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From Steinitz to Carlsen & Ding Liren: Tracing the History of the World Chess Championship

The World Chess Championship has a long history, with the title first being contested in the late 19th century. In the history of chess, the World Chess Championship has been the ultimate prize for players and the highest accolade in the game. From Wilhelm Steinitz, the first official World Chess Champion in 1886, to Magnus Carlsen, the current chess king, each world champion has left their mark on the game in their own unique way. In this blog, we will take a trip down memory lane and explore the fascinating stories of all the World Chess Champions, their styles of play, and their contributions to the game.

The following is a list of all the undisputed World Chess Champions, in order of their reigns:


It's important to clarify that the list only includes the undisputed world champions, as there have been some disputes and controversies in the history of the championship.


1. Wilhelm Steinitz (1886-1894)

Wilhelm Steinitz, an Austrian-American chess player born in 1836 in Praha, Austria (now Czech Republic), was the first recognized World Chess Champion, holding the title from 1886 to 1894. He defeated Johannes Zukertort in 1886 to become the first official World Chess Champion and defended his title successfully several times. Steinitz introduced the concept of positional play in chess, which emphasizes strategic planning and control of key squares on the board, and he wrote several classic chess books. Steinitz's contributions to chess greatly influenced the next generation of top players, including Emanuel Lasker, who succeeded him as world champion. Steinitz died in New York City in 1900.

The first five official world champions in history. From left to right: Steinitz, Lasker, Alekhine and Capablanca together, Euwe. All photos are from Wikipedia.

first five world champions


2. Emanuel Lasker (1894-1921)

Emanuel Lasker, the longest reigning World Chess Champion in history, held the title for an unprecedented 27 years from 1894 to 1921. His flexible approach to the game was ahead of his time and mystified his contemporaries. Lasker had diverse interests, making significant contributions to the development of other games and commutative algebra. A respected mathematician and philosopher, Lasker was a good friend of Albert Einstein, who wrote the introduction to the posthumous biography "The Life of a Chess Master" by Dr. Jacques Hannak (1952). In this preface, Einstein expressed his admiration for Lasker's unique personality and "warm interest in all great human problems", while maintaining his independence.


3. José Raúl Capablanca (1921-1927)

The Cuban chess prodigy Jose Raul Capablanca won the World Chess Championship title from Lasker in 1921 and held it for six years. Capablanca was known for his exceptional endgame skill and speed of play. He was undefeated from 10 February 1916 to 21 March 1924. Future world champions Bobby Fischer and Anatoly Karpov are said to be highly influenced by Capablanca. The Cuban champion passed away in 1942 from a brain hemorrhage but his legacy has endured long after his death. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest contributors to chess theory and endgame play.


4. Alexander Alekhine (1927-1935, 1937-1946)

Alekhine started competing against the world's strongest players by the age of 22. He is also highly regarded as a chess writer and theoretician, having given his name to Alekhine's Defence and several other opening variations. Alekhine won the championship title in 1927 from Capablanca, whom he had never managed to defeat before. After successfully defending the title against Efim Bogoljubov in 1929 and 1934, he lost the world crown to Max Euwe in 1935 but managed to regain it in a rematch in 1937. He died in unclear circumstances while holding the world championship title, making him the only world champion to have died while holding the title.


5. Max Euwe (1935-1937)

Max Euwe was a multi-faceted personality, excelling as a chess player, mathematician, and author. He won the World Chess Champion title in 1935, defeating Alexander Alekhine, only to lose it back to him in an immediate rematch two years later. Ewe also served as President of FIDE, the World Chess Federation, from 1970 to 1978, and was known for his moral compass and willingness to stand up for what he believed was right, even if it conflicted with political interests. Euwe also had a distinguished academic career, teaching mathematics and computer programming at various universities. He published a mathematical analysis of chess that used the Thue–Morse sequence to show that the official rules of the championship in 1929 did not exclude the possibility of infinite games.


6. Mikhail Botvinnik (1948-1957, 1958-1960, 1961-1963)

Following the death of Alexander Alekhine, the world championship title was contested between five players: Max Euwe, Mikhail Botvinnik, Paul Keres, Reuben Fine, and Samuel Reshevsky. Botvinnik won this 1948 tournament convincingly to become the sixth World Champion, the first one player to come out of the Soviet Union. He played a vital role in the development of chess in the country and became a leading member of the coaching system that allowed the Soviet Union to dominate the chess field during that time. He also contributed significantly to the design of the World Chess Championship system after World War II. Botvinnik had a big influence on future world chess champions Anatoly Karpov, Garry Kasparov, and Vladimir Kramnik, all of whom were his pupils.

