History of the World Championship

ALTHOUGH the game of chess has been traced back as far as the sixth century A.D., the idea of an official chess champion of the world is scarcely more than a century old. In 1843 the English-man Howard Staunton (1810-1874) defeated the Frenchman St. Amant, as a result of which he was considered the strongest player around. But there was so little serious competition among the top players that no one could really prove anything. In addition to his over-the-board strength Staunton, with his Hand-book of Chess, remained the leading authority on the game for almost fifty years.

The first large-scale international tournament ever held was at London 1851, in connection with the international exhibition at the Crystal Palace. It was won by Adolf Anderssen (1818-1879), a German mathematics teacher, ahead of Staunton and virtually all the known champions of that day. On the basis of this victory Anderssen was then considered by many to be the best.

Anderssen was badly beaten by the young American genius Paul Morphy (1837-1884) in 1858, who was also most eager to play Staunton. However, the Englishman side-stepped him, the first of several such incidents in the history of the world title. Unfortunately Morphy withdrew from chess after little more than a year, never again playing seriously. In his later years he became mentally ill. He has been called "the pride and the sorrow of chess."

With Wilhelm Steinitz (1836-1900) the real era of modern chess begins. Morphy could still give some of his strongest opponents Pawn and move, something that has been utterly impossible since. Steinitz initiated the modern epoch of international tournaments and set matches with clocks, which were introduced in 1870. As a consequence the number of international masters increased enormously, several important tournaments were held every year, a considerable chess literature developed, and chess truly became an international 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, 1972-?

Much confusion has been generated about the history of the world championship, especially in the period 1938-1948, when world tensions prevented normal competition. Inasmuch as Keres and I tied for first prize in the AVRO tournament of 1938, which was officially designated as the tournament for the selection of the challenger, when Alekhine died in 1946, logically a match should have been arranged between Fine and Keres to decide the title. This was never done for a variety of reasons, mainly political. The tournament arranged in 1947 was called off by the Russians as part of a kind of blackmail scheme to force the players to compete in Russia. My own refusal to play in 1948 was motivated in part by the uncertainty about whether the Russians would come to the playing hall at all, and if so, under what conditions.

In the light of this historical record, it seems to me only fair that Keres and Fine should be listed as co-champions for the period 1946-1948.

It can be seen that prior to Fischer the world championship for most of its tenure was dominated by five men of superlative genius: Steinitz, Lasker, Capablanca, Alekhine and Botvinnik, while the others, in spite of their great strength, did not seem to quite match these champions. More details of the histories of these men are of interest.

Steinitz was in more than one sense the founder of modern chess. Born in what was then Bohemia, he emigrated to England at a fairly early age, where he spent the major part of his life. A superb fighter, he went out of his way to challenge any opponent who seemed capable of putting up a good battle. In set matches he defeated every one of the greats of his day, maintaining his supremacy until his defeat by Lasker in 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 considerable variation.

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 hold.

Finally, after World War I, when Lasker was desperately in need of money because of the German inflation, he accepted a match with Capablanca for a purse of $20,000. Although he had beaten Capa at St. Petersburg in 1914, and was again to finish first ahead of him at New York in 1924, in the title match in 1921 Lasker played very inferior chess, losing by a wide margin.

José Raúl Capablanca, the Cuban genius (1888-1942), or Capa, as everyone called him affectionately, soon built up an aura of magic about himself. After a brilliant start as a child prodigy, in the course of which he won the Cuban championship at the age of 12, Capa entered the Cuban diplomatic service, which gave him the leisure and the means to play in international tournaments. For some thirty years, from 1909 to 1939, he was among the most successful of all competitors. Further, people came to speak of him as a chess machine, the most perfect instrument God had ever devised to play the royal game, the man who never made a mistake, etc. Although he always did exceptionally well, his reputation was more of a fantasy on the part of the chess world than a reality. Evidently the chess world has a need to project the image of a superman onto some mere mortal.

While Capa did not avoid any of his competitors, he surprisingly lost the first title match he played, to Alekhine, at Buenos Aires, in 1927. It was a gruelling contest, lasting several months. One player had to win six games first, draws not counting. (The International Chess Federation, FIDE, now appears to be returning to this system.) The fun- loving Cuban, who by this time clearly preferred wine, women and song to the rigors of the chess board, was worn down by Alekhine's unsparing determination.

Alexander Alekhine (1892-1946), was the scion of a wealthy Russian family. His chess genius appeared at an early age, but he did not take it too seriously until the revolution had swept away all the great Russian fortunes. Like other famous Russian artists, such as Chagall and Chaliapin, for a while he stayed on under the Soviet regime. But as an aristocrat he was suspect, and for several weeks he was even in a Cheka prison. Because of his knowledge of languages he was sent on a mission abroad, from which he did not return to his 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 library.

