World Chess Championship

The World Chess Championship is played to determine the world champion in chess. Since 2014, the schedule has settled on a two-year cycle with a championship held in every even year. Magnus Carlsen has been world champion since he defeated Viswanathan Anand in 2013. He successfully defended the title in 2014, 2016 and 2018, and is next due to defend the title in late 2020.

The official world championship is generally regarded to have begun in 1886, when the two leading players in the world, Wilhelm Steinitz and Johann Zukertort, played a match, which was won by Steinitz. From 1886 to 1946, the champion set the terms, requiring any challenger to raise a sizable stake and defeat the champion in a match in order to become the new world champion. From 1948 to 1993, the championship was administered by FIDE, the World Chess Federation. In 1993, reigning champion Garry Kasparov broke away from FIDE, which led to the creation of the rival Professional Chess Association (PCA) championship. The titles were unified at the World Chess Championship 2006, and since 2006 the championship has again been administered by FIDE.

Though the world championship is open to all players, there are separate events and titles for the Women's World Chess Championship, the World Junior Chess Championship (for players under 20 years of age, though there are younger age events also), and the World Senior Chess Championship (for men above 60 years of age, and women above 50). There are also faster time limit events, the World Rapid Chess Championship and the World Blitz Chess Championship. The World Computer Chess Championship is open to computer chess programs and hardware.


The concept of a world chess champion started to emerge in the first half of the 19th century, and the phrase "world champion" appeared in 1845. From this time onwards various players were acclaimed as world champions, but the first contest that was defined in advance as being for the world championship was the match between Steinitz and Zukertort in 1886. Until 1948 world championship contests were matches arranged privately between the players. As a result, the players also had to arrange the funding, in the form of stakes provided by enthusiasts who wished to bet on one of the players. In the early 20th century this was sometimes a barrier that prevented or delayed challenges for the title.

Between 1888 and 1948 various difficulties that arose in match negotiations led players to try to define agreed rules for matches, including the frequency of matches, how much or how little say the champion had in the conditions for a title match and what the stakes and division of the purse should be. However these attempts were unsuccessful in practice, as the same issues continued to delay or prevent challenges.

The first attempt by an external organization to manage the world championship was in 1887–1889, but this experiment was not repeated. A system for managing regular contests for the title went into operation in 1948, under the control of FIDE, and functioned quite smoothly until 1993. However, in that year reigning champion Kasparov and challenger Short were so dissatisfied with FIDE's arrangements for their match that they set up a break-away organization. The split in the world championship continued until the reunification match in 2006; however, the compromises required in order to achieve reunification had effects that lasted until the 2010 match. After reunification, FIDE retains the right to organize the world championship match, stabilizing to a two-year cycle.

Unofficial champions (pre-1886)

The first match proclaimed by the players as for the world championship was the match that Wilhelm Steinitz won against Johannes Zukertort in 1886. However, a line of players regarded as the strongest (or at least the most famous) in the world extends back hundreds of years before them, and these players are sometimes considered the world champions of their time. They include Ruy López de Segura around 1560, Paolo Boi and Leonardo da Cutri around 1575, Alessandro Salvio around 1600, and Gioachino Greco around 1623.

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, French players dominated, with Legall de Kermeur (1730–1755), François-André Danican Philidor (1755–1795), Alexandre Deschapelles (around 1800–1821) and Louis-Charles Mahé de La Bourdonnais (1821–1840) all widely regarded as the strongest players of their time. Something resembling a world championship match was the La Bourdonnais - McDonnell chess matches in 1834, in which La Bourdonnais played a series of six matches – and 85 games – against the Irishman Alexander McDonnell.

The idea of a world champion goes back at least to 1840, when a columnist in Fraser's Magazine wrote, "To whom is destined the marshal's baton when La Bourdonnais throws it down, and what country will furnish his successor? ... At present de La Bourdonnais, like Alexander the Great, is without heir, and there is room to fear the empire may be divided eventually under a number of petty kings."[1][2]

After La Bourdonnais's death in December 1840,[3] Englishman Howard Staunton's match victory over another Frenchman, Pierre Charles Fournier de Saint-Amant, in 1843 is considered to have established Staunton as the world's strongest player.[4] A letter quoted in The Times on 16 November 1843, but probably written before that, described the second Staunton vs Saint-Amant match, played in Paris in November–December 1843, as being for "the golden sceptre of Philidor."[1] The earliest recorded use of the term "World Champion" was in 1845, when Howard Staunton was described as "the Chess Champion of England, or ... the Champion of the World".[5]

