After 13 years, multiple champions and a lot of confusion, a match was staged to reunify the title. It turned out to be one of the most exciting, and nastiest, matches in history.

As 2004 drew to a close, the division that had existed in the chess world for more than a decade from rival claimants to the World Championship seemed no closer to being mended than in the previous few years. 

The World Champion recognized by the World Chess Federation, or FIDE, was Rustam Kasimdzhanov, a grandmaster from Uzbekistan. He had been the surprise winner in the most recent knock-out World Championship tournament held by FIDE in 2004 in Tripoli, Libya. Kasimdzhanov was only No. 25 on FIDE’s ranking list in January 25 and so, like a couple of the previous champions (Alexander Khalifman of Russia and Ruslan Ponomariov of Ukraine), he did not command a great deal of respect from the general public as the legitimate titleholder.

The majority of chess fans instead regarded Vladimir Kramnik of Russia as the real World Champion because he had defeated Garry Kasparov, who had been World Champion for 15 years. Kramnik had won their classical match, played in London in October 2000, and so stood in the line of succession from Wilhelm Steinitz, the first champion. In the fall of 2004, Kramnik had retained the title by winning the last game of a long-delayed tied match against Peter Léko of Hungary. The problem facing Kramnik as he contemplated what to do next was that the alternative organizations set up in the past by Kasparov to obtain sponsorship, during the period after he broke away from FIDE in 1993, had virtually collapsed. So it was in Kramnik’s interest to seek an accommodation with FIDE.

 Furthermore, most people in the chess world were deeply unhappy about the situation in which there were two World Champions. In most sports (with notorious exceptions, as in boxing) two World Champions are an impossibility. The majority of chess fans agreed with Kramnik that the way the world championship should be decided was in a head-to-head match between the champion and a credible challenger who had earned the right to play for the title. 

An agreement made in Prague in 2002 had failed to resolve the unification problem, partly because of the difficulty in raising sponsorship for the necessary matches. Prague had specified that Kasparov would play a match with the winner of the 2002 FIDE knock-out World Championship, which turned out to be Ponomariov. But the envisaged Kasparov–Ponomariov match never took place. 

Then in late 2004, a match between Kasparov and Kasimdzhanov was tentatively arranged for Dubai but fell through. New In Chess (2005/2) blamed Kasparov’s demand for a bank guarantee. The Uzbek grandmaster said in an interview with the Russian chess newspaper 64 (quoted in the January 2006 issue of British Chess Magazine) that “I am absolutely sure that [Kasparov] did not want to play that match… he did everything to prevent [it].”

In late February 2005, FIDE held a board meeting where it decided to abandon knock-out World Championships, but not the format. In the future, these big tournaments would be called World Cups. Instead FIDE decided to select its World Champion by a double round-robin elite tournament to include the grandmasters with the strongest claims. 

On Feb. 27, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, FIDE’s president, announced that an eight-player reunification tournament would be held later that year. The eight invited players were Kasimdzhanov, Kasparov (who was still ranked No. 1), Kramnik and Léko (the most recent rival champion and challenger), plus the next highest-rated grandmasters: Michael Adams of England, Viswanathan Anand of India, Alexander Morozevich of Russia, and Veselin Topalov of Bulgaria. These eight were arguably the players who at that moment had the greatest right to be included in the tournament. 

FIDE stipulated a March 15 deadline for each player to accept his place in the tournament. Kasparov gave his answer on March 10 in a most unexpected way. At a surprising press conference in Linares, Spain, following the last round of the international tournament there, in which Kasparov tied for first with Topalov, he announced his immediate retirement from professional chess.

A second vacancy in the tournament arose because Kramnik insisted on his right to defend his title by match-play. The tournament, which would be held in San Luis, Argentina, in September and October 2005, would only decide the FIDE championship rather than reunify the title. But with a stellar field, there was the possibility of a legitimate champion emerging. 

The two Ks were replaced by the next highest rated players, Peter Svidler of Russia and Judit Polgar of Hungary (whose name was not on the January rating list because she had taken time out to have a baby). 

The tournament turned out to be the crowning achievement of Topalov’s career. He stormed out to an immense lead by winning six of his first seven games and drawing the other. At the halfway mark of the tournament, it was all but over. 

Anand was the only opponent to slow Topalov’s run, but he suffered losses to Morozevich and Kasimdzhanov and fell well behind Topalov. 

The second half of the tournament was anticlimactic as Topalov was able to play cautiously and drew all his games. He still clinched the World Championship with a round to spare. 

Anand finished second on tie-break ahead of Svidler. Morozevich finished fourth, giving him the right to play in the next FIDE World Championship tournament, should there be another.

