy could still give some of his
strongest opponents Pawn and move, something that has been
utterly impossible since. Steinitz initiated the modern epoch of
international tournaments and set matches with clocks, which
were introduced in 1870. As a consequence the number of
international masters increased enormously, several important
tournaments were held every year, a considerable chess
literature developed, and chess truly became an international
In 1866 Steinitz defeated Anderssen in a set
match, which gave him the right to call himself world champion;
he was actually the first to use the title. If this date is
taken as the true beginning of the world championship series,
the champions have been: Steinitz, 1866-1894; Lasker, 1894-1921;
Capablanca, 1921-1927; Alekhine, 1927-1935 and 1937-1946; Euwe,
1935-1937; interregnum period 1946-1948, with Fine and Keres
official candidates or co-champions; Botvinnik, 1948-1957;
Smyslov, 1957-1958; Botvinnik, 1958-1960; Tal, 1960-1961;
Botvinnik, 1961-1963; Petrosian, 1963-1969; Spassky, 1969-1972;
and now Fischer, 1972-?
Much confusion has been generated about the
history of the world championship, especially in the period
1938-1948, when world tensions prevented normal competition.
Inasmuch as Keres and I tied for first prize in the AVRO
tournament of 1938, which was officially designated as the
tournament for the selection of the challenger, when Alekhine
died in 1946, logically a match should have been arranged
between Fine and Keres to decide the title. This was never done
for a variety of reasons, mainly political. The tournament
arranged in 1947 was called off by the Russians as part of a
kind of blackmail scheme to force the players to compete in
Russia. My own refusal to play in 1948 was motivated in part by
the uncertainty about whether the Russians would come to the
playing hall at all, and if so, under what conditions.
In the light of this historical record, it
seems to me only fair that Keres and Fine should be listed as
co-champions for the period 1946-1948.
It can be seen that prior to Fischer the
world championship for most of its tenure was dominated by five
men of superlative genius: Steinitz, Lasker, Capablanca,
Alekhine and Botvinnik, while the others, in spite of their
great strength, did not seem to quite match these champions.
More details of the histories of these men are of interest.
Steinitz was in more than one sense the
founder of modern chess. Born in what was then Bohemia, he
emigrated to England at a fairly early age, where he spent the
major part of his life. A superb fighter, he went out of his way
to challenge any opponent who seemed capable of putting up a
good battle. In set matches he defeated every one of the greats
of his day, maintaining his supremacy until his defeat by Lasker
In addition to an active career as a player,
Steinitz edited a journal, The International Chess Magazine,
which was outstanding for the quality of the annotations, most
of which were provided by Steinitz himself. His extraordinary
command of the English language, which was not his native
tongue, reminds one of the Polish-born novelist Conrad. Several
books also came from his pen, of which one, The Modern Chess
Instructor, remained a standard text for a long time, replacing
Prior to Steinitz the principles of the game
were poorly understood. Openings were misplayed, combinations
overlooked, positional strategy had no firm foundation. All that
was changed by him. Ever since, the solid basis of chess
strategy has never really changed, though the particular lines
chosen for the openings have shown and still show considerable
Emanuel Lasker (1868-1941) was an entirely
different kind of man than Steinitz. After Lasker won the title
he returned to the university, where he obtained his doctorate
in mathematics with a distinguished dissertation on the algebra
of ideal numbers. He looked upon himself as a philosopher, not a
professional chess master, and spent his time writing and
lecturing, with occasional forays back into the chess world.
There is no doubt that he could have made his mark in a number
of fields, but he chose to be a free-lance intellectual in the
traditional style of the European man of letters. He regarded
his book on Philosophy for Everyman as his most significant
Even though he played comparatively little,
as compared with his predecessor Steinitz, Lasker is often
ranked as the most successful tournament player of all time.
Generally he won first prize, or near first, every time he
competed. Stylistically, Lasker introduced nothing of
consequence. He was a practical player who was out to win, not
to start a new school. Even when the "hyper modern" school was
introduced after World War I, he could feel himself at home in
its intricacies, and avoid its exaggerations. Partly because of
lack of interest, and partly because of his financial demands,
Lasker evaded many of his most dangerous rivals in set matches
for the title. No international body of consequence had charge
of the title; the champion could do as he pleased. Generally
Lasker pleased to meet his less dangerous opponents: Marshall,
Janowski, Schlechter (to whom he surprisingly almost lost),
avoiding the more threatening Pillsbury, Tarrasch (until later),
and Rubinstein. Tarrasch, for many years his chief rival, was
finally so frustrated by Lasker's behavior that he set up a
tournament championship of the world, as contrasted with a
match; this however never really took hold.