The first known proposal that a contest should be defined in advance as being for recognition as the world's best player was by Ludwig Bledow in a letter to von der Lasa, written in 1846 and published in the Deutsche Schachzeitung in 1848: "... the winner of the battle in Paris should not be overly proud of his special position, since it is in Trier that the crown will first be awarded" (Bledow died in 1846 and the proposed tournament did not take place).[1] In 1850 to 1851 the forthcoming 1851 London International Tournament was explicitly described as being for the world championship by three commentators: a letter from "a member of the Calcutta Chess Club" (dated 1 August 1850) and another from Captain Hugh Alexander Kennedy (dated October 1850) in the 1850 volume of the Chess Player's Chronicle; and the Liberty Weekly Tribune in Missouri (20 June 1851).[6] Although Kennedy was a member of the organizing committee for the tournament, there is no evidence that crowning a world champion was an official aim of the tournament.[7]

The 1851 London tournament was won by the German Adolf Anderssen, establishing Anderssen as the leading player in the world.[8] Anderssen has been described as the first modern chess master.[9] However, there is no evidence that this victory led to his being widely acclaimed at the time as the world champion, although in 1893 Henry Bird retrospectively awarded the title to Anderssen for his victory.[10]

Anderssen was himself decisively defeated in an 1858 match against the American Paul Morphy, after which Morphy was toasted across the chess-playing world as the world chess champion. Morphy played matches against several leading players, crushing them all.[11][12] Harper's Weekly (25 September 1858) and The American Union (9 October 1858) hailed him as the world champion, but another article in Harper's Weekly (9 October 1858; by C.H. Stanley) was uncertain about whether to describe the Morphy–Harrwitz match as being for the world championship.[6] Soon after, Morphy offered pawn and move odds to anyone who played him. Finding no takers, he abruptly retired from chess the following year, but many considered him the world champion until his death in 1884. His sudden withdrawal from chess at his peak led to his being known as "the pride and sorrow of chess".

This left Anderssen again as possibly the world's strongest active player, a reputation he reinforced by winning the strong London 1862 chess tournament.

Wilhelm Steinitz narrowly defeated Anderssen in an 1866 match, which some commentators consider the first "official" world championship match.[13] The match was not declared to be a world championship at the time, and it was only after Morphy's death in 1884 that such a match was declared, a testament to Morphy's dominance of the game (even though he had not played publicly for 25 years).[14] The use of the term "World Chess Champion" in this era is varied, but it appears that Steinitz, at least in later life, dated his reign from this 1866 match.[15]

In 1878, Johannes Zukertort won the Paris 1878 chess tournament (though Steinitz did not play), and later won the London 1883 chess tournament by a convincing 3-point margin, ahead of nearly every leading player in the world, including Steinitz.[16][17] This tournament established Steinitz and Zukertort as the best two players in the world, and led to the inaugural World Championship match between these two, the World Chess Championship 1886.[18][19][20] This match, won by Steinitz, though not held under the aegis of any official body, is generally recognized as the first official World Chess Championship match, with Steinitz the game's first official World Champion.

Graham Burgess lists Philidor, de la Bourdonnais, Staunton, and Morphy as players who were acclaimed as the greatest players of their time (Burgess 2000:495).

Official champions before FIDE (1886–1946)

The championship was conducted on a fairly informal basis through the remainder of the 19th century and in the first half of the 20th: if a player thought he was strong enough, he (or his friends) would find financial backing for a match purse and challenge the reigning world champion. If he won, he would become the new champion. There was no formal system of qualification. However, it is generally considered that the system did on the whole produce champions who were the strongest players of their day. The players who held the title up until World War II were Steinitz, Emanuel Lasker, José Raúl Capablanca, Alexander Alekhine, and Max Euwe, each of them defeating the previous incumbent in a match.

The reign of Wilhelm Steinitz

Wilhelm Steinitz's reign is notable for: the first recorded suggestion that a world champion could forfeit the title by declining a credible challenge or by prolonged absence from competition; the first recorded instance of a disputed world championship; the first actual contest that was defined in advance as being for the world championship (Bledow's 1846 proposal came to nothing); the first attempt to regulate contests for the world championship; debates about whether the championship should be decided by a match or a tournament; and differences between commentators about when his reign began, which persist to the present day.[6][21]

There is no evidence that Steinitz claimed the title for himself immediately after winning a match against Adolf Anderssen in 1866, although in his International Chess Magazine (September 1887 and April 1888) he claimed to have been the champion since 1866.[6] It has been suggested that Steinitz could not make such a claim while Paul Morphy was alive.[22] Morphy had defeated Anderssen by a far wider margin in 1858, but retired from chess competition soon after he returned to the United States in 1859, and died in 1884.[23] The earliest known reference to Steinitz as world champion was in the Chess Player's Chronicle (October 1872), after he beat Johannes Zukertort in their first match.[6] But the New York Times (11 March 1894),[24] British Chess Magazine (April 1894) and Emanuel Lasker (Lasker's Chess Magazine, May 1908) dated his reign from 1866,[6] and in the early 1950s Reuben Fine followed their example.[23] On the other hand, many recent commentators divide Steinitz's reign into an "unofficial" one before he beat Zukertort again in 1886 and the first "official" world championship from that time onwards;[25][26][27][28] Steinitz had insisted that the contract for the 1886 match must specify that the match was "for the Championship of the World" (Chess Monthly, January 1886).[6]

