Humans have been playing chess for well over 500 years now. If you count the earlier versions of the game, its origins date a millennium earlier. But, only in the past 200 years have the top players battled for the title of World Chess Champion.

World Chess Champions Magnus Carlsen
Magnus Carlsen is the current World Chess Champion, and has reigned since 2013. (Image: Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty)

The history of the World Chess Championship is complicated, with unofficial champions, splits, and politics all making their mark on the title. We’ve compiled a complete list of every World Chess Champion, with stories of how the title has changed, evolved, and endured to this day.

The Unofficial Champions

The idea of a World Chess Champion started to emerge in the early 1800s, even if there wasn’t a process for truly determining the top dog at that time. French players like Francois-Andre Danican Philidor, Alexandre Deschapelles, and Louis-Charles Mahe de La Bourdonnais earned reputations as the world’s top players in the late 18th and early 19th centuries before Howard Satunton took that unofficial title in the 1840s.

Paul Morphy gained recognition as an unofficial World Chess Champion. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

The first player to gain widespread recognition as champion – even if there was still no official designation – was the American prodigy, Paul Morphy. In the late 1850s, Morphy traveled to Europe and decisively defeated all of the best European masters. This culminated in an 11-game match against Adolf Anderssen, which Morphy won 7-2 with two draws (+7 -2 =2, or 8-3 in modern point scoring).

Creation of the World Chess Championship

Wilhelm Steinitz rose to become the world’s top player in the 1860s, followed by Johannes Zukertort in the 1870s. When Zukertort won the London 1883 tournament by three points ahead of Steinitz, the two were acknowledged as the best of the world, and they agreed to play a match that was widely recognized as crowning an official World Chess Champion, and which included such language in the match contract.

Steinitz defeated Zukertort 12.5 – 7.5, and would go on to hold the title until 1894 when Emanuel Lasker began his 27-year championship run. At the time, World Chess Champions had complete control over the title and how they chose to defend it. That meant challengers were required to come up with often extravagant stakes to wager on the matches, and there was no way to simply qualify for a title shot.

Pre-FIDE World Chess Champions
Wilhelm Steinitz 1886-1894
Emanuel Lasker 1894-1921
Jose Raul Capablanca 1921-1927
Alexander Alekhine 1927-1935
Max Euwe 1935-1937
Alexander Alekhine 1937-1946

Still, the top players still tended to rise to become World Chess Champion – eventually. Legends such as Jose Raul Capablanca and Alexander Alekhine each enjoyed title runs in the first half of the 20th century.

FIDE Takes Control

When Alekhine died with the title in 1946, the chess world needed a system for determining the next champion. FIDE – the International Chess Federation – stepped in after the end of World War II and unified the title system, ensuring that the now powerful Soviet players could compete alongside their rivals.

The result was a 1948 World Chess Championship Tournament that featured five of the world’s top players in a quadruple round-robin. Mikhail Botvinnik won the tournament and became the first FIDE World Chess Champion.

Undisputed FIDE World Chess Champions
Mikhail Botvinnik 1948-1957
Vasily Smyslov 1957-1958
Mikhail Botvinnik 1958-1960
Mikhail Tal 1960-1961
Mikhail Botvinnik 1961-1963
Tigran Petrosian 1963-1969
Boris Spassky 1969-1972
Bobby Fischer 1972-1975
Anatoly Karpov 1975-1985
Garry Kasparov 1985-1993

FIDE now set about creating a regular cycle to determine future champions. Players would compete in Zonal Tournaments, from which they could qualify for the Interzonal Tournament. The top finishers there advanced to the Candidates Tournament, with the winner challenging the current champion.

Botvinnik dropped the title to both Vasily Smyslov and Mikhail Tal, but won it back both times. This era eventually led to the rise of Bobby Fischer, who won the 1972 World Chess Championship.

Bobby Fischer became World Chess Champion by defeating Boris Spassky in 1972. (Image: SI)

While details of the system changed over the decades, the titanic battles between Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov of the 1980s also took place under these rules.

Two World Chess Champions

That lasted until 1993 when English grandmaster Nigel Short won the Candidates Tournament to challenge Kasparov for his title. Upset at FIDE’s organization, Kasparov and Short created the Professional Chess Association, holding their championship match under the PCA banner. Meanwhile, FIDE held its own championship, with Karpov again claiming the title.

Split World Chess Champions
Classical/PCA Champions FIDE Champions
Garry Kasparov (1993-2000) Anatoly Karpov (1993-1999)
Vladimir Kramnik (2000-2006) Alexander Khalifman (1999-2000)
Viswanathan Anand (2000-2002)
Ruslan Ponomariov (2002-2004)
Rustam Kasimdzhanov (2004-2005)
Veselin Topalov (2005-2006)

For the next 12 years, the two championship systems existed in parallel. While most recognized the PCA champion as the true lineal World Chess Champion, the split wasn’t truly resolved until 2006, when PCA champion Vladimir Kramnik defeated FIDE champion Veselin Topalov.

Since that time, FIDE has resumed control of the World Chess Championship. Only two men have won the title since then: Viswanathan Anand in 2007, and Magnus Carlsen in 2013. Carlsen will next defend his title in 2021, presuming FIDE can hold the event during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Undisputed FIDE World Chess Champions
Vladimir Kramnik 2006-2007
Viswanathan Anand 2007-2013
Magnus Carlsen 2013-Current