Finally, after World War I, when Lasker was
desperately in need of money because of the German inflation, he
accepted a match with Capablanca for a purse of $20,000.
Although he had beaten Capa at St. Petersburg in 1914, and was
again to finish first ahead of him at New York in 1924, in the
title match in 1921 Lasker played very inferior chess, losing by
a wide margin.
José Raúl Capablanca, the Cuban genius
(1888-1942), or Capa, as everyone called him affectionately,
soon built up an aura of magic about himself. After a brilliant
start as a child prodigy, in the course of which he won the
Cuban championship at the age of 12, Capa entered the Cuban
diplomatic service, which gave him the leisure and the means to
play in international tournaments. For some thirty years, from
1909 to 1939, he was among the most successful of all
competitors. Further, people came to speak of him as a chess
machine, the most perfect instrument God had ever devised to
play the royal game, the man who never made a mistake, etc.
Although he always did exceptionally well, his reputation was
more of a fantasy on the part of the chess world than a reality.
Evidently the chess world has a need to project the image of a
superman onto some mere mortal.
While Capa did not avoid any of his
competitors, he surprisingly lost the first title match he
played, to Alekhine, at Buenos Aires, in 1927. It was a
gruelling contest, lasting several months. One player had to win
six games first, draws not counting. (The International Chess
Federation, FIDE, now appears to be returning to this system.)
The fun- loving Cuban, who by this time clearly preferred wine,
women and song to the rigors of the chess board, was worn down
by Alekhine's unsparing determination.
Alexander Alekhine (1892-1946), was the scion
of a wealthy Russian family. His chess genius appeared at an
early age, but he did not take it too seriously until the
revolution had swept away all the great Russian fortunes. Like
other famous Russian artists, such as Chagall and Chaliapin, for
a while he stayed on under the Soviet regime. But as an
aristocrat he was suspect, and for several weeks he was even in
a Cheka prison. Because of his knowledge of languages he was
sent on a mission abroad, from which he did not return to his
The defeat of Capablanca was the result of
years of preparation. As he records in the prologue to the
tournament book of New York 1927, Alekhine spent much of his
time studying Capa's games, looking for his weaknesses, devising
new variations which his opponent could not meet, and looking
forward to the day when he could beat him for the title. This
work helped him become one of the great annotators of the game,
and his books, such as the New York 1924 tournament book and his
collection of his best games, are still valuable items for any
chess player's library.
After gaining the title, Alekhine withdrew
from chess for several years to take a degree in law, which
allowed him to call himself "Dr." from then on. The brief
retirement seemed to impel him to ever greater heights in his
play, as his stirring victories at San Remo 1930, Bled 1931 and
Berne 1932 showed. From 1930 to 1935 he was the leader wherever
he played, and also the most feared attacking player of his
A less savory aspect of his personality
emerged in his dealings with Capablanca. For years he bent his
extraordinary ingenuity to deny his rival a return encounter.
The 1927 match had been played for a purse of $10,000. Capa was
required to raise this amount on his own, but once he had it
Alekhine demanded the purse in gold, since the intervening
depression, he alleged, had weakened the value of the dollar. If
Capa arranged a match for the summer, Alekhine asked for the
winter, if Capa had it set up for the winter, the Russian wanted
the summer. So it went for years, and a return match which the
chess world had so eagerly demanded never materialized. In 1934,
when I was a budding young star, Capa once showed me the
voluminous correspondence of himself and his representatives
with Alekhine, detailing the numerous maneuvers the Russian had
adopted to stay out of his way. Alekhine even demanded an
exorbitant fee for playing in a tournament with Capa, thereby
barring the Cuban from meeting him in serious play until
Nottingham 1936. Since Capa tied for first in that tournament
with Botvinnik, while Alekhine finished in a tie for sixth, the
Russian's tactics obviously had some justification.
As time went on, and a new generation grew
up, Alekhine began to meet opponents who were not such easy
marks. Losing was always such a trial for him that he had to
prove himself superior in every encounter. I can recall that
when I first met Alekhine in New York in 1932, we played a
number of quick games, in which I gained the upper hand. Enraged
by losing to a nobody (I was then 17 years old, with little
reputation outside New York) he demanded that we play a set
match of six games at ten seconds per move, where he squeaked
through to a narrow victory.
In 1935 Alekhine was defeated by the Dutchman
Max Euwe (1901- ), currently the president of the
international chess federation, FIDE (Federation Internationale
d'Echecs). Euwe, who like Lasker has a doctorate in mathematics,
was not a professional chess player, and therefore had no stake
in imitating Alekhine's evasive tactics. He turned the
organizational set-up for the title over to the FIDE, first
allowing Alekhine the privilege of a return match. Despite
extensive tournament successes, Euwe did not have a record on a
par with that of previous champions. When the return match with
Alekhine was played in 1937, he lost.
