Although the first world chess champion was not officially designated until 1886, there were masters who clearly stood out above their peers long before then. (Unless otherwise noted, all given match scores award a point for a win, a half-point for a draw, and nothing for a loss.) For a century after Steinitz, the title of world champion followed a straight, clear line. In the first few decades, though, the ability to challenge the title was solely up to the whims of the champion at the time. Nevertheless, money and peer pressure helped the crown to still change hands often. In 1948, the International Chess Federation, or FIDE, took control of determining the new World Chess Champion, and created a massive tournament to establish a new king (women have gained elite chess status only recently) in professional chess. From there, a series of 'Candidates' tournaments would be held to establish this champion's challenger every three years. This system worked well enough... for a while.
  • Mikhail Botvinnik (USSR, 1948-1957): Earned the title by winning FIDE's 1948 world championship tournament. Tied David Bronstein 12.0-12.0 (Moscow, 1951), as well as Vassily Smyslov by the same score (Moscow, 1954) to retain his position. Three years later, though, lost to Smyslov 8.5-12.5 (Moscow, 1957).
  • Vassily Smyslov (USSR, 1957-1958): Earned the title by defeating Botvinnik in 1957. Unfortunately, FIDE gave defeated champions the right to a 'return match' shortly thereafter. Despite being one of the strongest players of the 1950s, Smyslov held the title a single year, losing to Botvinnik 10.5-12.5 (Moscow, 1958) in the return match.
  • Mikhail Botvinnik (1958-1960): Regained the title by defeating Smyslov in 1958. Lost soon thereafter... again... to Mikhail Tal 8.5-12.5 (Moscow, 1960). Don't worry. He'll be back.
  • Mikhail Tal (Latvia, 1960-1961): Earned the title by defeating Botvinnik in 1960. Suffered from kidney troubles during Botvinnik's return match and lost 8.0-13.0 (Moscow, 1961). FIDE soon after removed the 'return match' clause.
  • Mikhail Botvinnik (1961-1963): Regained the title a final time by defeating Tal in 1961. Lost to Tigran Petrosian 9.5-12.5 (Moscow, 1963) and retired from championship competition thereafter.
  • Tigran Petrosian (USSR, 1963-1969): Earned the title by defeating Botvinnik (for good) in 1963. Defeated Boris Spassky 12.5-11.5 (Moscow, 1966) once but later lost the title to him 10.5-12.5 (Moscow, 1969).
  • Boris Spassky (USSR, 1969-1972): Earned the title by defeating Petrosian in 1969. A strong player in his own right, Spassky had the unfortunate luck of rising to kingship just in time to directly hit the buzzsaw of Bobby Fischer (an 8.5-12.5 loss, Reykjavik, 1972).
  • Bobby Fischer (USA, 1972-1975): In a manner eerily reminiscent of his compatriot a century before, Fischer rose up out of nowhere during the 1960s and eventually won the right to challenge Spassky in 1972. After losing the first game and forfeiting one by default, Fischer took the crown with a 12.5-8.5 victory. Notoriously temperamental, Fischer played no chess whatsoever during his three-year reign and, citing inabilities to accept the conditions FIDE agreed on for the 1975 match, resigned his championship title. (A short summary of his championship seriously cannot do Fischer justice; I highly suggest you scan some of the available nodes for more information on this fascinating man.)
  • Anatoly Karpov (USSR, 1975-1985): Earned the title by default after Fischer refused to defend his title in 1975. Defeated Viktor Korchnoi 16.5-15.5 (Baguio City, 1978)--in a match that, incidentally, the return match clause had been reinstated for--and again later 11.0-7.0 (Merano, 1981). Garry Kasparov won the right to challenge Karpov next in 1984; the two played 48 games in a single match, but Karpov could only muster five of the six wins needed to retain the title. Kasparov won three, including the 47th and 48th game. FIDE cancelled the match after the 48th game, citing its unforseen length. Kasparov was livid, but was forced to begin anew in 1985. Here, though, Kasparov finally won 13.0-11.0 (Moscow).
  • Garry Kasparov (USSR, 1985-1993): Earned the title after defeating Karpov in 1985. Karpov challenged for a return match, got it, and lost 11.5-12.5 (London/Leningrad, 1986). Karpov won the right to challenge Kasparov in 1987, but could only earn a 12.0-12.0 draw (Seville), allowing Kasparov to retain his title. Karpov won the right to challenge Kasparov again in the next Candidates cycle, but ultimately lost 11.5-12.5 (New York/Lyon, 1990).
Then things got interesting.

Nigel Short defeated Jan Tinman in the Candidates finals to challenge Garry Kasparov, and a match looked to be forthcoming. This not being the proper node to write up the entire history of chess, a long story is made short by saying that Kasparov and Short broke from FIDE and scheduled their own championship match, citing irreconciliable differences concerning the lack of importance that the players' opinions seemed to have in the FIDE structure.

FIDE instantly stripped Kasparov of his 'official' title and proceeded to schedule Karpov against Tinman for the 'official' world champion title. Kasparov, of course, was still the world's strongest player and was respected as such, resulting in most of the chess universe now realizing that there were going to be two simultaneous chess champions. Since, on the surface, Kasparov's trail is the less convoluted, we'll pick up on it first. If you're not confused by this point, that means I oversimplified everything. That's good enough for now. Now back to FIDE's line of champions: Meanwhile, title reunification efforts had been taking place for most of the early 2000s. One plan involving a 128-member knockout tournament, with the winner facing Kasparov, came close to realization, but was scrapped in favor of a more simple solution: a headsup match between the 'classical' world champion, Kramnik, and the FIDE champion, Topalov.

Held in Elista, Kalmykia, the 12-game match ended in a 6-6 draw. (Kramnik, however, forfeited one game in protest to what he viewed as overreactions and bad arbitrations in response to his frequent bathroom visits.) A series of rapid-chess tiebreaker matches were then held; Kramnik emerged victorious, 2.5-1.5.

Kramnik is scheduled to his title at the eight-player, double-round-robin 2007 FIDE World Championship. Although the usual disputes and uncertainties are cropping up once again, Vladimir Kramnik remains the Unified World Chess Champion... at least for now.

Most pre-1886 information came from William Hartston's The Guinness Book Of World Chess Champions, much post-1886 information came from; was used to verify information from all eras. Each are wonderful sources.

/msg me with any relevant corrections or updates that need to be made to this node. In the event that I leave E2 for an extended period of time, feel free to supercede this writeup and/or use information from it as necessary. Thanks also to gitm for fact verification and provoking me to keep this thing updated.

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