History of Chess (Part 4)

Chess as it was when it was first introduced into Europe about a millennium ago differed in several aspects from the chess that we know today. Modifications and variations effected upon the rules of gameplay and the forms that the chess pieces took have distinguished modern chess from its ancient precursors in many unique ways. Having covered these in the previous part of this article, let us now proceed with the final part of this article, where I will be briefly covering on the modern history of this ever-popular game.

While the Church in the first half of the previous millennium often perceived chess to be an illness and a vice in society, the Church in the second half viewed it in a different light altogether. Indeed, chess had swelled so much in popularity that from the 1500s onwards, Protestant movements around Europe that strongly criticized many pastimes as “ungodly pursuits” often stood in defence of chess. This further propelled the popularity and general acceptance of chess as a “legitimate” pastime, consequently making it an integral part of European society.

In the latter half of the previous millennium, literature on the theories and strategies of chess grew, as more and more books were written on the subject by skilled mathematicians and seasoned players who dedicated much of their time studying the game. Early chess masters such as Luis Ramirez de Lucena (1465 – 1530), Giovanni Leonardo de Bona (1542 – 1587) and Ruy Lopez de Segura (1530 – 1580) contributed much to studying and analysing different elements of chess openings and endgames.

Chess masters of the Renaissance era. From left: Luiz Ramirez de Lucena (1465 - 1530), Giovanni Leonardo de Bona (1542 - 1587) and Ruy Lopez de Segura (1530 - 1580)

Come the 18th and 19th centuries, the centre of European chess life shifted from southern Europe (Spain and Italy) to northern European countries such as France and England. Luxurious coffee shops such as the Café de la Régence in Paris and Simpson’s Divan in London became prominent centres of chess life, where many professional chess players would gather to challenge each other and exchange knowledge. It was during this era that chess masters such as François-André Danican Philidor (1726 – 1795), Louis-Charles Mahé de La Bourdonnais (1795 – 1840) and Alexander McDonnell (1798 – 1835) carved their names in the world of chess.

Café de la Régence in Paris, one of the most renowned centres of European chess life in the 18th and 19th centuries

One of the most celebrated chess events of this era was a renowned series of six matches between La Bourdonnais and McDonnell in the summer of 1834 in the Westminster Chess Club in London, of which the outcome was victory for the former. Until today, this series of six matches has been widely regarded as one of the earliest unofficial World Chess Championship tournaments, with La Bourdonnais being regarded as the unofficial World Chess Champion at that time when such a title was not yet in existence.

Louis-Charles Mahé de La Bourdonnais (1795 - 1840)

With the progress of the 19th century, chess rapidly grew to become an organized sport. Chess clubs mushroomed throughout Europe, and numerous chess books and journals were published by and for chess enthusiasts. Friendly and competitive matches between chess clubs became a norm, whereby chess professionals would gather together, play matches against each other and exchange ideas on chess theories. Nonetheless, with the growth of chess as a modern sport and pastime, the game was still regarded as being exclusively a gentleman’s game; a game played by elite, aristocratic and educated men. Such an image of chess remained until the early 20th century.

The modern development and organization of chess also meant that its rules of gameplay became more well-defined and standardized throughout the world. This standardization of rules thus made it possible for large-scale chess tournaments to be organized at the international level. The 1851 London Chess Tournament, proposed and organized by English chess master Howard Staunton (1810 – 1874), was the first such tournament ever to be held in such a large scale, having been participated by chess masters from the UK, Germany, France and Hungary, including Staunton himself. The tournament saw Adolf Anderssen (1818 – 1879) of Germany emerge victorious, subsequently being crowned the unofficial World Chess Champion of that time.

The Immortal Game, one of the most celebrated chess games of all time, played by Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky during a break in the 1851 London Chess Tournament. It is described as a game that is "perhaps unparalleled in chess literature"

As international tournaments, both formal and informal, became a growing trend in the rapidly transforming world of chess, many chess players started to realize that the game was lacking a vital element – a standardized set of chess pieces. The problem arose due to the fact that chess pieces differed in appearance according to region. Chess pieces used by the English may not look the same as those used by the French, while the Germans used yet another set of chess pieces which looked different altogether. The absence of a standardized design for each chess piece proved to be a major disadvantage between international players, particularly if one player was unfamiliar with the chess pieces that his opponent was using.