The Irish Times (6 March 1879) argued that Steinitz had forfeited the title by prolonged absence from competitive chess and therefore Zukertort should be regarded as champion. The Chess Player's Chronicle (18 July 1883) made a more complex argument: other commentators had suggested that Zukertort should be regarded as champion because he had won a major tournament (London 1883, 3 points ahead of Steinitz[29]); the Chronicle thought tournaments were an unreliable way of deciding the championship and Steinitz's victories in matches gave him the better claim; but, if Zukertort were the champion, he should forfeit the title if he declined a challenge, especially from a challenger with Steinitz's credentials, and in that case the title should revert to Steinitz.[6]

In 1887 the American Chess Congress started work on drawing up regulations for the future conduct of world championship contests. Steinitz supported this endeavor, as he thought he was becoming too old to remain world champion. The proposal evolved through many forms (as Steinitz pointed out, such a project had never been undertaken before), and resulted in the New York 1889 tournament to select a challenger for Steinitz, rather like the more recent Candidates Tournaments. The tournament was duly played, but the outcome was not quite as planned: Mikhail Chigorin and Max Weiss tied for first place; their play-off resulted in four draws; and neither wanted to play a match against Steinitz – Chigorin had just lost to him, and Weiss wanted to get back to his work for the Rothschild Bank. The third prizewinner Isidore Gunsberg was prepared to play Steinitz for the title in New York, and Steinitz won their match in 1890–91.[21][30][31] This experiment was not repeated and the 1894 match in which Steinitz lost his title was a private arrangement between the players.[24]

Lasker (1894–1921)

Lasker was the first champion after Steinitz; although he did not defend his title in 1897–1906 or 1911–1920, he did string together an impressive run of tournament victories and dominated his opponents. His success was largely due to the fact that he was an excellent practical player. In difficult or objectively lost positions he would complicate matters and use his extraordinary tactical abilities to save the game. He held the title from 1894 to 1921, the longest reign (27 years) of any champion. In that period he defended the title successfully in one-sided matches against Steinitz, Frank Marshall, Siegbert Tarrasch and Dawid Janowski, and was only seriously threatened in a tied 1910 match against Carl Schlechter.

Lasker's negotiations for title matches from 1911 onwards were extremely controversial. In 1911 he received a challenge for a world title match against José Raúl Capablanca and, in addition to making severe financial demands, proposed some novel conditions: the match should be considered drawn if neither player finished with a two-game lead; and it should have a maximum of 30 games, but finish if either player won six games and had a two-game lead (previous matches had been won by the first to win a certain number of games, usually 10; in theory such a match might go on for ever). Capablanca objected to the two-game lead clause; Lasker took offence at the terms in which Capablanca criticized the two-game lead condition and broke off negotiations.[32]

Further controversy arose when, in 1912, Lasker's terms for a proposed match with Akiba Rubinstein included a clause that, if Lasker should resign the title after a date had been set for the match, Rubinstein should become world champion (American Chess Bulletin, October 1913).[33] When he resumed negotiations with Capablanca after World War I, Lasker insisted on a similar clause that if Lasker should resign the title after a date had been set for the match, Capablanca should become world champion.[32] On 27 June 1920 Lasker abdicated in favor of Capablanca because of public criticisms of the terms for the match, naming Capablanca as his successor (American Chess Bulletin, July August 1920). Some commentators questioned Lasker's right to name his successor (British Chess Magazine, August 1920; Rochester Democrat and Chronicle); Amos Burn raised the same objection but welcomed Lasker's resignation of the title (The Field, 3 July 1920). Capablanca argued that, if the champion abdicated, the title must go to the challenger as any other arrangement would be unfair to the challenger (British Chess Magazine, October 1922). Nonetheless Lasker agreed to play a match against Capablanca in 1921, announcing that, if he won, he would resign the title so that younger masters could compete for it ("Dr Lasker and the Championship" in American Chess Bulletin, September–October 1920).[33] Capablanca won their 1921 match easily.[23]

Capablanca, Alekhine and Euwe (1921–1946)

After the breakdown of his first attempt to negotiate a title match against Lasker (1911), Capablanca drafted rules for the conduct of future challenges, which were agreed by the other top players at the 1914 Saint Petersburg tournament, including Lasker, and approved at the Mannheim Congress later that year. The main points were: the champion must be prepared to defend his title once a year; the match should be won by whichever player first won six or eight games (the champion had the right to choose); and the stake should be at least £1,000 (worth about £347,000 or $700,000 in 2006 terms[34]).[32]

