Whose Title Is it, Anyway?

by Yasser Seirawan


First published in the August 1998 issue of GAMES Magazine


What does the title "world chess championship" mean? Who owns it? Who confers it? These are questions the chess world has been asking itself with increasing regularity as the sport leaves its rich historical traditions behind and enters today's fast-paced high-tech world.

Chess has established a firm place in society. How many sports can boast:

  • a 1,400-year history;
  • a recognized line of world champions extending back to 1866;
  • the exact same set of established rules recognized in every country in the world;
  • precise move-for-move replay of the games in their entirety;
  • the world's third-largest international sporting body, with 176 countries represented;
  • prize funds for championships in the millions of dollars?

With such seeming stability, why in the name of boxing does the game of chess have four world champions?


For centuries, chess was a gentle and noble pastime. A mystique of erudition and education was automatically conferred upon even the coarsest souls who were familiar with the game. European aristocracy embraced chess, as did many of history's intellectual giants, and the Game of Kings became the King of Games. In gentlemen's clubs, social houses, noble palaces, schoolyards, pubs, parks and parlors, games were played and money wagered. It paid well to bet on the best player and to know the strengths of the adversary. Contests, matches, and tournaments were organized, the games published, and the really good players became famous.

There is the apocryphal tale of how a dinner party host in the 1860s stood up, tongue in cheek, to toast the best chess player in the world - himself. Two of his guests stood up to accept the same kind applause. The idea of a match between the most acknowledged masters for the ultimate title was born.

While the name of the world's best players of the 8th through 19th centuries are known, it was not until 1866 that the first "official" world chess championship match was arranged. The match drew great attention in newspapers and periodicals around the world. Wilhelm Steinitz of Austria, by virtue of his clear first-place finish at the 1865 Dublin tournament, was invited to play Germany's Adolf Anderssen, who was widely recognized as the best player of the day. (Anderssen had lost a match to the American chess genius Paul Morphy in 1858 but Morphy had given up chess soon after that.) In the first of many world championship upsets, Steinitz surprised everyone, including himself, by winning the match with 8 wins and 6 losses. No draws!

In those days, everyone played for victory. Going down in a blaze of glory without the slightest thought of defense was chivalrous. "Sir, I'm not here to save my salt but to spill yours!" was the sentiment. After his victory, Steinitz was declared world chess champion, a title he defended until 1894, when a younger, stronger player, Emanuel Lasker of Germany, beat him by a score of 10 wins, 5 losses, and 4 draws.


The win-loss figures in these matches are important, as they come back to haunt us in modern times. After his first match victories, Steinitz decided the "fairest" contest was one in which the victor was the first player to win 10 games, with draws not counting. Further, Steinitz maintained that when either player scored nine wins, that player could not lose the match. In the case of a 9-9 tie, the money would split equally. The rub was that in a tie match, the champion kept his title and therefore the opportunity for another lucrative payday. Steinitz's rules were accepted at the time, since no one imagined the possibility of an open-ended match dominated by draws. It was easier to win than to draw!

Match games in the 19th century were ponderously slow. The earliest time controls were 24 moves in two hours. Games lasted many hours, and were often adjourned and resumed days later. By 1883, the generally accepted rate of play was 15 moves per hour per player. Fortunately, time controls have consistently seen the move requirements increase and the time to think decrease.

Emanuel Lasker reigned supreme for 27 years, until he met his match in the form of a young Cuban named Jose Raul Capablanca. Capablanca was leading by the score of 4 wins to 0, with 10 draws, when Emanuel conceded victory.

In 1921, the dashing Capa was the darling of the chess world. His talent was astounding, and he vanquished the world's best with such style, elan, and grace, it was felt that he played perfectly. Well-paid exhibitions, lectures, and even the title "Cuba's ambassador to the world" followed his recognition as world champion. Capa wasn't anxious to put his title up for grabs and demanded that the challenger raise a very large stake in gold. He kept the title for six years unchallenged. In 1927, in an astounding upset, Alexander Alekhine, a Russian emigre representing France, won 6, lost 3 and drew 25 games to snare the title.


The new champion was no fool; he was aware that Capa had taken him lightly. It was widely reported that during the 1927 match in Buenos Aires, Capa had "entertained" over 70 different ladies in his hotel room during the several months that the match lasted. (It is well known within the chess community that chess players are the world's most passionate lovers.) Capa was stung by the loss of the title and sought an immediate rematch. Thus began one of history's great cat-and-mouse games between chess rivals. Alekhine was delighted to defend himself against lesser grandmasters, but he would never face Capa in match play again. Alekhine's title as world champion was viewed with some skepticism, but he played superbly in tournament events and, after all, he had defeated Capa.

