The existence of an official World Chess Championship goes back to 1886, when Wilhelm Steinitz defeated Johannes Zukertort in the first match that was recognized as being played for the title ahead of time. However, the history of the World Chess Championship goes back even further, as several players had been recognized as champions before then.
The Unofficial Champions
While some players were recognized as the strongest of their day going back several centuries, the idea of a World Chess Championship didn't seriously take shape until the early 1800s. In 1834, Louis de La Bourdonnais of France faced the Irish master Alexander McDonnell in a series of matches, which La Bourdonnais won convincingly. While it wasn't seen as a world championship event at the time, it was certainly the most important chess event of the era, and established La Bourdonnais as the strongest player of his generation.
In the following decades, several players were occasionally referred to as possible World Chess Champions. Some of these include:
- Englishman Howard Staunton, who defeated Pierre Saint-Amant in an 1843 match.
- Germany's Adolf Anderssen, who won London 1851, the first ever international chess tournament.
- American Paul Morphy, who defeated several leading European masters, including Anderssen, in 1858.
Morphy's claim was probably the strongest of any of the unofficial champions, as he was recognized throughout most of the chess community as the World Chess Champion. However, his playing career was very short, and throughout most of the 1860s, it was Anderssen who was seen as the top active player.
Wilhelm Steinitz defeated Anderssen in an 1866 match, giving him a potential claim on the title of World Champion. However, it was not until after Morphy's death that talk of a World Chess Championship match heated up. Steinitz's opponent in such a match became apparent after Johannes Zukertort won the 1883 London tournament, in which Steinitz participated.
The Steinitz-Zukertort match of 1886 was the first to be promoted and recognized as a World Chess Championship before the match was actually played. When Steinitz emerged victorious, he was recognized as the first "official" World Chess Champion.
The Early Champions
In the early days of the World Chess Championship, there was no organizing body overseeing the procedure for arranging matches, or the rules under which the matches should be played. In general, the champions agreed to play a worthy challenger, provided that player could raise a predetermined amount of money to finance the match. The system worked in its own way, but several matches were delayed or failed to materialize due to a lack of funding.
The title changed hands several times in this manner. In 1894, Steinitz was defeated by Emanuel Lasker, who held the title for 27 years before relinquishing it to the Cuban master Jose Raul Capablanca. Alexander Alekhine in turn defeated Capablanca in 1927, before being upset by Dutch amateur Max Euwe in 1935. After defeating Euwe in a rematch two years later, Alekhine held on to his title until his death in 1946.
The FIDE Era
After Alekhine's death, FIDE arranged a match-tournament to determine who would claim the World Chess Championship, as a match against the previous champion was no longer possible. Five players participated in the tournament: American grandmaster Samuel Reshevsky, former World Champion Max Euwe, and three leading Soviet players: Mikhail Botvinnik, Paul Keres and Vasily Smyslov. Mikhail Botvinnik emerged victorious, setting the stage for the Soviet Union's dominance in international chess for the second half of the 20th century.
FIDE soon set a regular cycle for the World Chess Championship. A championship match was held approximately every three years; the challenger was determined by a series of qualifying tournaments (known as zonals and interzonals), followed by a Candidates tournament or matches.
As mentioned earlier, this was a period of near total dominance by Soviet chess players. The USSR held the World Championship title through 1972, as Botvinnik was followed by Smyslov, who gave way to Mikhail Tal, Tigran Petrosian and Boris Spassky. Botvinnik actually held the championship on three different occasions during this period, due to a rematch clause which allowed him to reclaim his title twice.
In 1972, American grandmaster Bobby Fischer defeated Spassky in a highly-publicized Cold War match. It was the first time in the FIDE era that the title had left the USSR. However, this was only a brief pause, as Fischer refused to defend his title and forfeited it to Soviet grandmaster Anatoly Karpov in 1975.
Kasparov and the Split from FIDE
Karpov held the title until 1985, when he was defeated by Garry Kasparov. Karpov and Kasparov contested an epic series of tightly contested matches throughout the 1980s, but Karpov was never able to win back his title.
In 1993, citing a lack of professionalism in FIDE, Kasparov and challenger Nigel Short split from the organization and organized a title match outside of FIDE's control. The title would remain split for over a decade. Although FIDE held their own championship events during this period, Kasparov's title was seen as legitimate by the majority of the chess world. When Vladimir Kramnik defeated Kasparov in 2000, the chess community viewed him as the rightful World Chess Champion.
In 2006, a reunification match was held between Kramnik and FIDE's champion, Veselin Topalov. Despite some controversy, Kramnik was victorious, leaving no dispute as to who held the true World Chess Championship.