The divisions in the chess world in the 1990s and early 2000s led to a perplexing and chaotic situation as a succession of players laid claim to a piece of the World Championship title.

In the late 1990s, the state of the World Championship was extremely unsettled. There were two competing claims for the throne and both were having problems living up to the commitment to organize a cycle to find a challenger for the title.

Garry Kasparov had defended his title in 1995 under the auspices of his new organization, the Professional Chess Association. According to the old system, there should have been a cycle to select a new challenger culminating in a match in 1998.

But Kasparov and the P.C.A. had a problem – Intel, the company that had sponsored the P.C.A. and the previous World Championship cycle had not renewed its contract. The P.C.A. no longer had the financial backing it needed to continue to operate.

Kasparov searched for a solution and in February 1998, it appeared that he had found one. Kasparov and Luis Rentero, the sponsor of the elite tournaments in Linares, Spain, who was an admirer of Kasparov’s, announced a “World Chess Council” to organize a match between Viswanathan Anand of India, the player Kasparov had defeated in his last title match in 1995, and Vladimir Kramnik of Russia. Anand and Kramnik were then the Nos. 2 and 3 ranked players in the world and the idea was that the winner of a match between the two would play Kasparov for the championship.

The plan immediately hit a snag, however, as Anand refused the offer to play, saying that it would violate his agreement with World Chess Federation, or FIDE, to play in FIDE’s championship cycle. Kasparov and Rentero then turned to Alexei Shirov, a Latvian-born grandmaster who had moved to Spain, and had just finished second to Anand at Linares.

Alexander Khalifman won the first FIDE knockout World Championship, but the chess world was unimpressed. 

The Kramnik-Shirov match was held in May and June 1998 in Cazorla, Spain. To the surprise of many, Shirov won handily, 5.5-3.5. Afterward, he rose to sixth in the world rankings (behind Kasparov, Anand, Kramnik, Vassily Ivanchuk of Ukraine, and Anatoly Karpov, the other claimant to the world title).

It was announced that the Kasparov–Shirov match (a best of 18 games) would be played in Seville and Linares, starting on Oct. 16, with prize money of $1.9 million, supposedly guaranteed by the regional government of Andalucia. The sponsorship fell through, however, and Shirov never got to play Kasparov.

A year later, there was talk of organizing a match between Kasparov and Anand, the latter having decided not to participate in FIDE’s second World Championship tournament. This plan collapsed in September when, according to the October 1999 British Chess Magazine, the planned sponsor withdrew.

While Kasparov was struggling to find sponsors and an opponent, FIDE staged its second World Championship tournament. This took place in Las Vegas from July 31 to Aug.28, 1999. It began with 128 players, including Kramnik, Shirov, and Ivanchuk, but confirming the randomness of such a format, the final was between two relatively obscure players: Vladimir Akopian of Armenia, the 31st seed, and Alexander Khalifman of Russia, the 36th seed. Khalifman, 33 at the time, and ranked No. 45 in the world prior to the tournament, prevailed, 3.5-2.5, but the chess world was singularly unimpressed. Khalifman would hold his title for 16 months – until the next FIDE knockout championship.

Meanwhile, Kasparov had finally found a sponsor and an opponent. On April 5 2000, Kasparov announced in London that he would defend his title in October against Kramnik. This time he was backed by a new internet games company, Brain Games Network, in which Raymond Keene, the English grandmaster, had a prominent role.

According to British Chess Magazine, which was at the announcement, Kasparov was asked why he was not playing Shirov, who, after all, had beaten Kramnik two years earlier. Kasparov replied that Shirov had turned down an offer from California of a match with a prize fund of $1 million because it was “inadequate.” Kasparov added that since Shirov was not ranked as highly as Kramnik, “If I play him in 2000, everyone will say that I am ducking the challenge of the most dangerous opponent.” Nobody thought to ask about Anand, who at that moment was ranked No. 2.

(Shirov would sue the World Chess Council in Spain because, in addition to never getting a match with Kasparov, he also never received any prize money for beating Kramnik.)

In October 2000, Kasparov faced Kramnik in London for a $2 million purse. The match was a best-of-16 games. While Kramnik was now ranked No. 2, and seemed a likely heir apparent, few would have bet that Kasparov, with his vast match experience, and who was ranked No. 1, as he had been for the previous 15 years, would not win one game. And yet that is just what happened.

Kramnik, playing Black in the first game, surprised Kasparov by reviving the ancient Berlin Defense (now sometimes called the Berlin Wall or the Berlin Endgame): 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bb5 Nf6. This carefully prepared defense short-circuited Kasparov’s brilliance in complicated middle-games, instead inviting an early exchange of queens and transposition to an immediate endgame after 4 0-0 Nxe4 5 d4 Nd6 6 Bxc6 dxc6 7 dxe5 Nf5 8 Qxf8+ Kxd8. Kramnik drew that game and then defeated his frustrated opponent in Game 2. In Game 3, the Wall was again unbreached. In Game 4, Kramnik missed several chances to win to take an almost insurmountable lead.

Kasparov switched to the English opening in Games 5 and 7, but was unable to make progress, so he returned to 1 e4 in Game 9 but again failed to surmount the Wall. In Game 10, Kramnik scored his second win. He now led, 6-4.

Time was running out for Kasparov, but the unexpected course of the match had clearly taken a toll on him. In Game 13, again playing White, and again encountering the Wall, Kasparov offered a draw on move 14. Kramnik drew Games 14 and 15 to win the match by 8.5-6.5.