Spurred on by larger prizes, more tournaments, and possible professionalism, the world's best players began to get more serious about sorting our their affairs. The Federation International des Esches (FIDE) was founded in 1924, when the participants at the 1924 Paris tournament formed a kind of players' union. FIDE was to grow and evolve into an international sporting body with national federations, not individuals, as its members.

Prior to the emergence of FIDE, the world champion quite often picked his challenger, named the format, and started the necessary purse. A rather fine state of affairs if you were the champion!

The chess world was thrown into chaos in 1946 by Alekhine's untimely death. To find Alekhine's successor as champion, in 1948 FIDE organized a tournament of the five best players. The first part was held in The Hague and the second part in Moscow. The Soviet Union's iron-willed Mikhail Botvinnik emerged the victor. Thereafter, FIDE created a lengthy system to determine a challenger to the reigning champion. A championship match was organized and sanctioned by FIDE to be held every three years. The system worked perfectly - for Soviet players. For the next 26 years, the might Soviet grandmasters traded the title amongst themselves.


In the 1960s, America had a brash upstart grandmaster by the name of Robert James Fischer. Bobby, as he was affectionately called, didn't ingratiate himself with the FIDE authorities. He openly accused the Soviet players of cheating in the closed tournament events. Eventually, FIDE would relent and change its system, but only after Bobby had been forfeited and had refused to play in two of FIDE's three-year cycles.

How were the Soviets able to "cheat" at chess, and why did the FIDE system favor them? It wasn't a question of pulling an extra pawn out from their sleeves; it was a question of fixing the results of games in advance. As the best group of players in the world, the Soviets already had an advantage. Now imagine eight top players competing in a round-robin tournament, with seven of them coming from the Soviet Union, and only the top one or two finishers advancing to the next qualifying stage. In a round-robin tournament, everyone plays everyone else once or twice, and high score wins. In a race for the gold, the Soviet players pooled their resources in order to ensure that one of them would always win against the outsider(s). Soviet players came from a system of government that left them with no choice: You won the gold medal, you stopped the American, and you prospered - or else. If the American had a bad tournament, the competition would be fair and the results among the Soviet player were honest. If an outsider was doing well, however, the leading Soviet player would suddenly be assured a number of easy draws or fine wins against his Soviet colleagues.

In 1972, after years of claiming that he was the strongest player in the world, Bobby proved it. FIDE acceded to Bobby's demands and changed the Candidate Tournament format to a series of Candidate Matches. Bobby now played the Soviets one at a time and beat them all. It was only because of this rule change that Bobby ever got a shot at the title. He clobbered Soviet star Boris Spassky in a world championship match that riveted the media as a "Cold War on the Chessboard."

Intriguingly, it is in Russia itself where Bobby, to this day, is appreciated the most. It has been said the Russians have three loves: poetry, vodka, and chess. The average Russian hated the Communist system, and many Russian chess players were inwardly delighted when Bobby thumped the Soviet champion.

Bobby wasn't satisfied with his world championship victory. His disliked the FIDE-imposed match system of 24 games in which the winner was the first to score 12 1/2 points (1 point is earned for a win, 1/2 point for a draw), with the champion retaining the title in case of a 12-12 tie. In Bobby's view, such a system encouraged a rear-guard action; that is, once the champion got a lead, he could draw his way to the crown without taking any further risks. In boxing terms, it meant a fighter leading in points could win by running around the ring and refusing to engage.

Prior to his match with Spassky, Bobby was pining to have the rules changed. He wanted to have the "must win 10 games" format that Steinitz had laid down a century before. The Soviets were elated. Like most international bodies after World War II, FIDE was a microcosm of the united Nations, where the Soviets - voting as a bloc with other Socialist nations - got their wishes. Unable to beat Bobby on the board, the Soviets defeated his proposals in the FIDE general assembly. In 1975 Bobby forfeited his FIDE title to the new Soviet sports hero Anatoly Karpov and would not play another game publicly until 1992.


Bobby's supporters, who felt that the world's best player had just gotten kicked out of chess, recognized him a the real People's Champion. Over the years, this support began to waver and ultimately crumbled as Bobby repeatedly refuse invitations to play - even with a $5 million purse offered by President Marcos of the Philippines.

