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A Week to Remember: The World Chess Championship

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
U. S. participants facing off in opening of chess tourney, Samuel Reshevsky and Robert J. (Bobby) Fischer. July 16, 1966.
U. S. participants facing off in opening of chess tourney, Samuel Reshevsky and Robert J. (Bobby) Fischer. Photo dated: July 16, 1966. Los Angeles Herald Examiner Photo Collection

On November 9, the World Chess Championship match begins in London. Magnus Carlsen, the reigning champion since 2013, will defend his title against Fabiano Caruana in a 12-game match.

The first known use of the term "world champion" in reference to chess was in 1845, in reference to Howard Staunton. Staunton is perhaps even better remembered as the designer of what is now the standard set of chess pieces; the Staunton design is the chess set used in all international tournaments.

The idea of holding a tournament that would be defined in advance as intended to identify a world champion began to be discussed shortly thereafter, but it was not until 1886 that such a match was held. Wilhelm Steinitz and Johannes Zukertort had been the clear first and second place finishers in an 1883 tournament that included most of the world's best players, making them the logical choices for the contestants in a world championship match. Steinitz won the match, becoming the first undisputed world chess champion

There was no official governing body to sponsor a world championship match, and there wouldn't be for another sixty years. Until the mid-20th century, champions defended their title in a fairly informal fashion. A player who wished to challenge the champion was required to find financial backing and put up a purse for the match; if a challenger won, he, or his backers, would claim the prize money and the title.

Despite its informality, chess players of the era generally accepted that this system did a good job of identifying the world's best players. Champions under this system include such chess legends as Emanuel Lasker, who was champion for 27 years, the longest reign ever; Jose Raul Capablanca, and Alexander Alekhine.

Alekhine had been champion for almost twenty years, with a brief 2-year interruption by Max Euwe, when he died in 1946, leaving the world of chess without a champion. (The circumstances of that death, in a Portuguese hotel room, have never quite been clear, and were suspicious enough to serve as the basis of a mystery novel.) The World Chess Federation, usually referred to as FIDE, the abbreviation of its name in French, had been founded in 1924. In the late 1930s, Euwe and Alekhine attempted to work with FIDE to organize a more formal championship process; those discussions were interrupted by World War II.

After the war, and after Alekhine's death, the principal obstacle to a FIDE-organized championship was that the Soviet Union's chess federation had never joined FIDE. Many of the world's best players were Soviets, and any tournament without them would be largely meaningless. Momentum behind FIDE eventually grew to the point where the Soviet Union realized they could not be left out of the process. They asked to join FIDE, which held its first championship tournament in 1948.

4 book covers of chess manuals

With no defending champion, that first championship took the form of a round-robin tournament to which five of the world's best players were invited. Mikhail Botvinnik was the decisive winner; he would hold the title, with brief interruptions, for fifteen years. From that point, the usual FIDE process was to hold a tournament for the world's major players, with the tournament winner earning the right to challenge the champion in a match for the title. There was no set timetable, but a championship match has usually been held every two or three years.

Botvinnik's championship marked the start of Soviet and later, Russian, domination of chess. With one exception, Soviet/Russian players would hold the world championship for more than 50 years.

That exception was the only American ever to become world chess champion. Bobby Fischer won the title in 1972, defeating Boris Spassky and starting a chess craze in the United States. Fischer was an emotionally troubled man, and he held the title for only three years. Anatoly Karpov won the right to challenge him for the title in 1975, and Fischer made so many demands about the conditions under which the match would be played that FIDE eventually declared him to have forfeited his title, and ruled that Karpov was the new champion.

Frank Brady's biography of Bobby Fischer is called Endgame (e-book | e-audio | print); David Edmonds and John Eidinow focus specifically on the 1972 Fischer-Spassky match in Bobby Fischer Goes to War (e-book | e-audio | print).

For the next twenty years, chess was dominated by Karpov, who held the title until 1985, and the rival who took the title from him, Garry Kasparov.

In 1993, England's Nigel Short won the right to challenge Kasparov for the title, but both Short and Kasparov had concerns about corruption within FIDE, and chose to hold their match outside of FIDE's control; FIDE responded by holding its own championship tournament. Kasparov defended his title against Short, and Karpov was declared FIDE's new champion. For the first time, there were two recognized world champions of chess.

Kasparov would hold his title as the Classical World Chess Champion until 2000, succeeded by Vladimir Kramnik. Karpov held the FIDE title until 1999, when Alexander Khalifman took the crown. Khalifman was FIDE's recognized champion for only a year; in 2000, India's Viswanathan Anand became the first non-Russian world champion since Bobby Fischer.

There were several attempts to arrange a reunification match between the champions of the two organization, but it didn't happen until 2006, when Kramnik defeated FIDE champion Veselin Topalov of Bulgaria to become the undisputed world champion.

In the 130 years of officially recognized chess champions, the champions have steadily been getting younger. The first champion, Wilhelm Steinitz, won the title at age fifty and held it until he was fifty-eight; he is still the oldest man ever to hold the title. A century later, Garry Kasparov was 22 when he became champion; and in 2002, Ukraine's Ruslan Ponomariov became the first teenage champion, winning the FIDE title at 19.

In this year's championship match, Norway's Magnus Carlsen will defend his title for the third time. His challenger, Fabiano Caruana, will attempt to become the first American champion since Bobby Fischer.

Collections of a player's best games are available for several of the world chess champions, including Capablanca, Alekhine, Botvinnik, and Fischer. Max Euwe's Chess Master vs. Chess Amateur offers advice on how to avoid the beginner's common mistakes; Emanuel Lasker's Manual of Chess is a guide to strategy for intermediate-level players.

Also This Week

November 10, 1483

Martin Luther was born. Luther was a theology professor and priest whose rejection of some practices of the Catholic Church started the Protestant Reformation, leading to the division of Christianity into multiple sects and denominations. Luther spelled out his objections in 1517, in what came to be known as the Ninety-Five Theses (e-book | print); his principal objection was to the sale of indulgences—the idea that one could (and should) buy forgiveness for one's sins. There are several biographies of Luther; two of the most recent are by Eric Metaxas (e-book | e-audio | print) and Lyndal Roper (e-book | e-audio | print).

November 5, 1855

Eugene V. Debs was born. Debs was a union organizer and political activist, one of the first important socialist leaders in the United States. Between 1900 and 1920, he ran for president five times as the candidate of the Socialist Party of America; his strongest showing was in 1912, when he got 6% of the vote. He was convicted of sedition in 1918 for making speeches opposing American involvement in World War I and made his last presidential run in 1920 from prison. The documentary American Socialist looks at Debs' life and career, and his influence on later generations of progressive politicians.

November 5, 1943

Sam Shepard was born. Shepard was a playwright, director, and actor. He wrote more than 40 plays, including such major works as Buried Child, True West, and Fool for Love; Shepard frequently directed the original productions of his plays in order to be sure that the productions were true to his vision. He also appeared in dozens of films, receiving an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff.

November 8, 1968

Parker Posey was born. Posey is an actress who became known as the "queen of the indies" in the late 1990s, appearing in such films as Dazed and Confused and Kicking and Screaming. She has also appeared in several of director Christopher Guest's mockumentary films, including A Mighty Wind. Posey's recent memoir is called You're On an Airplane (e-book | e-audio | print).