Again the chess world was faced by what to do
with Alekhine. At a FIDE meeting in Stockholm in 1937 it was
decided to run a tournament with the eight leading grandmasters
of that day (Alekhine, Botvinnik, Capablanca, Euwe, Fine, Flohr,
Keres and Reshevsky) to select an official challenger. This
tournament was arranged by a large Dutch radio network (AVRO)
the following year, 1938, in Holland. Keres and Fine tied for
first place. Shortly thereafter World War II put an end to
international chess for the duration.
During the war Alekhine remained in
Nazi-occupied Europe; legally he was a citizen of Vichy France.
Unlike the other masters who remained in Nazi-occupied territory
Alekhine was glad to play in chess tournaments. Further, he
wrote a series of notorious anti-Semitic articles proving that
only "Aryan" chess had a future, and arguing that his major
opponents were "degenerate Jews and communists." Towards the end
of the war he was hospitalized briefly, whether for alcoholism
or mental illness is not clear.
When World War II ended, in 1945, all the
leading masters of that day, incensed by his behavior, objected
to his participation in international tournaments. The Soviets
broke the boycott by having Botvinnik challenge Alekhine to a
match for the title in 1946. Actually this was illegal, since
Keres and I had prior claims. But Keres, born in Estonia, was a
Soviet citizen, while I was no longer so interested. Shortly
before the match was to take place Alekhine died, leaving the
title vacant for the first time in eighty years.
No provisions had been made for such a
contingency. At the U.S.-Soviet team match in 1946 in Moscow I
took the initiative to propose that a six-man tournament be
arranged for the championship, with the remaining AVRO
competitors. The tournament was to be held in Holland in 1947.
Before the tournament a Dutch newspaper
charged that the Soviet players would throw games to one another
to make sure that a Soviet master would become champion.
(Fifteen years later, in 1962, Fischer was to make a similar
charge, and voluntarily exile himself from FIRE tournaments for
a number of years because of it.) The Soviet government demanded
that the Dutch government censor its newspapers, or they would
withdraw. Faced by such an obviously impossible demand, the
tournament was cancelled.
Finally the tournament was arranged in 1948,
half in Holland and half in the Soviet Union, with Smyslov
taking the place of Flohr. First prize was $5000, with the other
prizes in proportion. By this time I was absorbed in another
profession, psychology, and no longer cared to participate. The
tournament was therefore held with five players, three of them
The result was an overwhelming victory for
Mikhail Botvinnik (1911- ). By now the FIDE was again
officially in charge of the whole procedure for the world
championship. A regular system was introduced, with national,
interzonal and challengers' tournaments, the final winner to
play the champion for the title.
Before World War II the U.S. had had a world
championship team. In four successive world team tournaments,
Prague 1931, Folkestone 1933, Warsaw 1935 and Stockholm 1937,
the U.S. had taken first prize each time. It is true that the
Soviets did not participate in these tournaments, because at
that time they did not recognize the existence of "nations." But
it would scarcely have made much difference, since Botvinnik was
the only outstanding Soviet Grandmaster before World War II.
It was therefore all the more amazing when
the Soviet team, in a cable match with the Americans right after
the war ended, scored an overwhelming victory, 15½ to 4½. The
next year in a personal encounter in Moscow, they won again, by
12½ to 7½. It seemed clear that the Soviets had the best team in
the world. In subsequent team tournaments, the Soviets won first
prize every time they played. So it was not too surprising when
the leading contenders for the world title after the 1948
tournament consistently turned out to be Soviet grandmasters.
For a while the only non-Russian who was in the running was
Reshevsky, the American who had been a Wunderkind in Poland
before emigrating to America in the 1920's.
Although he lost several matches, only to
regain the title in the return match, Botvinnik kept the crown
for 15 years, until 1963. His opponents in this period were
David Bronstein, Vassily Smyslov and Mikhail Tal. Finally Tigran
Petrosian (1929- ), an Armenian, defeated him in 1963 by a
score of 12½ to 9½. The rules were changed; Botvinnik was denied
a return match, and he withdrew from active participation in the
game. He is an electrical engineer by profession, a doctor of
technical sciences (roughly equivalent to our Ph.D.). Recently
he has developed an algorithm for computer chess.
Petrosian was faced by Boris Spassky in 1966.