Following the controversies surrounding his 1921 match against Lasker, in 1922 world champion Capablanca proposed the "London Rules": the first player to win six games would win the match; playing sessions would be limited to 5 hours; the time limit would be 40 moves in 2½ hours; the champion must defend his title within one year of receiving a challenge from a recognized master; the champion would decide the date of the match; the champion was not obliged to accept a challenge for a purse of less than US$10,000 (worth about $349,000 in 2006 terms[35]); 20% of the purse was to be paid to the title holder, and the remainder being divided, 60% going to the winner of the match, and 40% to the loser; the highest purse bid must be accepted. Alekhine, Bogoljubov, Maróczy, Réti, Rubinstein, Tartakower and Vidmar promptly signed them.[36]

The only match played under those rules was Capablanca vs Alekhine in 1927, although there has been speculation that the actual contract might have included a "two-game lead" clause.[37] Alekhine, Rubinstein and Nimzowitsch had all challenged Capablanca in the early 1920s but only Alekhine could raise the US$10,000 Capablanca demanded and only in 1927.[38] Capablanca was shockingly upset by the new challenger. Before the match, almost nobody gave Alekhine a chance against the dominant Cuban, but Alekhine overcame Capablanca's natural skill with his unmatched drive and extensive preparation (especially deep opening analysis, which became a hallmark of most future grandmasters). The aggressive Alekhine was helped by his tactical skill, which complicated the game.

Immediately after winning, Alekhine announced that he was willing to grant Capablanca a return match provided Capablanca met the requirements of the "London Rules".[37] Negotiations dragged on for several years, often breaking down when agreement seemed in sight.[23] Alekhine easily won two title matches against Efim Bogoljubov in 1929 and 1934.

In 1935, Alekhine was unexpectedly defeated by the Dutch Max Euwe, an amateur player who worked as a mathematics teacher. Alekhine convincingly won a rematch in 1937. World War II temporarily prevented any further world title matches, and Alekhine remained world champion until his death in 1946.


Before 1948 world championship matches were financed by arrangements similar to those Emanuel Lasker described for his 1894 match with Wilhelm Steinitz: either the challenger or both players, with the assistance of financial backers, would contribute to a purse; about half would be distributed to the winner's backers, and the winner would receive the larger share of the remainder (the loser's backers got nothing). The players had to meet their own travel, accommodation, food and other expenses out of their shares of the purse.[39] This system evolved out of the wagering of small stakes on club games in the early 19th century.[40]

Up to and including the 1894 Steinitz–Lasker match, both players, with their backers, generally contributed equally to the purse, following the custom of important matches in the 19th century before there was a generally recognized world champion. For example: the stakes were £100 a side in both the second Staunton vs Saint-Amant match (Paris, 1843) and the Anderssen vs Steinitz match (London, 1866); Steinitz and Zukertort played their 1886 match for £400 a side.[40] Lasker introduced the practice of demanding that the challenger should provide the whole of the purse, and his successors followed his example up to World War II. This requirement makes arranging world championship matches more difficult, for example: Marshall challenged Lasker in 1904 but could not raise the money until 1907;[41] in 1911 Lasker and Rubinstein agreed in principle to a world championship match, but this was never played as Rubinstein could not raise the money.[42][43] In the early 1920s, Alekhine, Rubinstein and Nimzowitsch all challenged Capablanca, but only Alekhine was able to raise the US$10,000 that Capablanca demanded, and not until 1927.[38][44]

FIDE title (1948–1993)

FIDE, Euwe and AVRO

Attempts to form an international chess federation were made at the time of the 1914 St. Petersburg, 1914 Mannheim and 1920 Gothenburg Tournaments.[45] On 20 July 1924 the participants at the Paris tournament founded FIDE as a kind of players' union.[45][46][47]

FIDE's congresses in 1925 and 1926 expressed a desire to become involved in managing the world championship. FIDE was largely happy with the "London Rules", but claimed that the requirement for a purse of $10,000 was impracticable and called upon Capablanca to come to an agreement with the leading masters to revise the Rules. In 1926 FIDE decided in principle to create a parallel title of "Champion of FIDE" and, in 1928, adopted the forthcoming 1928 BogoljubowEuwe match (won by Bogoljubow) as being for the "FIDE championship". Alekhine agreed to place future matches for the world title under the auspices of FIDE, except that he would only play Capablanca under the same conditions that governed their match in 1927. Although FIDE wished to set up a "unification" match between Alekhine and Bogoljubow, it made little progress and the title "Champion of FIDE" quietly vanished after Alekhine won the 1929 world championship match that he and Bogoljubow themselves arranged.[48]

