The above is a rare photo with four world champions together: Smyslov, Botvinnik, Euwe and Tal at Schipol airport in June 1961.
In this and the next bulletin we take a look at each of the official world chess champions, going down the “classical” line from Steinitz to Carlsen, missing out the FIDE champions from the time of the split (i.e. not Khalifman, Ponomariov, Kasimdzhanov and Topalov, but including Karpov and Anand as they were also undisputed world champions).
We will cover lesser known and interesting aspects of their lives and just the odd chess fact too!
In today’s bulletin, we cover the champions from Steinitz to Tal and next time we will cover Petrosian to Carlsen.
Wilhelm Steinitz (1836 – 1900, WC 1886 – 1894)
Steinitz was born in Prague, educated in Vienna, lived in London for many years and finally settled in the USA. His move to London was driven by his career in chess and chess journalism. His subsequent move to New York was at least in part driven by anti-semitism he faced in England.
He had a reputation for being bad-tempered and anti-social, though some modern historians have suggested this may be in part due to contemporary accounts having an anti-semitic bias.
There is no dispute that he had a physical altercation with Blackburne. It is agreed that Steinitz spat at him and Blackburne either pushed or punched Steinitz, though there is some dispute about which came first and whether Steinitz was propelled through a window.
He is one of four world champs who have been arrested and detained. Whilst living in New York he was falsely accused of spying when a correspondence game he was playing against Chigorin was intercepted. Fortunately his detention was short-lived.
Despite being clearly the strongest player in the world for many years, Steinitz found it hard to secure decent prize funds for his championship matches. He lived in poverty in later years. This had a significant effect on how Lasker managed his career and life.
Steinitz was in poor mental health in later life, possibly caused by syphilis, and spent time in mental institutions. He died in New York.
Fun fact: He was friends with R.D. Blackmore, writer of Lorna Doone.
Chess fact: The longest streak of winning first class games is often attributed to Fischer at 20 (and we must acknowledge that this was against very strong opposition) but in fact Steinitz won 25 first class games in a row, the last two after a six year lay-off. Those 25 wins included 10 in a row against Blackburne, which presumably was doubly sweet for Steinitz and doubly galling for Blackburne given their previous animosity!
Emanuel Lasker (1868 – 1941, WC 1894 – 1921)
Lasker was famed for his long career but that was nearly cut short when as a 26 year old he contracted typhus and nearly died. He was still very ill when he played at Hastings the following year (1895).
Affected by Steinitz’ poverty in later life, Lasker was careful to ensure his world championship matches attracted as much money as possible. Nonetheless, his goal of financial security was still a challenge and not aided by him taking sustained breaks from chess, seemingly because he did not find it interesting enough!
For instance, he gave up chess for a couple of years to work as a mathematician and did some pretty heavyweight work. The Lasker-Noether theorem is jointly named after him and Emmy Noether (not a household name but she was one of the giants of mathematics in the first half of the 20th century). He also did some lighter work on philosophy and concentrated on playing bridge for a while, at which he was good enough to represent Germany.
His finances were helped when at the age of 42 he married a rich widow.
But his life had some unhappy parallels with that of Steinitz. He too was Jewish. He lived all his life in Germany until 1933 when, aged 65, he was forced to flee the Nazi regime for England. He had to leave all of his possessions and money behind and was again forced to play chess to support himself. He moved to the USA in 1937 and in 1941 he died in New York, the same city in which Steinitz had met his end.
Fun Fact: Whilst Steinitz could count a renowned author amongst his friends, Lasker had an even more famous friend: Albert Einstein who he first met in 1918 and with whom he stayed friends his whole life. Their friendship did not stop Einstein saying chess was a waste of time nor Lasker adding his name to “One Hundred Authors Against Einstein”, a pamphlet arguing against relativity theory!
Chess fact: Lasker won the 1893 NY tournament with a clean sweep: +13 =0 -0.
José Raúl Capablanca (1888 – 1942, WC 1921 – 1927)
Capablanca became famous and was admired in Cuba at a young age. Aged 24 he was given a post at the Cuban Foreign Office in which he had to do very little other than make Cuba look good by winning at chess. Money was therefore not a concern for him in the way it had been for his world champ predecessors.
He had a reputation as a womaniser and apparently had many affairs. When, aged 50, he divorced his first wife she used her influence to get him demoted and he had to actually do some real work at the Foreign Office.
He died aged 53, the youngest of the world champions to meet his end.
Fun fact: Deemed good looking and charming, he appeared in a 1925 Soviet silent comedy film “Chess Fever”. It’s here on youtube. Capablanca appears at 23 minutes into the clip.
Chess fact: He went undefeated for over 8 years (from 10th February 1916 to 21st March 1924).
Alexander Alekhine (1892 – 1946, WC 1927 – 1935 & 1937 – 1946)
One of the most complex world champions on and off the board, Alekhine was born in Russia. He was still living in Russia in August 1914 when WWI broke out. At the time he was playing in a tournament in Germany and he was interned for a few weeks before being released. It took him until October to return to Russia (via Switzerland, Italy, England, Sweden, and Finland)!