After gaining the title, Alekhine withdrew from chess for several years to take a degree in law, which allowed him to call himself "Dr." from then on. The brief retirement seemed to impel him to ever greater heights in his play, as his stirring victories at San Remo 1930, Bled 1931 and Berne 1932 showed. From 1930 to 1935 he was the leader wherever he played, and also the most feared attacking player of his 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 justification.

As time went on, and a new generation grew up, Alekhine began to meet opponents who were not such easy marks. Losing was always such a trial for him that he had to prove himself superior in every encounter. I can recall that when I first met Alekhine in New York in 1932, we played a number of quick games, in which I gained the upper hand. Enraged by losing to a nobody (I was then 17 years old, with little reputation outside New York) he demanded that we play a set match of six games at ten seconds per move, where he squeaked through to a narrow victory.

In 1935 Alekhine was defeated by the Dutchman Max Euwe (1901-    ), currently the president of the international chess federation, FIDE (Federation Internationale d'Echecs). Euwe, who like Lasker has a doctorate in mathematics, was not a professional chess player, and therefore had no stake in imitating Alekhine's evasive tactics. He turned the organizational set-up for the title over to the FIDE, first allowing Alekhine the privilege of a return match. Despite extensive tournament successes, Euwe did not have a record on a par with that of previous champions. When the return match with Alekhine was played in 1937, he lost.

Again the chess world was faced by what to do with Alekhine. At a FIDE meeting in Stockholm in 1937 it was decided to run a tournament with the eight leading grandmasters of that day (Alekhine, Botvinnik, Capablanca, Euwe, Fine, Flohr, Keres and Reshevsky) to select an official challenger. This tournament was arranged by a large Dutch radio network (AVRO) the following year, 1938, in Holland. Keres and Fine tied for first place. Shortly thereafter World War II put an end to international chess for the duration.

During the war Alekhine remained in Nazi-occupied Europe; legally he was a citizen of Vichy France. Unlike the other masters who remained in Nazi-occupied territory Alekhine was glad to play in chess tournaments. Further, he wrote a series of notorious anti-Semitic articles proving that only "Aryan" chess had a future, and arguing that his major opponents were "degenerate Jews and communists." Towards the end of the war he was hospitalized briefly, whether for alcoholism or mental illness is not clear.

When World War II ended, in 1945, all the leading masters of that day, incensed by his behavior, objected to his participation in international tournaments. The Soviets broke the boycott by having Botvinnik challenge Alekhine to a match for the title in 1946. Actually this was illegal, since Keres and I had prior claims. But Keres, born in Estonia, was a Soviet citizen, while I was no longer so interested. Shortly before the match was to take place Alekhine died, leaving the title vacant for the first time in eighty years.

No provisions had been made for such a contingency. At the U.S.-Soviet team match in 1946 in Moscow I took the initiative to propose that a six-man tournament be arranged for the championship, with the remaining AVRO competitors. The tournament was to be held in Holland in 1947.

Before the tournament a Dutch newspaper charged that the Soviet players would throw games to one another to make sure that a Soviet master would become champion. (Fifteen years later, in 1962, Fischer was to make a similar charge, and voluntarily exile himself from FIRE tournaments for a number of years because of it.) The Soviet government demanded that the Dutch government censor its newspapers, or they would withdraw. Faced by such an obviously impossible demand, the tournament was cancelled.

Finally the tournament was arranged in 1948, half in Holland and half in the Soviet Union, with Smyslov taking the place of Flohr. First prize was $5000, with the other prizes in proportion. By this time I was absorbed in another profession, psychology, and no longer cared to participate. The tournament was therefore held with five players, three of them 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 10½).

The preliminary contests for the world title in 1970-72 were noteworthy particularly because of the presence of numbers of non-Russian grandmasters, most of them younger than their Soviet counterparts, and seemingly more promising. Would the Soviet hegemony in chess finally be challenged, or perhaps broken? Above all there was the American Bobby Fischer, who at 14 had performed the unprecedented feat of winning the American championship. But there were others: the Dane Larsen, the Hungarian Portisch, most recently the Swede Andersson.

Fischer, obviously the most gifted of all the contenders, was also the most erratic. On a number of occasions he became so enraged about playing conditions that he simply left, without even bothering to collect his prize money. As recently as 1967, in Sousse, Tunisia, when he was far ahead of the field in the Challengers' tournament, he left because the committee had refused to rearrange the hours to conform to his 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 story.

By Dr. Ruben Fine
International Chess Champion
Bobby Fischer's Conquest of the World's Chess Championship
(The Psychology and Tactics of the Title Match) - (C) 1973

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