Features Mar 9, 2016 | 5:34 PMby Carlos Colodro

The History of the Candidates, Part 1

The Candidates Tournament is about to begin, and we're eager to know what will happen in Moscow. While it's very difficult to predict the winner - or even who will fight for first place - it's clear that this will be a historic event. Let's take this opportunity to cast a quick glance back at the history of the Candidates Tournament. In this first instalment we'll focus on events played between 1948 and 1990, when the chess world was split in two.

A collage of the participants of the 1958 Portoroz Interzonal | source: soloscacchi.altervista.org

Much of the popularity of chess is based on the value given to the World Championship title. It's been over 100 years since Wilhelm Steinitz was crowned as the first monarch, and if we consider the undisputed champions, we can only count 16 until Magnus Carlsen. That's why the tournament that decides who will fight for the biggest honour is so important. The Candidates Tournament is the penultimate step on the road to glory.

Botvinnik (right) playing against Capablanca in 1936 | source: public domain

From the inception of the World Championship title until the 1940s, the system worked in an almost chivalrous manner, respecting codes of our to decide who would gain the right to challenge the reigning monarch. This "method" held sway until the death of Alexander Alekhine. Faced with the question of how to proclaim a new champion, FIDE decided to organize a quintuple round-robin tournament with five players, which took place in The Hague and Moscow. Mikhail Botvinnik was the clear winner and was declared World Champion.

It was at that moment that the idea of creating a cycle to define the new challenger was born. The system used at first lasted three years, and had Interzonal continental tournaments to decide who would qualify for the coveted Candidates Tournament.

1948-1963 The first round-robin tournaments

Ten players participated in the first double round-robin Candidates Tournament, which was part of the 1948-1951 cycle. A 24-years-old David Bronstein won the tournament after beating his compatriot Isaac Boleslavsky in a 14-game playoff - they had finished the closed tournament with 12 points each. Vassily Smyslov took third. The first section, before the tiebreaker, was played in Budapest in April-May 1950, while the defining match was held in Moscow in July-August of the same year.

Vassily Smyslov's Brazilian visa issued in 1962 | source: Brasil, Cartões de Imigração, 1900-1965

Botvinnik kept his title after tying the match with Bronstein. Then came the second edition of the Candidates - one of the most memorable, thanks to the book written by the same Bronstein. The 1953 Zurich Tournament featured fifteen participants and, in fact, began in the Swiss town of Neuhausen am Rheinfall, where the first eight rounds were played. Vassily Smyslov lost only one of the 28 games he played and won the tournament with 18 points. Bronstein, Keres and Reshevsky followed with 16.

The match for the World Championship that followed ended in a tie, so, once again, following the rules of the time, Botvinnik retained his title. The following Candidates was played in Amsterdam and, coincidentally, Smylov won after conceding a single defeat once more. On this occasion, however, only ten players participated, and the runner-up was not Bronstein but Paul Keres.

Mikhail Tal in 1962 | source: Dutch National Archives

In 1957 Smyslov was crowned as World Champion after defeating the "Patriarch" Botvinnik, but failed to retain his title in a rematch played the following year. The Candidates that followed, therefore, included the presence of two-time winner Smyslov, but Vassily couldn't repeat his feat due to the fact that the Wizard of Riga, Mikhail Tal, had appeared in the field. Tal finished first with 20 out of 28 points, after winning no less than 16 games in an event that took place with eight participants in three locations of the now disintegrated Yugoslavia.

Tal followed in Smyslov's steps with his World Championship experience: he beat Botvinnik in the first match and was defeated in the rematch. Now it was the turn of Tigran Petrosian, who won the 1962 Candidates in Curacao without losing a game. This edition was marred by allegations of collusion between the Soviet players. After the top three finishers - Petrosian, Keres and Geller - drew all their games in a few moves, Bobby Fischer accused them of conspiring so he wouldn't win. 

The article is available to read in the Sports Illustrated archives

After this controversy, FIDE decided to stop using closed tournaments and replaced them with a series of matches.