The new FIDE Champion Karpov was well aware that he hadn't endeared himself to the chess public by winning on a forfeit. He sought legitimacy by playing in and winning nearly every competition he joined. His run of first-place wins was staggering, and with machine-like efficiency, he amassed a tournament and match record that many never be bested. With Bobby out of action, Karpov became recognized as the best player, the FIDE Champion, the world champion. Still, there was this agonizing split. Bobby hadn't lost the title; the Soviets - with FIDE's political machinations - had stripped him of it. The point was, whose title is it, anyway - the player's or the organization's? FIDE organized the system and conferred the title. FIDE took it away and would do so again.

From the Soviet perspective and from Karpov's own, things were heavenly until 1984. Karpov was facing his countryman Garry Kasparov in a title match that would go to the first player to win six games. After notching a 5-0 lead (!) with 27 draws, Karpov seemed to have the match completely in hand. Kasparov, however, fought back and won three games, cutting Karpov's lead to 5-3 after 48 games (40 games were drawn). The Soviet organizers were exhausted. FIDE President Florencio Campomanes stepped in, declared an emergency, and simply canceled the match! Karpov's two-point lead disappeared, and a new and manageable 24-game match was ordered. The 1984 "must win six games" match put Bobby Fischer's demand of Steinitz's "must win 10 games" match in perspective. The defensive strategy of chess professionals wasn't so chivalrous. It now included the corporate philosophy of "cover your salt." No one was anxious to organize a "must win 10 games" match. Would Bobby ever play again?


Amusingly, this great favor of canceling the 1984 match that Campomanes had done for Kasparov would not go unpunished. At the end of the match, Kasparov had evaluated his chances of winning as 20 percent, and Karpov was hoping mad that his two-point lead had evaporated. Nevertheless, it was Kasparov who would harbor great personal enmity against Campomanes and the whole FIDE structure. This requires a little explanation.

Politically, Kasparov was not a favored Soviet son. He was born Garry Weinstein in Baku, the capital of the republic of Azerbaijan, of a Jewish father and an Armenian mother - two minorities that suffered terribly under the Soviet system. He "Russianized" his name to Kasparov to gain political clout.

Kasparov fought against Moscow apparatchiks of the Soviet Chess Federation who actively stunted his growth as a chess player. He realized that FIDE was dominated by a Soviet federation that supported his rival Anatoly Karpov. Thus, Garry warred on three fronts: over the chess board, with the Soviet Chess Federation, and with FIDE officials. Never a dull moment! He perceived Campomanes as a Moscow stooge, and nothing would alter that conviction.

Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov proved to be the greatest antagonists the chess world has ever known. They would play five matches in a six-year period with one annulled, one drawn, and Garry winning three by close margins. In all three of his winning matches, the outcome was not determined until the 24th and final game.

Kasparov kept the FIDE crown from 1985 until 1993, when he was finally to face a new challenger, Nigel Short of England. Both Short and Kasparov expected a payday similar to the $3 million for which the fifth Karpov-Kasparov match had been fought three years earlier. When Campomanes and FIDE announced that the match was being awarded to Manchester, England, for the paltry sum of 1.2 million pounds sterling, the players bolted. Kasparov and Short were certain that FIDE had failed to secure the best bids and decided to form their own company, the Professional Chess Association (PCA).


FIDE's bidding system for a chess championship match was similar to that of the International Olympic Committee. Cities, supported by private business interests, would offer millions of dollars for the right to host a match. Bids were sent to FIDE headquarters in Switzerland, and the winning bid was usually the one that offered the biggest prize. With the games closely followed via the Internet, newspapers, TV, radio, and magazines, the winning city would reap invaluable publicity on a worldwide scale.

When Kasparov and Short bolted, FIDE officials were aghast. Since Alekhine's death, FIDE had earned the lion's share of its budget by sanctioning the men's world-championship match. Usually, FIDE took a 20 percent cut of the prize money right off the top. Without being able to sanction the Kasparov-Short duel, FIDE would in time go broke. It retaliated by forfeiting Kasparov of his title and inviting Karpov and Jan Timman of The Netherlands - the two players whom Nigel Short had dispatch to earn the right to play Kasparov - to fight for the "vacant" FIDE championship. In 1993, for the second time in his career, Karpov won the FIDE crown from someone who didn't have it. That same year, Kasparov successfully defended his new PCA title for a little less than 1.1 million pounds in London. Ever since, the chess world has remained split, with FIDE and the PCA dueling for bragging rights over who is the real world champion.