While negotiating his 1937 World Championship rematch with Alekhine, Euwe proposed that if he retained the title FIDE should manage the nomination of future challengers and the conduct of championship matches. FIDE had been trying since 1935 to introduce rules on how to select challengers, and its various proposals favored selection by some sort of committee. While they were debating procedures in 1937 and Alekhine and Euwe were preparing for their rematch later that year, the Royal Dutch Chess Federation proposed that a super-tournament (AVRO) of ex-champions and rising stars should be held to select the next challenger. FIDE rejected this proposal and at their second attempt nominated Salo Flohr as the official challenger. Euwe then declared that: if he retained his title against Alekhine he was prepared to meet Flohr in 1940 but he reserved the right to arrange a title match either in 1938 or 1939 with José Raúl Capablanca, who had lost the title to Alekhine in 1927; if Euwe lost his title to Capablanca then FIDE's decision should be followed and Capablanca would have to play Flohr in 1940. Most chess writers and players strongly supported the Dutch super-tournament proposal and opposed the committee processes favored by FIDE. While this confusion went unresolved: Euwe lost his title to Alekhine; the AVRO tournament in 1938 was won by Paul Keres under a tie-breaking rule, with Reuben Fine placed second and Capablanca and Flohr in the bottom places; and the outbreak of World War II in 1939 cut short the controversy.[49][50]

Birth of FIDE's World Championship cycle (1946–1948)

Before 1946 a new World Champion had won the title by defeating the former champion in a match. Alexander Alekhine's death in 1946 created an interregnum that made the normal procedure impossible. The situation was very confused, with many respected players and commentators offering different solutions. FIDE found it very difficult to organize the early discussions on how to resolve the interregnum because problems with money and travel so soon after the end of World War II prevented many countries from sending representatives. The shortage of clear information resulted in otherwise responsible magazines publishing rumors and speculation, which only made the situation more confused.[51] It did not help that the Soviet Union had long refused to join FIDE, and by this time it was clear that about half the credible contenders were Soviet citizens. But the Soviet Union realized it could not afford to be left out of the discussions about the vacant world championship, and in 1947 sent a telegram apologizing for the absence of Soviet representatives and requesting that the USSR be represented in future FIDE Committees.[51]

The eventual solution was very similar to FIDE's initial proposal and to a proposal put forward by the Soviet Union (authored by Mikhail Botvinnik). The 1938 AVRO tournament was used as the basis for the 1948 Championship Tournament. The AVRO tournament had brought together the eight players who were, by general acclamation, the best players in the world at the time. Two of the participants at AVRO – Alekhine and former world champion José Raúl Capablanca – had died; but FIDE decided that the championship should be awarded to the winner of a round-robin tournament in which the other six participants at AVRO would play four games against each other. These players were: Max Euwe, from the Netherlands; Botvinnik, Paul Keres and Salo Flohr from the Soviet Union; and Reuben Fine and Samuel Reshevsky from the United States. However, FIDE soon accepted a Soviet request to substitute Vasily Smyslov for Flohr, and Fine dropped out in order to continue his degree studies in psychology, so only five players competed. Botvinnik won convincingly and thus became world champion, ending the interregnum.[51]

The proposals which led to the 1948 Championship Tournament also specified the procedure by which challengers for the World Championship would be selected in a three-year cycle: countries affiliated to FIDE would send players to Zonal Tournaments (the number varied depending on how many good enough players each country had); the players who gained the top places in these would compete in an Interzonal Tournament (later split into two and then three tournaments as the number of countries and eligible players increased[52]); the highest-placed players from the Interzonal would compete in the Candidates Tournament, along with whoever lost the previous title match and the second-placed competitor in the previous Candidates Tournament three years earlier; and the winner of the Candidates played a title match against the champion.[51] Until 1962 inclusive the Candidates Tournament was a multi-cycle round-robin tournament – how and why it was changed are described below.

FIDE system (1949–1963)

The FIDE system followed its 1948 design through five cycles: 1948–1951, 1951–1954, 1954–1957, 1957–1960 and 1960–1963.[53][54] The first two world championships under this system were drawn 12–12 – Botvinnik-Bronstein in 1951 and Botvinnik-Smyslov in 1954 – so Botvinnik retained the title both times.

In 1956 FIDE introduced two apparently minor changes which Soviet grandmaster and chess official Yuri Averbakh alleged were instigated by the two Soviet representatives in FIDE, who were personal friends of reigning champion Mikhail Botvinnik. A defeated champion would have the right to a return match. FIDE also limited the number of players from the same country that could compete in the Candidates Tournament, on the grounds that it would reduce Soviet dominance of the tournament. Averbakh claimed that this was to Botvinnik's advantage as it reduced the number of Soviet players he might have to meet in the title match.[55] Botvinnik lost to Vasily Smyslov in 1957 but won the return match in 1958, and lost to Mikhail Tal in 1960 but won the return match in 1961. Thus Smyslov and Tal each held the world title for a year, but Botvinnik was world champion for rest of the time from 1948 to 1963.

