Photo (cropped) by Vladimir Barskij of Carlsen retaining his title in 2016. CC BY-SA 3.0
In this and the previous bulletin we are taking 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!
Last week in Part 1 we covered the champions from Steinitz to Tal and today we are covering Petrosian to Carlsen.
Tigran Petrosian (1929 – 1984, WC 1963 – 1969)
Petrosian had a reputation as the most boring world champion but he could play extremely creative chess when in the mood and was considered an extremely strong blitz player. Spassky said of him “It is to Petrosian’s advantage that his opponents never know when he is suddenly going to play like Mikhail Tal”, whilst Karpov said “Petrosian was able to make combinations no worse than Tal, but he restrained his talent and played purely positionally.”
He was largely deaf and used to turn his hearing aids off during matches to ensure noise did not disturb him. More than once this led to him not hearing draw offers.
Petrosian’s wife, Rona, was a very vigorous supporter of him. At the 1970 Rovinj/Zagreb tournament she heard Petrosian and Korchnoi discussing a trap Fischer had set for his opponent, Kovacevic. In an attempt to help Petrosian catch Fischer in the tournament Rona whispered the trap to Kovacevic who went on to beat Fischer. Thankfully, it didn’t stop Fischer winning the tournament. A year later when Fischer beat Petrosian in the world championship semi-final, she slapped the face of Petrosian’s second, the hugely respected Suetin.
Not only did Petrosian contribute to the chess world by playing, he was chief editor of the well respected weekly chess magazine 64 from 1968 to 1977.
Sadly, Petrosian was another of the world champions to die relatively young, aged 55 from stomach cancer.
Fun fact: Petrosian has appeared on Armenian bank notes. In 2018 he was put on the 2000 Dram note, worth about £3.
Chess fact: Petrosian is third on the list of best Olympiad scorers: +78 =50 -1 giving 79.8%. Who said he drew all his games?
Boris Spassky (b.1937, WC 1969 – 1972)
Of all the post-WWII world champions, Spassky has the reputation of being by far the laziest.
He himself said he was lazy whilst at the board. “It is necessary to work out all the right tactical decisions which justify your ideas. Sometimes I am too lazy to do this properly, and that is a very, very bad attitude for a grandmaster. I do not believe that Capablanca, Alekhine or Lasker had this particular problem.”
Others are critical of his lack of effort away from the board. Kasparov, in “My Great Predecessors part IV” concluded that his lack of preparation was a big contributor to his loss to Fischer, citing the opinions from the time of the match of Korchnoi and Bondarvesky amongst others to support that view. Karpov has said more directly “I consider myself to be an idler too, but the dimensions of Spassky’s laziness were astounding.”
Further evidence of his lack of industry is provided by his literary output. Whilst he made small contributions to books that others have written, he only wrote one book himself, on his 1977-78 match against Korchnoi, and that did not get published.
But all this may be a bit harsh, judged by the standards of people of extreme dedication. Perhaps Spassky was just a normal guy with huge talent. And overall he didn’t do too badly for an idler, did he?
He was married three times. After the end of his first marriage he wittily described himself and his wife as “like bishops of opposite colour”.
He met his third wife, a French woman, whilst she was working in Moscow. They moved to France in 1976. He suffered a stroke in 2010 and was recovering. Apparently he felt trapped in his own home and enlisted the help of friends, telling them amongst other things that he no longer had access to his documents including his passport and felt cut-off from the outside world.
They took him to the Russian embassy in Paris who gave him documents and he flew to Moscow without telling his wife. He said afterwards that he “felt like being under family arrest” and “my health was in danger”. There have been unsubstantiated suggestions that Spassky was having an affair with his female agent.
Currently aged 83, he is the oldest surviving world champion.
Fun fact: Spassky’s sister was a world class draughts player.
Chess fact: The final position from Spassky’s brilliant Kings Gambit win against Bronstein was used in the film “From Russia With Love”, so perhaps he played the most seen chess game of all time!
