The 20th-Century Masters
and the Greatest Player Alive
Boris Spassky (1937- )
Boris Spassky was born in Leningrad in 1937 and learned the game of chess at age 5. He demonstrated his incredible talent for the game early in life and was a candidate for master at age 12.
Young Spassky was a very sensitive, well-mannered, and cultured young man who would often cry when defeated at the game. His contest in 1958 with Mikhail Tal ended with Spassky's resignation. His own words describe the emotional tension after his loss: "I was in a daze and hardly understood what was happening . . . I cried like a child."
Spassky's lack of self-control would sometimes create problems for him within the Soviet Chess Federation, which preferred a more stoic attitude. However, no one could argue or discount his ability. He was considered an extremely intelligent all-around player capable of meeting the various styles of every opponent.
In 1961 Spassky won the USSR Championship. Four years later he earned the right to challenge the world champion Petrosian, but was defeated. But the game was close: The final score of four wins, three losses, and 17 draws for Petrosian was the highest number of draws in a championship match since Capablanca and Alekhine's historic match.
At last, in 1969, and after working his way up through the Candidates' Matches once again, Boris Spassky defeated Petrosian 6-4 with 13 draws to become the World Champion. (Candidates' Matches are elimination matches played by grandmasters who have earned the right to compete in the final round. The winner of the elimination becomes the official challenger of the World Champion.)
While he remained quiet and sensitive, the mature Spassky became known for his consideration and manners along with his masterful play. He retained his title until 1972, when he confronted Bobby Fischer in Reykjavik, Iceland.
Anatoly Karpov (1951- )
Bobby Fischer was the reigning champion after defeating Boris Spassky in 1972, but refused to defend his title in 1975. Fischer had submitted a list of demands to FIDE conditions under which he would play and FIDE eventually agreed to all but one. Not willing to compromise, Fischer adamantly refused to communicate with FIDE regarding the scheduling of a championship match in Manila, which ultimately cost him his FIDE title.
In April 1975, Anatoly Karpov was awarded the title of World Champion the first to achieve the honor by default. Although the title wasn't gained by defeating the reigning champion, it was earned nonetheless. Karpov, a masterful player with cold, penetrating eyes, had defeated all challengers including the veteran Korchnoi and former champion Spassky in his bid for the crown. His play is accurate, quiet, and deadly, taking advantage of every misstep by his opponents.
Karpov was born in 1951 and learned to play chess at age 4. His ability was noticed early. As a result, he was given the opportunity to train under the guidance of the most formidable chess experts in the Soviet Union. His talent eventually brought him to the point when he would challenge the world champion Bobby Fischer. When Fisher refused to play because FIDE did not meet all of his demands, he forfeited his title, which was passed to Karpov.
Karpov defended his "crown" for more than 10 years, defeating all challengers in a manner that demonstrated he was most deserving of world champion status. He lacked the élan of Fischer or the devil-may-care attitude of Capablanca, but the quiet and composed Anatoly Karpov was the most active and successful chess champion in the history of the game.
In 1985 Garry Kasparov finally wrested the world championship from Anatoly Karpov at the end of their second championship match and after dozens of games. Karpov remains an active player to this day and is currently listed as number 12 in the FIDE Top 100 men's players.
Garry Kasparov (1963- )
The name of Kasparov is often mentioned in the same breath as Morphy, Reshevsky, and Fischer all amazing chess prodigies. He started playing at age 6 and his incredible talent was noticed when he was 10 years old. His every step in the game since then has been carefully nurtured to maximize his natural ability.
Kasparov's career was punctuated by early achievements. As a teen-ager he was often the youngest competitor in the tournaments in which he competed -- and quite regularly won. He earned the title of master at age 15, grandmaster at 17. By the time he was 19 he was considered the second strongest player in the world, surpassed only by Karpov. (Bobby Fischer was no longer participating in competitive chess.)
By 1984, Kasparov had earned the right to challenge Anatoly Karpov for the title of world champion. The match was abandoned after six months and 48 games. Karpov had won five, Kasparov three, and 40 were drawn. The FIDE president stopped the match, declaring that both players were exhausted. Arguments continue to this day about how Kasparov, who won the final two games, had finally discovered how to beat Karpov, only to have his eventual victory snatched away.
In 1985 the combat resumed, this time limited to a total of 24 games. At age 22, Garry Kasparov became the youngest official world champion in the history of the game by defeating Anatoly Karpov 13 games to 11.
Kasparov's relationship with FIDE, the oldest organization governing chess championships, was never great, but went abrubtly downhill after he won the world championship. He successfully, but reluctantly, defended his title three times between 1986 and 1990.
Nigel Short of England challenged Kasparov in 1993. Kasparov and Short decided to compete under the governing of a new organization, the Professional Chess Association (PCA), leading to Kasparov's disqualification by FIDE. (Kasparov defeated Short.)
