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Champions Before the World Champions

Updated: Jul 6, 2021

Chess Before 1886

In writing a regular column on the World Chess Champions it is important to recognise that there were many great chess players before there was an accepted World Championship Title.

The first Official World Chess Champion was Wilhelm Steinitz (1886) but before him were many great chess players.

Ruy Lopez

The 16th Century saw Chess players of the calibre of Ruy Lopez de Segura (c.1560), Paolo Boi & Leonardo de Cutri (c.1575), Alessandro Salvio (c.1600) and Gioachino Greco (c.1623).

In the 17th and 18th century the French dominated with Legall de Kermeur (c.1740), Francois-Andre Philidor (1755-1795), Alexandre Deschapelles (c.1810) and Louis-Charles de La Bourdonnais (1821-1840). The six matches between La Bourdonnais and Alexander McDonnell from Ireland in 1834 had all the aspects of a World Championship though was not recognised as such. La Bourdonnais won the majority of the games. McDonnell was not recognised as a strong enough contender.

In the 19th Century the 1843 match between Englishman Howard Staunton and Pierre de Saint-Amant identified Howard Staunton as the strongest player of his time. In the 1845 edition of the Chess Player's Chronicle we find the first written record of the concept of a World Chess Champion. The Earl of Mexborough while delivering a speech at a meeting of the Yorkshire Chess Clubs is quoted as declaring that Howard Staunton is, "the Chess Champion of England, or ... the Champion of the World." The famous 1851 London Chess Tournament saw German Adolf Anderssen as both the winner and strongest player. Only to be eclipsed seven years later by a young Paul Morphy.

Paul Morphy

Paul Morphy was called the World Chess Champion by popular opinion. This was supported by crushing wins in matches against Loewenthal (wins 10:4) and Anderssen in 1858 (wins 7:2). Upon returning to America Morphy retired from chess at 22 years old.

Adolf Anderssen

In Morphy's absence Adolf Anderssen once again was acclaimed as the strongest chess player in the world. This reputation was supported by his win of the strong London Tournament of 1862 beating such players as Louis Paulsen, George MacDonnell, Johann Lowenthal and Wilhelm Steinitz.

Here is an example of one of Anderssen's games.

As you can see there were many world class chess players before the formal acknowledgement of a World Chess Champion. Many arguably could have held the title. However, a degree of organisation, world travel and communication was needed for the title of World Chess Champion to be conferred upon one player.

This is basis upon which we explore each of the recognised World Chess Champions from 1886 to present day.


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