The return match clause was not in place for the 1963 cycle. Tigran Petrosian won the 1962 Candidates and then defeated Botvinnik in 1963 to become world champion.

FIDE system (1963–1975)

After the 1962 Candidates, Bobby Fischer publicly alleged that the Soviets had colluded to prevent any non-Soviet – specifically him – from winning. He claimed that Petrosian, Efim Geller and Paul Keres had prearranged to draw all their games, and that Korchnoi had been instructed to lose to them. Yuri Averbakh, who was head of the Soviet team, confirmed in 2002 that Petrosian, Geller and Keres arranged to draw all their games in order to save their energy for games against non-Soviet players,[55] and a statistical analysis in 2006 backed this up.[56] Another contestant, Pal Benko, claimed that towards the end of the tournament Petrosian and Geller, who were friends, helped Benko with adjournment analysis of his game against Keres, who was the main threat to Petrosian.[57] Korchnoi, who defected from the USSR in 1976, has never alleged he was forced to throw games. FIDE responded by changing the format of future Candidates Tournaments to eliminate the possibility of collusion.

Beginning in the next cycle, 1963–1966, the round-robin tournament was replaced by a series of elimination matches. Initially the quarter-finals and semi-finals were best of 10 games, and the final was best of 12. Fischer, however, refused to take part in the 1966 cycle, and dropped out of the 1969 cycle after a controversy at 1967 Interzonal in Sousse.[58] Both these Candidates cycles were won by Boris Spassky, who lost the title match to Petrosian in 1966, but won and became world champion in 1969.[59][60]

In the 1969–1972 cycle Fischer caused two more crises. He refused to play in the 1969 US Championship, which was a Zonal Tournament. This would have eliminated him from the 1969–1972 cycle, but Benko was persuaded to concede his place in the Interzonal to Fischer.[61] FIDE President Max Euwe accepted this maneuver and interpreted the rules very flexibly to enable Fischer to play, as he thought it important for the health and reputation of the game that Fischer should have the opportunity to challenge for the title as soon as possible.[62] Fischer crushed all opposition and won the right to challenge reigning champion Boris Spassky.[59] After agreeing to play in Yugoslavia, Fischer raised a series of objections and Iceland was the final venue. Even then Fischer raised difficulties, mainly over money. It took a phone call from United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and a doubling of the prize money by financier Jim Slater to persuade him to play. After a few more traumatic moments Fischer won the match 12½–8½.[63][64]

An unbroken line of FIDE champions had thus been established from 1948 to 1972, with each champion gaining his title by beating the previous incumbent. This came to an end when Anatoly Karpov won the right to challenge Fischer in 1975. Fischer objected to the "best of 24 games" championship match format that had been used from 1951 onwards, claiming that it would encourage whoever got an early lead to play for draws. Instead he demanded that the match should be won by whoever first won 10 games, except that if the score reached 9–9 he should remain champion. He argued that this was more advantageous to the challenger than the champion's advantage under the existing system, where the champion retained the title if the match was tied at 12–12 including draws. Eventually FIDE deposed Fischer and crowned Karpov as the new champion.[65]

Fischer privately maintained that he was still World Champion. He went into seclusion and did not play chess in public again until 1992, when he offered Spassky a rematch, again for the World Championship. The Fischer–Spassky (1992 match) attracted good media coverage, but the chess world did not take this claim to the championship seriously.

Karpov and Kasparov (1975–1993)

Karpov dominated the 1970s and early 1980s with an incredible string of tournament successes. He convincingly demonstrated that he was the strongest player in the world by defending his title twice against ex-Soviet Viktor Korchnoi, first in Baguio City in 1978 (6–5 with 21 draws) then in Meran in 1981 (6–2, with 10 draws). His "boa constrictor" style frustrated opponents, often causing them to lash out and err. This allowed him to bring the full force of his Botvinnik-learned dry technique (both Karpov and Kasparov were students at Botvinnik's school) against them, grinding his way to victory.

He eventually lost his title to Garry Kasparov, whose aggressive tactical style was in sharp contrast to Karpov's positional style. The two of them fought five incredibly close world championship matches, the World Chess Championship 1984 (controversially terminated without result with Karpov leading +5 −3 =40), World Chess Championship 1985 (in which Kasparov won the title, 13–11), World Chess Championship 1986 (narrowly won by Kasparov, 12½–11½), World Chess Championship 1987 (drawn 12–12, Kasparov retaining the title), and World Chess Championship 1990 (again narrowly won by Kasparov, 12½–11½). In the five matches Kasparov and Karpov played 144 games with 104 draws, 21 wins by Kasparov and 19 wins by Karpov.

