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History of the World Chess Championship
Unofficial Champions Official Champions FIDE Champions Index of All Championships


The History of Chess Throughout the history of chess, humanity has continually held a fascination with those rare individuals whose immense skill and success at the game makes them deserving of being labeled "The Strongest Player on Earth." The title of World Chess Champion is the embodiment of this notion. This page is both a brief history of the World Chess Championship and an index of all of the modern championship matches.
Unofficial World Chess Champions
For many centuries, there was no formal world chess championship, but there were nonetheless a select few who achieved fame for their ideas and successes over the chess board, and sometimes even for their writings. Each player below was recognized in his respective time as the strongest chess player in the world. The years indicate the approximate time period when each could be considered world champion in an unofficial capacity.

 player    years    country
  Luis Ramirez de Lucena   ~ 1490    Spain
  Pedro Damiano   ~ 1520    Portugal
  Ruy Lopez de Segura  ~1560  Spain
 Leonardo da Cutri   ~1575  Italy
 Paolo Boi  ~1575  Italy
 Alessandro Salvio  ~1600  Italy
 Gioachino Greco  ~1620  Italy
 Kermur Sire De Legal  ~1730-1747  France
 Francois-Andre Philidor  ~1747-1795  France
 Alexandre Deschapelles   ~1800-1820  France
 Louis De La Bourdonnais   ~1820-1840  France
 Pierre de Saint Amant  1842-1843  France
 Howard Staunton  1843-1851  England
 Adolf Anderssen  1851-1858  Germany
 Paul Morphy  1858-1862  USA
 Adolf Anderssen  1862-1866  Germany
 Wilhelm Steinitz  1866-1878  Austria
 Johannes Zukertort  1879-1886  Poland
click player name for biography, stats, discussion, and more

Paul Morphy In the 1850s, America's foremost chess player was a young man from Louisiana named Paul Morphy. In 1858, Morphy traveled overseas to play against the finest competition that Europe had to offer. Morphy annihilated the opposition, including the German attacking genius Adolf Anderssen, who was widely regarded as the strongest player of the day. Morphy had proven himself in every way a World Chess Champion. After his European tour, Morphy returned to the states, and announced his retirement from chess.

Morphy's retirement in 1862 left a vacuum in the chess world, and the simple question, "Who is the best?" lacked a definitive answer. Anderssen was a likely choice, but it wasn't long before people turned their attention to an Austrian chess sensation named Wilhelm Steinitz, whose daring attacking style had earned him the nickname "The Austrian Morphy". When Steinitz defeated Anderssen in 1866, Steinitz was widely regarded as the world's best, and would be for decades to come.

Official World Chess Champions

In the 1870s, a Polish immigrant to the United Kingdom named Johannes Zukertort was gaining worldwide attention. By the 1880s many believed that he had surpassed Steinitz, which was further confirmed when Zukertort won the London tournament of 1883, defeating nearly every leading player in the world, finishing three points above second-place Steinitz. The stage was finally set for the first official World Chess Championship.

Wilhelm Steinitz So who was better, really? In 1886 these two masters settled the question in the only acceptable way: they played a long chess match. Although not held under the aegis of any official organization, most chess historians regard the Steinitz-Zukertort match as the first official World Chess Championship, because it started a grand tradition. This tradition is characterized by several components, chief among which are:

  1. The title is determined by a match of sufficient length to demonstrate a superiority of one player over the other.
  2. The winner of the match becomes heir to the title of World Chess Champion, the highest title there is.
  3. The title, although intangible, is treated for all purposes like a physical object which may be possessed by only one person at a time.
  4. The reigning champion can only relinquish the title by losing (or forfeiting) a subsequent match to a competitor, or by retiring, or by death.
  5. From time to time, the reigning champion is obligated to defend his title against the strongest challengers.
Starting with Steinitz, the title of World Chess Champion has been handed down through the generations from one player to another, like an Olympic torch.
FIDE World Chess Champions
In 1946, Alexander Alekhine passed away, and forced the chess world to resolve a novel problem: the death of a reigning champion. Due to this troublesome interregnum, a French chess organization founded in 1924, inactive since 1939, suddenly rocketed to prominence. Fédération Internationale des Échecs (FIDE) proposed a solution that a title tournament take place inviting the world's most prominent players. The plan was successful, and led to the 1948 FIDE World Chess Championship Tournament which crowned Mikhail Botvinnik as World Chess Champion and established a more formal system of selecting candidates for the future. Garry Kasparov

This system worked reasonably well, until 1993, when World Champion Garry Kasparov made the historic decision to break his allegiance to FIDE. Unhappy with the bidding process to select the site for the match, FIDE's lack of consultation with the players, and the 20% cut of the prize fund going to FIDE, Kasparov declared that he would defend the title outside of the auspices of FIDE. This created a split title, in which Kasparov played title defense matches under a newly created organization called the PCA (Professional Chess Association), while FIDE continued to manage a World Championship cycle that was stripped of legitimacy in the eyes of most chess fans. The uncomfortable situation of a split title persisted for 13 years, during which time Kasparov lost a title defense to Vladimir Kramnik.

In order to end the chaos of the split title, and for FIDE to retain legitimacy, it was necessary to pit Kramnik (the rightful heir of Kasparov's throne) against the FIDE World Champion. The title was reunified in 2006 when FIDE Champion Veselin Topalov lost to Kramnik in the 2006 FIDE World Championship Match in Elista.

Index of all World Chess Championships
The following list is an index of all official World Chess Championships. Click on a tournament for a crosstable, a short historical article, a chronological list of all the games, and a discussion forum.
† indicates a FIDE Championship during the period of the split title.

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