Unlikely Politics: The History of the World Chess Championship

Unsolicited yogurt, toilet breaks, and Cold War rivalries. Read on to learn more about the players and matches that have defined World Chess Championship history.

Jul 1, 2024By Jimmy Chen, MPhil Modern European History, BSc Government and History

chess championship history politics


The history of the World Chess Championship can be traced to the first official match in 1886. Early matches were played at the champion’s discretion before a formalized system was introduced after the Second World War. During the 1970s, chess became a Cold War battleground, with the American Bobby Fischer briefly interrupting the Soviet grip on the world title. Following the clash of Soviet titans Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov in the 1980s, the 21st century has seen the reigns of Vladimir Kramnik, Vishwanathan Anand, and Magnus Carlsen.


Early Champions

Photograph of Emanuel Lasker, c. 1920-25. Source: National Library of Israel via Wikimedia Commons


During the 19th century, the term “world chess champion” was used by journalists to describe the strongest chess player in the world at the time. Among these unofficial champions were the Englishman Howard Staunton and the German Adolf Anderssen. When the American Paul Morphy defeated Anderssen 8-3 in an 1858 match, the latter hailed Morphy as the greatest chess player of all time, an assessment which continues to have its adherents to this day.


After Morphy stopped playing actively in 1862, Anderssen was again considered the world’s leading player until an 8-6 defeat to the Austrian Wilhelm Steinitz in 1866. During the 1870s, Steinitz did not play regularly, and his dominance of the chess world was in doubt. In 1886, he agreed to play a match with the British-German master Johannes Zukertort “for the Championship of the World.” Zukertort had registered a string of impressive results in the 1870s and early 1880s, but by 1886, he was past his prime and dying of cancer. While Zukertort raced to a 4-1 lead, Steinitz won nine of the next 15 games in the first-to-10 match to become the first official World Chess Champion.


After defending his title twice against Russian master Mikhail Chigorin (1850-1908), Steinitz lost his crown to German mathematician Emanuel Lasker in 1894 and was defeated in a rematch two years later. Lasker went on to have the longest reign in World Chess Championship history, often defending his title convincingly against his challengers, with the exception of a drawn match against the Austrian Carl Schlecter in 1910, when Lasker won the final game from a losing position.

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Photograph of Alexander Alekhine, c. 1924. Source: Wikimedia Commons (cropped photo from Library of Congress original)


During the 1910s, negotiations for Lasker to play title matches against rising stars José Raul Capablanca and Akiba Rubenstein were underway when the First World War intervened,  and it was only in 1921 that Lasker and Capablanca played their match. After an even start, the Cuban challenger began to pick up victories, winning four of the first 14 games while remaining undefeated, prompting the champion to resign the match.


Capablanca was known for his accurate play and rarely made mistakes, but his reign as world champion would only last six years. Despite winning a strong tournament in New York in the spring of 1927, Capablanca was unexpectedly defeated by the Russian emigré Alexander Alekhine in an epic match later that year. The two men played 34 games over the course of two and a half months before Alekhine’s aggressive style secured him the six wins required to claim the title against Capablanca’s three.


Prolonged negotiations for a rematch between Alekhine and Capablanca fell through, souring the relationship between the two men. After defending his title on two occasions against his compatriot Efim Bogoljubow, Alekhine was unexpectedly defeated by Dutch mathematician and amateur chess player Max Euwe in 1935 in a match that saw Euwe win nine games to Alekhine’s eight.


FIDE Takes Over

Photograph of Mikhail Botvinnik by F. N. Broers, 1963. Source: Dutch National Archives via Soviet Chess History blog


Alekhine regained the title after defeating Euwe convincingly in their 1937 rematch and was in negotiations to play the young Estonian Paul Keres when the Second World War broke out. Following the end of the war, the heavy-drinking Alekhine died in Lisbon at the age of 53 during negotiations for a title match with Soviet master Mikhail Botvinnik.


For the first and only time in World Chess Championship history, the title was vacant. To choose a new champion, the World Chess Federation or FIDE (Fédération Internationale des Échecs) organized a five-player tournament in 1948 featuring three Soviet players (Botvinnik, Keres, and Vasily Smyslov), the American Samuel Reshevsky, and former champion Max Euwe. Botvinnik won with 14 points out of 20, with Keres in a distant second with 11.5.


Following Botvinnik’s victory, FIDE held candidate tournaments every three years to determine the next challenger for the title. David Bronstein, winner of the 1950 Candidates tournament, duly challenged Botvinnik in the 1951 match. Both men won five games each, and the match was tied 12-12, allowing the incumbent to retain his title. Bronstein, a cousin of Leon Trotsky, later claimed that Soviet officials had pressured him to lose the match.


In 1956, FIDE gave Botvinnik the right to an automatic rematch in the event of losing his title, and he used this privilege to reclaim the crown after defeats to younger rivals Vasily Smyslov in 1957 and the aggressive Latvian tactician Mikhail Tal in 1959.