Shortly after breaking away form FIDE, Kasparov and the PCA hit their stride. The Times of London had happily sponsored the PCA championship with the support of Tory leader John Major. Princess Diana attended a number of the games. The 1993 FIDE event, meanwhile, was held in Jakarta, backed by Indonesian tycoon Bob Hassan. In 1993 FIDE needed a friend, and Bob came through for the minimum 1,000,000 Swiss Franc bid. FIDE got it's 20 percent, cut some expenses, and remained in business.

Further complicating the picture, Bobby Fischer had finally surfaced the previous year to play chess after a hiatus of two decades. A Yugoslavian banker discovered $5,000,000 in his depositors' savings to stage a rematch between Bobby and Boris. As Bobby insisted, the match was based on Steinitz's "must win 10 games" system. In a mere 30 games, Bobby eared his winner's check of $3.5 million with a score of 10 wins, 5 losses and 15 draws. Fischer fans were elated.Bobby was back to teach truth, justice, and the American way to the Soviet, er, Russian chess players. Chess had another champion on the scene with a claim to being the best. But before long, Bobby disappeared again.


In 1995, Kasparov was gleeful, as the PCA reached a high-water mark while FIDE struggled. Intel sponsored the PCA Championship, held on the Observation Deck level of New York's World Trade Center, where Kasparov defeated a worthy challenger in Viswanathan Anand of India. After much backbiting and delay, the FIDE Championship was staged in Elista, the capital of the little-known autonomous Russian Republic of Kalmykia. While Kasparov - one of the youngest Communist party members ever- was thumping his chest and speaking in fervent tones of professionalism, commercialism, and capitalism, FIDE was having a devil of a time getting anything but the bard minimum for its championship.

Tottering toward collapse in late 1995, FIDE elected a new president; Kirsan Iljumzinov. Like a comic-book hero - and Kirsan does a have a comic book devoted to him - he swooped up FIDE and gave it new life, or at least lots of cash. Kirsan Iljumzinov is the president of Kalmykia. He was the organizer of sponsor of the 1995 FIDE Championship, an act of generosity that left him in good stead with FIDE officials - so much so, the elected him president.

Now, about that cash. This is one of those mysteries that only knowledgeable Kremlin watchers could possibly understand. Kirsan was an early and vocal backer of Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Gratified by the support and the votes of the Kalmykian people, Boris expressed his appreciation by giving Kalmykia a whole lot of autonomy, especially where taxes and import-export licenses were concerned. With so much oil, caviar, and mutton in that part of Russia, Kirsan has managed to do very well for himself. He may well be a billionaire, and is reputed to be Russian's wealthiest man at the spunky age of 35. Amazing what hard politicking can do for a person's wallet.

Kirsan decided that the FIDE Championship format needed a radical overhaul. He decided to accelerate match play, creating two-game mini-matches - quick knockouts. The final match was slated to last a mere six games, with the winner taking home $1.3 million. If a match was tied, the players would play tiebreak games at ever-faster time controls. The latest stage of a tiebreak would be blitz chess with five minutes per player for the whole game. Remember those old time controls of 24 moves in two hours?


Traditionalists were outraged - especially Kasparov, who saw himself as the defender of a system that stretched back to Steinitz. The new FIDE format would speed up a three-year cycle into a three-week event. The outcry was smothered when Kirsan announced that he would be reaching into his own wallet to pull out a $5 million in prizes for his new format. First-round losers would each earn $6,000, second-round losers $12,000, and so on, with prizes doubling each round. The lone winner would score about $1.3 million, and FIDE would get its 20 percent., or $1 million. Everyone settled down.

The first such tournament was held in Groningen, Holland, in December 1997, where Anand won the right to battle Karpov. Their six-game match - held in January in Lausanne, Switzerland - ended in a 3-3 tie. Two overtime games were played at the accelerated time limit of 30 minutes per player, and Karpov won both to retain his FIDE crown.

To be sure that his format would survive in the future, Kirsan put $50 million into a foundation to sponsor the next 10 FIDE Championships. The 1998 FIDE Championship is slated for December in Las Vegas - the entertainment capital of the world. One must admit that Kirsan does things in style.

Meanwhile, the proverbial sword had fallen on the PCA, which had always drawn its strength from Kasparov. As long as Garry lived and played great chess, the PCA was "alive." Certain wags called the PCA the Plane Crash Association, explaining that as soon as Garry's plane went down, so would the PCA. Happily, Garry's flights are still aloft. What decked the PCA was a certain 6-foot-5-inch, one-and-half ton monster known as Deep Blue. In May 1997 in New York City, this silicon warrior came out of IBM's computer labs and beat Garry Kasparov under regulation tournament conditions by the score of 3.5-2.5.