In 1919 he was imprisoned by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution, and there were even rumours in the Western press that he had been executed.
In 1921, following the Russian revolution, Alekhine moved to France, where he eventually became naturalised.
Once France was occupied by the Nazi’s in WWII, Alekhine cooperated with them, apparently to protect his French wife and her assets which included a chateau. He also released some antisemitic statements, though there is some question about whether these were coerced from him as he had good personal relations with many Jews.
By 1943 he was living in Spain and Portugal. He died in Portugal in 1946 aged just 53 and is the only world champion to have died while still holding the title. The official reason for his death was a heart attack. However, some people believe he was murdered, either by French or Soviet assassins.
Fun fact: He had a number of cats, one of which he named Chess. He was photographed with the artist Marcel Duchamp (a competent player) playing chess with a cat on his lap.
Chess fact: Alekhine’s games have the highest percentage of wins of any world champion. Just as well, as he was a notoriously bad loser and allegedly once resigned vs Grunfeld by throwing his king across the room!
Max Euwe (1901 – 1981, WC 1935 – 1937)
Euwe was a school maths teacher and arguably the only true amateur world champion. Whilst Lasker did other things for periods, chess was his sole profession for most years; Botvinnik had another job but was allowed extended periods off work by the Soviet regime; Capablanca’s job was notional; all other world champions were clearly full-time chess professionals.
Despite the above, Euwe wrote over 70 chess books, far more than any other world champion (where did he find the time??).
He served as FIDE president from 1970 to 1978, a position in which he was highly regarded.
During his lifetime he was very famous in the Netherlands and has a plaza named after him in Amsterdam (Max Euweplein).
Fun fact: He believed in keeping fit, played a variety of sports and was a keen amateur boxer.
Chess Fact: Whilst he did not play in them all, he won every Dutch championship he entered from 1921 to 1952.
Mikhail Botvinnik (1911 – 1995, WC 1948 – 1957, 1958 – 1960, 1961 – 1963)
Botvinnik was the man who got the Soviet chess machine rolling but his career and influence could easily have been cut short. In WWII, Botvinnik gained permission to leave Leningrad just two days before the Germans cut the rail link as part of the siege which cost the lives of around half its 3 million civilians; who knows whether Botvinnik would have survived if he had stayed.
An electrical engineer by training, he moved east and worked on the electrical power installations in the Urals, for which he won awards.
He is famous for having set up the Botvinnik school of chess which trained promising Soviet players. Many notable players were developed by this establishment, including Kasparov and Kramnik. However, he did not always get things right. He said of the 12 year old Karpov, “The boy doesn’t have a clue about chess, and there’s no future at all for him in this profession.” But in fairness, he did take on and nurture Karpov as a student.
He was meticulous in his preparation for matches. On one occasion he prepared for a match against a smoker by having a training partner blow smoke in his face during practice games.
Fun fact: He was a ballroom dancer and reached championship standard at Charleston and Foxtrot.
Chess Fact: He won the Soviet Championship a record 6 times.
Vasily Smyslov (1921 – 2010, WC 1957 – 1958)
Smyslov is famed for the longevity of his chess career, and remained on the FIDE top 100 list until he was 70 years old. He also just lived longer than any other world champion, having died at the age of 89.
He was considered a fearsome competitor but moved his pieces carefully and at the end gave them a gentle twist, and this became known as the Smyslov Screw. He was also considered very mild mannered away from the board.
Smyslov was a baritone singer, having only narrowly failed an audition with the Bolshoi Theatre. He occasionally gave recitals during chess tournaments, often accompanied by Mark Taimanov on piano. You can see him in action at dinner during another tournament on this youtube clip, from 1 minute into the clip.
Fun fact: During the 1953 Neuhausen-Zurich tournament (which he won) he sang on Swiss radio in between rounds.
Chess fact: Smyslov holds the record for the number of Olympiad medals won at 17. He won 9 team medals and 8 individual medals (4 gold, 2 silver, 2 bronze).
Mikhail Tal (1936 – 1992, WC 1960 – 1961)
Tal was the archetypal eccentric genius: obsessive about his passion, capable of extraordinary feats over the board, and completely impractical away from the board.
His health was notoriously bad, with several inherited illnesses and in particular kidney problems (he had a kidney removed in 1969, aged just 33). His impracticality affected this too, as he was an alcoholic and a chain smoker. He died aged just 55.
This interview with his first wife gives a wonderful and moving insight into him.
Tal was so obsessed by chess that the only interesting facts we could find out about him other than his numerous ex-marital affairs were chess facts. So…
Chess fact 1: Tal had the best % score for someone who has played 4 or more Olympiads: +64 =34 -2, which gives 81.2%.
Chess fact 2: Whilst he was famed for his flamboyant play, in the 1970s he often played very solidly. Between 15th July 1972 and 26th April 1973 he went 86 games without defeat (+47 =39 -0). This was a record which was broken by… himself! Between 23rd Ocotber 1973 and 16th October 1974 he went 95 games without defeat (+46 =49 -0), a record that would stand for many years.
We hope you have enjoyed this quick whizz through the earlier world champions and will enjoy the second part next week too!
The following sources were used in the preparation of this bulletin