From left to right: Botvinnik vs Smyslov match, Petrosyan, Spassky, Fischer vs Tal. All photos are from Wikipedia.

6th-11th world champions


7. Vasily Smyslov (1957-1958)

Smyslov consistently competed at the highest levels of chess, being a candidate for the world chess championship on eight occasions. His first championship match against Botvinnik took place in 1954 and ended in a draw, meaning that the defending champion Botvinnik retained his title. Smyslov then won the 1956 Candidates Tournament, which led to another world championship match against Botvinnik in 1957. This time, Smyslov prevailed to write his name in the history books as the seventh world champion. Smyslov also earned an impressive total of 17 Chess Olympiad medals, a record that still stands today. Despite failing eyesight, he continued to play and compose chess problems and studies until shortly before his death in 2010.


8. Mikhail Tal (1960-1961)

One of the most beloved and charismatic world champions in history, Mikhail Tal, was known for his attacking and combinational style. Nicknamed "The Magician from Riga", Tal defeated Mikhail Botvinnik in a World Championship match at the age of 23 to become the youngest-ever world champion at that time. He also set the record for the longest unbeaten streak in competitive chess history with 95 games between 1973 and 1974, a record that stood for over 40 years. Tal passed away in 1992, but his legacy lives on through the annual Mikhail Tal Memorial chess tournament in Moscow, which honors his remarkable contributions to the game. Check out these 3 funny stories about the 8th world champion.


9. Tigran Petrosian (1963-1969)

Tigran Petrosyan was one of the most dominant forces in the world of chess, winning the World Championship in 1963 by defeating Mikhail Botvinnik (who had taken the title from Tal). He successfully defended his title in 1966 against Boris Spassky but ultimately lost it to Spassky in 1969. Thanks to his solid and almost-impenetrable playing style, Petrosyan was nicknamed "Iron Tigran". Petrosyan's success in the game is evident in his record, having been a candidate for the World Chess Championship on eight occasions. What is truly remarkable is that for ten consecutive three-year cycles, Petrosyan was either the defending World Champion or a World Championship Candidate. Petrosyan passed away in 1984 after a battle with stomach cancer. He is buried in the Moscow Armenian Cemetery, leaving behind a lasting impact on the world of chess.


10. Boris Spassky (1969-1972)

Boris Spassky's love for chess started at an early age when he learned to play at just five years old while evacuating from Leningrad during the siege of World War II. He drew wide attention at the age of 10 when he defeated Mikhail Botvinnik in a simultaneous exhibition in Leningrad. Spassky competed in three World Championship matches, losing to Tigran Petrosian in 1966, defeating Petrosian in 1969 to become world champion, and then losing to Bobby Fischer in the famous 1972 match. Following the death of Vasily Smyslov in 2010, Spassky became the oldest former World Chess Champion at the age of 73 and now lives in an apartment in Moscow despite some health challenges.


11. Bobby Fischer (1972-1975)

Widely regarded as one of the greatest chess players of all time, Bobby Fischer won the title by defeating Boris Spassky in a 1972 match that was publicized as a Cold War confrontation between the US and USSR and attracted more worldwide interest than any other chess championship before or since. However, his refusal to defend the title in 1975 after disagreements with FIDE led to him being stripped of the title. Despite his short reign, Fischer made numerous lasting contributions to chess. His 1969 book "My 60 Memorable Games" is regarded as essential reading in chess literature. In the 1990s, he patented a modified chess timing system that added a time increment after each move, now standard practice in top tournaments. He also invented Fischer random chess, aka Chess960, a chess variant in which the initial position of the pieces is randomized to one of 960 possible positions. Test your skills by solving these 5 puzzles from Fischer's games.


12. Anatoly Karpov (1975-1985)

After Fischer was stripped of his title in 1975, Anatoly Karpov became the World Chess Champion by default. Despite the controversy surrounding this decision, Karpov was determined to prove himself as a legitimate champion and participated in nearly every major tournament for the next decade. He also defended his title against Viktor Korchnoi in two memorable matches and won six Olympic Gold medals as part of the Soviet team. Although Karpov lost the title to Garry Kasparov in 1985, he remained a formidable opponent fighting Kasparov in three more world championship matches in 1986, 1987, and 1990, all of which were extremely close. Karpov continued to be ranked world No. 2 until the mid-1990s and even recaptured the title when Kasparov and Nigel Short split from FIDE.