Bobby Fischer (1943 – 2008, WC 1972 – 1975)
Fischer has been written about so often that we hesitate to say much about him but here is some stuff you may not know.
Fischer went to the same school as Barbra Streisand and they regularly had lunch together, despite her being a year higher than him. She said of him “He was always alone and very peculiar. But I found him very sexy. He was an absolute nut. An eccentric at 15.”
Despite his birth certificate saying that his father was Hans-Gerhardt Fischer, it has been established that this is impossible as Hans-Gerhardt and Bobby’s mother, Regina, were separated and living in separate countries for over a year before Bobby’s birth. Fischer’s father is accepted as being Paul Nemenyi, a Hungarian mathematician and physicist with whom Regina had had an affair. Regina brought up Bobby and his sister on her own but received payments (assumed to be informal child support payments) from Nemenyi until he died when Bobby was aged 9.
Fischer lived with a Filipino woman, Marilyn Young, for a while in the early 2000s. While they were together Marilyn had a baby named Jinki (there are pictures of the three of them together).
Fischer subsequently married Miyoko Watai, a Japanese chess player and four time Japanese champion.
After his death there was a 4 way dispute over his inheritance between two of Fischer’s US nephews, Marilyn on behalf of Jinki, and Miyoko Watai. DNA testing proved Fischer was not Jinki’s father and the case was eventually settled in favour of Watai.
You will know this, but he is our third world champion to have been imprisoned, leading to him writing the pamphlet “I Was Tortured In The Pasadena Jailhouse!” He was also arrested in 2004 in Japan and held for several months for using a passport that had been revoked by the US government.
Fun fact: There are no publicly known photographs of Fischer between the mid 1970s and 1992.
Chess fact: Fischer holds the record for the largest margin of victory at an Interzonal. He won the 1970 Palma de Mallorca Interzonal with 18.5 out of 23, 3.5 ahead of his nearest rivals.
Anatoly Karpov (b.1951, WC 1975 – 1985)
Previously we saw how the great upheavals of the first half of the 20th century affected Lasker, Alekhine and Botvinnik in particular. It would be easy to assume that no such unpleasant events would have touched Karpov. However, in the 1950s the Soviet communist machine was still in full brutal flow and Karpov recalled in his autobiography that as an infant he witnessed the police bursting into his house in search of his father. Karpov said, “I could distinguish good from evil… I remember the white down floating through the room and the two bayonets flashing in the corners… To this day I still do not know who wrote the denunciation against my father.”
After he became world champion Karpov met secretly with Fischer on three occasions to try to arrange a match.
Fun fact: Many people know that Steve Davis is a chess fan. But did you know that Karpov was a snooker fan? After Steve won the world snooker title in 1987, Anatoly sent him a telegram of congratulations.
Chess fact: Karpov won the world U-20 Championship in 1969 with an amazing score of 10/11 (+9 =2 -0).
Garry Kasparov (b.1963, WC 1985 – 2000)
Kasparov was born Garry Weinstein. His father died of leukaemia when he was aged seven. His name was changed to his mother’s maiden name, Kasparov, when he was aged 12. For many years it was reported in the western press that the Soviet authorities did this so their future champion would sound more Russian. In fact it was his mother’s choice and she did it to avoid problems with antisemitism that were common in Russia at the time.
As you will probably know, Kasparov was the fourth world champion to be arrested and imprisoned. What you may not know is that Karpov attempted to visit him whilst he was in detention. In the forward to Kasparov on Modern Chess II: Kasparov v Karpov Kasparov wrote “The five days spent in captivity became for me a fundamentally new reference point in my relations with people…. Anatoly Karpov made an attempt to visit me in prison – the solidarity of champions proved stronger than political and personal disagreements! He was not able to do this: the authorities, who did not allow any lawyers to see me, did not make an exception for Karpov. But in the new system of coordinates his goodwill gesture outweighed all the negative factors which had accumulated during our long years of confrontation.”
