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 sport.
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,
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
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 1894.
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 Staunton's work.
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
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 contribution.
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
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
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
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
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 native country.
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
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 generation.
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
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
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 Russian.
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
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 religious observances.
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 Soviet Union.
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