Only 11 countries have produced men’s world chess champions

Becoming a world chess champion may be, decidedly, the most extraordinary feat one can perform as it is captured in a halo of glory; a colossal achievement. You can say with serious conviction, that, barring one rare exception, such a feat would not occur twice in a chess player’s lifetime. To convert the fusion of one’s thought into decisive action so as to seize the remotest of titles, respectfully referred to as “the holy grail of chess,” tends to be exhilarating for country and individual. The nations which have realized this infrequent and awesome distinction are few in number.

20131117chessRussia, and before that the Soviet Union, led the way for creating world chess champions. Chess has always occupied a disproportionate place in the Russian psyche. It forms part of the national identity. Although the Bolsheviks who overthrew the last czar in 1917 initially disparaged the game as bourgeois, there were still some, millions, who continued to indulge chess. Lenin was among them; an ardent player. One speculative view is that the Soviets recognized the political and ideological value of the sport, eventually succeeding in turning the ancient game into one of the self-identifying marks of emerging Soviet culture. The country dominated chess lavishly for the second half of the 20th century.

The official world chess championship is generally regarded as beginning in 1886. From that year until 1946, the champion set the terms of the match which required all challengers to raise a sizable stake and aspire to defeat the champion in a match in order to claim the title of world champion. Up until 1946, there was no official organizing body which administered chess. FIDE, the World Chess Federation, began administering chess in a structured fashion after 1946. Before 1946, rules were made and broken. For example, when Alekhine captured the world championship title from Capablanca in 1927, he refused the Cuban chess machine a rematch. Capablanca passed on without having a replay to which he was entitled. Rubinstein and Nimzowitsch also challenged Capablanca, considered to be the most accomplished chess player in the early 1920s, but only Alekhine was capable of putting up the sum of US$10,000 which Capablanca demanded.

The countries which have produced men world chess champions are the Soviet Union-Russia, Germany, Cuba, the Netherlands, France, United States of America, Bulgaria, India, Ukraine, Uzbekistan and Norway. Eleven countries in all! Some countries have touched the perimeter of that circle attempting to enter it on occasions, but were categorically denied through their losses, often never gaining the opportunity again, even as a country, to play for the title. Karpov and Anand were two exceptions; the former opposed Kasparov for a second time while the latter took on Carlsen. They both lost in their return matches. Only Alexander Alekhine, world champion from 1927-1935 and 1937-1946, a Soviet émigré playing under the French flag, lost the undisputed FIDE world championship title in 1935 to the Netherlands’ Max Euwe and retrieved it two years later. The current world chess champion is Norway’s Magnus Carlsen. FIDE administers a women’s world championship also.

Today only ten men world chess champions are with us: Spassky, Karpov, Kasparov, Khalifman, Ponomariov, Kasimdzhanov, Kramnik, Topalov, Anand and Carlsen. Ponomariov and Kasimdzhanov hail from the Ukraine and Uzbekistan respectively. A point to consider here is that only the United States and Cuba in the western hemisphere ever produced undisputed world chess champions. Among other world champions however, Fischer and Capablanca are still regarded as the greatest exponents of chess to ever grace the planet earth to date.

At the 2015 Norway Grand Chess Tour which ended on Friday in Stavanger, and which is dubbed the strongest tournament of the year, there were three world champions among the ten participants. In addition, eight of the participants are ranked within the top ten in the world according to their varying FIDE ratings. Naturally, there were fireworks. The current Norwegian world champion Magnus Carlsen was blown away by former world champions, Bulgaria’s Veselin Topalov, and India’s Vishy Anand in addition to the world’s number three, American-Italian Fabiano Caruana. Topalov had not lost a game until the young Dutch player Anish Giri (rated number 9) struck. At the time of the writing of this column, Anand was within reach of Topalov, a half of a point away. He had not lost a game, but had mounted a total of five draws to Topalov’s two. Anand played Topalov on Friday in the final round of the tournament. He had the black pieces which gave his opponent an infinitesimal advantage. In the end, he played to a quick draw with Topalov.

Actually, Carlsen lost to Topalov in the first round of the tournament on time. Something went wrong with the calculation of the world champion’s time. He played move 60 with 44 seconds to spare. But on move 61, Carlsen’s time petered out as he was contemplating his next move; a somewhat complicated affair for sure. Carlsen had assumed an extra 15 minutes would be added to his clock after he had completed move 60, as in some other tournaments, but that was not to be. Perhaps this loss at the beginning of the tournament produced a psychological shock from which Carlsen never recovered.

Norway is the first venue of the three-event grand tour. It will be followed by the Sinquefield Cup in St Louis and the London Classic. Each event boasts a generous prize fund in addition to an overall monetary prize.

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