You may have seen Kasparov’s IQ quoted as around 180, but he was tested for three days by Der Spiegel magazine and it is actually around 130. However, his brain is far from usual for someone with that IQ: for instance, chess positions aside, he has (perhaps surprisingly) a poor visual memory and poor spatial reasoning but has exceptional numerical reasoning. He had previously said “I read books at a rate of 100 pages per hour and have no problems reproducing the content precisely and completely in my own words for two or three hours”, so they also put this to the test. They gave him an 83 page essay on a French poet. It took him less than an hour to read, and then, without any notes he gave a full account of it in a “flash flood of sentences” that were so precisely formed they were ready for print.
Fun fact: Kasparov has been married three times. His first two wives were older than him whilst his current wife, Daria, is 20 years younger.
Chess fact: Kasparov is the youngest ever world champion. He spent over 20 years as world number one. Carlsen is not (yet!) even half way to reaching that record.
Vladimir Kramnik (b.1975, WC 2000 – 2007)
Kramnik could easily have had the name of another famous GM: Sokolov. Vladimir’s father was born Boris Sokolov but when Boris’s father died his mother took the name of her second husband, and so did Boris, becoming Boris Kramnik.
Kramnik Is one of the very few top players who smokes. He started aged 15, gave up when he prepared for his 2000 match with Kasparov and then subsequently resumed.
He suffers from a form of arthritis that affects his spine. It caused him to stop playing for periods, notably in 2006.
He is married to a French woman (not uncommon for Russians – Alekhine & Spassky did too). They used to live in Paris but now they live in Geneva.
Fun facts: His favourite colour is blue, he prefers reading to films, and his favourite classical composer is Bach. Somehow, all very Kramnik!
Chess fact: In 1996 Kramnik spent 6 months as world number one, aged just 20. At the time he was the youngest ever official world number one.
Vishy Anand (b.1969, WC 2007 – 2013)
As a young man Anand used to sport a moustache – probably a good decision to lose it! You can see some pictures of him with it here, about halfway down the page.
He is highly popular and respected in India. Aged 18 he was awarded the Padma Shri (the fourth highest civil award in India, a very rough equivalent of an MBE). Aged 38 he was awarded Padma Vibhushan (the 2nd highest civil award in India, a very rough equivalent of a knighthood)
Apart from speaking Tamil and English, he is also fluent in French, German, and Spanish.
Fun fact: He has a minor planet named after him (as do Alekhne and Karpov) – it orbits between Mars and Jupiter
Chess fact: Defaults aside, Anand has the shortest world championship game victory to his credit. He beat Gelfand in game eight of their match in just 17 moves.
Magnus Carlsen (b.1990, WC 2013 – )
Like Fischer, so much has been written about Carlsen that it is hard to find little known facts but here goes…
At the age of five, Carlsen knew the capitals of every country along with their exact population.
Carlsen has been a guest star on The Simpsons (when you know you have really made it!). Homer has become a GM (really??) and Marge suggests he takes advice from Magnus, which he does online. You can see it here on youtube.
He is a huge Real Madrid fan. He took the honorary kick-off in a La Liga game between Real Madrid and Real Valladolid. Watch it here.
He plays real football (quite well apparently) and fantasy football too. For a while was top of the Fantasy Premier League ahead of 7 million other players.
According to some he is mostly vegetarian, according to others he is rigourously vegetarian and has a very sophisticated diet. All agree that this has been influenced by his sisters who are both vegetarians.
Fun fact: Carlsen was on Cosmopolitan’s list of The Sexiest Men of 2013.
Chess fact: Carlsen holds the records for being the youngest to reach each of 2600, 2700 and 2800, and to become world number 1. He also has the record for the longest streak of first class games undefeated at 125.
We hope you have enjoyed both parts of our brief look at the fascinating lives of the world champions.
The following sources were used in the preparation of this bulletin