The history of chess extends back to antiquity. The history of the chess world championship started much more recently in 1886.
Earlier, there had been unofficial world champions like Alexander Deschapelles, Pierre de Saint-Amant, Howard Staunton, Adolf Anderssen, and Paul Morphy.
After the death of Paul Morphy, the first official world championship match took place in 1886.
There were three champions during the first forty years of the history of the chess world championship.
Wilhelm Steinitz – First World Chess Champion
The first official chess world championship match took place in 1886 between Wilhelm Steinitz and Johannes Zukertort. The games were played in New York, St. Louis and New Orleans.
Time controls were set at 30 moves in two hours and 15 moves an hour thereafter. They were to play three games a week.
The winner would be the first to 10 wins and the match declared a tie if the score was 9-9.
The match started in New York. When one player reached four victories they would move to St. Louis for another three games before moving on to New Orleans for the rest of the match.
Play started on January 11th, 1886. This was the first time a demonstration board was used.
Steinitz won the first game but lost the next four. Upon arrival in St. Louis, Steinitz won two games to make the score 3-4.
In the ninth game Steinitz played against the isolated queen’s pawn with black. The pawn structure transformed into hanging pawns which Zukertort neglected to get mobile.
Zukertort – Steinitz, 0-1, St. Louis, 1886, World Chess Championship
Steinitz won games 18, 19, and 20 to become the first official chess world champion in history.
Steinitz Nominates Chigorin as Challenger
In 1888 the Havana Chess Club, Cuba, offered to host a match between Steinitz and whoever he nominated as the challenger. Steinitz nominated Mikhail Chigorin.
This best-of-20 match proved a tough battle with only one draw. Chigorin was leading after seven games but fell away to lose the match 10 ½ – 6 ½.
Isidor Gunsberg challenged Steinitz for the world championship in New York, 1890. The world champion successfully defended his crown with a score of 10 ½ – 8 ½.
Chigorin once again challenged Steinitz in 1891 and made the champion fight hard to retain his crown. Steinitz won the match with 10 wins, 5 draws, and 8 losses.
Dubbed the blunder of the century, Chigorin inexplicably moved his bishop.
This allowed Steinitz the chance to checkmate him. The game ended 32.Bb4?? Rxh2 0-1 (see diagram).
M. Chigorin – W. Steinitz, 0-1, Havana, 1892, World Championship Rematch Game 23
Steinitz would lose his crown of world chess champion in 1894 against Emmanuel Lasker.
Emmanuel Lasker – Second World Chess Champion
The Steinitz-Lasker world chess championship match took place in New York, Philadelphia and Montreal from 15 March to 26 May 1894.
Once again the conditions were the standard first to 10 wins. The time controls also remained the same – 30 moves in two hours and 15 an hour after.
The contestants started with a win each in the first two games. After six games each had 3 wins.
Losing the seventh game where he was two pawns up proved the turning point for Steinitz. He lost the next four games in a row.
Lasker won with a final score of 10 wins, 5 losses, and 4 draws.
He would later defend his crown in a rematch with Steinitz that took place from November 1896 to January 1897. Lasker only suffered 2 losses in the 17 games.
Frank Marshall Challenges Lasker
Ten years later, Lasker would defend his crown against the strong American chess star Frank Marshall.
This time the match was played under the terms of the first to 8 wins, not 10.
Lasker didn’t allow Marshall a single win. He won the match with 8 wins and 7 draws.
Siegbert Tarrasch Challenges for the Chess World Championship
The most dangerous challenge by far would come from Dr. Siegbert Tarrasch, who was one of the strongest players from the end of the 19th Century.
Thanks to the fund-raising efforts of the German Chess Union, a world championship match took place between Lasker and Tarrasch in Dusseldorf, on 17th August 1908.
Once again the winner of the match was the first to win 8 games and the time control was 15 moves an hour for six hours when there would be an adjournment.
This was a battle between the challenger who believed in focusing on the position and a world champion who liked to play against his opponent.
Lasker-Tarrasch, 1-0, Dusseldorf, 1908, World Championship Match
After game 4, Lasker was leading 3-1. This became 5-1 with one draw after 7 games. The match would go on for 16 games before Lasker defended his crown with a score of 8 wins, 3 loses, and 5 draws.
Lasker would remain world champion for an incredible 27 years before losing it to Jose Raul Capablanca in a match played in 1921.
Jose Raul Capablanca – Third World Chess Champion
In contrast to Lasker who was world champion for 27 years, Capablanca only held the crown for 6 years.
This despite Capablanca playing a number of years without a single loss. He had the most victories in the history of the chess world championship.
Capablanca took the lead in game five. However, it was the tenth and eleventh games where Capablanca increased his lead to +3.
Ill-health would take it’s toll on Lasker who after losing a fourth game resigned the match. The final score saw Capablanca ahead 4 wins, 10 draws, 0 losses.
Between 1921 and 1923, three players challenged Capablanca to a world championship match – Nimzovitch, Alekhine, and Rubenstein.
Only Alekhine was able to raise sufficient funds and then only in 1927. This was done with the aid of a group of businessmen from Argentina.
The match would take place in Buenos Aires. Capablanca was the favorite because he hadn’t lost to Alekhine.
This made his loss in the first game quite sensational. Alekhine’s later wins in games 11 and 12 gave him the lead 3-2. He was halfway to the six wins required to become world champion.
Capablanca recovered and the next eight games were all draws. Then Alekhine won game number 21 to go up by two games – 4-2.
The world champion held on and took the next victory in game 29 to make it only a 1 point difference. However, Alekhine would win games 32 and 34 to secure the crown.
The final score for Alekhine was 6 wins, 3 loses, and 25 draws.
The first three winners in the history of the chess world championship were fittingly instrumental in expounding upon this game we love.
They were the chess pioneers whose thoughts on the game gave rise to the schools of chess that followed after them.
These three men set the stage for the world champions that followed.
The influence of these three great champions is still felt by chess players today.
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