Kasparov has retained his world title under PCA auspices. FIDE organized a new world championship tournament that brought Karpov to the top once again. Since the split, there's been much discussion about matching Kasparov and Karpov again to determine the true world champion.
In 1996 Kasparov accepted IBM's challenge to compete against Deep Blue, the mega-computer designed and programmed to play world-class chess. The world champion met the challenge and sent the computer back to the shop for a programming overhaul. Kasparov was invited the following year to meet the "new and improved" Deep Blue. This time the computer squeezed past the champion, who granted the win to his programmed opponent after resigning in the last of the six-game match.
In June 1999, Kasparov vs. The World began on the Internet. Hosted by MSN.com, the game matched Kasparov against a team consisting of 58,000 players throughout the world. Kasparov played as white and initiated the contest. His move was posted to MSN.com. Once the move was posted, the world team (playing as black) had 24 hours to vote for the next move.
Four world-class youth players acted as coaches for the world team and helped guide the strategy. The move that received the highest number of votes became the official black response. The game ended at move 62, with the majority of the world team voting to resign. Kasparov said afterwards, "Although I have technically won the chess game, I think the real winners are everyone who participated on behalf of the world team."
Botvinnik's prophetic words appear to be coming true. Kasparov has shown time and again his willingness to take the game beyond traditional boundaries and introduce new audiences to the world of chess.
Bobby Fischer (1943- )
Bobby Fischer learned to play chess when he was 6 years old. Nine years later he became the youngest player to ever achieve the rank of grandmaster. (Fischer held that record for 33 years. Judit Polgar was a few months younger when she earned the title.) The following year, at age 16, Fischer dropped out of high school to devote all his time to chess. (Fischer is rumored to have an IQ of 180.)
His accomplishments in chess are monumental and his play is simply astounding. As Fischer got closer to his goal of world champion, the world's best players started talking about "Fischer Fear" when they had to compete against him. Their fear was well-founded, as Fischer cherished victory above all else. Chess was his compulsion and losing wasn't an option. One of his teachers said, "The boy, of a poor family and without any friends, had an overwhelming urge to win, to dominate, and chess became his outlet."
Fischer lost games, but not often; when he won he demonstrated a brilliant love for the game and an uncanny ability unlike any of his competitors. In the semi-final matches en route to the world championship, Fischer, in an unprecedented upset, defeated both Mark Taimanov and Bent Larsen 6-0, giving him 19 consecutive world championship-level victories.
Shortly thereafter he confronted the great Tigran Petrosian, his last stop before meeting Boris Spassky. Fischer won the first game, lost the second; the third, fourth, and fifth were draws. He came back to win the last four games, defeating Petrosian by four points, and ready to challenge the world champion.
He got his opportunity in July 1972. Reykjavik, Iceland, hosted the world championship match, which was followed like no other match before. For decades the Soviet Union had dominated world chess; now along came a brash young American challenger making unheard-of demands and outrageous claims. It was great theater and the world was watching.
Fischer lost the first game and refused to play the second; he was protesting the presence of television cameras in the auditorium and the game was awarded to Spassky. He played a masterpiece third. From that point on he dominated the table. At the end of the match Bobby Fischer had defeated Boris Spassky by four points and was the first American to become the official world chess champion.
For all his complaining and demanding, Fischer did manage to improve the position of competitive chess in the world. More than one great player had lived in poverty and Fischer's demands for larger amounts of prize money helped bring about a more equitable arrangement for all competitive players. His high-profile attitude (and eccentric behavior) helped to create a sort of grandmaster "mystique" and brought more international recognition to the game.
In 1975, FIDE regulations required Fischer to defend his title against Anatoly Karpov. Fischer, however, had his own agenda and sent a list of requirements to be met before he would agree to play Karpov. FIDE adjudicators eventually decided to grant Bobby all but one of his demands (a matter of allowing the reigning champion to retain his title if the score reaches a tie of 9-9).
Fischer had no intention of negotiating any of the demands. Rather than concede to FIDE's holdout, Bobby Fischer ignored the organization and forfeited his title in April, 1975. Anatoly Karpov became the new champion by default.
In the years since his title was removed, Bobby Fischer has become extremely reclusive and even more eccentric in his words and behavior. There was a strange rematch against Spassky in 1992 in Yugoslavia (Bobby won 10-5), then back to a self-imposed isolation. Fischer might return to competitive chess, but this is highly unlikely.
Is Bobby Fischer the greatest living chess player? Based upon his demonstrated ability during the late '60s and early '70s, the answer must be yes. Could he beat Karpov or Kasparov today? If he could, it would be an unprecedented accomplishment and an incredible feat, particularly considering the time he's been away from real competition. Improbable? Of course! Impossible? Who knows?
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