The Chess kings

Jun 14, 2012, 07:57 IST | Manisha Mohite

One needs more than just grit and determination to be a World Champion, especially in the game of chess. Here's a look at the league of extraordinary World Champions in the chequered history of the game

Titles, tenure and tenacity segregate Emanuel Lasker, Mikhail Botvinnik, Anatoly Karpov, Garry Kasparov and Viswanathan Anand from other World Chess Champions. They are bound together in an exclusive league of extraordinary World Chess Champions—winning the coveted crown on five or more occasions. Tactical finesse, impeccable technique, spark of originality and most importantly the drive to excel, the desire to dominate and the will to impose has ensured that each and every one of them will have a special, reserved place in the history of chess.

Honour: India's defending World Chess Champion Viswanathan Anand is garlanded in the award ceremony of the FIDE World Chess Championship match in State Tretyakovsky Gallery in Moscow on May 31, 2012. Pics/AFP

Emanuel Lasker’s feat of six World titles spanning 27 years from 1894 might be the feat, hardest to emulate, especially in terms of tenure. There however was no system in place then and it was the prerogative of the champion to pick and play an opponent of his choice. Sometimes, there were huge gaps of years between two title bouts and the two World Wars also virtually brought chess activities to a complete halt. It was Botvinnik’s initiative and thought that a proper system was set in place to determine the World champion in 1948. The Soviet School of Chess is the brainchild and a legacy of Botvinnik and one which his illustrious students, Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov enriched and gave credence to, for close to three decades. Botvinnik won the title five times while Karpov and Kasparov won it six times each.

What a game : Israel’s Boris Gelfand plays against Vishwanathan Anand during a FIDE World Chess Championship match in State Tretyakovsky Gallery in Moscow on May 28, 2012

Karpov and Kasparov have been a part of a successful system, selected and groomed, styled and steered towards their ultimate destiny. Assisted and aided by the formidable formula which had been tried and tested, a powerful chess culture which was evolving indigenously, it appeared but natural that the promise and potential that they exhibited in abundance would culminate in nothing less than the World title. The draw-back of course was that on their 64 squares, they could be crowned Kings but in the system, they were mere pawns, pushed and advanced, at times with political motives. They were picked and projected as child prodigies, their destinies almost decided. There were no other career choices to be made, no frowning by society, but a matter of pride and financial security to opt for chess as a career, one which was highly regarded and rewarded. From the sixties onwards, chess players in erstwhile USSR enjoyed salaries around three times higher than an average professional salary, got good flats to live in and cars to move around and most importantly had the luxury of foreign trips for chess events. So, in that sense for Karpov and Kasparov, the path was paved, the directions were clear-cut, the nudges and pushes, timely. What differentiated them from the other aspirants was their intensity in pursuing their heart’s desire, their ambition to excel and soar, soar and soar to invincible heights.

Mind game: Children take part in an Under-Nineteen Chess Championship at the Indoor Stadium in Srinagar in 2005

To a large extent, Viswanathan Anand is an aberration in this list of five, hailing from the land which traces the origin of chess, but where it never really thrived or grew for that matter. A choice for chess unheard, frowned and even looked on disapprovingly, a social stigma of sorts, a decision that must have at times, deterred Anand in treading the lonely and unchartered route which must have appeared directionless, heading nowhere.

Politics and chess : Former chess champion Garry Kasparov, takes part in the rally in central Moscow, on February 4, 2012, to urge Putin to quit power 

For Anand, the only inspiration must have been the mercurial Robert James Fischer of USA who had briefly and decisively unshackled and prised open the tight and invincible grip the Russians had over the Chess title, the one they revere even today like a ‘National Treasure’. Fischer’s appearance however was only momentary, like a comet visiting just once, blazing briefly, before fading into oblivion. In 1972 Fischer defeated Boris Spassky, in what many describe as the Match of the Century and in 1975 he forfeited the title, after throwing tantrums and numerous demands. Fischer then totally disappeared from the chess scene and the Russians once again took over till Anand won the title in knockout format in 2000.

