Though there were many great players in the Candidates in the 20 years after Bobby Fischer won the title in 1972, the competitions were dominated by the three K’s: Karpov, Korchnoi and Kasparov

There was even more than usual at stake for the Soviet Union in the 1975 World Championship cycle. For the first time in decades, the title was not in Soviet hands. Worse, it had been won by Bobby Fischer, an American!

But the Soviets had a bright new star in Anatoly Karpov. In the 1974 Candidates matches, he defeated his compatriots Lev Polugaevsky and then Boris Spassky, the former World Champion, to qualify for the final. There he would face Viktor Korchnoi, another veteran Soviet player.

The final took on greater importance than usual, not just because of the Soviets’ desire to recapture the title, but because negotiations over the World Championship match between Fischer and the World Chess Federation, or FIDE, were going badly. It already seemed possible that Fischer might not defend the title, in which case the Candidates final would become, de facto, the World Championship match. With that in mind, the final was extended to a best-of-24 games, the same format as the title matches at that time. In a dour struggle, Karpov eventually defeated Korchnoi, 3-2 with 19 draws, and the following year he was declared World Champion after Fischer did indeed default.

The 1977 cycle to decide the first challenger to Karpov was complicated by the defection of Korchnoi. Soviet attempts to disqualify Korchnoi were unsuccessful and he went on to win matches against a trio of former Soviet colleagues: Tigran Petrosian, the former World Champion, Polugaevsky and finally Spassky in the final. He then faced Karpov in an epic contest, but lost again.

To the Soviet Union’s consternation, Korchnoi was successful again in the 1980 Candidates matches, defeating, in turn, Petrosian, Polugaevsky and the West German grandmaster Robert Hübner. However, he badly lost the subsequent World Championship match to Karpov.

The 1983 Candidates matches saw the emergence of a new star: Garry Kasparov, then only 20 years old. The Candidates was also a remarkable “Indian summer” for the sexagenarian, and former World Champion, Vasily Smyslov.

In the first-round matches, Korchnoi beat Lajos Portisch of Hungary, Kasparov beat his countryman, Alexander Beliavsky, and Zoltan Ribli of Hungary beat Eugenio Torre of the Philippines (top chess was becoming more international!). In the last match, Smyslov and Huebner tied 1-1 with twelve draws. There were no rapid playoffs in those days, so it was agreed to decide the match by the spin of a roulette wheel! After two spins – the first ended on green (0), which neither player had — Smyslov moved on to the next round through sheer luck.

The match between Smyslov and Huebner was tied. There were no rapid playoffs in those days, so it was agreed to decide the match by the spin of a roulette wheel!

The semi-finals were disrupted by a Soviet protest over plans to have Kasparov play Korchnoi in Pasadena, which had won the rights to stage the match. Kasparov was initially disqualified, but after an agreement, with a financial settlement, was worked out, the match was rescheduled for London. Kasparov beat Korchnoi and Smyslov beat Ribli. In the final, Kasparov comfortably defeated Smyslov, setting the stage for his series of matches against Karpov.

Their epic duels affected the subsequent cycles because Karpov was given the right to a return match in 1986 after he lost the match in 1985 (their first one in 1984-1985 having been suspended with no winner). When Karpov also lost the 1986 match, he was seeded into the final of the 1986-1987 cycle, so that limited the number of other players in the cycle to four.

In those quarter-finals, played in January 1986, Andrei Sokolov of the Soviet Union defeated Rafael Vaganian, a grandmaster of Armenian extraction, and Artur Yusupov of the Soviet Union (who now spells his surname “Jussupow” following his emigration to Germany) beat Jan Timman of the Netherlands. Sokolov won the lone semi-final, to earn the right to play Karpov in the final in Linares, Spain, early in 1987. Karpov won and thus earned the right to another match against Kasparov. This, their fourth, was played in Seville, Spain, and it ended in a dramatic tie, with Kasparov retaining the title.