Cold War Rivalries

Photograph of the Fischer-Spassky match, 1972. Source: Chess24


In 1963, Botvinnik was defeated by Armenian grandmaster Tigran Petrosian, who won five games to the defending champion’s two. When FIDE proceeded to change the rules to deprive Botvinnik of an automatic rematch, the latter refused to participate in the next World Championship cycle. After narrowly defending his title 12.5-11.5 against Boris Spassky in 1966, Petrosian was defeated when the two played their second title match three years later.


In 1958, US chess champion Bobby Fischer became the youngest grandmaster to date at the age of 15, and by the mid-1960s, he had established himself as the leading non-Soviet chess player and a potential world title challenger. After a mediocre performance in the 1962 Candidates Tournament, Fischer accused Soviet players of collusion to guarantee the emergence of a Soviet challenger and refused to participate in the World Championship cycle.


Despite FIDE adopting a knockout format for the Candidates in response, Fischer took a couple of extended breaks from the game and did not participate in a full World Championship cycle until 1970-71. In the quarter-finals of the 1971 Candidates, Fischer whitewashed Soviet grandmaster Mark Taimanov 6-0 before repeating the feat against Danish grandmaster Bent Larsen in the semi-finals. Fischer initially faced greater resistance in the final against former champion Petrosian before winning four games in a row to win the match 6.5-2.5.


Photograph of the Karpov-Korchnoi match in Baguio City, The Philippines, 1978. Source: Screenbound


Fischer’s triumph in the 1971 Candidates set up a showdown with Spassky in 1972 in Reykjavik, which the international press labeled “the Match of the Century” during the height of the Cold War. Fischer began poorly after blundering during the first game and forfeiting the second game due to complaints about the playing conditions. The gentlemanly Spassky agreed to play Fischer backstage for Game 3 before the match returned to the main stage for the rest of the contest.


Fischer would go on to win seven games to clinch the title 12.5-8.5, but the mercurial champion stopped playing competitive chess. After his terms for the 1975 title match were rejected by FIDE, Fischer resigned the title, and his Soviet challenger Anatoly Karpov, winner of the 1974 Candidates Tournament, became champion by default.


A master of positional chess, Karpov dominated the chess world for a decade. His greatest rival was Viktor Korchnoi, a Soviet-born grandmaster who had defected to the West in 1976 during a tournament in Amsterdam. The Cold War therefore remained a factor in the Karpov-Korchnoi rivalry, and their first World Championship match in 1978 in The Philippines saw the two men employing hypnotherapists and yoga masters to gain a psychological edge over the other.


The Great Yogurt Controversy blew up after Game 2 when Korchnoi’s team lodged an official protest claiming that Karpov’s team had sent him a coded message by giving him a blueberry yogurt in the middle of the game.


With the match tied at five wins each, Karpov defended his title by winning Game 32. Korchnoi once again emerged as the challenger in the 1981 match, a one-sided affair with Karpov winning six games to two with ten draws.


King Garry

Photograph of the first Kasparov-Karpov match, November 1984, Moscow. Source: Chessbase


In 1984, 21-year-old Garry Kasparov defeated 63-year-old former World Champion Vasily Smyslov in the final of the Candidates tournament. Although Kasparov himself was from the Soviet Union, he knew he would have a tough time challenging the reigning champion, who enjoyed the support of the Soviet authorities.


Under the terms of the championship match, which began in September, the first player to six wins would be crowned champion. Karpov began well and quickly won four victories against his young challenger, but Kasparov steadied the ship with a series of draws. A victory for Karpov in Game 27 left him needing one more win to defend his title, but the momentum began to shift in Kasparov’s direction when the latter won Game 32. In February 1985, with the match having gone on for over five months, Kasparov won games 47 and 48 to reduce the deficit to 5-3. At this point, FIDE President Florencio Campomanes made a controversial intervention to terminate the match and start from scratch a few months later.


Kasparov claimed that the Soviets had instructed Campomanes not to allow Karpov to lose the title, but in a best-of-24 contest in Moscow later in the year, he won the final game to dethrone Karpov. Kasparov and Karpov would play three more world championship matches between 1986 and 1990, with the former defending his title by a slim margin on each occasion. Across their five world championship matches, Kasparov won 21 games, Karpov 19, with 104 draws.


Photograph of the Kramnik-Kasparov match, 2000, London. Source: Chessbase


In 1993, British grandmaster Nigel Short defeated Karpov and Dutch grandmaster Jan Timman to win the right to challenge Kasparov for the world title. Kasparov’s relations with FIDE had been strained for several years, and when the prize fund for the World Championship match proved much lower than expected, Kasparov and Short split from FIDE and formed the Professional Chess Association (PCA) to organize a well-sponsored match in London in September. Kasparov easily defended his title 12.5-7.5, while FIDE held its own championship match between Timman and Karpov, which was won by the latter.


Karpov won two more championship matches to retain the FIDE title until 1999 when FIDE decided to overhaul the format of the World Championship by making it an annual knockout tournament. In the meantime, Kasparov defended the PCA title after defeating Indian grandmaster Vishwanathan Anand in a match at New York’s World Trade Center in 1995.