Split title (1993–2005)

In 1993, Nigel Short broke the domination of the two K's (Kasparov and Karpov) by defeating Karpov in the candidates semi-finals followed by Jan Timman in the finals, thereby earning the right to challenge Kasparov for the title. However, before the match took place, both Kasparov and Short complained of corruption and a lack of professionalism within FIDE in organizing the match, and split from FIDE to set up the Professional Chess Association (PCA), under whose auspices they held their match. Affronted by the PCA split, FIDE stripped Kasparov of his title and held a championship match between Karpov and Timman. Kasparov defeated Short while Karpov beat Timman, and for the first time in history there were two World Chess Champions.

FIDE and the PCA each held a championship cycle in 1993–1996, with many of the same challengers playing in both. Kasparov and Karpov both won their respective cycles. In the PCA cycle, Kasparov defeated Viswanathan Anand in the PCA World Chess Championship 1995. Karpov defeated Gata Kamsky in the final of the FIDE World Chess Championship 1996. Negotiations were held for a reunification match between Kasparov and Karpov in 1996–97, but nothing came of them.[66]

Soon after the 1995 championship, the PCA folded, and Kasparov had no organisation to choose his next challenger. In 1998 he formed the World Chess Council, which organised a candidates match between Alexei Shirov and Vladimir Kramnik. Shirov won the match, but negotiations for a Kasparov–Shirov match broke down, and Shirov was subsequently omitted from negotiations, much to his disgust. Plans for a 1999 or 2000 Kasparov–Anand match also broke down, and Kasparov organised a match with Kramnik in late 2000. In a major upset, Kramnik won the match with two wins, thirteen draws, and no losses. At the time the championship was called the Braingames World Chess Championship, but Kramnik later referred to himself as the Classical World Chess Champion.

Meanwhile, FIDE had decided to scrap the Interzonal and Candidates system, instead having a large knockout event in which a large number of players contested short matches against each other over just a few weeks (see FIDE World Chess Championship 1998). Rapid and blitz games were used to resolve ties at the end of each round, a format which some felt did not necessarily recognize the highest quality play: Kasparov refused to participate in these events, as did Kramnik after he won the Classical title in 2000. In the first of these events in 1998, champion Karpov was seeded straight into the final, but subsequently the champion had to qualify like other players. Karpov defended his title in the first of these championships in 1998, but resigned his title in protest at the new rules in 1999. Alexander Khalifman won the FIDE World Championship in 1999, Anand in 2000, Ruslan Ponomariov in 2002, and Rustam Kasimdzhanov in 2004.

By 2002, not only were there two rival champions, but Kasparov's strong results – he had the top Elo rating in the world and had won a string of major tournaments after losing his title in 2000 – ensured even more confusion over who was World Champion. In May 2002, American grandmaster Yasser Seirawan led the organisation of the so-called "Prague Agreement" to reunite the world championship. Kramnik had organised a candidates tournament (won later in 2002 by Peter Leko) to choose his challenger. It was decided that Kasparov play the FIDE champion (Ponomariov) for the FIDE title, and the winner of this match play the winner of the Kramnik–Leko match for a unified title. However, the matches proved difficult to finance and organise. The Kramnik–Leko match did not take place until late 2004 (it was drawn, so Kramnik retained his title). Meanwhile, FIDE never managed to organise a Kasparov match, either with 2002 FIDE champion Ponomariov, or 2004 FIDE champion Kasimdzhanov. Partly due to his frustration at the situation, Kasparov retired from chess in 2005, still ranked No. 1 in the world.

Soon after, FIDE dropped the short knockout format for a World Championship and announced the FIDE World Chess Championship 2005, a double round robin tournament to be held in San Luis, Argentina between eight of the leading players in the world. However Kramnik insisted that his title be decided in a match, and declined to participate. The tournament was convincingly won by the Bulgarian Veselin Topalov, and negotiations began for a Kramnik–Topalov match to unify the title.

Reunified title (2006–present)

Kramnik (2006-2007)

The World Chess Championship 2006 reunification match between Topalov and Kramnik was held in late 2006. After much controversy, it was won by Kramnik. Kramnik thus became the first unified and undisputed World Chess Champion since Kasparov split from FIDE to form the PCA in 1993. This match, and all subsequent championships, have been administered by FIDE.

Anand (2007–2013)

Kramnik played to defend his title at the World Chess Championship 2007 in Mexico. This was an 8-player double round robin tournament, the same format as was used for the FIDE World Chess Championship 2005. This tournament was won by Viswanathan Anand, thus making him the World Chess Champion. Because Anand's World Chess Champion title was won in a tournament rather than a match, a minority of commentators questioned the validity of his title.[67] Kramnik also made ambiguous comments about the value of Anand's title, but did not claim the title himself.[68] Subsequent world championship matches returned to the format of a match between the champion and a challenger.