The earliest solution, which in fact later became the most widely accepted solution, was proposed by Nathaniel Cook a few years prior to the 1851 London Chess Tournament. With the help of his brother-in-law, John Jacques, Cook produced a unique design for each chess piece that combined elements of neoclassical and Victorian influence. Patented in 1849 and mass-produced thereafter by John Jacques of London (an established company headed by John Jacques himself that manufactured and supplied sports and game equipment), the new set of chess pieces soon after became a hit within the English and European chess community. This was not without the help of Howard Staunton himself, who publicly approved and even promoted the new chess set on behalf of the company. The chess set was consequently called the Staunton chess set, which then became the official set endorsed by the World Chess Federation in 1924 for future use in all international chess tournaments.

 Original Staunton chess set

In the wake of the 1851 London Chess Tournament, one major problem came to attention: the amount of time players took to make a move. Participants of the tournament frequently took hours to think before deciding on a move, and this became a huge setback to the smooth organization of the entire tournament. In subsequent years, time limits were suggested and employed in official tournaments. Several variants of such time rules existed, in which some tournaments allowed each player five minutes to decide on a move while others allowed a certain period of time for a fixed number of moves to be made e.g. 2 hours for 30 moves. Players who failed to conform to the time rules were either fined or, more severely, forfeited from the game. In some tournaments, players who made a particular number of moves within a predetermined time frame were rewarded with additional time for subsequent moves. These time rules thus became a new and integral part of every official chess tournaments thereafter.

In an era when digital clocks were still non-existent, timekeeping in chess was often accomplished using either sandglasses or pendulums. As technology progressed at the turn of the 19th century, analogue clocks became the accepted standard for timekeeping, and these were then replaced by digital clocks since the 1980s. Presently, official chess tournaments employ two parallel clocks per game, whereby a player is required to press a button to activate the timer after completing a move.

Parallel clocks used in official chess tournaments

Talks and suggestions about crowning the world’s strongest chess player as the World Chess Champion had been rife since the 1851 London tournament, but it was not until 1886 that the prestigious title became officially recognized. Since Anderssen’s decisive victory in the 1851 London tournament, several international tournaments equivalent to today’s World Chess Championships had been played, which saw Anderssen’s unofficial title being transferred into the hands of Paul Morphy (1837 – 1884), an American, in 1858. Nevertheless, because Morphy made an early retirement from active chess before being defeated by any worthy opponent, he was not the only one who was unofficially recognized as the World Chess Champion at that time. Wilhelm Steinitz (1836 – 1900), an Austrian by birth, who narrowly defeated Anderssen in a tournament in 1866, also reigned as unofficial World Chess Champion alongside Morphy at that time. Indeed, this match between Steinitz and Anderssen is now widely accepted by historians and chess professionals as the first ever official World Chess Championship.

 Match between Adolf Anderssen and Wilhelm Steinitz in 1866. This match is now widely accepted as the first ever official World Chess Championship

The 1886 World Chess Championship was undoubtedly the first ever official tournament that was held with a predefined aim of declaring the World Chess Champion. Played by Wilhelm Steinitz and Johannes Zukertort (1842 – 1888), a Polish by birth, the championship saw the two prominent players battling it all out for the prestigious title in a series of 20 matches in New York, St. Louis and New Orleans, in which the first player to achieve 10 wins was considered the winner. The outcome of the competitive tournament was a decisive win for Steinitz, who won 10-5 and thus became the first person to be officially declared the World Chess Champion.

 Wilhelm Steinitz (left) playing against Johannes Zukertort (right) in the 1886 World Chess Championship, resulting in Steinitz being declared the first official World Chess Champion

In spite of this, the 1886 World Chess Champion was, in actual fact, not organized by any official body governing the game. It was more of an informal series of matches that garnered much media attention and scrutiny across the world of chess. Until 1946, if one wished to become the World Chess Champion, one had to challenge the existing champion and self-organize the match. Financing for travel and venue had to be borne by the challenger himself, and if he defeated the incumbent, he would be declared the new champion.

In order to ensure a smoother and more organized process of holding championship tournaments and governing chess rules, attempts were made at several international tournaments, namely the 1914 St. Petersburg, 1914 Mannheim and 1920 Gothenburg tournaments, to establish an international chess federation. Nonetheless, World War I and its aftermath hampered such attempts. Finally, during an international chess tournament held in Paris alongside the 1924 Summer Olympics, a successful attempt was made to establish the Fédération Internationale des Échecs (FIDE), or World Chess Federation, which was rather powerless and poorly financed in its first few months after initiation.