He won by the odd point (12½ to 11½). But finally he was
dethroned by Spassky in 1969 (12½ to 10½).
The preliminary contests for the world title
in 1970-72 were noteworthy particularly because of the presence
of numbers of non-Russian grandmasters, most of them younger
than their Soviet counterparts, and seemingly more promising.
Would the Soviet hegemony in chess finally be challenged, or
perhaps broken? Above all there was the American Bobby Fischer,
who at 14 had performed the unprecedented feat of winning the
American championship. But there were others: the Dane Larsen,
the Hungarian Portisch, most recently the Swede Andersson.
Fischer, obviously the most gifted of all the
contenders, was also the most erratic. On a number of occasions
he became so enraged about playing conditions that he simply
left, without even bothering to collect his prize money. As
recently as 1967, in Sousse, Tunisia, when he was far ahead of
the field in the Challengers' tournament, he left because the
committee had refused to rearrange the hours to conform to his
But not long before the end of the
Challengers' tournament, in Majorca in 1970, it became clear
that it was Fischer who was to dominate the scene. First, he won
every one of his last six games, apparently determined to crush
every opponent regardless of the score.
Then came the match with Taimanov, in
Vancouver. It was only after much bargaining that Vancouver was
accepted as a playing site by both sides. Thereupon began that
extraordinary combination of chess genius and erratic
unpredictable personal behavior that has always been his
hallmark and has propelled him into a world celebrity.
At Vancouver Fischer was suspicious of the
envelope that determined the choice of pieces in the first game;
he demanded to see the other envelope. Then he began to vary his
conditions for playing, from demanding indirect strong lighting
to clearing the first nine rows of the audience. While they were
arguing about the hall, it seemed as though the match would
never start. Finally Bobby, who privately admitted his debt to
American chess, said "Let's get going."
The result was totally unexpected. Bobby won
every game. Six to nothing. Such a one-sided result had never
occurred before in the history of the game between two such
strong players. What had happened? Was Taimanov unstrung? Was
Fischer in a class by himself? Analysis of the games showed that
he was not lucky, but had played strong solid chess throughout.
It was Taimanov who had brought along a novelty against
Fischer's favorite King's Indian Defense, and although he seemed
to get the better game Bobby consistently beat him.
Surely, the chess world thought, the next
match, against Larsen, would be much more difficult. The Dane
had proved himself against the strongest opposition available.
It was generally felt that he was not quite as good as Fischer,
but that he was better than anyone else in the democratic
countries. Further, Larsen was an original, gifted, brilliant
master; a tough contest was to be expected. Even Bobby had
deferred to him the year before at Belgrade, allowing the Dane
to play first board for the free world, in a rematch against the
Once more-Bobby won every game! One such
victory was unprecedented; what could one say of two such
victories? Was Fischer a superman? Had a new era dawned in
chess, the ancient game which fifty years earlier the great
Capablanca had declared to be a clear draw, recommending that
the board be enlarged and new pieces added to make it more of a
contest? Still, these were only preliminary matches; what would
Bobby do against the redoubtable Petrosian, who had beaten
Botvinnik and retained the championship for six years?
As usual, the preliminary negotiations for
the Petrosian match were carried on in a heated atmosphere.
Bobby wanted to play in Argentina, the Soviets wanted to play in
Greece. Genial Dr. Max Euwe, caught in the middle, insisted they
agree on a locale, if necessary he would toss for one. Buenos
Aires won out.
This time Bobby found it much tougher. True,
he won the first game against a prepared variation, although he
should only have drawn, or even lost. In the second game he
played badly and lost. Then came three draws. After five rounds
the score was even.
In the meantime Bobby's eccentricities became
public knowledge. The first three rows of the auditorium had to
be free of spectators. The lighting had to be just so. Hotel
rooms were changed frequently, not as often as at Santa Monica
five years earlier, where he had changed every night, but often
enough. Surely, everybody thought, such a person could not be a
demigod in chess.
Then came the sixth game with Petrosian. The
Armenian held his own for fifty moves. Then an inexplicable
blunder-and Bobby won. At this point Petrosian seemed to
collapse. The next three games were won by Bobby with ridiculous
ease. He took his share of the $12,500 purse.
The road was now clear for the final match
with Spassky. Bobby was the favorite. I predicted that he would
win 12½ to 8½. Others came up with other figures. And so the
stage was set for the memorable event. What happened on the
board was predictable; what happened off the board nobody had
anticipated. The preliminary maneuvers make a fascinating story.
By Dr. Ruben Fine
International Chess Champion
Bobby Fischer's Conquest of the World's Chess Championship
(The Psychology and Tactics of the Title Match) - (C) 1973