Kasparov never got a chance to play again for the World Championship, though he continued to play tournaments, and hold the No. 1 ranking, until his retirement in 2005.

Though most people considered Kramnik to now be the legitimate champion, FIDE went ahead with another World Championship that began on Nov. 25, 2000 in New Delhi, India. It had a very strong field. Among the top players, only Kasparov and Kramnik were absent.

There were 72 players in the first round of min-matches, and the 36 winners were joined in the second round by 28 of the higher-rated grandmasters. In the final, which was played in the Iranian capital, Teheran, just before Christmas, Anand defeat Shirov by 3-0 with one draw to become World Champion for the first time in his distinguished career.

This was a much better outcome for FIDE than the previous knock-out contests. Not only had the tournament produced a new and credible World Champion, who was the top seed, Anand had really proved he was best in the process, defeating the previous champion Khalifman in the quarter-final and the redoubtable Michael Adams of England in the semi-final.

It would have been logical to try to organize a match between Anand and Kramnik to reunify the title and also prove who was the best player. However, FIDE’s contract with Anand prohibited him from challenging Kramnik. As long as FIDE and the other claimant to the title, in this case, Kramnik, were at a standoff, there was no way to end the division in the chess world. It needed a political solution and an agreement between the two sides.

A year later, between November 2001 and January 2002, FIDE held another knock-out World Championship tournament, this time in Moscow. In the semi-finals, Anand lost his chance to defend the crown when he was defeated by Ivanchuk. The surprising winner of the other semi-final was another Ukrainian: Ruslan Olegovich Ponomariov, an 18-year-old grandmaster. Perhaps more surprising, Ponomariov was being assisted in his preparation by an 11-year-old named Sergey Karjakin.

The final was held a month after the tournament and Ponomariov decisively defeated Ivanchuk, 4.5-2.5. Ponomariov became the youngest male World Champion in history, though, because of the division in the chess world, some people dismissed his accomplishment.

In May 2002, nearly a decade after the split, there was finally the first serious attempt to reunify the title. FIDE, Kasparov and Kramnik signed what was called the Prague Agreement. It stipulated that Kramnik would play the winner of a qualifying cycle, while Kasparov would play a match against Ponomariov. The winners of those two matches would then play for a reunified title.

Optimism sprung anew, but events moved slowly after that. Peter Léko, a Hungarian grandmaster, won the annual elite tournament in Dortmund, which had been designated as the Candidates tournament for purposes of selecting a challenger to Kramnik. The match with Kramnik turned out to be difficult to organize and had to be postponed more than once. According to the book From London to Elista by Evgeny Bareev and Ilya Levitov (New in Chess, 2007), initial plans to hold the match in Hungary collapsed.

Meanwhile, Nigel Short, the loser of the 1993 World Championship match that has caused the chess world rupture in the first place, was summoned at short notice to Yalta in August 2003 to play a training match with Ponomariov (which the Englishman narrowly lost). But the match between Kasparov and Ponomariov never took place as negotiations between Ponomariov and FIDE broke down.

Unable to get its recalcitrant champion in line, the federation decided to replace him by organizing yet another knockout championship tournament. This one was held in June and July 2004, in Tripoli, Libya. The choice was exceedingly poor as Israeli players, including Boris Gelfand, Ilia Smirin and Emil Sutovsky were barred by Col. Muammar el-Qaddadi, the country’s despotic ruler and a virulent anti-semite. Other players, including Boris Gulko of the United States, boycotted as well.

Among those who did play was the surprising champion: Rustam Kasimdzhanov, a 25-year-old grandmaster from the former Soviet Asian republic of Uzbekistan, who beat Adams in the final. Their six classical time-limit games ended 3-3 (two wins apiece with two draws) after which Kasimdzhanov won the rapid play-off, 1.5-0.5. Kasimdzhanov was now in line to play Kasparov.

As FIDE was finding a new challenger for Kasparov, the match between Kramnik and Léko finally found a sponsor (Dannemann, a tobacco company) and a location, Brissago, Switzerland. The match would be a best-of-14 game format, with the champion retaining the title in the event of a tie.

Kramnik, playing Black, got off to a good start by winning Game 1. But Léko evened the score in Game 5 when he surprised Kramnik by playing 1 d4 for the first time in his career. Then in Game 8, Kramnik, whose computer preparation had been flawed, walked dreamlike into a lost position in the Ruy Lopez Marshall Attack. Five draws followed and Léko became increasingly nervous as the possibility of becoming World Champion became tantalizingly close. Kramnik needed to win the last game to tie the match and retain the title, but he did have White. What followed was a vintage victory by Kramnik and a great example of playing under pressure.

Kramnik had done his part. He now awaited the winner of a match between Kasparov and Kasimdzhanov But it was not to be. Kasparov, after 20 years ranked No. 1, and perhaps tired of chasing a solution to the split in the World Championship title, unexpectedly retired in March 2005. Reunification was put off yet again.

The period between 1998 and 2004 had been one of unrivaled chaos in the history of the World Championship. Altogether, seven grandmasters had held one version or another of the world title: Karpov, Anand, Khalifman, Ponomariov and Kasimdzhanov (all for FIDE), and Kasparov and Kramnik (in what was called by chess fans as the classical line). In addition, an eighth player (Léko) had tied a match for the title while a ninth (Shirov) had earned the right to challenge a champion, but was unfairly deprived of it.

The upheaval in the chess world seemed unending and the prestige and reputation of the title of World Champion seemed in decline. But, after so many years, and false starts, a solution was nearly at hand. 


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.