Amongst the five champions, it is Kasparov who was the most dominating, after winning the title by defeating Karpov in 1985. Kasparov maintained his World Number One Elo rating from 1986 till his retirement in 2005 ( a record 255 times), conceding it just once to Vladimir Kramnik in 1996. Kasparov’s rating of 2851 is still the highest ever by any chess player. Incidentally Kasparov and Karpov clashed five times in succession from 1984 to 1990 for the World title, a statistic unprecedented in the history of the game. It was during these intense clashes that Kasparov became the only player to cross the magical Elo 2800 and Karpov was the only player to be rated above 2700 in those days.

In terms of versatility and adaptability, Anand has been most consistent and is the only player in the history of the game to win the title in all three formats, the knockout, tournament style and in Match format. In true sense a genius, one who engineered the road, paved it, engraved and beautified it for compatriots to be attracted and start treading on it. In short he ushered in a chess revolution single handedly. A non-controversial champion who has won hearts and admiration, both for his on board skills and off board conduct, Anand will undoubtedly be in a league of his own—an extraordinary Gentleman World Champion! It is important to note that, not all dedicated and deserving candidates achieve the ultimate dream of being crowned World Champion. Chess history is replete with greats who never made the cut, the likes of Akiba Rubinstein, Paul Keres, David Bronstein, Samel Reshevsky, Viktor Korchnoi to name a few, in an debatable list. However, amongst the living legends it is practically impossible to miss out 81-year-old GM Viktor Korchnoi, whose career has spanned for more than five decades and include a staggering 10 time qualification to the Candidates—a part of the World Chess Championship. The first time that he qualified was way back in 1961 and the last time in 1991,at the age of 60. Incredible as it sounds, Korchnoi has defeated eight undisputed World Champions—Mikhail Botvinnik, Mikhail Tal, Vassily Smyslov, Tigran Petrosian, Boris Spassky, Robert James Fischer, Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov. He has also defeated FIDE Champions Veselin Topalov and Ruslan Ponomariov. Also interesting to note that Anand is one player Korchnoi has been unable to defeat in any format, the two having met 17 times in different formats where Anand won 12 games and drew 5, incidentally five times in classical out of 8.

Korchnoi, a product of the Soviet school of chess founded by Mikhail Botvinnik was the Challenger for the title twice, both times against arch rival Anatoly Karpov and both matches were volatile. Sidelined by the policies and politics of the system, Korchnoi had defected to The Netherlands in 1976, the first top level GM from the erstwhile USSR to do so. He played the first World Championship title Match as a 50-year-old against a 30-year-old Karpov at his peak in 1978 at Bagio city, Philippines. This was one Match marred by controversy ranging from X-raying of chairs, protests about the flags used on the board, hypnotism complaints, mirror glasses used by Korchnoi to a protest against the blueberry yogurt sent by Karpov’s team during a game without any request for one by Karpov. This did not overtake the drama on board where the score was interestingly tied 5-5 after 31 games (21 draws). Karpov won the 32nd game and won the Match and title 6-5. The second title clash between them was in 1981, and has gone down in the history as ‘Massacre in Merano’ where Karpov comfortably triumphed 6-2. Korchnoi however was a troubled man in both matches, his wife and son were still held in USSR, his son imprisoned in jail. Both could leave the USSR in 1982 and Korchnoi divorced his wife. However, Korchnoi would forever be remembered for his magnanimous gesture, when in 1984 USSR boycotted the Candidates Match scheduled in California ( During the USA Vs USSR cold war and Korchnoi was a defector to add on) and Korchnoi was declared the winner on default. However, Korchnoi agreed for the match to be played in London next year and the beneficiary was Garry Kasparov, who went on to defeat Korchnoi.

From 1978 Korchnoi had settled in Switzerland and continued to be active. In the January 2007 FIDE list, as a 75-year-old was ranked 85th whereas the second oldest player was Alexander Beliavsky at 53-years. He played a whopping 15 tournaments in 2006. Just when chess champions were getting younger and younger he won the Swiss Championship in 2009 and 2011. Just last year he once again hit the limelight by handing a sensational defeat to one of the most talented teenagers Fabiano Caruana, rated above 2700 and 61 years his junior. 

Viswanathan Anand is an Indian chess Grandmaster and the current World Chess Champion. Anand has won the World Chess Championship five times (2000, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2012), and has been the undisputed World Champion since 2007. Anand became India's first grandmaster in 1988. In 2007, he was awarded India's second highest civilian award, the Padma Vibhushan, making him the first sportsperson to receive the award in Indian history.

Go to top