While the chess world knew it was coming (we are all Star Trek fans), the defeat was far too premature. Deep Blue was very good, but at least 50 grandmasters could defeat it today. In the words of New York Times reporter Robert Byrne, "Garry Kasparov psyched himself out." These words echoed the thoughts of chess grandmasters everywhere, but this was not the story that was gobbled up by the media. "Computers better than us," was the sad headline that circled the globe. Like millions if not billions of others, my own mother incorrectly believes that Deep Blue is the best chess player in the world.

Like Alekhine before them, IBM knows better than my mother. Garry's strategy for his match was dead wrong. He played like a numskull, choosing openings that were not a part of his repertoire in an effort to throw off the preparations of the computer team. What happened instead is that he got into positions that neither he nor the computer knew very well. For Garry, this proved fatal.

With the match tied in the final game six, Garry played an unfamiliar defense, made a human error of mixing the order of his moves, and promptly fell into a known book trap. Deep Blue only had to play its preprogrammed opening library of moves, and Garry lost within one hour, long before many in the audience had time to take their seats.

IBM got away with a huge media victory and promptly announced that henceforth Deep Blue would be looking after the big picture. IBM and Deep Blue would unravel the mysteries of viruses, the weather, the cosmos, space travel, subatomic structure, and so on - in short, problems far less difficult than chess. Like Capablanca before him, Kasparov was furious and is still hopping mad. His sentiments can't be expressed in a family magazine.

As an important footnote to this defeat, Intel was furious also - with Kasparov. One of its biggest corporate rivals, IBM, had garnered worldwide publicity for a mere million-dollar match, while Intel had given many millions to the PCA "Top of the World" Championship. Intel subsequently withdrew its PCA sponsorship, and the PCA has been slowly fading from view ever since.


Since Kasparov's 1993 split from FIDE, both he and Karpov have remained active players, regularly competing in tournaments around the globe. Without question, Kasparov's results have been better, and he remains the world's highest-rated player. Accordingly, most of my grandmaster colleagues back Kasparov's claim as the world champion. Being a biased American, Fischer gets my nod, and being a politically correct person, I call Karpov the official FIDE Champion and the higher-rated Kasparov the PCA Champion.

With the PCA existing in name only, however, and with FIDE righted by a president with pockets as deep as Russia is big, Garry's championship claims are in trouble. In February 1998, he announced the formation of something called the World Chess Council (WCC). Kasparov has hand-picked two players, Vladimir Kramnik and Viswanathan Anand, to play a match for the right to meet him in a 18-game match to be played later this year in Spain. The WCC bout will be played for 200 million Spanish pesetas and will be sponsored by the Andalusian Junta (a regional body) of Spain. That sounds like a dumptruck full of pesetas (it's actually about $1.3 million). Good for Garry; He is fighting for the history of chess and his right to pick his own challenger. Alexander Alekhine, Garry's chess hero, would be proud!


To sum up the confusion, it is now time to play "Choose your Champion." Your choices include:
  • my own personal favorite, Bobby Fischer
  • the highest rated player, PCA champion and now WCC champion, Garry Kasparov;
  • the FIDE Champion, Anatoly Karpov;
  • the silicon-based Kasparov-killer, Deep Blue.

Who do you like, and what does your opinion matter, anyway?

Actually, choose-your-champion is a silly game. It's time for chess players to give up their 18th century sporting mentality and enter the 21st century. Pete Sampras may be the best tennis player in the world, but he has to prove it each and every year in every competition.

Many sports distinguish their champions by listing their prize winnings. Garry Kasparov said it best when asked which match should be recognized as the world championship. He replied, "the one that makes the most money," inadvertently handing the title to Bobby Fischer. My guy.



About the Author

International Chess Grandmaster Yasser Seirawan was the first American contender for the world title since Bobby Fischer retired in 1975. Seirawan qualified for the world championship in 1985, 1987, and 1997. He has earned numerous titles, including 1979 World Junior Champion, three-time U.S. Champion, 1998 Western Hemisphere Champion, and seven-time member of the U.S. Olympic chess team. In the 1994 Chess Olympics he earned an individual gold medal for best individual score. He has defeated Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov in tournament play, the tow top-ranking players in the world.

Born in Damascus, Syria, in 1960, Seirawan moved with his family to Seattle, Washington, at the age of 7. His chess career was launched at the age of 12, when he began to play in local and regional tournaments, Seirawan lives in Seattle, where he is the publisher of Inside Chess magazine. He is the author of 12 books on chess. His website was http://www.insidechess.com/