 International chess tournament held alongside the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris

With FIDE’s gradual growth and expansion, it soon gained more influence in the worldwide chess arena. In its 1925 and 1926 congresses, it expressed its desire to become the official body responsible for managing future world championships, and it worked hard towards achieving that goal. In 1927, FIDE successfully organized its first official Chess Olympiad in London, which saw the participation of 16 international teams. However, because it did not involve any match for the World Champion title against the incumbent champion, the Chess Olympiad could not be considered a World Chess Championship.

In attempting to gain recognition and acceptance as the official organizer of the World Championship, FIDE proposed a system in which potential challengers for the championship will be screened and selected by a committee. This proposal did not go down well with the international chess community. Instead, another selection system proposed by the Dutch Chess Federation was more favoured, whereby ex-champions and rising star players were to be gathered in a preliminary tournament to select the next challenger for the championship. In line with its proposal, the Dutch Chess Federation then went on to organize the AVRO Tournament in 1938 which, despite not being officially endorsed as a selection tournament, managed to attract the best chess masters in the world at that time, including incumbent World Champion Alexander Alekhine (1892 – 1946) and former champions José Raúl Capablanca (1888 – 1942) and Max Euwe (1901 – 1981). This stirred much controversy amongst the worldwide chess community, but things were soon cut short with the outburst of the Second World War in 1939.

 Alexander Alekhine playing against Reuben Fine in the 1938 AVRO Tournament

As the Second World War rampaged much of the world, international chess competitions saw an absolute standstill and FIDE went into a nearly decade-long hiatus. By the time the war ended in 1945, much of the world was in a deep economic slump following excessive spending on defence and military affairs. Although FIDE once again became active in 1946, it was faced with severe financial deficits and the inability on the part of many countries to send representatives for tournaments due to lack of funding. Nonetheless, the biggest dilemma that FIDE was confronted with was the death of Alexander Alekhine, the reigning World Champion at that time. This literally meant that Alekhine “died and brought his title with him to the grave,” as no one was able to defeat him and thus succeed the much coveted title.

Many solutions were proposed, but FIDE ultimately chose to bring together all the surviving participants (or substitutes proposed by their respective governments) of the 1938 AVRO Tournament in another major tournament to determine the new World Champion. This resulted in the 1948 World Chess Championship, held partly in The Hague and partly in Moscow, which marked the beginning of FIDE’s official right to organize and coordinate all future World Championship tournaments. Participated by five chess masters of that time, Mikhail Botvinnik (1911 – 1995) of the then Soviet Union emerged victorious and was crowned the new World Champion.

 The five chess masters who participated in the 1948 World Chess Championship. From left: Max Euwe, Vasily Smyslov, Paul Keres, Mikhail Botvinnik and Samuel Reshevsky

Since then, the World Chess Championships under FIDE have undergone much modification and have even been embroiled in controversies from time to time. This included a period of breakaway from FIDE under the leadership of former World Champion Garry Kasparov (1963 – ), who went on to form the Professional Chess Association (PCA) in 1993 as a rival organization to FIDE, even organizing its own World Championships that resulted in more than one World Champion for several years after PCA’s inception. (I will not go into detail about these controversies.) Nevertheless, the World Championship tournaments reunified under FIDE once again in 2006, and is now officially recognized as the ultimate international chess tournament through which a chess master can seek to challenge the reigning World Champion for the prestigious title. FIDE is now recognized by the international community as the ultimate organization governing the game of chess, boasting a membership of more than 150 countries worldwide.

 Former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov

Indeed, from its vague beginnings in the obscurities of a yet unknown India at that time, chess has spread its wings to become one of the most widely acclaimed games of today’s modern world. Not only does chess enjoy much popularity as both a pastime and a competitive sport worldwide, it has also served as a brain squeezer for many skilled mathematicians and chess masters who sought to find solutions to the various statistical problems posed by the game or chessboard itself. Doubtless to say, the popularity of chess has never waned since the days of chaturanga, and it is here to stay perhaps for as long as mankind still breathes.

Fédération Internationale des Échecs (FIDE) or World Chess Federation, the international governing body for chess, currently headquartered in Athens, Greece

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