1963-1972 The first matches and Fischer's domination

Bobby Fischer in Amsterdam in 1972 | source: Dutch National Archives

In 1965 the match format was used for the first time. On this occasion, Boris Spassky made his appearance and defeated Tal in the final match, played in Tbilisi, Georgia. The new challenger to the crown defeated Paul Keres and Efim Geller before reaching that final. In the battle for the title itself, Spassky was overpowered by Petrosian in a close match played in Moscow in 1966.

The next cycle was similar to the previous one - Spassky beat Geller in the quarter-finals and Larsen in the semi-finals. However, this time he had a new rival in the final: Viktor Korchnoi had beaten Tal by the smallest of margins. The final was played in Kiev and Spassky had little trouble emerging on top. Finally, in the 1969 World Championship match against Petrosian, Spassky could avenge his previous loss and thus became the new World Champion.

What happened between 1970 and 1972 is probably the best known and most interesting story in chess history. This was the era marked by the arrival of a tornado named Bobby Fischer. After losing only one game out of the 24 he played in the Palma de Mallorca Interzonal, the American qualified for the final of the Candidates Tournament with two landslide 6:0 victories over Mark Taimanov and Bent Larsen. In the final, played in Buenos Aires, Fischer's streak seemed to be over, as he was tied with Petrosian after five rounds; however, the Chicago-born genius removed any doubt about his dominance by defeating the former champion four consecutive times, and thus qualifying for the for the World Championship match.

In what became the most striking event in the history of chess, Fischer won the world crown thanks to a victory over Spassky in highly controversial circumstances. The match was played in Reykjavik between July 11 and September 1, 1972.

1972-1990 Korchnoi, Karpov and Kasparov

With Fischer as World Champion, a new era seemed to begin, full of exciting matches with hungry rivals trying to take the crown from someone who seemed invincible. In the first cycle, Korchnoi and Anatoly Karpov met in the final of the Candidates after eliminating two former World Champions: Petrosian and Spassky, respectively. Karpov took the lead with three wins in the first 17 games. Korchnoi seemed to be on his way to turn it around with two victories in the next four games, but Karpov was able to hold on to his advantage.

Korchnoi and Karpov were rivals on and off the board | source: chesscn.com

At this moment Fischer went from admirable to strange. The American demanded the rules of the Championship match be changed, and after the refusal of FIDE, he decided not to participate and practically disappeared from view. Karpov was declared World Champion.

The format used to define the challenger had already taken root and in the next cycle Korchnoi won the coveted match against his now archrival Karpov. To reach his goal, he defeated Spassky in the final of the Candidates, played in Belgrade in November-December 1977. In their second Championship match, Karpov had much less trouble beat Viktor "The Terrible" Korchnoi.

The legendary Garry Kasparov appeared in the 1982-1985 cycle. The very young Soviet talent won the Candidates at his first attempt. To do so, he beat Alexander Beliavsky and Korchnoi in the quarterfinals and semifinals, respectively. In the final match, played in Vilnius (the capital of Lithuania), Kasparov beat a 63-year old Smyslov, who surprised everyone by reaching so far at his age.

Kasparov and Karpov played a series of exciting matches | source: kasparov.com

The World Championships between Karpov and Kasparov deserve a separate chapter, and have been talked about on numerous occasions. The Moscow 84 confrontation was suspended unexpectedly without declaring a winner, the rematch in 85 was won by Kasparov, and the match played in London/Leningrad in 86 also favoured the young star.

Kasparov after getting the title in 1985 | source: Owen Williams, The Kasparov Agency

The next two Candidates cycles were won by Karpov without many difficulties and there was no doubt that the two Ks were the best players in the world. In the first of these two cycles, Anatoly's victim in the final was Andrei Sokolov, while in the second cycle he beat Jan Timman.

Both World Championship matches favoured Kasparov, but not by a big margin: the first one, played in Seville, ended with a 12-12 tie; while in New York/Lyon 1990, Kasparov won with the smallest of edges, 12.5-11.5.


All the names that have made their way into this recap belong to chess legends. As mentioned in the introduction, the World Championship title is cherished due to its historical value, granted not only by chess fans, but also by the general public. In the next instalment, we'll see what has happened since 1990 until the latest edition.

We're only days away from the next chapter in the history of our favourite sport. Don't miss the coverage here on chess24!

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