Before that there would be the reunification match between Topalov and Kramnik, if it could be arranged. 

Terms for a match were finally agreed between FIDE, Kramnik and Topalov, but the conditions had some significant differences from all prior matches. When Kramnik played Léko, it was for the best-of-14 games (one of shortest world title matches ever) with the champion retaining the title in the event of a tie, which is what had occurred. Kramnik and Topalov would play a best-of-12 game match, but with a play-off of rapid games to follow in the event of a tie. There was some logic to this as, technically, both Kramnik and Topalov were World Champions, so a tie would not reunify the title. 

Another detail, which has been copied for all subsequent World Championship matches, concerned the color sequence. Previously whoever drew White in the first game retained that color for all odd-numbered games but it was argued that this conferred a slight advantage, like serving first in tennis. The shorter a match, the more significant this could be. Therefore it was agreed to break the alternation of colors at the half-way stage. The lots determined that Kramnik would have White in the first game, but later he would have Black in two successive games, Nos. 6 and 7.

The Kramnik-Topalov match was played in Ilyumzhinov’s home city of Elista, capital of the autonomous region of Kalmykia in Russia. Play began on Sept. 23, 2006, with a very tense game. Topalov reached an endgame which appeared to offer winning chances although he was down a pawn. So he rejected an attempt by Kramnik to repeat the position and force a draw. Kramnik defended precisely and eventually Topalov went wrong, losing in 75 moves.

In Game 2, Topalov obtained a strong attack and after a mistake by his opponent missed at least one clear forced win. His advantage then dissipated. After move 40, Kramnik outplayed him in the endgame to take a 2-0 lead. Two draws followed and then the match came to a halt in one of the most bizarre episodes in chess history. 

Kramnik refused to play Game 5, instead sitting down outside his locked bathroom and demanding that it be opened as his time ticked away on stage.

Topalov’s manager, Silvio Danailov, filed a complaint with the match arbiters alleging that Kramnik was cheating. He said that Kramnik was making excessive visits to the toilet, the only area backstage that was not covered by video cameras, and that he was consulting a computer there.

In the absence of Ilyumzhinov, away in Moscow for a few days, the appeals committee decided to close the personal toilet for each player, which was in breach of the match contracts. They had specified that (as usual for such top matches) each player would have a private backstage rest area. Instead, the arbiters opened another bathroom that they said would be shared by the players.

Kramnik was furious. He refused to play Game 5, instead sitting down outside his locked bathroom and demanding that it be opened as his time ticked away on stage. After an hour, he was forfeited.

Ilyumzhinov immediately returned to Elista, where he refused Kramnik’s request to have Game 5 replayed. He also began intensive negotiations with both sides on how to resolve the dispute.

One demand by Kramnik, that Ilyumzhinov honored, was to replace the appeals committee, which had originally included two Topalov allies. The bathrooms, particularly Kramnik’s, were examined. After nothing was found there, Ilyumzhinov decided to reopen both of them and to restore the conditions that had existed before Game 5. 

After Ilyumzhinov made it clear that if Game 6 was not played the match would be declared won by Topalov, Kramnik returned to play, but under protest. Relations between the two players have been frosty ever since and books about the match later appeared which gave their sides of the story. Zhivko Ginchev’s book, in Bulgarian, published early in 2007, was translated into English under the title Topalov-Kramnik: “On the Edge in Elista” (with game annotations by Topalov), while Kramnik allies Evgeny Bareev and Ilya Levitov responded with “From London to Elista,” an extended edition of their previous book about Kramnik’s first two title matches.

Kramnik managed to draw Game 6, and also Game 7, but the stress of the dispute began to tell on him. He played weakly and lost Game 8, tying the score. 

Topalov took the lead in Game 9, but Kramnik recovered and put Topalov under pressure in Game 10. The Bulgarian blundered at move 24 and the match was level again. Two draws followed and the regulation portion of the match ended in a tie, 6-6.

Now the World Championship would be decided in just one day by a best-of-four series of rapid games, each with a time limit of 25 minutes, plus 10 seconds added after each move. The first was drawn and then Kramnik won the second, only for Topalov to equalize the score in the third game. In Game 4, Topalov went wrong in the middle game and lost a pawn, after which Kramnik’s superiority in the endgame ultimately brought him victory.

After 13 years, there was only one World Champion again – Kramnik – and it was the same one that most of the world had recognized as the more legitimate claimant since he defeated Kasparov in their 2000 match. 

FIDE was also once more in undisputed control of the World Championship process and it announced that the World Championship tournament previously planned for 2007 would go forward, this time in Mexico City. After protesting many times that the World Championship should only be decided in a match, Kramnik was about to put the title on the line in a very different format.


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 favorable 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.