a short history of the royal game
The Origins of Chess
Chess as we know it today emerged in southern Europe near the end of the 15th century. The earliest recorded games and analyses of modern chess come from Italy and Spain. The exploits and writings of Ruy Lopez and Greco in the 16th and 17th centuries influenced generations.
The roots of the game go back much further, to 7th century India and the game chaturanga. Soon variations appeared in the Islamic world and it is believed that the game entered Europe via the Moorish conquests of Spain and Sicily.
The great French player Philidor, also a renown composer, was by far the most important figure of 18th century chess. His understanding of the game was so far ahead of its time that his concepts were not fully understood by others until 100 years after his death.
The modern competitive age of chess began in London in 1851 when the first international tournament was organized by the great English player Howard Staunton. Much to his surprise he was defeated by the eventual winner of the tournament, Adolf Anderssen of Germany, whose attacking brilliance made him the dominant player of the period with one brief, spectacular, exception.
The American Paul Morphy appeared on the chess scene suddenly and disappeared just as quickly. But from 1857 to 1859 he shook the chess world with a new style. Instead of the wild attacks of the Romantic school, Morphy developed his pieces and only went on the offensive when success was all but guaranteed. He swept aside all opposition during a tour of Europe and was hailed as the first great international champion. With no one to challenge him, Morphy returned to the US and soon gave up chess for an unsuccessful law career.
The lessons of Philidor and Morphy were forgotten until Wilhelm Steinitz began to formulate his precepts for correct play toward the end of the 19th century. Steinitz went beyond Morphy and documented his system of play in decades of prolific literary output. In 1886 he defeated the other leading player of the day, Zukertort, and declared himself World Champion. Today he is considered the first official world champion and so began a long history of title succession.
The first half of the 20th century saw a chess title that was owned by the champion. Title matches were arranged, or not arranged, privately. Steinitz' successor, Emanuel Lasker – and his successors Jose Capablanca, Alexander Alekhine, and Max Euwe – spent much of their time and energy arranging (or avoiding) title matches.
After World War II the international chess federation, known by its French acronym FIDE, took over the organization of the world championship. Tournaments, and later matches, were held to select the challenger of the reigning champion and a title match was held every three years. Chess surged in popularity worldwide, becoming a truly international game.
The Soviet Union had aggressively promoted chess among its citizens for decades and its players dominated, beginning with Mikhail Botvinnik in 1948. Vasily Smyslov, Mikhail Tal, and Tigran Petrosian all held the highest title during this "first among equals" period of Soviet hegemony. Botvinnik's rigorous training methods added a greater degree of science to the artistic and sporting elements of the game.
The title stayed in the Soviet family for 24 years, when American Bobby Fischer beat Boris Spassky in Iceland in 1972. The brilliant and eccentric Fischer continued the tradition of Alekhine and Botvinnik by working harder than his peers. His fanatical dedication raised the level of the game to new heights at the board while his uncompromising nature did the same in the realm of prize money.
Unfortunately, the good Fischer did for the popularity of the game was not as good for him personally. After a conflict with FIDE over the rules for his title defense he banished himself from chess much as his countryman Morphy had done over 100 years earlier. His legacy was an improvement in conditions for all players and an international wave of interest in the game, another parallel with Morphy.
Fischer's forfeit left the title to a new young representative of the Soviet school, Anatoly Karpov. The 12th champion quickly dispelled doubts about his legitimacy by winning every tournament in sight and defending his title twice. Karpov's dominance ended only with the arrival of Kasparov 10 years later and even then it wasn't immediately clear which of them would emerge triumphant.
The now-legendary Kasparov-Karpov duels brought the game to its highest level. The two greatest players clashed again and again in five consecutive world championship matches. Kasparov took the title in 1985 and held off Karpov until, at last, another challenger emerged for the 1993 match.
Both of the "K's" benefited from Fischer's years of insisting that chess champions deserved star treatment and star remuneration and their titanic matches made them the first chess millionaires. The sport had come a long way since the coffeehouse champions of the 19th century played for pennies.
Computers and the Future of Chess
Along the way the game itself had changed. The time controls – the amount of time the players get for their moves – had speeded up. Blitz and rapid chess events, in which the players have minutes instead of hours, were becoming popular. Computers began to have an impact and were competing with Grandmasters. Every top player used ChessBase to study and prepare and games were analyzed with Fritz and other PC programs.
The chess world was shaken in 1993 when Kasparov and the new challenger, Englishman Nigel Short, acted on their dissatisfaction with FIDE and formed a new organization to organize their world championship match.
The "Professional Chess Association" didn't last long but it was long enough to split the chess world and the divide still has not been repaired. FIDE maintains a world title separate from the tradition begun with Steinitz. Meanwhile, Kasparov lost the classical title to his one-time pupil Vladimir Kramnik in 2000.
Despite that stunning upset, Kasparov has maintained his spot as #1 on the international rating list. He has recently been working with FIDE to attempt to re-unify the title. Ongoing sponsorship woes have left both FIDE and Kramnik without a championship match in the past several years. A nascent movement to truly professionalize chess in the image of tennis and other successful sports is underway.
The financial and political crises have not deterred a very strong new generation of chessplayers from appearing. With the help of computer training, younger and younger Grandmasters appear each year. The current record-holder, Sergey Karjakin of Ukraine, achieved the title at the tender age of 12!
Computers are having ever more influence on the sport as players and as analytical tools. Several years ago Kasparov created "Advanced Chess," in which a Grandmaster plays with the assistance of ChessBase and Fritz. Human-machine events draw tremendous interest and only the top players can compete with current programs like Fritz, Junior, and Shredder.
The game has moved very successfully onto the internet and chess is reaching a new audience of millions each year. Fans who used to wait months to find out the results of tournaments can now follow the games live with expert commentary. Certainly ESPN's live coverage of the Kasparov-X3D Fritz match should be considered a landmark moment. The future of professional chess will depend on the support of events by corporate sponsors like X3D, Corus, and Sparkassen as well as municipal supporters like those of Linares, Mainz, and Dortmund.