FIDE changed things a bit for the next cycle. Instead of different matches in different locations at different times, all of them were held at once. Karpov was seeded into the quarter-finals, but there were 14 players competing for the other seven spots in head-to-head matches (initially for the best of six games) at Saint John in New Brunswick, Canada. There, for the first time, fast play-offs were used to break any ties. The first match decided by this method was between Sokolov and Kevin Spraggett of Canada. After a total of eight classic games ended 4-4, they played two 60-minute semi-rapid games, both of which were drawn. They then went to 15-minute games. The first was drawn but Spraggett won the second with Black and so qualified for the next round.

The other quarter-finalists were Johann Hjartarson of Iceland (who beat Korchnoi), Yusupov, Lajos Portisch of Hungary, Timman, and Jon Speelman and Nigel Short of England.

The English grandmasters faced each other, with Speelman advancing, while Karpov defeated Hjartarson, Timman beat Portisch, and Yusupov beat Spraggett. In the semi-finals, played in London in October 1989, Karpov beat Yusupov and Timman beat Speelman. In the final, played in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in March 1990, Karpov comfortably defeated Timman to earn his fifth match against Kasparov. That match was played in New York and Lyon, France, with Kasparov winning once again.

Though Karpov had lost again, few would have bet against him earning a sixth match but a surprise was in store in the next cycle. It began in January 1991 and again there were 14 players, with Karpov once again having a bye to the quarter-finals.

Once again, Short faced Speelman, with the match held at the historic Sadlers Wells Theatre in London. The score was tied 4-4 (two wins each) after regulation, so they proceeded to 45-minute semi-rapid games. The first was drawn but Short won the second with Black to advance.

The other players who reached the quarter-finals were Timman, Yusupov (after four play-off games), Korchnoi (after two extra games), Boris Gelfand (who had yet to emigrate to Israel, after two extra games), Vassily Ivanchuk of Ukraine, and Viswanathan Anand of India.

The quarter-final matches were played together in Brussels in August. Short beat Gelfand, Timman beat Korchnoi, Yusupov beat Ivanchuk (after two 60-minute play-offs), and Karpov beat Anand.

Linares, Spain, hosted the semi-finals in April 1992. Yusupov beat Timman 4-3 but the big surprise came in the other match. Karpov won the first game but Short struck back in the fourth, took the lead in the sixth and ultimately won 4-2 with four draws. Nobody else other than Kasparov ever beat Karpov in his prime in a match.

Short confirmed his position as the new No. 2 in the world by beating Timman, 5-3, with five draws, in the Candidates final, in Escorial, Spain, in January 1993.

The ensuing World Championship match should have been an exciting time for fans as it was the first time in nearly a decade that it did not involve only Kasparov and Karpov. But a dispute between FIDE, Kasparov and Short led to a split in the chess world, with two competing claimants for the title (Kasparov, after he beat Short, and Karpov, who beat Timman in a match organized by FIDE).

Now that there were two World Champions, there were also two cycles, one run by FIDE and the other by Kasparov’s new organization, the Professional Chess Association, or PCA.

In 1994, both FIDE and the PCA held their own Candidates series. A number of players – Anand, Vladimir Kramnik of Russia, Gata Kamsky of the United States, and Michael Adams of England – qualified for the Candidates of both organizations and competed in both. The oddest result was undoubtedly that Kamsky eliminated Anand in the semi-finals of the FIDE series (Kamsky would go on to play for the title and lose to Karpov), while Anand eliminated Kamsky in the final of the PCA series (and then lost a memorable title match to Kasparov atop the World Trade Center in New York City).

The subsequent collapse of the PCA and the election of Kirsan Ilyumzhinov as president of FIDE, who had different ideas about how to organize the World Championship, brought an end to the Candidates as a way of selecting a champion. It would be a decade before there would be another FIDE Candidates competition.


Dr. Timothy Harding, who has a PhD in history from Trinity College Dublin, is a senior international master of correspondence chess who has written many books on the game. His most recent, “Joseph Henry Blackburne: A Chess Biography,” published by McFarland, has received favourable critical reviews. 

Dr. Harding is on on Twitter (@TimDHarding). He has a Web site and a list of his books can be found at GoodReads.