The newer era of world champions. From left to right: Karpov, Kasparov vs Kramnik, Anand. Photos from Wikipedia.

12th-15th world champions


13. Garry Kasparov (1985-2000)

In discussions of the greatest chess player of all time, Garry Kasparov seems to have the strongest claim. Even the current chess king, Magnus Carlsen, considers him to be the chess GOAT. With a rating of 2858, matched only by Carlsen to this day, Kasparov dominated the chess world for decades. He became the youngest ever undisputed World Chess Champion at the age of 23 in 1985 after defeating Anatoly Karpov in a highly anticipated rematch. Kasparov holds several impressive records, including the most consecutive professional tournament victories (15) and the longest period of being the top-ranked player in the world, from 1985 until his retirement from professional chess in 2005 (255 months). Additionally, he authored several influential books on chess strategy and other world chess champions. In 1997, he made history by playing a highly publicized match against the IBM computer Deep Blue, ultimately losing in a stunning upset.


14. Vladimir Kramnik (2000-2007)

In 2000, Vladimir Kramnik did what seemed to be the impossible, he defeated Garry Kasparov in a match to become the Classical World Chess Champion. After defending it against Peter Leko, he won a unification match against Veselin Topalov to become the first undisputed World Champion, holding both the FIDE and Classical titles, since Kasparov split from FIDE in 1993. Although Kramnik lost his title to Viswanathan Anand in 2007 and was unable to regain it in 2008, he remained a top player, reaching a peak rating of 2817 in October 2016, which makes him the joint-eighth highest-rated player of all time. In January 2019, Kramnik publicly announced his retirement as a professional chess player. He now works as a coach and mentor for young players, sharing his knowledge and expertise with the next generation of chess players.


15. Viswanathan Anand (2007-2013)

One of the most beloved world champions, Viswanathan Anand is the first grandmaster from India to become a world champion. Anand won the 2000 FIDE World Chess Championship by defeating Alexei Shirov in a six-game match and held the title until 2002. In April 2006, Anand became the fourth player in history to pass the 2800 Elo mark on the FIDE rating list, after Kramnik, Topalov, and Garry Kasparov. He occupied the number one position for 21 months, making it the sixth-longest period on record. Anand became the undisputed world champion in 2007 and defended his title against Vladimir Kramnik in 2008, Veselin Topalov in 2010, and Boris Gelfand in 2012. Despite losing his title to Magnus Carlsen in 2013, Anand remained a top player and had great success, especially in rapid events, winning the World Rapid Chess Championship in 2017.


16. Magnus Carlsen (2013-2023)

It's difficult to overstate Magnus Carlsen's skill as a chess player. Often referred to as the "Mozart of Chess," he has won five World Chess Championships, four World Rapid Championships, and six World Blitz Championships. Carlsen has held the No. 1 spot in the FIDE world chess rankings since 2011. With a peak rating of 2882, he holds the record for the highest rating in history and the longest unbeaten streak in classical chess at the elite level. Carlsen claimed the World Chess Champion title in 2013 by defeating Viswanathan Anand, which he retained against Anand the following year. He also won the 2014 World Rapid and World Blitz Championships, becoming the first player to hold all three titles simultaneously, a feat he repeated in 2019 and 2022. After defending the classical chess title against Anand, Sergey Karjakin, Fabiano Caruana, and Ian Nepomniachtchi, the Norwegian champion decided to vacate the title in 2023. Try to solve the top 4 positions from Carlsen's championship matches.

From left to right: Carlsen and the candidates for the 17th World Championship title: Nepomniachtchi and Ding Liren. All photos are from Wikipedia.

Carlsen, Nepomniachtchi, and Ding Liren


17. Ding Liren

Following Magnus Carlsen’s vacation of the World Chess Championship title, the two top finishers of the 2022 FIDE Candidates tournament - Ian Nepomniachtchi and Ding Liren were scheduled to compete for the chess crown from April 9-30. In a highly competitive match, Ding Liren secured the prestigious World Chess Championship title thus becoming the 16th world champion.

Ding Liren is the greatest chess player in Chinese history. He is the highest-rated Chinese player and the first from his country to participate in a Candidates Tournament, pass the 2800 Elo mark on the FIDE world rankings, and finally become a world champion.

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