The following two championships had special clauses arising from the 2006 unification. Kramnik was given the right to challenge for the title he lost in a tournament in the World Chess Championship 2008, which Anand won. Then Topalov, who as the loser of the 2006 match was excluded from the 2007 championship, was seeded directly into the Candidates final of the World Chess Championship 2010. He won the Candidates (against Gata Kamsky). Anand again won the championship match.[69][70]

The next championship, the World Chess Championship 2012, had short knock-out matches for the Candidates Tournament. This format was not popular with everyone, and world No. 1 Magnus Carlsen withdrew in protest. Boris Gelfand won the Candidates. Anand won the championship match again, in tie breaking rapid games, for his fourth consecutive world championship win.[71]

Carlsen (2013–present)

Since 2013, the Candidates Tournament has been an 8-player double round robin tournament, with the winner playing a match against the champion for the title. The Norwegian Magnus Carlsen won the 2013 Candidates and then convincingly defeated Anand in the World Chess Championship 2013.[72][73]

Beginning with the 2014 Championship cycle, the World Championship has followed a 2-year cycle: qualification for the Candidates in the odd year, the Candidates tournament early in the even year, and World Championship match late in the even year.

Carlsen has successfully defended his title three times, against Anand in the World Chess Championship 2014,[74] against Sergey Karjakin in the World Chess Championship 2016,[75] and against Fabiano Caruana in the World Chess Championship 2018. His last two defences were decided by tie-break in rapid games.[76]

World champions

Leading players before the World Chess Championships

Ruy López de Segura1559–1575 Spain29–45
Leonardo di Bonac.1575 Naples33
Paolo Boic.1575 Sicily47
Alessandro Salvioc.1600 Naplesc. 30
Gioachino Grecoc.1620–1634 Naplesc. 20–34
Legall de Kermeurc.1730–1755 Francec. 28–53
François-André Danican Philidor1755–1795 France29–69
Alexandre Deschapelles1815–1821 France35–41
Louis-Charles Mahé de La Bourdonnais1821–1840 France26–45
Howard Staunton1843–1851 England33–41
Adolf Anderssen1851–1858 Prussia33–40
Paul Morphy1858–1862 United States21–25
Adolf Anderssen1862–1866 Prussia44–48
Wilhelm Steinitz1866–1886 Austria-Hungary30–50
Johannes Zukertort1878–1886 Germany36–44

Undisputed world champions (1886–1993)

1Wilhelm Steinitz1886–1894 Austria-Hungary
 United States
2Emanuel Lasker1894–1921 Germany26–52
3José Raúl Capablanca1921–1927 Cuba33–39
4Alexander Alekhine1927–1935 France
White émigré
5Max Euwe1935–1937 Netherlands34–36
(4)Alexander Alekhine1937–1946 France
White émigré
6Mikhail Botvinnik1948–1957 Soviet Union37–46
7Vasily Smyslov1957–1958 Soviet Union36
(6)Mikhail Botvinnik1958–1960 Soviet Union47–49
8Mikhail Tal1960–1961 Soviet Union24
(6)Mikhail Botvinnik1961–1963 Soviet Union50–52
9Tigran Petrosian1963–1969 Soviet Union34–40
10Boris Spassky1969–1972 Soviet Union32–35
11Bobby Fischer1972–1975 United States29–32
12Anatoly Karpov1975–1985 Soviet Union24–34
13Garry Kasparov1985–1993 Soviet Union

Classical (PCA/Braingames) world champions (1993–2006)

Garry Kasparov1993–2000 Russia30–37
Vladimir Kramnik2000–2006 Russia25–31

FIDE world champions (1993–2006)

Anatoly Karpov1993–1999 Russia42–48
Alexander Khalifman1999–2000 Russia33
Viswanathan Anand2000–2002 India31–33
Ruslan Ponomariov2002–2004 Ukraine19–21
Rustam Kasimdzhanov2004–2005 Uzbekistan25
Veselin Topalov2005–2006 Bulgaria30

Undisputed world champions (2006–present)

14Vladimir Kramnik2006–2007 Russia31–32
15Viswanathan Anand2007–2013 India38–43
16Magnus Carlsen2013–present Norway22–29


World Champions by number of title match victories

The table below organises the world champions in order of championship wins. (For the purpose of this table, a successful defence counts as a win, even if the match was drawn.) The table is made more complicated by the split between the "Classical" and FIDE world titles between 1993 and 2006.

ChampionTotalUndisputedFIDEClassicalYears as championYears as undisputed champion
Emanuel Lasker662727
Garry Kasparov642158
Anatoly Karpov6331610
Mikhail Botvinnik551313
Viswanathan Anand54186
Alexander Alekhine441717
Wilhelm Steinitz4488
Magnus Carlsen4466
Vladimir Kramnik31271
Tigran Petrosian2266
José Raúl Capablanca1166
Boris Spassky1133
Bobby Fischer1133
Max Euwe1122
Vasily Smyslov1111
Mikhail Tal1111
Ruslan Ponomariov1120
Alexander Khalifman1110
Rustam Kasimdzhanov1110
Veselin Topalov1110

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