In 2000, Kasparov held negotiations for a title match with several players, including Anand and Latvian grandmaster Alexei Shirov, before eventually agreeing to play Vladimir Kramnik in London. At a time when elite chess players were increasingly turning to computers to help them prepare opening ideas, Kramnik employed the Berlin Defense with the black pieces and was undefeated. A couple of wins with white enabled Kramnik to clinch the title in an upset after a draw in Game 15 of a best-of-16 match.



Photograph of Viswanathan Anand at the London Chess Classic, 2016. Source: Wikimedia Commons


After negotiations between Kramnik and Kasparov for a rematch fell through, Kasparov decided to retire from chess in 2004 while still ranked World No. 1. Kramnik played a 14-game World Championship match against Hungarian grandmaster Peter Leko, winning the final game to tie the match 7-7 and retain the title by virtue of being the incumbent champion.


In 2006, Kramnik played a match against FIDE World Champion Veselin Topalov of Bulgaria to unify the championship title. The Kramnik-Topalov match proved as fraught as the 1978 Karpov-Korchnoi match and was dominated by the Toiletgate scandal after Topalov’s team complained that Kramnik had been taking frequent bathroom breaks, insinuating that he was cheating. Kramnik forfeited Game 5 in protest when FIDE changed the rules governing bathroom breaks but agreed to play the rest of the match when the original rules were reinstated. After the Classical games ended in a 6-6 tie, Kramnik won the unified title on tie-breaks.


In 2007, FIDE organized an eight-player double round-robin World Championship tournament won by Anand, who had previously held the FIDE title between 2000 and 2002. Anand went on to defend his undisputed title on three occasions against Kramnik in 2008, Topalov in 2010, and Israeli grandmaster Boris Gelfand in 2012 before facing Norwegian World No. 1 Magnus Carlsen in 2013.


Magnus the Great

Photograph of Magnus Carlsen at the 2021 World Chess Championship. Source: Eteri Kublashvili, ruchess.ru via Wikimedia Commons


A prodigy from a young age, Carlsen became the youngest player to be ranked World No. 1 in 2010 at the age of 19 and won the 2013 Candidates tournament from Kramnik to challenge Anand for the world crown in a match in Chennai. Carlsen won three games and remained undefeated to claim the world title with a score of 6.5-3.5 with two games left to go in the match. Anand managed to win the Candidates the following year for a rematch with Carlsen but lost 6.5-4.5.


After defending his title in tiebreaks against Russian grandmaster Sergey Karjakin in 2016 and American grandmaster Fabiano Caruana in 2018, Carlsen played Russian grandmaster Ian Nepomniachtchi in the 2021 championship match, which was postponed after the 2020 Candidates tournament had been stopped halfway through due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The two players were closely matched in the first five games, all of which were drawn before Carlsen won a wild Game 6 that lasted 136 moves, the longest in World Chess Championship history. With the momentum behind him, the Norwegian went on to win three more games in his most convincing title defense.


After winning his fifth World Championship match, Carlsen announced that he might not defend his title in 2023 unless his challenger was the young Iranian prodigy Alireza Firouzja. When Nepomniachtchi won his second Candidates in a row in 2022 in a dominant performance, all eyes were on the closely fought contest for second place.


The New Champion

Ding Liren and Ian Nepomniachtchi during the pivotal Game 12 of the 2023 World Championship match, photograph by Stev Bonhage, FIDE, 2023. Source: Chess24


Despite a slow start, Ding Liren from China defeated American Hikaru Nakamura in the final round to finish clear second in the 2022 Candidates tournament in Madrid. The Chinese grandmaster had not initially qualified and owed his place to the disqualification of Sergey Karjakin, who was banned by FIDE for violating the organization’s ethics code after making several public statements supporting Vladimir Putin and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.


The replacement would be the highest-rated player not already qualified. Though Ding was World No. 2, China’s pandemic restrictions meant that in the previous 12 months, he had only played four of the 30 games to qualify under FIDE regulations, prompting the Chinese Chess Association to organize three tournaments in a month to allow Ding to meet the requirement.


On July 20, 2022, shortly after the conclusion of the Candidates tournament, Carlsen officially announced that he would not be defending his title, resulting in a championship match between Nepomniachtchi and Ding in 2023.


The 2023 World Chess Championship match was held in Astana, Kazakhstan, in April and proved to be a volatile affair. After the Russian won Game 2 and held a draw in Game 3, the two players traded blows in a series of four decisive games until drawing Game 8. With Ding running out of time to level the 14-game match, the Chinese grandmaster snatched victory from a losing position in Game 12. Ding went on to win the final game of a four-game rapid tiebreak to become the first Chinese grandmaster to win the Classical World Chess Championship.

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By Jimmy ChenMPhil Modern European History, BSc Government and HistoryJimmy is an independent historian and writer based in Swindon, England. He has an MPhil in Modern European History from the University of Cambridge, where he wrote his dissertation on music and Russian patriotism in the Napoleonic Wars. He obtained a BSc in Government and History from the London School of Economics. Jimmy has written scripts for ‘The People Profiles’ YouTube channel and has appeared as a guest on The Napoleonic Wars Podcast and the Generals and Napoleon Podcast. Jimmy is a passionate about travel and has travelled extensively through Europe visiting historical sites.